Galileo Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Context

Galileo is one of many plays written during Bertolt Brecht’s period in exile from Nazi Germany, when he employed the devices of epic theater to present his opposition to the Fascist regime in Germany. The first version of Galileo deals with the role of the scientist under an oppressive government; it is a defense of freedom of thought against tyranny. In it, Galileo writes his Discorsi as an act of resistance and arranges to smuggle them out of Italy to countries which protect academic freedom.

The second (American) version was written after the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and in it the biography of Galileo as founder of the new system of physics was presented differently. This version deals with the exploitation of the modern sciences by the major world powers for the purposes of military conquests. The scientist is expected to show a sense of social responsibility and to refuse to collaborate with those who view scientific advance as an end in itself, thus playing into the hands of those who are in power. In the second version, Galileo is not only considered guilty but also presented as a totally corrupt human being. He sees himself as already in Hell for having betrayed the new science. His crime is to be regarded, as Brecht himself argues in his Notes on Galileo (1947), “as the original sin of modern physical science.” The atom bomb is to be considered “both as a technical and as a social phenomenon, . . . the classical end product of [Galileo’s] contribution to science and his failure to society.”

The first version was written in Denmark in 1937-1939, the second (American) version in Los Angeles in 1945-1947, in collaboration with Charles Laughton, who played the title role in the Los Angeles production. The third and final (German) version, based on the American version, was produced in Berlin in 1957.