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Galileo Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Galileo also known as The Life of Galileo) is the most heavily reworked of Brecht’s plays, occupying his interim attention during the last nineteen years of his life. He began writing it in German in 1938 while in Denmark, with the great physicist Niels Bohr checking the accuracy of Brecht’s astronomical and physical descriptions. This version was the one produced in Zurich in 1943. After he had moved to Southern California, Brecht befriended the actor Charles Laughton, and from 1944 to 1947 they collaborated on a new version in a unique mixture of mostly German and some English. This new text changes Galileo’s character from that of a guileful hero who recants to safeguard his scientific discoveries to a coward who betrays the truth and later castigates himself for having compromised his scientific calling. The explosion of the first nuclear bombs over Japanese cities strongly affected Brecht’s characterization of his protagonist. The Laughton version, starring Laughton in the central role, was produced in Los Angeles and then in New York in 1947, though with small success. In 1953, Brecht and some members of the Berliner Ensemble created a third version in German, using what they considered to be the best portions of previous texts. This construction was the one staged in 1955; it is generally regarded as the standard text.

Galileo is written in chronicle form, with fifteen scenes taking the scientist from 1609, when he is forty-five, to 1637, when he is seventy-four. In the first scene, he is a lecturer at the University of Padua, living with his daughter Virginia and housekeeper, Mrs. Sarti, whose intelligent son, Andrea, becomes his favorite pupil. Frustrated because he is underpaid, Galileo accepts better conditions at the court of the Medici in Florence. There his findings tend to prove the heliocentric theories of Nicolaus Copernicus, while the Church insists on adhering to the earth-centered Ptolemaic cosmology. The Holy Office forbids Galileo to pursue his research, but when a liberal mathematician becomes the next pope, Galileo resumes his work. His hopes for the dissemination of his theories are short-lived: He is summoned before the Inquisition, is threatened with torture, and recants his views. For the rest of his life, Galileo remains the Holy Office’s prisoner. When Andrea Sarti visits him in 1637, however, Galileo gives him the “Discorsi” to smuggle out of Italy, while also bitterly denouncing himself for his cowardice.

Galileo tells Andrea that, had he resisted the Inquisition, “scientists might have developed something like the physicians’ Hippocratic oath, the vow to use their knowledge only for the good of mankind.” This unequivocal self-condemnation sharpens the split nature of the great scientist. For Brecht, Galileo is not only a masterly scholar and teacher, an intellectual locksmith picking at rusty incrustations of Ptolemaic tradition, but also a self-indulgent sensualist who loves to gorge himself with food and wine. After his recantation, his disciples are disillusioned with their master. Responds Galileo drily, “Unhappy the land that needs a hero.” Such a view echoes Brecht’s own sentiments, and his Galileo is in important respects a canny self-portrait. Like Galileo, Brecht employed all of his cunning and compromised with the authorities so that he could persist in his work. Moreover, the Galileo who lashes himself for his failure of nerve may represent Brecht’s self-evaluation and self-condemnation. For one brief stage in his foxy life, Brecht may have been seized by the seductive notion of absolutely intransigent morality. It did not last.

Galileo is the subtlest of Brecht’s dramas, challenging readers and audiences with its muted, yet constrained, force and its divided focus: It is a play about both the suffocation of free intellectual inquiry and the alleged sociopolitical irresponsibility of purely scientific inquiry. Next to Courage, Galileo is the most complex of...

(The entire section is 1,677 words.)