Bertolt Brecht, in Galileo, covers close to three decades in Galileo’s life. Although the dramatic action is clearly grounded in a historic event, Brecht freely shapes those events into a coherent narrative designed to raise difficult and thorny questions about the relationship not only between science and religion but also between free thinkers and the oppressive social and political structures within which such radical thinkers are seen as dangerous and heretical. Although Brecht would revisit the play and essentially alter its thematic argument during his career, the basic elements of the story stayed relatively constant.
That there are two extant versions of Galileo, each worked on by Brecht, testifies to the play’s central position within Brecht’s canon. Indeed, Brecht was working on a third production at the time of his death. The play has a pivotal place in understanding Brecht’s evolution as an artist who conceived of drama as a vehicle for promoting thought and encouraging action as a way to change corrupt social and political conditions outside the theater. For twenty years as an evolving experimental dramatist, the playwright returned to the dilemma suggested by the historic events surrounding Galileo’s stand against the powerful Catholic Church of Baroque Italy.
The first version was written quickly in 1938 (in less than two weeks) and under enormous and immediate pressure. Brecht was in Switzerland and felt keenly the encroaching menace of the Third Reich. Later, after World War II, in 1947 in the United States, Brecht returned to the play in the wake of the unsettling implications of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan and the beginnings of the atomic age. Taken together, the two versions reveal Brecht’s complicated vision of the position of truth in a vast material universe in which, as Galileo had first posited four hundred years earlier, humanity’s central position had become laughingly absurd. Brecht, himself profoundly influenced by the argument of the Theater of the Absurd, found in Galileo the threshold figure who had first exposed the comforting superstitions of religion and the faith in a perfect universe designed and controlled by a creator God. However, Brecht’s reading of the implications of science as it emerged and religion as it waned reveals his own deep-seated anxieties over the triumph of science. Together, the two readings of Galileo form Brecht’s larger theme: the heroic individual willing to search for truth must ultimately accept the responsibility to the greater community.
Structurally, the two versions of the play are quite similar. In both versions, Galileo is a chronicle play that in structure and technique is reminiscent of the history plays of the English Renaissance. Brecht had freely adapted and produced one of these, Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (pr. c. 1592, pb. 1594), in 1924. To some extent, Galileo also resembles Brecht’s epic theater pieces, but it is Brecht’s only major and original example based on the life of an actual person. The play is divided into scenes or vignettes that cover several years, from 1609 to 1637, six years before Galileo’s death in 1643. In the manner of the chronicle play, these vignettes are isolated episodes, not always linked in a causal way. Although the plot advances in chronological order, it is thus more like a composite or montage than a piece structured from logically interrelated parts. As in other epic theater plays, most of the individual vignettes contain a gestus or dramatic kernel, sometimes a line or phrase, around which the scene is built.
Brecht used the theater to teach rather than merely entertain. He had worked to prevent the audience from slipping into the traditional suspension of disbelief and getting “involved” with character and plot. Galileo thus mingles different styles and techniques to maintain distance from the audience. Although some scenes are relatively conventional, many scenes are more symbolic and expressionistic. Although Brecht himself felt that the play was too traditional in technique, these vignettes are both unconventional and highly imaginative. In scene 11, for example, during the investiture of Cardinal Barberini as Pope Urban VIII, Barberini, dressed in the outsized papal clothing, listens to the cardinal inquisitor who wants to silence Galileo as a heretic. By the time he is buried under the heavy clothing of his new office, Barberini’s open-mindedness has become equally buried under the papal panoply, and he permits the inquisitor to proceed against Galileo. In...
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