Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1894

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.

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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 the brief scene, to the growing annoyance of Barberini, there is a persistent offstage shuffling of feet that the cardinal inquisitor claims belongs to a select gathering of the faithful; it also, however, suggests the aimless shuffling of humanity as ubiquitous and ignorant as locusts.

Other expressionistic passages occur in scene 9, in which a ballad singer spreads Galileo’s theories to a carnival gathering, and, to a lesser extent, in scene 6, which occurs during a masquerade dance and dinner at the house of Cardinal Bellarmin. In both scenes, Brecht uses symbolic devices charged with implications for the protagonist. In scene 6, Bellarmin and Barberini wear masks, which they raise or lower as the situation requires; their actions suggest that they are astute and pragmatic politicians, quite capable of masking their true beliefs as the winds of necessity dictate. However, Galileo, as Barberini remarks, has no mask to hide behind; he deals not with policy with but scientific truth, which makes him both vulnerable and defenseless. In scene 9, after the ballad singer has given a narrative account in song of the impact of Galileo’s theories on the Church and society and after much riotous and irreverent behavior by many characters, a procession begins, led by a float supporting a huge figure of Galileo. The effigy holds a Bible with pages crossed out and mechanically turns its head from side to side to deny the infallibility of scripture. A voice then proclaims “Galileo, the Bible killer!”; this prompts the people to laugh with loud delight. It is a scene full of spectacle, unlike anything else in the play.

Although both versions of the play employ such Brechtian stage techniques to manipulate audience involvement, it is Brecht’s thematic argument that changed radically. In the historic figure of Galileo, Brecht found a malleable character able to embody two significantly different readings of science that together reflect the changing cultural environment before and after World War II.

The initial version of the play (wr. 1938) tested the contentious debate inevitable when science confronts religion, or more specifically, the tension inevitable when observation and logic contend with faith and superstition. Brecht, himself in elective exile from Germany and observing the emergence of Nazi extremism and its manipulation of propaganda, saw Naziism’s harsh suppression of any ideas that conflicted with its extreme social and political doctrines. For Brecht, the figure of Galileo embodies the daring and defiant spirit of truth and the courage that it takes to speak the truth in the face of entrenched and powerful resistance.

The defining symbol here for Brecht is the telescope itself: When Galileo invites reluctant authorities in Venice to simply peer into it, to look at the sky, to see for themselves the simple truth of his observations, they decline. Brecht exploits this tension between honest vision and willful blindness. Galileo has simply seen the truth of things. He is not responsible for the implications of his discoveries. Using the new pope as the antagonist, Brecht considers Galileo the voice of honesty and science, with its vested faith in observation and demonstration, as the search for that truth.

Galileo is far from a paragon of virtue—he attempts to claim credit for inventing the telescope, manipulates his trusting daughter, is vain and unattractively obsessed with money, and ultimately recants in the face of Vatican pressure. Brecht is not interested in idealizing the scientist—Galileo is compelled largely by self-interest. Galileo’s capitulation before the Church and its barbaric threat of torture is seen not so much as cowardly as a complicated (and entirely understandable) strategy of survival and enlightened self-interest. When, in the closing scenes, Galileo, under de facto house arrest, secures the transmission of his controversial findings outside the reach of Rome—and when he secretly smuggles out his revolutionary manuscript through the agency of his former student—he emerges as the embattled spirit of defiance, disgraced and held in contempt by a world that could not perceive the stakes nor grasp science’s eventual triumph. Four centuries later, however, audiences understand the implications of Galileo’s heroic actions. In Galileo’s final speech, Brecht clearly sees the Discorsi itself as a manifestation of the triumph of truth, a celebration of knowledge unfettered by context, of curiosity as its own reward, and of science as its grandest expression.

When Brecht revisited the play immediately after World War II, much in the world had changed, most prominently the cultural perception of science. The optimistic celebration of the courageous individual and the self-evident reward of investigation and the scientific endeavor were sorely tested by the troubling implications of Hiroshima. In the 1947 version, Galileo is far less courageous—Brecht does not emphasize the smuggled book (indeed its existence is revealed long before the closing scene and is thus denied its dramatic positioning). Rather, Galileo’s harsh self-assessment of his motivations closes the play. That self-assessment stresses not so much how Galileo has failed science by kowtowing to the Vatican authorities but rather how he has failed the greater good, how in his narrow quest to understand the material universe he had allowed himself to lose sight of the scientist’s ultimate responsibility to address the welfare of the human community—to ease human existence. Science, he reasons, must be more than contribution.

It is clear that Brecht brought to this reading of science his assessment of the work of those brilliant scientists, most prominently J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had pursued the creation of the atomic bomb as a grand-scale research project, disregarding the reality of its eventual use. Brecht alters the character of Galileo, and tarnishes the tragic aura of the first version of the play, to condemn the scientist as one who had squandered his considerable gifts and is guilty of the great sin of scientists since Faust: arrogance.

Brecht, in turn, softens the portrayal of the Church authorities and mitigates their antagonism. The speeches by Little Monk in scene 7, extolling the virtues of a Heaven in which God oversees all operations and ensures grandeur and purpose to the meanest of lives, are far more moving than any delivered by Galileo. In this version, Galileo ends a ruin of a man—what emerges with especial poignancy is the fate of the common folk, brought on stage in the carnival scene midway through the play. The audience inevitably feels sadness for the common rabble who, even as they recount with such manic urgency the death of the Bible, have been left, unknowingly, in a material universe that will ultimately deny their lives meaning.

Thematically, then, the two readings of Galileo need to be taken together. The two readings of the historic Galileo create a single parable that addresses the question that has defined science since Galileo first peered through the telescope: What is the reward of knowledge? Brecht challenges his audience with a complicated and provocative answer: truth must be tempered with responsibility, knowledge is not self-justifying, and truth cannot exist in a consequence-free environment.

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