The Play

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Galileo, a play in fourteen scenes, begins in the morning. The initial action takes place in Galileo’s sparsely furnished room in a modest house in the city of Padua in 1609. The audience sees Galileo washing himself. Before breakfast, he teaches Andrea Sarti, the son of Galileo’s housekeeper, the new cosmology—that the earth orbits the sun. Galileo, it turns out, has stolen the design of the telescope; in order to make money, he sells a telescope as his own invention to the senate of the Venetian Republic. In his research, Galileo uses the telescope to prove his thesis that the earth orbits the sun.

In order to have more time for this research, Galileo moves to Florence to become the court mathematician. At the court of the Medicis, Galileo does not find any support for his thesis, but in Rome his thesis is upheld by the Papal Observatory and its astronomer. Galileo is feted in Rome—wined and dined by the cardinals—but his thesis is declared a heresy by the Holy Office. It is feared that Galileo’s scientific mind, which questions the traditional perception of the solar system, will question also the established religious, economic, and social system. Galileo is cautioned to abandon these teachings, and his case is put into the hands of the Inquisition.

For eight years, Galileo abstains from astronomy, until he becomes interested in a debate about sunspots. When he decides to resume his research in astronomy, his prospective son-in-law, Ludovico Marsili, cancels the date of his wedding to Galileo’s daughter Virginia. As Ludovico explains, he has to uphold his own reputation and is afraid that Galileo’s theories might cause social unrest. A street scene on April Fools’ Day of 1632 shows that Ludovico’s fear is not unfounded: Ballad singers spread Galileo’s subversive theories in the streets of Florence and call Galileo the “Bible-killer.”

When Galileo publishes some of his findings in Italian, the Florentine court is no longer able to protect him from the Inqusition. Not even Pope Urban VIII, a mathematician himself, is able to prevent Galileo’s interrogation. In 1633, under the threat of torture, Galileo publicly renounces his teachings. His students, among them Andrea Sarti, are shown in despair upon his recanting. They see the dawn of the age of reason fading and deplore his cowardice: “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” Galileo’s response expresses the opposite: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

Galileo remains an intellectual prisoner of the Inquisition until his death nine years later. Living quietly with his daughter Virginia, who is now past the age of forty and unmarried, Galileo writes the Discorsi, the sum of his scientific theories and discoveries, but the pages of the manuscript are impounded by the Church as they are written. Galileo is able to hide a copy, which his former student Andrea smuggles out of Italy. In his last conversation with Andrea, Galileo does not present his recantation as a cunning plan, as Andrea has come to perceive it, but as “treason.” Galileo becomes convinced that he surrendered his knowledge to the powers that be, who were then free to abuse it as it suited their ends. In the end, Galileo declares: “I have betrayed my profession. Any man who does what I have done must not be tolerated in the ranks of science.”

Dramatic Devices

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Galileo is an example of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater, or, as he sometimes called it, non-Aristotelian, or dialectic, theater. Whereas Aristotelian tragedy is bound by the unities of time and place, Brecht’s epic theater is, like an...

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epic narrative, not constrained by time.Galileo, for example, covers the time from 1609 to 1637, twenty-eight years of the protagonist’s life. The sequence of events is presented as a narrative, without adhering to the conventions of a formal plot. Each scene stands for itself. The essential point of Brecht’s epic theater is that it is supposed to appeal to the spectators’ reason rather than to their feelings or need for identification. The Aristotelian theory of catharsis, or purging of the emotions by empathy, is abandoned. Instead of implicating the spectators in a stage situation, the epic theater is supposed to encourage the spectators to remain dispassionate observers. The theater becomes a means of instruction; it is supposed to change from a place of amusement into a forum for public communication. Brecht wanted to make his stage the “theater of the scientific age.” His plays were to work out the developmental laws of dramatic action by means of the Marxist dialectic, a progression from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. For this purpose, it would be necessary to reveal the contradictions in all objects, people, and processes. Brecht designed his plays to make dialectic a source of learning and enjoyment on the stage.

The so-called Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect), often abbreviated as V-Effekt, serves the purpose of depicting the contradictions of human life. For this purpose, the theatrical illusion of the conventional stage is interrupted by such devices as titles, projections, and songs. Brecht considered Galileo to be a play with restricted alienation effects. Nevertheless, many scenes in Galileo are introduced by short prologues, summarizing the action of the scene to follow. The prologues are designed to eliminate any traditional theatrical suspense and to appeal to the spectators’ reason. Some scenes are concluded by a curtain that is lowered bearing a legend for the audience to read. The ballad singer’s song (in scene 9) is typical of the alienation effect. It does not serve any dramatic purpose; it shows that the common people had learned their lesson from Galileo only too well. It presents the scientist as a “Bible-killer,” thus making him suspect to the Inquisition.

Places Discussed

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*Padua. Northern Italian city at whose university Galileo is a forty-six-year-old professor of mathematics when the play opens. Both the place and person are in tension because the mercantile republic of Venice desires power, wealth, and prestige, and Galileo wants to advance scientific knowledge, boost his career, and make his life comfortable. Although he knows that the telescope is a Dutch invention, he presents himself to the Venetian senators as its creator, assuring them “on the most scientific and Christian principles” that it has been “the product of seventeen years patient research at your University of Padua.”


*Florence. Powerful city-state in central Italy that is the site of the play’s middle scenes. The play depicts Florence as a more totalitarian state than the Venetian republic. Although Galileo despises the despotism of the Medici rulers of Florence, he nevertheless writes a groveling letter to ask for their patronage for his work. Besides Medicean control, Florence is also subject to powerful papal influence. Thus Galileo, having compromised his freedom for security, runs the risk of having his research frustrated by both state and church.


*Rome. Center of the Papal States at the time the play is set. Several pivotal scenes occur in the Vatican, which, for Brecht, represents not only spiritual but also intellectual and worldly authority. Galileo’s Copernicanism so troubles church officials that he is eventually put on trial, which leads to him to recant his belief that because the earth rotates around the Sun, the earth cannot be the center of the universe. In the earliest version of the play a cunning Galileo recants to preserve his chances for completing his scientific work. The versions that Brecht wrote after World War II treat Galileo less sympathetically because the postwar Brecht questioned the alliance between scientists and the state. In this interpretation Galileo capitulates out of cowardice and his dedication to science becomes a vice since he practices it without concern for humanity.


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Esslin, Martin. Brecht: The Man and His Work. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1971. A seminal study of Brecht that remains significant because of its insights into Brecht’s own theories of drama and the relationship of his works to Communist ideology.

Fuegi, John. Bertolt Brecht: Chaos, According to Plan. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Offers a very detailed chronology and reviews the production problems of the 1947 staging of the play with Laughton in the title role. Useful selective bibliography.

Gray, Ronald. Brecht: The Dramatist. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1976. An excellent introduction to Brecht, focusing exclusively on his plays, his dramatic theory, and his theater.

Hayman, Ronald. Bertolt Brecht: The Plays. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1984. A short, succinct study by a major Brecht biographer. An excellent starting place for further study of Brecht’s plays. Relates Galileo to Brecht’s Marxist ideology and his practical reasons for writing the play.

Hill, Claude. Bertolt Brecht. Boston: Twayne, 1975. A good critical introduction to Brecht, with a chronology and bibliography. Focuses in the discussion of Galileo on Brecht’s artistic intention in the different versions of the play.


Critical Essays