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.”
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 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...
(The entire section is 1,474 words.)