The Life of Galileo
Stanford Arts Institute, May 2015
By Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Rush Rehm
Dramaturg: Jessi Piggott
Illustrator: Alex Scott
Media and Press:
Corrie Goldman, "Stanford Repertory Theater explores the ethics of science with Brecht's Life of Galileo." Stanford Report, 14 May 2015.
Madelaine Bixler, "'The Life of Galieo' fosters criticism of authority." Stanford Daily, 20 October 2017
Illustrations by Alex Scott
From the Program: Rationality and Brecht’s Theater
“I believe in humanity, which means I believe in human reason.” In the play, we hear these words from the mouth of Galileo Galilei, but anyone familiar with Bertolt Brecht’s writing on theater might easily assume they were spoken by the playwright himself. Brecht’s whole theory of theater revolves around his faith in reason. His intent to use theater to intellectually engage audiences bespeaks a deep belief in humankind’s ability—and desire—to think and question. There might well have been a little bit of Galileo in Bertolt Brecht, and there’s certainly a lot of Bertolt Brecht in his rendition of Galileo.
Brecht called his style of dramatic production “theater for the scientific age”—a theater
dedicated to questioning the taken-for-granted aspects of the everyday and exposing them to the scrutiny of a scientific gaze. This, however, was not a call for sterile detachment; Brecht held a firm belief in the joy of learning. No wonder the Galileo he gives us is such a hedonist! He’s a lover of wine, food and good company—and also one of the greatest minds of the 17th century. Brecht’s focus on rationality does not mean that he wanted his theater to be cold and emotionless. He once wrote, “Between true reason and true emotion there is no difference that leads to a conflict.” Thinking clearly should lead to feeling deeply.
Galileo as WWII Allegory
But precisely because of Brecht’s love for this kind of rational inquiry, I think it would be a mistake to take this play as a straightforward conflict between a few reason-loving progressives and the unreasonable demands of the historic Church. Setting plays in the past was one of Brecht’s favorite techniques for preventing the audience from getting too swept up in the emotional journey of a character. The distance between now and then is supposed to offer literal perspective. This can only be effective, of course, if we see a connection between the historical drama and our present time. This connection is a kind of allegory: a metaphor extended into narrative. Many of the characters and episodes in The Life of Galileo served this allegorical function for Brecht, standing in for events around the Second World War. Questioning these allegories is a good way to take up the scientifically skeptical stance of an ideal Brechtian audience member.
Let's consider the final scene of the play. Galileo has publicly recanted his findings and now lives under the watchful eye of the Vatican, although he’s managed to furtively continue his work. When Andrea discovers this fact, the two engage in a debate on the ethics of science. Significantly, they disagree. What implications might the two sides of this debate have for the allegorical function of this play?
The Inquisition and Nazism
First, Andrea’s side: Galileo was right to recant. Andrea sees this as a “new ethics” for a “new science” —his hands are “better stained than empty.” In other words, the ends (of getting scientific knowledge out) justify the means (of publicly renouncing those findings). The point Andrea makes here is that if Galileo had refused to recant, he would have been imprisoned and possibly killed, and his work never would have been finished. This is reasonable. Only a few decades before Galileo faced the Inquisition, Giordano Bruno (another scientist following in Copernicus’s footsteps) refused to recant his findings and was burnt at the stake for it. By yielding the moral high ground, Galileo was able to both contribute to scientific advancement and save his own life.
The Life of Galileo was composed and translated during World War II. In this context, Andrea’s argument bears a striking resemblance to the justifications of all those who fled Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933—including Brecht himself. It’s no coincidence that Andrea, when referring to Galileo’s recantation in 1633, says: “So in ’33 when you chose to recant your findings, I should have known you would find a way to write a scientific work that no one else could have written. If you had ended up at the stake in a halo of flames, they would have won.” The parallel is hard to miss. During Hitler’s ascension to power in 33, the choice seemed to be: say you agree, or be imprisoned or killed. While voluntary exile is not the same as publicly endorsing Nazi politics (and this is a point on which we might criticize Brecht’s analogy), it still stands in contrast to the choice of openly voicing opposition. And, indeed, if Brecht hadn’t fled, this play (and many others) might have never been written.
Galileo at Los Alamos
Andrea's stance is opposed by Galileo himself, reflecting on the choices he made. Galileo tells us, “As a scientist I had a unique opportunity, for astronomy had just emerged into the market place. Had I stood firm, scientist could have developed something like a Hippocratic oath, a vow to use our knowledge exclusively for mankind’s benefit.” Galileo insists that he wasn’t ever really in danger; over the intervening eight years, he has come to believe they would never have burnt him as they did Bruno. We in the audience know this to be true; we earlier witnessed a behind-closed-doors scene in which the new Pope tells the Grand Inquisitor: “he can be no more than shown the instruments.” Galileo views his own actions to save his skin as cowardice, pure and simple. He believes that, had he voiced his opposition openly and refused to compromise, things might have been very different. Perhaps his act, like his body of scientific work, would have driven a pick into the cracking facade of power and brought one form of oppression tumbling down. Again, we can see a parallel to Brecht’s own life. His English translation of this text, which he worked on with actor Charles Laughton, was composed in Los Angeles, where Brecht and his family lived from 1941 to 1948. As the U.S. detonated atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Brecht may well have been contemplating the far-reaching consequences of the choice to flee persecution. Among those who left fascist Germany and Italy were key Manhattan Project scientists—Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Emilio Segre, Klaus Fuchs. While fleeing kept their lives and atomic knowledge out of the hands of fascist dictators, that was little consolation to the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This last point is tricky. After all, Brecht had a penchant for satirizing self-important martyrs. Had Brecht come around and seen the necessity of heroes? Is Galileo right? Can one man’s refusal to submit change the world? Or do we take Andrea’s side and accept a “new ethics” for a new world? Should we risk life and limb to speak up against injustice and oppression? Or should we play along in the hope of improving the world by clandestine means? In the moments following Galileo’s recantation, Andrea chastises him for his weakness: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes.” Galileo retorts: “No. Unhappy the land that needs a hero.” This is the crux of Brecht’s question to his audience. Do we need better people? Or a better world?