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

Jessi Piggott

May 2015

From the Program: Rationality and Brecht’s Theater

“I believe in humanity, which means I believe in human reason.” We hear these words from the mouth of Galileo, but anyone familiar with 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 mankind’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. But he did not call for sterile detachment; he 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 alienating techniques. 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 Galileo had this kind of 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.


But these allegories are not straightforward. In the final scene of the play, Galileo has publicly recanted his findings and now lives under the watchful eye of the Vatican. But 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 propel scientific advancement forward and save his own life.


This play, of course, 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

But Andrea is opposed by Galileo himself. 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. 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. And while, again, Brecht’s analogy here has some flaws (who’s to say whether Galileo’s refusal to recant would have resulted in such a radical change at all) the point is that if Galileo had stood up to power and refused to compromise, things might have been very different. Maybe his act, like his 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 A-bombs were dropping, he was writing plays halfway around the world. At this point, as he watched what happened when a new superpower took the reins of science, Brecht may have been wondering what might have been if he, and all those others, hadn’t fled. We should keep in mind that among those who fled 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, especially in plays like Baal and Measures Taken. 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?