See the previous post in this series, The Good Person of Sezuan, by Bertolt Brecht – Defending Truth
The life and science of Galileo are so inherently dramatic that, I think, they led Brecht somewhat astray as a dramatist–he thought a total play wasn't needed. Wasn't all the drama a playwright could want already there in the searing conflict between Galileo's heliocentrism and the Church's no-holds-barred defense of its geocentric doctrine? What confrontation could be more elemental than that between Science and Dogma–Galileo vs the Inquisition–with its notorious outcome in which Galileo is forced to recant publicly the truths of sciences? Brecht is a playwright of ideas but in his best plays he includes other paraphernalia of great theater: living characters engaged in meaningful conflicts with high stakes (at least to them). In The Life of Galileo, translated by Charles Laughton, the conflict could not be more significant–truth itself is at stake. Yet characters live mainly as mouthpieces of ideas.
Maybe, also, that's why the play is jam packed with marvelous lines and memorable aphorisms: "Truth is the daughter of time, not the author." "I have no patience with a man who doesn't use his brains to fill his belly." They help keep us going–luckily!
Because in working out the implications of Galileo's recantation, Brecht's ingenious humanism comes into play, raising the importance of this flawed drama. True, the recantation of the famous scientist is taken throughout Europe as a set-back for science. But bear in mind, as Brecht make sure we do, that Galileo was shown the very instruments of torture in a purposeful, programmed climax to his interrogation by the Inquisition. Hence Brecht's implicit challenges in this play: Why would you expect Galileo to act otherwise? Why do you rely on heroes? and the essential Brecht: Rely on yourselves. For this playwright, Galileo is not a failed hero: he is a man with extraordinary brains and insight who is quite normally human in his fear of pain and love of pleasure. "Unhappy is the land that has no hero," a disillusioned assistant moans, visiting Galileo during his life-time sentence of house arrest. "Unhappy is the land that needs a hero," is Galileo's fast retort.
Brian Kulick, Artistic Director of Classic Stage who directed the reading of The Life of Galileo for the First Look series, treated us to the two extant endings of the play: one hopeless, one hopeful. Immediate: while I was still in the theater, winding down from the reading, I took the hopeless ending to be the "true" one, but in thinking about all I have learned from these readings of four Brecht plays, in reflecting on Brecht's humanism, and on Classic Stage's genereosity and high achievement, I'm leaning toward "hopeful."
Nearby restaurant favorite — Cafe Deville, 103 3rd Avenue
Next Week: The Oedipus Cycle at Pearl Theatre