The Life of Galileo Play by Bertolt Brecht

In his notes, Bertolt Brecht says of this play, “But it would be highly dangerous, particularly nowadays, to treat a matter like Galileo’s fight for freedom of research as a religious one; for thereby attention would be most unhappily deflected from present-day reactionary authorities of a totally unecclesiastical kind.”

With this comment, Brecht demands that his audience sees this play as more than a battle between science and religion.  It is, as he says:

  1.  a conflict between progressive and conservative thinking
  2.  a conflict between political activism and political indifference
  3.  a conflict between freedom and oppression
  4.  a conflict between the individual and authority

Underlying all these is the central tenet of inquiry.  Without inquiry, without “hypothesis” or “doubt”, we are merely “goggling”, [or “gawping”] and “Goggling isn’t seeing”.  The Life of Galileo suggests that it is only through the process of questioning – and engaging that society can learn and grow.  How much success we have depends on our preparedness to “have a look for ourselves”.

In terms of conflict in the play students should consider

  1. Conflict between Science and Religion – While Galileo is ultimately defeated by the triumph of faith and superstition over knowledge and reason, Andrea’s escape to Reformation Holland with the ‘Discorsi’ is a step toward resolving the conflict in favour of science.
  2. Conflict with the Self – Brecht’s characters demonstrate how easily the individual evades moral responsibility by submitting to a higher authority, be it church, state, community, and so on, but also shows that moral compromise can create deeper inner conflict, which is not so easily dismissed.
  3. Individual vs. the State – Brecht suggests that when the freedom of the individual to expose a fallacy and reveal the truth is denied, the ensuing conflict will always be resolved in favour of the state.
  4. Conflict within the Community – In The Life of Galileo, Brecht represents the Church as offering stability, but in a way that leads only to stagnation.  The play demonstrates that conflict is essential in effecting change for the better.  As with all serious conflict, the effects are always damaging and nobody escapes unscathed.

The Life of Galileo is like a Chameleon

Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo is always going to be like the chameleon.  There was constant adaptation by Brecht during the twenty years he worked on the play and the play reflected the changes that he witnessed in Europe over that period.  Brecht had watched with the rest of the world the often horrifying events of the first half of the twentieth century and he had moved from the old world to the new during the latter part of his life.  All these influences were to be reflected in the final form taken by The Life of Galileo and audiences continue to adapt the ideas of the play to their own perceptions of current events.

Questions Explored in Brecht’s Play

There will continue to be new situations in which questions explored in Brecht’s play will be raised.  There will be situations involving the relationship between the individual and authority; there will be questions about the problems of remaining true to one’s opinions and beliefs or questions about the need for old ideas to give way to new.  As these situations arise the play will change its alignment and it will be able to be applied to those new situations.  Over its life the play has been read as the story of the conflict between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century, it has been read as the struggle between the Nazi politicians and industrialists and the Communist workers of Germany in the 1930s.  It has been read as the struggle between McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the American writers and artists of the late 1940s.

Brecht’s plays are important because Brecht was an innovator in the theatre.  He was both a theorist with a carefully detailed rationale about the purpose of dramatic performance and a playwright who was experienced in stagecraft.  He knew the techniques he wanted to use to achieve his desired outcome.  Like his character Galileo, Brecht was able to see new possibilities and he persevered with them even when many, particularly those experienced in the American theatre, were critical of the content of his plays or advised him that they would not be successful.

Looking at the Big Issues Raised by this Play

I suggest that students studying The Life of Galileo will need to look at some of the big issues that have always confronted people and which are raised by this play.  They will need to explore the notion of freedom for the individual in relation to various forms of authority, they will be challenged to discuss the idea of “things worth fighting for”, they will be challenged to look at the past and the present to see if there are new ideas that are struggling to find acceptance.  When they look at the issue of Galileo’s recantation, they may never reach a conclusion in the inevitable discussions that will take place about what Galileo should have done.

For many people, The Life of Galileo is not really successful as theatre because it is too didactic.  For them it is “a play for reading”.  To just “read it” is to ignore the fact that it is drama.  It should be experienced as drama, drama of a particular kind.  Then it is possible to come to grips with the question of whether Brecht’s play is successful.  It is also possible to determine if the success is in spite of Brecht’s theories rather than because of them.

Different Perspectives on Galileo

Rather than presenting one interpretation of the text, I suggest that students use these outlines below as a framework for developing a number of different, detailed responses to Brecht’s work.

1.        Power

One view of the text is that it is about power and the struggle for power.  Brecht presents his conflict by having the Church as the holder of power using its energies to maintain that power.  In this situation someone like Galileo who has new ideas is a threat.  Furthermore, Galileo, by the nature of his scientific discoveries, becomes allied to those people in society who can make use of the discoveries to improve their commercial enterprises.  The prelates of the Church fear that these merchants being receptive to one set of new ideas might embrace any new ideas including those which undermine the authority of the Church.

Using this perspective on the text it is easy to read the story as a metaphor for the class struggle.  While Brecht’s own position as a communist was subjected to modification, his sympathies remained with political structures that involved a centrally controlled economy even if he was repelled by the later excesses of totalitarian communism.

The position of Virginia in this perspective is interesting since she is caught up in the power struggle but she is unable to exert any influence over events that affect her.  Mrs Sarti is also worth looking at as a character who is both powerful and powerless.

2.     An ethical perspective

The Life of Galileo can be viewed from an ethical perspective.  Such a perspective involves analysing the action of the main characters in the light of what they ought to have done.  Should Galileo have recanted?  Should Barberini have supported Galileo against the Inquisitor?  What justification does the Inquisitor have for silencing Galileo?  Should Andrea have turned his back on Galileo?  Ought Andrea have been reconciled to Galileo because of the secret writing of the Discorsi?  Should Andrea have lied to the guards so that he could successfully smuggle the Discorsi over the border?  Did Galileo betray his profession?

These questions challenge the values that are being presented in the text by particular characters.  Brecht’s own discussion of the ramifications of Galileo’s recantation is important (pp 10-11)  The broader questions (What things are worth fighting for?  Is there anything that a person should be prepared to die for?) could also arise when looking at the text from this perspective.

3.    A philosophical approach

Someone taking a philosophical approach to the text will possibly see it as the exploration of the nature of truth, the paramount importance of seeking the truth regardless of all other considerations and the relationship of scientific inquiry to questions of morality.  The philosophical perspective also sees the The Life of Galileo as a play about the nature of authority and the consequences of a challenge to authority by the individual.

There is also the interest by Brecht in the notion of “new times”, the sense that there are periods in history when new attitudes and new understandings are developing.  A possible result of this is that a breakthrough in one area will cause a rethinking of assumptions in other areas.  Galileo calls Andrea to be aware that “this is a new time”, (p. 6).  The “new time” idea is revisited in scene 14 when Andrea asks Galileo, “So you no longer believe a new age has started?” (p. 109)

4.            Historical views

An historical perspective on the The Life of Galileo would examine the story of Galileo and his work against the changes in science and religion that were occurring at the time.  It might see the play as a presentation of the conflict over the respective roles of the individual and the Church in salvation.  When Galileo says, in response to Sagredo’s question “So where is God?”, that God is “Within ourselves or nowhere” (p. 28), he is entering the debate about these roles.  The question and its answer also raises the theological question of how to hold God’s transcendence and immanence in tension.  These are questions which have continued beyond the historical period covered by the play.  The matter of the use of vernacular languages in liturgy and theological disputation and the importance of the growing commercial classes and their reluctant acceptance of ecclesiastical constraints are part of the story of the Church and its relationship with its adherents.

The historical perspective can also see The Life of Galileo as providing a view of the relationship between science and religion, particularly the Christian religion.  Bellarmin claims that “Science is the rightful and much-loved daughter of the Church” (pp. 60 – 61). This point of view is echoed by contemporary writers such as John Polkinghorne who holds that the Christian doctrine of creation “provided an essential matrix for the coming into being of the scientific enterprise” (One World : The Interaction of Science and Theology, 1986, page 1)

5.            A psychological perspective

Ordinarily this kind of perspective would be the one most commonly used.  However because of Brecht’s stated intention in writing his plays it is a perspective that works almost by default.  The concern in the play is not with the revelation or development of character or the understanding of or identifying with the characters.  It is Brecht’s expectation that the members of the audience will try to grapple with the ideas and complexities of the central issues.

As a result of this, character studies would show the characters “standing for” ideas and theories.  In the case of Galileo and possibly Andrea there is arguably a much more conventional presentation of character.  Emotions are evoked even if that was not the intention and the sympathy of the audience is engaged.

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