Bertolt Brecht avidly supported the political views of communist leader Karl Marx. We find evidence to this fact in many of his works written during exile from
. Brecht was deprived of his German citizenship on Germany June 8, 1935 because of his anti-Nazi views. The author wrote early plays of his exile with a distinct intention on answering particular political questions. He soon moved instead to a style that left moral questions up in the air. One of such plays is the Life of Galileo, first written in November of 1938 and revised in 1945.
Galileo was written not because Brecht showed great interest in the man or even his research, but because of the author’s interest in the subject as a case study pertaining to his own modem world. The play reflects Brecht’s Marxist views in its theme of working for the good of all humanity. However, it is far more a study of history’s course depending on individual responsibility. Galileo Galilei fully devoted himself to the search for truth, no matter who or what the cost. He pursued his research without fully examining its implications on the general humanity. Brecht found this a pressing topic of his own age.
The original version of Galileo ended quite differently than the revised edition. In 1938, Galileo is portrayed as a man who cunningly outwits the Inquisition in order to pursue his research and smuggle his results out of the country. His cunning causes a light to dawn in an age of darkness, as Brecht saw it. In 1945, a modern tragedy occurred as a result of scientific progress and forced Brecht to rethink the theme of his work. He revised the play’s ending after the bombing of
. Brecht transforms Galileo into a weak man, who recants the truth at the mere sight of the torture instruments. He is now a coward, practicing science only for his own gain not regarding it as possible beneficial to humanity. His followers are disheartened, and perhaps the age is as dark as any other. Hiroshima
Brecht ultimately portrays Galileo as the initial instigator of the horrors associated with the atomic bomb. Galileo denounces himself in the play’s final scenes because he has pursued knowledge for its own sake, not for the good of humanity. Pursuing truth outside the realm of human needs led to the split between science and society that Brecht felt culminated with the dropping of the bomb. Nevertheless, the play does not completely answer the problem. Brecht leaves that, as is his style, to the reader.
Q.2. Why did Brecht choose Galileo?
Much has been written about the similarities between Brecht and Galileo (both exiles, both fighting against dictatorial oppression and suppression, both selling their souls in order to survive and create). But these comparisons apply to Brecht’s Galileo, much less so to the historical character. Since there can be no doubt that Brecht had a deep and detailed understanding of the real Galileo and of his character, it is facile to assume the above as adequate reasons for his choice. Moreover, the ‘personal’ similarities only become striking when viewed right through to 1953; while the play was already concrete in 1938. There is a parallel, between Brecht and the genuine Galileo, which does not seem to have been commented upon, and which perhaps Brecht sensed.
Brecht appreciated that Galileo’s achievements went far beyond the matter of heliocentricity. Galileo had profoundly altered the meaning of scientific enquiry. He was the first to understand the deep interplay between experiment and theory, between observation and deduction; and in this he turned his back squarely on the Aristotelians. Brecht likewise tried to alter profoundly the meaning of theatre. He too believed in and practiced the interplay between theory and experiment, and in striving for his ‘epic theatre’ Brecht too was turning his back on Aristotle.
But most important, probably, was the plight of intellectuals and scientists in Nazi Germany. Relativity Theory was banned officially. There was ‘German Physics’, which was permitted, and there was ‘Jewish’ or ‘Communist Physics’ which was not. The similarities, even though they don’t hold in detail, must have been very striking for someone as passionately concerned as Brecht was. Still, how precisely he came to be thinking of physicists is not explained, and we are tempted to speculate further.
Brecht, a true intellectual, with the widest of interests, was living in
at a time when Denmark was still shaken in the aftermath of one of the greatest and most revolutionary developments in the history of science and philosophy – the invention of Quantum Theory and its application to atomic physics. Great debates were still raging around Niels Bohr. Brecht knew some of Bohr’s collaborators. It is not too far fetched to imagine that he was drawn into the current of intellectual excitement and that the stimulus sprang therefrom. Copenhagen