Sunday, September 5, 2010

Life of Galileo: Introduction and Summary

In all Brecht’s work there is no more substantial and significant landmark than the first version of Galileo, which he wrote in three weeks of November 1938, not long after the Munich agreement. As is well known, it inaugurated the series of major plays whose writing occupied him until his return to Germany sonic ten years later: from Mother Courage to the Days of the Commune, those great works of his forties on which his reputation largely rests.
At the same time it marks the virtual end of his efforts to write plays and poems of instant political relevance, such as the Spanish Civil War one-acter Señora Carrar’s Rifle or the loose sequence of anti­ Nazi scenes known variously as 99%, The Private Life of the Master Race and Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. Short satirical poems designed for the exiles’ cabarets or for broadcasting (notably by the Communist-run German Freedom Radio) now give way to something at once more personal and more pessimistic. The Lenin Cantata set by Eisler for the twentieth anniversary of the October Revolution is followed during 1938 by ‘To Those Born Later’ and the great Lao-Tse poem. All along the line Brecht appears to be backing away from the kind of close political engage­ment which had occupied him since the crisis year of 1929, as also from the didactic and agitational forms to which this gave rise. Walter Benjamin, who visited him in his Parish cottage that June and stayed till after Munich, found him at once more isolated and more mellow than he had been four years earlier. ‘It’s a good thing’, he notes Brecht as saying, ‘when someone who has taken up an extreme position then goes into a period of reaction. That way he arrives at a half-way house’.
Though such a change might seem compatible with the new aesthetic traditionalism being preached from Moscow after the Writers’ Congress of 1934 - with Galileo itself as part of the same historicising trend as led to Heinrich Mann’s Henri IV novels and Friedrich Wolf’s play Beaumarchais - it primarily relates to some­thing very different: to Brecht’s shuddering consciousness of what he called ‘the dark times’. The phrase was first used by him in a poem of 1937 and from then on it overshadows much of his writ­ing right up to the crucial German defeats at Stalingrad and El Alamein in the autumn of 1943. For it was a desperate period, and the despair could be felt on at least three different levels. First of all there was the relentless progress of Fascism (intervention in Spain, Japanese invasion of China, the Austrian Anschluss, the annexation of the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia) aided by British appeasement and the fall of the French Popular Front. Overlapping these events, and in many ways closer to Brecht personally, was the great Soviet purge which by the time of Benjamin’s visit had already carried away such friends of theirs as Tretiakoff, Ottwalt, Carola Neher and the Reichs, as well as Brecht’s two Comintern contacts Béla Kun and Vilis Knorin, to as yet unclear fates with the new Russian spy mania, itself shot through with xenophobia, was the increasingly strict imposition of the Socialist Realist aesthetic whose German-language spokesmen were Alfred Kurella and Georg Lukács. With Meyer­hold deprived of his allegedly ‘alien’ theatre in January 1938, Brecht that summer wrote a number of answers to Lukács which he seemingly thought wiser not to publish, even in the Moscow magazine Das Wort of which he was a nominal editor. ‘They want to play the apparatchik and exercise control over other people’, he told Benjamin. ‘Everyone of their criticisms contains a threat’.
In the ‘working diary’ (Arbeitsjournal) which he now began keeping, the place of Galileo is very clear. In October a short entry reflects on the unwillingness of any of the major powers, including Russia, to risk war for Czechoslovakia. In January 1939 another reports the arrest in Moscow of Das Wort’s sponsor: Mikhail Koltsov - ‘my last link with that place’ - and concludes that the right Marxist attitude to Stalinism was that of Marx himself to German social-democracy: ‘constructively critical’. Between these two pages comes the entry of 23 November, recording that this hitherto unmentioned play has taken three weeks to write. Before and after come biting comments on Lukács and the ‘Realism controversy’. It must already have been in Brecht’s mind (‘for some while’, so his collaborator Margarete Steffin wrote to Benjamin in the letter cited on p. 163); and certainly he had done a good deal of preliminary reading: of the standard German biography by Emil Wohlwill, for instance, as well as of nineteenth century translations of the Discorsi and Bacon’s Novum Organum (from which a number of key ideas were derived) and works by modern physicists such as Eddington and Jeans. But an important contributing factor was his decision, evidently taken around this time, to follow Hanns Eisler’s example and apply for a quota visa to the United States, where he hoped that a work about the great physicist would make him some money. This idea crystallised just after Munich as a result of a visit by his American friend Ferdinand Reyher, a Hollywood script writer whom he had first met in Berlin at the time of The Threepenny Opera. Arriving in Copenhagen on 28 October, Reyher suggested that Brecht should. start by writing Galileo as a film story which he, Reyher, could market for him. Though Brecht in the event found himself writing the play instead, and never even embarked on the film project, 11e: said from the outset that it was ‘really intended for New York’.
This original Galileo, revised with some minor changes in the first few ‘weeks of 1939, was initially celled The Earth Moves. In February Reyher wrote from Hollywood to say that while he would discuss its, screen possibilities with the director William Dieterle - himself an of I acquaintance of Brecht’s from the early 1920’s - he felt some measure of adaptation was needed to fit it for the American stage. With Brecht’s permission, accordingly, he proposed not just to do a straight translation but to introduce ‘a little more speed’:
a sharpened drive, because our mode of thinking and our interests are gaited to a more nervous tempo, and what induces us to think in this country is not ideas, but action.
Brecht never seems to have agreed to this; nor do we know how Dietetic reacted to the film idea. Meantime, however, copies of the script were going to a number of other recipients: among them Piscator, Hanns Eisler and Fritz Lang in the United States, Brecht’s publisher Wieland Herzfelde in Prague, his translator Desmond Vesey in London, the main German-language theatres in Basle and Zurich, and Pierre Abraham and Walter Benjamin in Paris. Not long before leaving Denmark that spring he began writing his Messingkauf Dialogues on the model of Galileo’s Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Characteristically, he had already become dissatisfied with the play, which he saw as ‘far too opportunist’ and conventionally atmospheric, like the deliberately Aristotelian ‘empathy drama’ Señora Carrar’s Rifles, for which he was still being praised by the Party aestheticians. He even thought of remodelling the whole thing in a more didactic form, based on the example of the big unfinished Fatter and Breadshop schemes of the late 1920s. However, there is no evidence that he did this except a rough outline for a ‘version for workers’; and instead the project slumbered while he wrote the next four of the major plays. Only in Moscow was there some interest in pub­lishing an illustrated edition for which his new friend Hans Tombrock was to make the etchings. This too never materialised, though it prompted the vivid description of Galileo’s appearance.
* * *
The Brechts eventually moved to the United States in the summer of 1941, leaving via Moscow and. Vladivostock a matter of days before the German invasion of the USSR. By then France, Poland, Yugoslavia and Greece had all fallen to Hitler; Benjamin had committed suicide on the Franco-Spanish frontier; Margarete Steffin was left in Moscow to die of tuberculosis. Settling in California in the hope of finding work in the film industry, Brecht was soon seeing both Dieterle and Reyher, who had by now evidently completed a straight translation of the play. The idea of a film version seems not to have been resumed. That autumn he discussed the script with the physicist Hans Reichenbach, a pupil of Ein­stein’s then teaching in Los Angeles at the University of California, who congratulated him on the accuracy of its scientific and historical aspects. Then at the end of the year he tried to interest his old friend Oskar Ho polka, and for a time Homolka toyed with the idea of playing the part: something that made Brecht feel
as if I were recalling a strange sunken theatre of a bygone age on continents that had been submerged.
A similar sense of unreality must have seized him in September 1943, when the Zurich Schauspielhaus finally gave the play its world premiere some two and a half years after that of Mother Courage. How he reacted to the news of the production - or when, indeed, he heard it - remains unclear; he never even alludes to it in his diary. Soberly interpreted by Leonard Steckel, who not only played Galileo but was also the director, it was greatly applauded despite its lack of dramatic effects: ‘a Lehrstuck or a play or reading’, one critic called it. What was not clear, however, in a generally clear performance, was whether Galileo recanted out of cowardice or as part of a deliberate plan to complete his life’s work on behalf of human reason and smuggle it out to the free world. his ambiguity (which led so experienced a critic as Bernhard Diebold to favour the second, more topically anti-Nazi interpre­tation) is of course built into the first version of the play, where Galileo has already been conspiring with the stove-fitter (symbol of the workers) to send his manuscript abroad in the penultimate scene even before Andrea appears. (In Zurich this was In fact the last scene, that at the frontier being, as usual, cut.)
It was only in the spring of 1944 that the play seems once more to have become a reality to Brecht. Wintering in New York, he had discussed the possibility of a production with Jed Harris, the backer of Thoroton Wilder’s Our Town, and on getting back to Santa Monica he looked at Galileo with a fresh eye, re-checking its moral content, so he noted in his diary,
since it had always worried me just because I was trying to follow the historical story, without being morally concerned, a moral content emerged and I’m not happy about it. Galileo can no more resist stating the truth than eating an appetising dish; to him it’s a matter of sensual enjoyment and he constructs his own personality as wisely and passionately as he does his image of the world actually he falls twice the first time is when he sup­presses or recants the truth because he is in mortal danger, the second when despite the mortal danger he once again seeks out the truth and disseminates it. He is destroyed by his own productivity, and it upsets me: to be toll; that I approve of his publicly recanting so as to be able to carry on his work in secret. That’s too banal and too cheap. Galileo, after all, destroyed not only himself as a person but also the most valuable part of his scientific work. The church (i.e. the authorities) defended the teachings of the bible purely as a way of defending itself, its authority and its power of oppression and exploitation. The sole reason why the people became interested in Galileo’s ideas about the planets was that they were chafing under church domination. He threw all real progress to the wolves when he recanted. He abandoned the people, and astronomy once again became an affair for special­ists, the exclusive concern of scholars, unpolitical, cut off. the church made a distinction between these celestial ‘problems’ and those of the earth, consolidated its rule and then cheerfully went on to acknowledge the new solutions.
It is not clear just when Brecht first met Charles Laughton, who was then living within walking distance in a street called Corona del Mar above the Pacific Coast Highway; but it could even have been before his departure fur New York the previous November. Both were friends of Berthold Viertel’s wife Salka (best known per­haps as Greta Garbo’s preferred script writer), and it seems to have been through her that they learnt to appreciate one another’s compny. As Laughton’s biographer Charles Higham has put it, they found they had certain likes and dislikes in common:
They both shared a sympathy and concern for ordinary people, a dislike of pomp and circumstance and the attitudes and actions of the European ruling class. They both disliked elaborate artifice in the theatre, as exemplified by the spangles-and-tinsel of Max Reinhardt’s stage and film productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream…
Laughton had last acted in the theatre in 1934, and since playing Rembrandt in Alexander Korda’s 1936 film of that name (for which Brecht’s old friend Carl Zuckmayer wrote the script) he had had a surfeit of supporting roles in second- and third-rate Hollywood films. During the spring and summer of 1949 he read the rough translation of Brecht’s Schweik in the Second World War and greatly enjoyed it, while Brecht for his part wrote the long poem ‘Garden in Progress’ to commemorate, not without Irony, the landslide which sent part of the Laughtons’ beautifully tended garden sliding down the cliff face to the road below. By then the actor had evi­dently learnt enough about Galileo, whether through Brecht’s description or from the Vesey and Reyher translations, to decide that it might well be the masterpiece to carry him back to the live stage. With Brecht’s agreement he now commissioned a fresh translation by a young writer called Brainerd Duffield, who had been working with Alfred Dublin and other German exiles employed by MGM. By the end of November Duffield and his contemporary Emerson Crocker had once again translated Brecht’s original script and produced a third text which both Laughton and the Brechts evidently approved. A fortnight later actor and play­wright together were getting down to what the former terms ‘systematic work on the translation and stage version of the Life of the Physicist Galileo’. Whatever the original intention, it was in effect to be a new play.
* * *
Brecht later called the work with Laughton a ‘zweijähriger Spass’, a two-year escapade, and undoubtedly it covers more paper than did on y other’ of his writings, so that altogether it represents a prodigal expenditure of both men’s time. But he also saw it as the classic collaboration between a great dramatist and a great actor, and the loving account which he gives in ‘Building up a part’ seems to have been filtered through a warn Californian haze rather than the wintry greys of Berlin. Inevitably there were long interruptions e be script was ready. From February to May 1941 Laughton was of playing in the pirate. film Captain Kidd (Brecht meantime consoling himself by trying to put the Com­munist Manifesto into Lucretian hexameters); then in June and July Brecht was in New York for a none too successful production of The Private Life of the Master Race in Eric Bentley’s translation, directed initially by Piscator and finally by Viertel on Brecht’s intervention. Generally however they worked as described by Brecht, with him reshaping the play in a mixture of German and English - his typescript drafts contain many instances of this, of which one is cited on p. 165 - and both men then trying to get the English his - wording right. This reshaping ; often followed Laughton’s suggestions, which went much further than the basic cutting and streamlining which were his most obvious contribution. Thus it was he who proposed the elimination of the Doppone character, the ‘positive entry’ of the iron founder in scene 2, the argument between Ludovico and Galileo in the sunspot scene and the shifting of the handing-over of the Discorsi so that Galileo’s great speech of self-abasement should come after it and offset it. Brecht too worked to make this self-abasement seem more of a piece with Galileo’s concern for as own comforts, which were now to include thinking. In this, as in the new emphasis on Galileo’s sensuality, he was aided by Laughton’s character; of which Eric Bentley has written that
It is unlikely that anyone again will combine as he did every appearance of intellectual brilliance with every appearance of physical self-indulgence.
If the 1938 version derived its political relevance from the need to smuggle the truth out of Nazi Germany, this new version was given an extra edge of topicality by the dropping of the first atomic bomb on 6 August 1945. Not that any significant change was needed apart from the addition of the passage about ‘a universal cry of fear’ in the penultimate scene. The notion of a Hippocratic oath for scientists had still to be worked in. So before leaving the U.S. Brecht drafted the relevant passage, which could indeed have been in his mind from the inception of the play, the idea itself having been put forward by Lancelot Law White in Nature in 1938 and discussed at tie time in an editorial in the New York Times.
On 1 December 1945 the new, American text was complete enough for Laughton to read it to the Brechts, Eisler, Reichenbach, Salka. Viertel and other friends. About a week later he also read it to Orson Welles, whom both he and Brecht seems already to have had in mind for some while as the right director for the production towards which they were working. Welles instantly accepted the job, and a few days after that the three men saw Laughton’s agents Berg-Allenberg to discuss whether to open in the spring or the summer. This question was bound up with their choice of producer, which seems to have veered initially between Welles himself, the film impresario Mike Todd and Elisabeth Bergner’s husband Paul Czinner, for whom Brecht was already working on the Duchess of Mall adaptation. Czinner was not con­genial to Laughton, and once the idea of a siring production was abandoned he dropped out. Welles for his part apparently disliked Brecht; nevertheless for a time the intention was that he and Todd should combine forces; then a mixture of uncertainty about dates and dislike of the kind of teamwork proposed by Laughton and Brecht made Welles drop out after the middle of I946, leaving Todd as sole producer. After that various directors were sug­gested: Elia Kazan, who had a particular appeal for Brecht because he did not claim to know all the answers; Harold Clurman, whom Brecht respected as ‘an intelligent critic and interested in theoretical issues’ but saw primarily as a ‘Stanislavsky man’ unlikely to let hire have an say. He even inquired about Alfred Lunt. Mean­time a great deal of detailed revision of the new Brecht-Laughton text went on, with Brecht and Reyher totally overhauling it in New York, then Laughton and Brecht again reworking it in California. Versions of the ballad-singer’s song were made by Reyher and by Abe Burrows (of Guys and Dolls fame) while the inter-scene verses seem to have involved a whole host of colla­borators including Brecht himself and his daughter Barbara; the only programme credit, however, for the ‘lyrics’ went to a Santa Monica poet called Albert Brush. The eventual director chosen was Joseph Losey, who had met Brecht in Moscow in 1935 and thereafter made his name with the Living Newspaper programmes of the Federal Theatre. Finally Todd too dropped out after offering (in Losey’s words) to ‘dress the production in Renaissance furni­ture from the Hollywood warehouses’, an idea that was unacceptable to Brecht. Laughton and Los With this the hope of any kind of production in 1946 disappeared.
Instead the three partners decided to turn to a new smaller management headed by Norman Lloyd and John Houseman, who were then about to take over laic Coronet Theatre on La Cicnega Boulevard, Los Angeles. They agreed to put on Gelileo as their second production, with the ‘extremely decent’ (said Brecht) T. Edward Hambleton as its principal backer. Though Brecht was unable to get his old collaborator Caspar Neher over from Europe as he wished, the substitute designer Robert Davison accepted his and Laughton’s ideas for an unmonumental, non-naturalistic setting; Helene Weigel helped with the costumes. Eisler (who actually preferred the first version of the play) wrote the music in a fortnight; Lotte Goslar did the choreography. Rehearsals were scheduled to start at the end, of May 1947, when Laughton would have flashed a film; the opening would be on 1 July. Though this had to be put off till tile last day of the month every thing otherwise seems - amazingly enough - to have gone according to plan. Losey not only justified Reyher’s recommendation of him –
He knows casting, has the feel for it; he knows what to do with actors; he can get a crowd sense without numbers, and move­ment that isn’t just confusion, and keep the whole of a play in mind.
– but worked so closely with Brecht that the latter ever afterwards treated the production as his own. Laughton, exceptionally ner­vous before the premiere, resisted any temptation to overact, and concentrated on bringing out the contradictory elements with which they had enriched Galileo’s character; the one point that still resisted him, according to Brecht, being the logic of the deep self-abasement manifested in his ‘Welcome to the cutter’ speech near the end of the play. Not that such refinements would have been par­ticularly appreciated by the critics, for both Variety and the New York Times complained that the production was too flat and colourless. Charlie Chaplin too - who never really knew what to make of Brecht - sat next to Eisler at the opening and dined with him afterwards; he found that the play was not theatrical enough and said it should have been mounted differently. ‘When I told him’, said Eisler later,
that Brecht never wants to ‘mount’ things, he simply couldn’t understand.
For Brecht himself however it was certainly the most important and satisfying theatrical occasion since he first went into exile in 1933:
The stage and the production were strongly reminiscent of the Schiffbauerdamm Theatre in Berlin; likewise the intellectual part of the audience.
So he wrote to Reyher. Whether or not it played to such full houses as he later claimed, the whole achievement was an astonish­ing tribute to the actor’s courage and the writer’s relentless per­fectionism: one of the great events in Brecht’s life.
In the long struggle to stage the ‘American’ version it might seem that Brecht hardly noticed that the Second World War was over. Thus his poem to Laughton ‘concerning the work on the play The Life of Galileo’ (Poems 1913-1956, p. 405)
Still your people and mine were tearing each other to pieces when we
Pored over those tattered exercise books, looking
Up words in dictionaries, and time after time
Crossed out our texts and then
Under the crossings-out excavated
The original turns of phrase. Bit by bit -
While the housefronts crashed down in our capitals –
The facades of language gave way. Between us
We began following what characters and actions dictated:
New text.
Again and again I turned actor, demonstrating
A character’s gestures and tone of voice, and you
Turned writer. Yet neither I nor you
Stepped outside his profession.
In fact however he had begun to prepare his return to Germany as early as 1944. (when the FBI reported him visiting the Czech consulate for the purpose), and in December 1945 he wrote in his ‘working diary’, ‘maybe I’ll no longer be here, next autumn’. The Galileo discussions apart, this was the beginning of a curiously blank year in Brecht’s biography, by the end of which he had had some kind of invitation to work in the Soviet sector of Berlin, once again at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. Early in 1947 he was trying to organise a common front with Piscator and Friedrich Wolf (who was already back there) with a view to rehabilitating the Berlin theatre; by March he and Weigel had got their papers to go to Switzerland. The machinations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (from May onwards) thus had less effect on his movements than is sometimes thought. Hanns Eisler was interrogated by one of their subcommittees that month and the FBI file on Brecht reopened, while Eisler’s brother Gerhart was on trial during much of the Galileo rehearals; finally Brecht himself appeared before the committee a day or two before leaving for Switzerland in September. But these words did probably affect the fortunes of the New York production, which Hambleton had delayed (according to Higham) in order to add the ‘passion, excitement, colour’ which the critics had felt to be lacking. Further cuts were made there to give us the text as we now print it (see the appendix, p. 201), the odd facetious line was worked in; the cast was entirely new. Again however the reviews were bad, Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times dismissing the production as ‘stuffed with hokum’, and it only ran for three weeks. Higham blames the difficulty of finding another theatre to which to transfer. But Laughton’s earlier biographer Kurt Singer gave a somewhat different interpretation, writing (with an exaggeration indicative of the temper of those times) that
The trouble lay in the political affiliations of the playwright. Berthold Brecht was a dyed-in-the-wool Communist. Or, the point of being deported from the United States for his Com­munist activities, he escaped and turned up again in East Germany, where he became the Soviet’s pet author, supervising the literary life of the Soviet-controlled zone and turning out odes” to Stalin on the various state holidays. The musical score for the play on Galileo had been composed by Hanns Eisler, another convinced Communist who had composed many propaganda songs, including The Comintern March. Several actors in the cast turned out to be Communists too …
Whether, or not this put Laughton himself off the play, as Singer suggests, Brecht continued to court on the actor’s collaboration in a proposed film version to be made in Italy. The producer who had initiated this scheme was Rod E. Geiger, who apparently had funds in that country as a result of his earnings on Rossellini’s Open City. Negotiations continued while Brecht was in Switzer­land, and a scheme was worked out with the approval of Laughton and his agents by which the former’ would come to London for a production of the play around the end of 1948, after which work on the film would follow. Brecht and Reyher would write the script, which Geiger felt must give more emphasis to the relationship between Virginia and her fiancé Ludovico. However, everything was conditional on Laughton’s involvement, and he blew hot and cold, his own nervousness of Communist associations being no doubt aggravated by the warnings of his agent. So it all fell through - possibly prompting Brecht to the satirical ‘Obituary for Ch.L’ which he wrote around this time (Poems 1913-5916, p. 418):
Speak of the weather
Be thankful he’s dead
Who before he had spoken
Took back what he said.
At any rate this put paid for the moment to all further plans, since the play could hardly be staged by Brecht’s own company the Berliner Ensemble till they had a suitable actor and a revised German text. In 1953 however Brecht set his collaborators (Hauptmann, Besson, Berlau) to work translating and expanding the ‘American’ version so as to include certain elements of that of 1938, notably the plague scenes and the great introductory speech about the ‘new time’ in scene 1. He then went over the results him­self, also adding German versions of the ballad, the poems and the inter-scene verses. In 1955 this was given its premiere in Cologne in West Germany, after which he at last - in the final year of his life - began preparing to stage the play with the Berliner Ensemble.
In ten years a lot had changed. The text had grown longer by half, the production envisaged (with Neher as designer) was more lavish, there was no actor of Laughton’s calibre available. Brecht himself was to direct it, but he could only conduct rehearsals from mid-December up to the end of March 1956 when he became too ill to go on. As Galileo he cast his old Communist friend Ernst Busch, who had been in The Mother, Kuhle Wampe and the Threepenny Opera film before 1933, had sung Brecht-Eisler songs to the troops in Spain, been interned by the French, then handed over to the Gestapo and in the bombing of Berlin. Since return­ing to the German stage Busch had tended to specialise in cunning or lovable rogues: Mephisto and Iago for the Deutsches Theater, Azdak and the Cook (in Mother Courage) for Brecht. A much less intellectual actor than Laughton, he found it even more difficult to alienate the audience’s sympathies at the end of the play; and when Erich Engel took over the production after Brecht’s death he was allowed to present the handing-over of the Discern as a piece of justified foxiness which made his recantation ultimately forgiveable. Brecht himself had underlined two points in connection with this production: the first, his view that the recantation was an absolute crime, the second, that Galileo’s line in scene 9 ‘My object is not to establish that I was right but to find out if I am’ is the most important sentence in the play. Others have stressed that the new version followed the manufacture and testing of the hydrogen bomb, so that the social responsibility of the scientist became a particularly topical theme. It is difficult however to see this play as a member of an East European audience without feel­ing that it is above all about scientific enquiry and the human reason. For the parallels are too clear: the Catholic Church is the Communist Party, Aristotle is Marxism-Leninism with its incon­trovertible scriptures, the late ‘reactionary’ pope is Joseph Stalin, the Inquisition the KGB. Obviously Brecht did not write it to mean this, and if he had seen how the local context prompted this interpretation he might have been less keen for the production to go on. But as things turned out it has proved to be among the most successful of all his plays in the Communist world.
* * *
In our view Galileo is Brecht’s greatest play, and it is worth tracing its long and involved history in order to understand why. Not just one, but three crucial moments of our recent history helped to give it its multiple relevance to our time: Hitler’s triumphs in 1938, the dropping of the first nuclear bomb in 1945, the death of Stalin in 1953. Each found Brecht writing or rewriting his play. And on each occasion the conditions of work were different: thus it was first written in his measured, stylish yet utterly down-to-earth German, then re-thought in English for Anglo-Saxon tongues and ears, then put back into German so as to combine the strengths of both. At none of these three stages was its force in any wad man­nered or gimmicky: sprawl as it might, particularly in the two German versions, it was outwardly a straightforward and chronicle of seventeenth-century intellectual history, sticking surprisingly closely to the known facts. This was not ‘opportunist’ as Brecht at one moment termed it, even if it did represent a reaction against the conventionally realistic small-scale forms which he had used in 1937- Undoubtedly however his new approach did make for accessibility, and as a result almost any competent and unpreten­tious production of the play will grab the audience’s attention and get the meaning across.
What is that meaning? In fact there are several that can be read into the play, nor is this surprising when you think that Brecht’s active concern with it covered nearly twenty years. So the problem for the modern director is to sift out those that matter from those that don’t. First of all, this is not only a hymn to reason, but one that centres specifically on the need to be sceptical, to doubt. The theme is one that recurs more briefly in others of Brecht’s writings of the later 1930s - for instance the poems ‘The Doubter’ and ‘In Praise of Doubt’ and the ‘On Doubt’ section of the as yet untranslated Me-Ti- and it very clearly conflicts with the kind of ‘positive’ thinking called for by both Nazis and the more rigid-minded of the Communists, which must not be critical (‘negative’) but opti­mistic. This notion of Brecht’s that doubt and even self-doubt can be highly productive - that ‘disbelief can move mountains’, as he later put it in the Short Organum - is deeply engrained in the play; and although it ties in with his doctrine of ‘alienation’ or the need to take nothing for granted it also surely represents a reaction against the orthodox Socialist Realist view. Hew far it can be attri­buted to the historical Galileo is another matter. As Eric Bentley and, more recently, Paul Feierabend have pointed out, Galileo’s reliance on the evidence of his senses was largely limited to the observations which he made with the telescope; elsewhere he was more speculative and less rational than Brecht suggests. What is true however is the conflict between authority and free scientific enquiry, both on the it institutional level and within Galileo’s own character (for be was indeed a believing Catholic). If any thing, the former’s position is presented too reasonably, both Barberint and the Inquistor having in face behaved much worse than Brecht let them do.
Brecht all along was writing about attitudes which he could understand and even sympathise with; it is a play what contains very little element of caricature. This does riot turn his Galileo into the self-portrait it is sometimes alleged to be, particularly by those who wish to present Brecht as a ‘survivor’ - as if surviving was not a very reputable thing for him to have done. Nor does it bear out the late Isaac Deutscher’s interpretation of the first version as an apologia for those who, like Brecht himself, supported Stalin whilst disliking many aspects of his regime. Not that such auto­biographical considerations - which can of course be clamped on to almost any play - are much help to the director, who has first and foremost to take the work at its face value. What matters here is the overlaying of the original Message, about the need at all costs to establish and communicate the truth in defiance of authority, by Brecht’s growing recognition of the losses that this may involve: for instance, the creation of such a cleft between the intellectual and the average man that the former eventually comes to overlook the social consequences of his research. The intertwining of these two contradictory morals has presented problems to actor and director alike, and of course it devalues the original happy ending. None the less it represents a considerable enrichment both of the Galileo figure and of the story; while taking away nothing from the vividness with which the scientific attitude is depicted, it cuts down the improbabilities and brings the whole thing closer to the uneasy compromises of real life. The problem in production, then, is how to compress the play into a length appropriate to its audience without losing essential elements of so carefully thought-out a mixture. As a reading text it has a balance which needs also to be achieved ‘Under the very different conditions of the stage.
By turning it back, finally, into something of a meditation on the notion of a ‘new time’, Brecht reemphasised another general theme of particular significance to himself. Between 1929 and 1933 (and even, less pardonably, for two or three years afterwards) the German Communists thought that the Revolution was round the corner, and men like Brecht were stimulated much as he describes in the Foreword or, p. 115. At the end of the 1930s, however, when he wrote the poem ‘To Those Born Later’ (Poems 1913-1956, pp. 318-320), their goal
Lay fat in the distance
It was clearly visible, though I myself
Was hardly likely to reach it.
‘Terrible is the disappointment’, says the Foreword, when the new time fails to arrive and the old times prove stronger than anyone thought. For what had actually arrived was the ‘dark times’ of the first line of ‘To Those Born Later’, and with this the whole con­cept of ‘old’ and ‘new’ got confused. ‘So the Old strode in dis­guised as the New’, says the prose poem ‘Parade of the Old New’ which he wrote at the time of the first version as one of five ‘Vis­ions’ foreshadowing the coming war. The temptation was to look nostalgically backwards, as the end of the Foreword suggests:
Is that why I occupy myself with that epoch of the flowering of the arts and sciences three hundred years ago? I hope not.
And in this hope he was determined to hold on to his old belief in the New, writing for instance to Karin Michaelis in March 1942, when the war was still going Hitler’s way, that
the time we live in is an excellent time for fighters. Was there ever a time when Reason had such a chance?
What is significant in the final version is not just that it reinstates and even extends Galileo’s opening ‘aria’ of 1938 on the new age - that Elizabethan-Jacobean age which always fascinated Brecht, not least because of Germany’s failure to benefit from it. The really crucial remark, rather, comes in the final summing up of the same idea, which differs subtly from one version to another. ‘Reason’, says Galileo in the first version, ‘is not coming to an end but beginning.
And I still believe that this is a new age. It may look like a blood­stained old harridan, but if so that must be the way new ages look.’
In the American version, which omits the reference to Reason, Andrea asks Galileo outright if he doesn’t now think that his ‘new age’ was an illusion, and is again given the same answer. In the third version, far more tellingly, he gets the almost indifferent response ‘Dock’ – ‘On the contrary’, almost implying ‘despite all’ – followed by a quick change of subject. And it is this one word, with all its overtones from the history of Brecht’s own time – at once so new and so dark, – that wryly wraps up the whole opti­mistic tragedy, pinning, the beginning and the crud together with a single jab.

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!