Life of Galileo is the only Brecht play which is based directly on an historical figure. Of the other plays that might be called historical, Edward II is an adaptation of Marlowe, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui offers a satirical view of Hitler’s rise to power in terms ofIn Mother Courage and her Children, the other historical play he set in the same period as Life of Galileo, his fictitious heroine moves among the lower ranks; the famous names of the day, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and Marshall Tilly are mentioned only when they die, and the illustrious Wallenstein is not mentioned at all. Life of Galileo takes a turning point in history and shows how it was handled at the top level. According to Sergei Tretiakov the figure of Galileo began to interest Brecht around 1933 when he toyed with the idea of preparing a series of great trials from history for the stage.
gangster Dom, Days of the Commune recreates an historical event, and the Lucullus radio play and opera are very free treatments of ancient history. Chicago
The plot follows Galileo’s conflict with the Papacy closely, although there is some restructuring, but his character, from the first conception to the final figure is Brecht’s own creation and stand in a line of anti-heroes which starts with Baal, and runs through Kragler in Drums in the Night and the Cook in Mother Courage to Azdak in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. These characters all show a brand of hedonism and a rude vigour which Galileo shares. Galileo is established as a physical presence in the first scene when, stripped to the waist, he is rubbed down by Andrea as he makes his optimistic speech about the dawn of a new age. Brecht was determined from the outset to avoid the stereotype of the unworldly professor and establish Galileo as a man with healthy appetites. He likes to eat, his best ideas come to him over a good meal and it is his taste for the fleshpots (as well as the hope of time for research) that makes the aristocratic largesse of
seem more appealing to him than canny, commercial Florence . In scene 9 his subtle tasting notes as he commends his old Sicilian wine to Ludovico and his indignation at the imputation that he might ever eat an olive without thinking show him to be a bon viveur. Laughton brought out the sensuality in Galileo clearly. With his ponderous girth and his shrewd eyes set above his thick lips and heavy jowls, he gave him an inimitable combination of gross coarseness and intellectual penetration. Brecht records in his notes: Venice
... it was just this mixture of the physical and the intellectual that attracted L. ‘Galileo’s physical contentment’ at having his back rubbed by the body is transformed into intellectual production . . . His sensual walking, the play of his hands in his pockets while he is planning new researches came close to being offensive. Whenever Galileo is creative, L. displayed a mixture of aggressiveness and defenceless softness and vulnerability.
Galileo’s sensuality was accentuated in the American version of the play when it became a matter of undermining the figure’s appeal for the audience. The Grand Inquisitor recognises in him a man of the flesh with no resistance to torture, and the Pope in scene 12 discerns a direct connection between Galileo’s physical and intellectual appetites:
The Pope: ... His thinking springs from sensuality. Give him an old wine or a new idea and he cannot say no.
Andrea’s instinctive reaction when the Inquisition releases Galileo after his recantation is to sneer at his self-indulgence and so he calls him ‘Wine pump! Snail eater!’ As the character develops, Brecht tries to turn the appetites which reveal his earthy vitality and his common touch into selfish weaknesses which are of a piece with his avoidance of responsibility. The gourmet with the motto that ‘pleasure takes some achieving’ becomes a simple glutton.
Galileo is not the only character whom Brecht altered persistently in order to control the audience’s perception of him; the same thing happened to Mother Courage and to Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. In both cases Brecht partially rewrote the roles to make the figures less sympathetic.
In the first nine scenes of the play Galileo is built up as a positive figure. His outline of the state of astronomy, for Andrea in the expository opening scene reveals him as a passionate and lucid teacher as he expounds not only the principles of the Copernican system but also its social implications. He returns to these social implications in scene 8 in which he explains the Church’s vested interest in the statues quo to the Little Monk. He almost permits himself to criticise the plight of the peasants in his conversation with Bellarmin and Barberini, but his actual outburst against the landowners is reserved for Ludovico in scene 9. Galileo’s analogy between the geocentric Ptolemaic system and the hierarchical rule of the feudal landowners, aided and abetted by the Church seems a natural one, but it is based on an Karl Marx’s view of history as a class struggle, which was only formulated as a theory in the nineteenth century, so Brecht’s Galileo looks at events around him with the benefit of considerable hindsight. In this respect he is in fact Brecht’s spokesman, a twentieth century man, and if we bear this in mind his final revision of his self-estimate in the fourteenth scene may seem less implausible.
Galileo is a man of the people, at home with the workers in the
arsenal. He has, as has already been indicated, an acute understanding of the class structure of seventeenth century Venice , and he tells the Little Monk How applied science could improve the peasants’ lot and change society. His assumption that he will sweep all before him in Italy , one of several miscalculations he makes in the play, is based on his faith in directness and plain speaking as much as on his newly acquired hard evidence. But his awareness of the role applied science might play takes second place to his overriding passion which is pure science. Pumps and proportional, compasses are, like telescope, ‘kids stuff and ‘lucrative playthings’, interesting only as a way of making money unless, like the telescope, they become research instruments. He must be aware of the telescope’s potential military applications because the Procurator stresses this when he presents it to the Signoria, but he makes no comment on it. Florence
In this phase of the play Galileo is essentially optimistic. His interpretation of his own situation is basically self-centred. He can see the weaknesses of the
because he feels exploited by it, but he overlooks the direr shortcomings of Venetian Republic because affluence seems to beckon from there. This and his naive faith in reason is enough to nullify Sagredo’s warning and prevents him from seeing the obvious, namely how little the Florentine state will welcome his discoveries. Florence
The audience is on Galileo’s side when he is confronted by the immovable, supercilious Florentine ‘tuis’ (to borrow the name Brecht coined for collaborative careerist intellectuals in his play Turandot, or the Whitewashers’ Congress). It is on his side when he is exposed to the ribaldry of the assembled churchmen at the Collegium Romanum, and his modest response to Clavius’s corroboration of his findings adds to his appeal. The audience is still on his side, though too well aware of what is coming to share his total bewilderment when, after their suave little debate, Cardinals Bellarmin and Barberini inform him that the work of Copernicus has been put on the Index. In the scene with the Little Monk his analysis of the social mechanisms that keep the rich, rich and reconcile the poor to their poverty shows that his heart is in the right place, and the discovery in the sunspots scene that he has secretly been pursuing forbidden investigations continues to build up a positive figure.
All this means that when it comes to the exchange with Vanni in scene 11, it is difficult for an audience to see Galileo as a villain - which is what Brecht wants, for he sees Vanni’s offers as Galileo’s chance to commit himself to social progress, and his failure to accept it as social treachery. Brecht viewed Giordano Bruno as a lone voice in his times who could have recanted without damaging the cause of progress: not so Galileo:
In Bruno’s time the battle was still a feeble one. But time does not stand still: a new class, the bourgeoisie with its new industries has assertively entered the scene; no longer was it only scientific achievements that were at stake, but battles for their large-scale general exploitation.
When Vanni offers Galileo a lift, according to the view of the situation which Brecht expresses here, he is actually giving him a chance to participate in the exploitation of his own work for the benefit of humanity. But at this point in the play Galileo is waiting to hand over his latest book to the Grand Duke. He has sensed that something is wrong and has had transport waiting to smuggle him out of town if the need arises, so the audience is likely to put Galileo’s tetchy dismissal of Vanni down to nerves in a tense situation and leave it at that.
Brecht inserted the figure of Vanni to represent the north Italian manufacturers, a faction so powerful that the Inquisitor in the next scene says they must be allowed to use Galileo’s star charts, even though the theory on which they are bases in heretical. The bourgeois capitalist manufacturers were in the end to replace the landowning aristocracy as the ruling class, but this was not apparent in the seventeenth century. Brecht’s description of Laugh-ton in the Vanni scene shows how serious he was about Galileo’s historic decision’:
The actor Laughton showed Galileo in a state of great inner agitation during his talk with the iron founder. He played it as a moment of decision - the wrong one.
It is straining credibility to suggest that the audience should be aware, far less that Galileo should know that his casual conversational gambit is in fact an historic decision. In his final conversation with Andrea, Galileo reflects that he was at this point so powerful that he could have defied the Inquisition, but it is difficult to take this seriously. The carnival scene demonstrates Galileo’s papular effect and support, but nowhere in the play does Brecht demonstrate that the machinery of the state was incapable of dealing with the situation. The Grand Inquisitor seems fully in control, and the likelihood that Galileo could have defied him on his own ground and survived is nowhere established. Indeed the fact that the Church as the ideological arm of the state is so clearly the effective opponent of progress throughout the play makes it very difficult to focus on Galileo as the real enemy at the end.
The major changes in the final version of the play affected scene 14 where Brecht rewrote Galileo’s lines extensively to prevent the audience from viewing him as a tragic victim of historical circumstances. He presents Galileo’s clandestine experiments as a secret vice:
His appetite for knowledge feels to him like the impetus that makes him twitch. Scholarly activity, for him, is a sin: mortally dangerous, but impossible to do without. He has a fanatical hatred for humanity.
This is not entirely convincing. Galileo may be cynical and disillusioned; within the play his attitude to science travels the same course as Brecht’s between the thirties and the fifties. It might be possible to view his scientific activity as a kind a covert self-gratification were it not for the secret copy of his treatise. A man whose only preoccupation is his own comfort does not ruin his eyesight by writing at night, nor does he risk discovery and even greater discomfort. If he makes a copy of a work which is being confiscated by the authorities as it progresses, there must at the back of his mind be the thought of transmitting the work to the outside world. This is not consistent with hatred of humanity. By the time he hands over the Discorsi to Andrea Galileo is a grey and bowed old man. The first visible change in his appearance is effected by the Inquisition in scene 13. Before his interrogation his characteristic stance is pugnacious, ‘hands on his hams, thrust out tummy’, but after twenty four days in custody he is almost unrecognisable. The audience is bound to see him here as a man who has been broken under duress, but Brecht is intent on overriding the obvious as his comment on Laughton’s handling of the episode shows:
The change L. selected was, as the playwright intended, not of a physical nature. There was something infantile, bed-wetting in his shambling gait, his grin, indicating a self-release of the lowest order, as if restraints had been thrown off that had been very necessary.
An actor can only indicate a change in his part by physical means, and the audience, which has only the physical characterisation to go on, is bound to ascribe Galileo’s sudden decrepitude to his ordeal; and not to a hitherto studiously concealed character flaw. It will measure Galileo’s self denigration against what it sees, which is not so much a clear-cut case of the scientist betraying his social responsibilities, more the professional dilemma of the modern scientist.
Galileo risks his well-being earlier, in the plague scene, partly because he is a compulsive researcher, partly because he needs proof at that stage to face his powerful enemies, and it is part of a consistent pattern of behaviour when he does it again in the fourteenth scene.
The figure that emerges is an ambivalent one, not the unmistakeable symbolic traitor Brecht strove for in trying to make Galileo the scapegoat for the development of the atom bomb. Ernst Busch who played Galileo at the Berliner Ensemble could not bring himself to accept Brecht’s final reading of Galileo’s character. He told him so and in the course of rehearsals after Brecht’s death he imposed his own less critical interpretation on the character. He was not an intellectual type of actor, but he made the character work on the stage, though not along the lines Brecht had laid down. The theatre assimilated the text, and one reviewer recorded the following impression:
What do I see on the stage during this intellectual exchange (in scene 14)? A man who has ruined his eyes at the telescope and almost gone blind by working in the light of the moon—making an illegal copy of a manuscript that will benefit mankind. We are not told this - we see it . . . And I am supposed to hate this man? Condemn him? In can’t, no matter how many commentaries they offer me. Not while I am watching it, not in the theatre.
is another matter. Reading
The contradiction between Brecht’s intention and his achievement is not a fault, certainly not in the theatre, and the character he created is richer in poetic possibility than that his obsessively restricted view of it admitted.
Andrea grows up under Galileo’s tutelage and absorbs his unqualified enthusiasm for science. His father is never mentioned in the play. Galileo’s attachment to Andrea, in contrast to his disregard for Virginia, and the candidness and intimacy of Galileo’s relationship with Mrs Sarti, not to speak of her devotion to him as seen in the plague scene, all seem to point to his being Galileo’s son, though Brecht, himself no stranger to complicated family relationships, never says so explicitly. His responses are direct rather than thoughtful and he switches instantly from hero-worship to violent contempt when Galileo lets him down by recanting. It is he, when he is given the Discorsi, who interprets Galileo’s recantation in retrospect as a cunning stratagem to protect the interests of science, which then prompts Galileo’s self-denunciation in scene 14. His faith in science is unshaken to the end, and he departs for
as, in Galileo’s terms, the first ‘inventive dwarf. The final scene at the border however shows him as a positive exponent of the cunning for survival that was the theme of the first version of the play. Holland
THE LITTLE MONK
The Little Monk only really has one scene. He experiences the contradiction between the attractions of the new science and the pastoral role of the church as a crisis of conscience, but this historically important theme is not developed since he is only there to give Galileo an opportunity to point out the connections between the Ptolemaic system, the established ideology and the oppression of the peasants.
Mrs Sarti, with her feet firmly on the ground, serves as a foil for Galileo in the first half of the play. She has to see that the household bills are paid, and they have a close relationship which enables her to scold him like a child and him to ignore her scolding. It is in some ways curious that there is no overtly sexual element in all this, and it is tempting to see the pointedly matter-of-fact words of the exchange when she decides to stay in the plague city to minister to his needs as the mask for something deeper.
is not her daughter as she clearly states in scene 9, it is Mrs Sarti who exposes the ruthlessness of Galileo’s attitude in the same scene when he attacks Virginia ’s fiancé’s ulterior motives as a landowner without any consideration of the effect on his daughter’s future. Virginia
Mrs Sarti has no time for the new-fangled theories with which Galileo is filling her son’s head in the first scene, and she has a ill superstitious faith in astrology, which
shares. Although she shows no sign of excessive devoutness, she regards Galileo quite conventionally as a heretic. She disappears at the end of scene 9 when Andrea has grown up and Virginia takes over her functions in the household. In her last two speeches she addresses Galileo familiarly (German signals this more clearly); she has known all along that he has been conducting clandestine studies in proscribed areas and has kept quiet, but now she feels compelled to speak out: Virginia
... If I choose to forfeit eternal bliss by sticking with a heretic that’s my business, but you have no right to trample all over your daughter’s happiness with your great feet.
Mrs Sarti is able to behave according to her personal lights and represents a commonsense attitude which cuts across ideology. She can consort with a heretic and still be a believing catholic. Her healthy pragmatism is seen in a slightly comic light before the Florentine court arrives to view Galileo’s telescope, when she says she would have softened them up with a good dinner. Galileo himself uses Mrs Sarti in scene 3 to prove to Sagredo that the common people are avid for the truth, a striking irony, since she is in fact incorrigibly conservative and indifferent to his discoveries. She seems, in contrast to the class-conscious folk in the carnival scene, to be an apolitical individualist, who like Kragler in Drums in the Night in the final estimate goes her own way.
Barberini in the play as in history is an amateur scientist and well disposed towards Galileo, which causes Galileo to miscalculate gravely on his attitude to Copernican research when he becomes Pope. The scene in which his investment with his robes of office becomes a visual demonstration of how official policy replaces his private views is a classic example of the way `social being determines thought’ in epic theatre. This kind of character change had interested Brecht since the dismantling and reassembly of Galy Gay in Man equals Man.
Vanni is a new character in the final version of the play, replacing Matti, who though an ironfounder, was merely an importunate incidental figure in the Laughton version. He represents the rising manufacturing classes who want Galileo on their side. His offer of help supports Galileo’s later unhistorical and not quite plausible claim that at the time of his recantation he was strong enough to stand up to the inquisition. Brecht intends Galileo’s rejection of his offer to be the point at which Galileo turns into an antisocial figure.
Ludovico is the representative of the land-owning class. He is an ironic observer of Galileo’s fraud with the telescope at the beginning of the play. In his last scene he puts the case for the landowners who depend on a docile peasantry for their labour, a relationship which Galileo’s scientific discoveries could destabilize. His status demands that his marriage be impeccably conventional. Galileo’s rude provocation which prompts Ludovico to break off his engagement would be a laudable gesture, if it were not a purely private one, selfishly made without a thought for the disastrous nsequences for his daughter.