Brecht’s Galileo Explores Distressingly Contemporary Issues
Novelistically, the play transpires from 1609 when Galileo was 46 years old through his death in 1642. The subject of Life of Galileo is the conflict between famed physicist-mathematician Galileo Galilei and the Roman Catholic Church over his observations and writings which offered the first proof for Copernicus’ theory that the earth orbits around the sun. In the 17th century, this was contrary to the Church’s interpretation of the bible which resulted in its teaching that the earth was the stationary center of the universe around which the sun and stars revolved. In 1633, the Church used its temporal, political power to force Galileo to stand trial before the Inquisition. Under the threat of torture, Galileo renounced his findings. Despite his recantation, Galileo was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. During these years, Galileo was kept under close clerical supervision and denied the right to write, travel, or have contact with the outside world.
The horrors of the Inquisition have been well documented, and precious few of today’s Catholic faithful would deny them. However, in a world where fatwas are issued and unauthorized religious practice results in prosecution, torture and death, contemplating the not dissimilar horrors of the Inquisition helps us better understand what is at stake in the major conflicts of today.
The details of Galileo’s family life are of necessity given short shrift. Although his beloved daughter, Virginia, is prominent here, only a tiny part of her story is told. Yet the play surrounds Galileo with a gallery of friends, enemies and acolytes who keep the evening teeming with life.
The cynical, left-leaning Brecht has been accused of ignoring historical accuracy in order to stack his case against the Church. However, my (admittedly cursory) research reveals that, in large part, the events depicted in Life of Galileo accurately reflect historic record. This contributes much to the power and believability of the play. Despite the fact that there is a wealth of detail, there is much more to Galileo than can be encompassed in any one play. What we do have is so intriguing that all but the least curious or most knowledgeable among its audiences will likely dig further into the story of Galileo, and draw their own conclusions.
Director Joe Discher has elicited performances which effectively emphasize the black (scarlet, here) and white nature of most of the characters. A hearty and enthusiastic band of 23 actors enliven 50 or so roles. Sherman Howard dominates the proceedings as Galileo. It is a rich, resourceful performance. He captures the teacher and the inventor-scientist, as well as the cunning rogue and manipulator that are wrapped up in this complex man. In Sherman’s performance and John Willett’s translation, what is regarded by many as Brecht’s condemnation of Galileo (“Whoever doesn’t know the truth is an idiot; whoever knows it and calls it a lie is a criminal”) for his recantation is washed away when Galileo smuggles out work that he has clandestinely written during the borrowed time that his recantation has bought him.
Every member of the cast makes important contributions to the fine ensemble performance with a solid, stalwart performance. Each is so in synch with the others that it would be unfair and distort the effect that is achieved to single any one out from the others.
James Wolk’s geometric unit set with its rounded stairs and platforms, rounded stage, and decorative ovals, circles and arcs is pleasing to the eye, evocative and most playable. Brian Russman’s costumes are appropriate and unobtrusive.
Although this production retains the ballads which set each scene (to original music composed by director Discher and balladeer Jay Leibowitz), this production is essentially realistic in nature. Given the harsh reality of the subject at hand, it wisely eschews the “epic” stylization which works so well for Brecht in his larger than life parables, such as Mother Courage and her Children.
Yes, Life of Galileo is good for us and for any serious minded, mature adolescent whom we might choose to bring to it. At the same time, in the hands of Joe Discher and his large, enthusiastic ensemble, it is a stirring experience that you will long remember.
Postscript: In 1992, Pope John Paul II, lifting the edict of Inquisition against Galileo, wrote, “Galileo sensed in his scientific research the presence of the Creator, who stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions.”
Life of Galileo continues performances through August 21 (Evenings.: Tues. - Sun/ Matinees.: Sat.-Sun. & Thurs. 8/11) at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey F. M. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Ave. (Rte. 24) at Lancaster Road, Madison, NJ07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online www.shakespearenj.org.
Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, translated by John Willett, directed by Joe Discher.
Cast: (in order of appearance):