The Life of Galileo
Also see Tim's review of Glengarry Glen Ross
It's very easy to sit back and accept what we've been taught as the truth, to go along with established systems of belief or tradition. It makes us feel safe, secure in our knowledge that everything is as it always was, and things are working the way they are. But there comes a point when someone discovers that there is more to the story, learns new information that bursts the status quo bubble we've wrapped ourselves in. Today, our belief systems are threatened by research into cloning and stem cell technology. Two hundred years ago, Charles Darwin proved that our divine creation was in fact the end result of a long evolutionary process. And four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei shattered man's belief that the universe revolved around him.
In The Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht shines a light on the crisis between faith and fact. When centuries of belief stand on the brink of revolutionary change, what is to be done? How can one reconcile what he has believed to be right with what he can now see to be true? With the invention of the telescope, all Galileo needs to do is turn his eye to the heavens and the truth is laid bare: it is Earth that revolves around the sun. Yet, when faced with this foundation-shaking discovery, the Church elects to save face rather than help pave the way for social change, and forces the scientist to recant. To the Church, which in this time is still the dominant force in Italy's political arena, this is the only logical option. The common man needs to take comfort in knowing he stands at the center of all, thus proving his suffering in this life is not in vain. If man dwells instead on an insignificant, moving rock, then what of the God that so loves him? Why would He fling humanity to an obscure corner of the heavens if we are His most precious creation? And so they deny this new scientific truth, accusing Galileo of trying to throw down heaven.
Yet Galileo does not seek the downfall of religion, merely a re-examination of established truths. He asks, why can't man look for God inside of themselves? Why should the Church fear a change in the status quo, especially when denial in the face of hard evidence is foolhardy at best? It is precisely this fear that moved them to hand Galileo over to the Inquisition, and it is this fear that still grips us as a nation today. In one scene, Galileo's apprentices lament the fact that countries such as Holland and Germany, who stand outside Church control, have begun to surpass Italy in cutting edge scientific discovery, when once Italy was the center of Renaissance creativity and invention. Sound familiar?
The Wilma Theater does a superb job in presenting the story, translated by David Edgar. Director Blanka Zizka wisely retains the elements of Brecht's Epic Theatre that worked best - an unfinished plywood set, wonderfully jarring percussion between scenes, costumes more reminiscent of the 1940's than 1621, actors playing multiple roles, and a chorus representing "the people," who announce the epigram for each scene. In lieu of the flatter, more alienating delivery Brecht favored, Zizka opts for a very realistic style of play, which opens up the text and becomes far more engaging.
John Campion's Galileo is a delight to watch: part curmudgeon, part caring friend and father, and entirely passionate about his work and beliefs. An early scene between Galileo and his friend Sagredo (played by Greg Wood) is particularly beautiful, as his old friend is shown the heavens through the telescope and must come to grips with what he sees is true. Yet he pleads with Galileo to safeguard himself from the Inquisition, knowing too well that reason would not sway the monolithic force of the Church. "When you said you believed in proof, I smelt burning flesh!" he warns; that Wood returns to the stage later as the Inquisitor sent to arrest Galileo becomes a smart, ironic touch. Truly, the entire ensemble is strong in each of their roles, be they priest, scientist, or nobleman; friend of Galileo, virulent opposition, or both, depending on which costume they wore at the time.
Edgar's translation provides a more hopeful ending than other renditions, allowing a sense of peace to fall over the play in its last moments. Of course, we know how the story ends, as modern astronomy readily accepts Galileo's theories and hails him as an innovator. But the scientist looks into himself and sees only a man who became too frightened of pain to retain his convictions, and thereby may have ruined all. Certainly he has caused a crisis of belief in his apprentice Andrea Sarti - not in the work, but in the man who discovered it. Today, echoes of Galileo's bold statement and the resulting political and theological opposition are everywhere in our society. Yet, as Galileo put it, "Truth is the child of time, not authority," and like his own discoveries, truth will bear out and become the new status quo, until the next brave questioner comes along.
The Life of Galileo has extended its run through May 19. For tickets and showtimes, call 215-546-7824, or online at www.wilmatheater.org.
The Life of Galileo Cast and Creative Team
Cast (in order of appearance)