Brecht’s Portrayal of the Real Life Through His Picture of Galileo

November 23, 2021 by Essay Writer

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) lived in a period when Europe went through the most massive economic, political, and social changes. He witnessed the two World Wars, the revolutions in Austria, Germany, Hungary in 1917-1918, the uprising of Communism in Russia, Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, and the Cold War between the United States and Russia (Geary 2). During the 1930s, the Nazi Party became more and more popular in Germany. In 1934, Adolf Hitler seized control in Germany and became the Fuhrer and Chancellor of the Reich (Gray 90). Brecht, a believer in Marxism and a socialist writer, became an obvious target of the Nazi German Government. When Adolf Hitler came into power in 1933, Brecht was exiled from Germany and his books were under a ban. During his exile from 1938 to 1945, he wrote five masterpieces that established his fame abroad: Mother Courage and Her Children (1939/1941), The Life of Galileo (1938/1943), The Good Woman of Setzuan (1940/1943), Mr. Puntila and his Servant Matti (1941), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944-1945). These plays are slightly different from his earlier propagandist and anti-Nazi works, in which his Marxist views are outspoken. They display human beings’ behaviors and ask the audience to question themselves as to what they would do in a similar situation (Gray 109). In Life of Galileo, Brecht used real historical figures and set the play in the past to distance his audience. Although the play deals with issues that happened in the seventeenth century in Italy, the play is about Brecht’s contemporary time. Brecht historicized Galileo’s life to make his audience reflect upon what they are seeing on stage and to make objective judgments on the characters’ behaviors. He also used the play to mask his political view in order to avoid direct trouble in this politically and socially restless period.

The Life of Galileo is a story of Galileo’s struggle with the Catholic Church, which had all the political power in the seventeenth century Italy. Brecht wrote the play chronologically, beginning with a forty-six year old Galileo. He is a professor in the University of Padua, he is not wealthy, and he lives with his daughter Virginia, his housekeeper Mrs. Sarti, and Mrs. Sarti’s son Andrea. Galileo is trying to prove the theories of Copernicus, a study about the earth revolving around the sun. His findings, however, clash with the Church’s doctrine of the Earth being the universe’s centre. The Church claims that his teaching offends the Church’s proclaimed cosmic order and upsets its political power in society. The Pope agrees to have him investigated by the Inquisition. Although Galileo is eager to learn the truth and to show it to the world, he recants in 1633 when shown instruments of torture. His students despise his cowardice and abandon him. Until the end of his life, Galileo is guarded by the Inquisition and forbidden to write and publish. However, he secretly continues his research, finishes The Discorsi, and gives the book to his former student, Andrea, to smuggle it abroad.

There are three versions of The Life of Galileo: the “Danish” version, the “American” version, and the “Berlin” version. The Danish version was written in 1938 in Denmark and was performed in Zurich in 1943. The plot of the play is more or less the same, but it concentrates on “the struggle between Galileo and the authorities” (Wilson 146). The character of Galileo is different from the American and the Berlin versions in that he is a hero who cunningly recants and accepts the authority of the church so he can finish the Discorsi. Brecht, however, changed his attitude toward Galileo during the Second World War. In 1944, he wrote the American version in collaboration with Charles Laughton, an English actor in Hollywood. This version is shorter than the Danish version, and Brecht changed some incidental characters and altered Galileo after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Galileo, at first a hero who outwits the Inquisition, becomes a coward who betrays his people because he is frightened of physical pain. However, Brecht was not satisfied with the American version. Laughton, who did not share Brecht’s exile and flight experience, eliminated many passages about truth being oppressed in Germany. Brecht said: The more incisive changes in the structure of entire scenes or even of the work itself were made solely to facilitate the forward movement of the action . . . L. (Laughton) treated the “printed text” with a revealing, sometimes brutal indifference that the playwright was seldom able to share. What we created was a script; the performance was everything. It was impossible to persuade him to translate portions that the dramatist was prepared to omit in the production, but that he, however, wanted to rescue for the “book.” The most important thing was the stage performance, for which the text was only the means, the vehicle: the text was used up in the production it was consumed like powder in fireworks. (Stern 137)

Because of his dissatisfaction with the American version, Brecht revised the play with the help of Elisabeth Hauptmann, Benno Beson, and Ruth Berlau in 1953 in Berlin. This version was first performed by the Berliner Ensemble in 1957. The Berlin version, which Hill refers it as “an enriched and refined second version” (113), restored many materials from the Danish version that Laughton had cut, but Galileo’s character remains the same as the American version.

Although The Life of Galileo is a historical play, it does not merely to show Galileo’s life as a scientist. Claude Hill in his book Bertolt Brecht explains, “A dramatist rarely if ever merely aims at total accuracy when he chooses historical material; he must be judged by other criteria” (114). Although the play is set in Italy in the seventeenth century, it is a play about the playwright’s time, not merely about Galileo’s. The emergence of totalitarianism in Europe in the early twentieth century, particularly in Germany, Italy, and Russia, brought a series of political and social changes to the world. Governments were imposing values and restrictions on people in order to keep them under their control. Individuality and freedom were taken away by these governments to achieve a “higher” goal and political ideology. The Nazi government managed to indoctrinate its people to believe that its political and social policies would bring the country to what Brecht called the “New Age” (“Foreword” 213) and Germany would no longer suffer from the economic depression and loss of cultural pride caused by the First World War. People blindly believed and listened to what the government told them to do without questioning the government’s real intention. In the foreword to The Life of Galileo, Brecht said, “And yet these disappointed men may still go on existing in a new age, an age of great upheaval. Only, they know nothing of new ages” (“Foreward” 214). It is clear that Brecht used the play to mirror what was going on in the contemporary world.

Galileo is considered a revolutionary scientist who laid the foundation for the development of scientific research (Britannica). He discovered and proved that Earth did not stay still, but rather revolved around the sun. Even though he had the potential to show “the dawn of a new age” (“Portrayal” 217) to the world, he recanted to the Church and let the people blindly follow the Church’s teaching. People who lived under Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s were in a very similar situation. The public believed whatever the government told them without questioning whether it was true. Brecht says: In these days the conception of the new is itself falsified. The Old and the Very Old, now re-entering the arena, proclaim themselves as new, or else it is held to be new when the Old or the Very Old are put over in a new way. . . . The ‘new’ for example is the system of waging wars, whereas ‘old,’ so they say is a system of economy, proposed but never put into practice, which makes wars superfluous. In the new system, society is being entrenched in classes; and the old, so they say, is the desire to abolish classes. The hopes of mankind do not so much become discouraged in these times; rather, they become diverted. (“Foreward” 214-215)

Through his presentation of the character of Galileo and his story of recantation, Brecht wanted his audience to question totalitarian government. In the play, the Church is afraid that Galileo’s radical discovery will upset its power and change the world’s order. It prefers a more stable world that sustains its authority even though its people would have to live under an illusion. Although he desires to change the world, Galileo betrays his people by admitting that the Church is right simply because he wants to live. His recantation delays the process of scientific development for years. Brecht, a committed Marxist writer, believed that “questioning, a refusal to accept anything as fixed” (Needle and Thomson 79) is necessary to improve human social conditions. By presenting Galileo’s weakness, he made his audiences realize that something else could have been done to alter what happened in the seventeenth century. By the same token, they could also take action to make a difference in their own society.

Apart from showing the image of people being forced to believe those in positions of authority, Brecht also argued that the government’s attempt to suppress knowledge and truth would be futile (Wilson 147). In the first Danish version of The Life of Galileo, Galileo realizes that death or resistance to authority would not make the Church accept his discovery. He recants and the Inquisition believes he will stop his research. However, he continues and secretly finishes the Discorsi. Because of his recantation, he has the chance to smuggle the book abroad, spreading the truth that Earth revolves around the sun. In the end, knowledge and truth win out over the Church’s ideological impositions.

Brecht experienced a similar situation to Galileo’s when Hitler came into power in 1933, and Brecht was driven into exile, all his works banned in Germany (Socialist Review). However, Brecht believed that Hitler’s censorship would eventually become pointless, which is why he kept on writing. Brecht wanted to fight against lies and ignorance and educate his audience of society’s ills. He believed truth would eventually defeat totalitarianism.

The latter version of The Life of Galileo is still about the playwright’s own time. If the Danish version represents the playwright’s society in the 1930s, then the American version represents his society in the 1940s. In 1941, Brecht departed for the United States and he arrived in Los Angeles, where he settled in Santa Monica near Hollywood. With the help of Charles Laughton, he wrote the “American” English version of The Life of Galileo in 1944-47 (the American version is simply called Galileo). Laughton played the role of Galileo in the 1947 Los Angeles premier and in the production in New York later on. The American version is much shorter than the original Danish version. Brecht also changed the character of Galileo by changing his reason for finishing the Discorsi to “more as the result of habit than a deliberate act of defiance” (Hill 116). The reason Brecht changed the motive of Galileo’s recantation was the atomic bombings in the 1940s. In his Unvarnished Picture of a New Age: Preamble to the American Version, Brecht wrote: The ‘atomic’ age made its debut at Hiroshima in the middle of our work. Overnight the biography of the founder of the new system of physics read differently. The infernal effect of the great bomb placed the conflict between Galileo and the authorities of his day in a new, sharper light. (224) It is clear that Brecht wanted to use The Life of Galileo to mirror his time.

In latter versions, Brecht raises the question of the role of science and scientists in relation to humanity. When Galileo presents the telescope as his new discovery to the Venetian court, his student Ludovico, who had told him about this new instrument in Amsterdam, says, “I am beginning to understand science” (Brecht and Laughton 58). Ludovico despises Galileo’s claiming the instrument as his own creation. Brecht thought some scientists would allow the bourgeois to put their research products into any use because this could earn them a decent living. Even though Galileo uses the telescope to let the world see what the earth looks like, the Venetian government uses it in its sea battles with other countries and states. A scientific invention that aims to bring good to humanity becomes a weapon that destroys lives. The atomic bombs made Brecht realize that the nuclear age was also a product of Galileo’s findings because he brought the world to a new “scientific age” in the seventeenth century. He then cast Galileo as a traitor to humanity because he was the “root” of the atomic bomb. In Brecht’s view, the scientists were not aware of the morality behind their research. In a draft for a foreword to the play he condemns those scientists who do not realize their moral values as scientists. Brecht writes: The bourgeois single out science from the scientist’s consciousness, setting it up as an island of independence to be able in practice to interweave it with politics, economics, and ideology. The research scientist’s object is “pure” research; the product of that research is not so pure. The formula E= mc2 is conceived of as eternal, not tied to anything. Hence other people can do the tying: Suddenly the city of Hiroshima became very short-lived. The scientists are claiming the irresponsibility of machines. (“Drafts” 220)

Brecht believes scientists have gradually become a tool of the people who can afford to pay for inventions and research. In the last scene, Galileo says to Andrea, “I surrendered my knowledge to the powers that be, to use it, no, not use it, abuse it, as it suits their ends. I have betrayed my profession” (Brecht and Laughton 124). Scientists, who were supposed to invent for a better life and bring truth to human beings, were inventing dreadful weapons that destroyed lives and were pushing the world to an end because of their selfish needs.

Although it is clear there are similarities between the playwright’s time and Galileo’s time, why did Brecht choose to write a historical play instead of a fictional play? Why did Brecht invent (or reinvent) the character of a historical figure? Eric Bentley, a well-known Brecht scholar, explains: Brecht became interested in the historical Galileo at a time when he was preoccupied with friends and comrades who remained in Germany and somehow managed to continue to work. Prominent in his thoughts was the underground political worker plotting to subvert the Hitler regime. (14-15)

In the first version of the play Galileo says, “take care when you travel through Germany with the truth under your coat!”(Bentley 15). Brecht understood that the only way to express the truth in Germany during 1930s was to hide it. He wrote “Writing the Truth: Five difficulties” before he finished the first version of The Life of Galileo. The five difficulties of writing truth, according to Brecht, are the courage to write it, the keenness to recognize it, the skill to manipulate it as a weapon, the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective, and the need of cunning to spread it among the many. Brecht thought that these five difficulties were “formidable problems for writers living under Fascism” (“Writing” 133).

In the essay, he especially elaborates on the fifth difficulty, the need of “cunning” in writing the truth. He lived in a time of oppression where people could not freely tell the truth, in public or private, because they would be in great danger. Even Brecht had to escape his home country because his works expressed a political view opposing Hitler’s government. He said in the essay, “Lenin wished to deceive exploitation and oppression on Sakhalin Island, but it was necessary for him to beware of the Czarist police” (“Writing” 143). Many governments in Europe during that time, especially in Germany, censored all materials that went against their political and social policies. It became extremely hard for writers who wanted to tell the truth to the people. Brecht, however, thought that if a writer applied cunning devices, then “many things that cannot be said in Germany about Germany can be said about Austria” (“Writing” 143). Brecht suggested that a writer could provoke his audience to think about the government objectively by writing a play about other places or areas that share similarities to the contemporary society’s situation. Brecht’s The Life of Galileo, in this case, displays a critical situation that happened in the seventeenth century, with which his audience would be able to make an analogy to their own society. It is only by writing cunningly that a writer can spread the truth at a time when oppression exists.

Brecht thought The Life of Galileo to be “technically a great step backwards” (Kellner 287) because he failed to distance his audience emotionally from feeling pity toward Galileo. However, he used historification, another famous epic technique, to allow his audience to think about Galileo’s situation and actions with appropriate socialistic values. Historification is a playwriting device of setting the action of a play in the historic past to draw parallels with contemporary event (Theatre Dictionary). Brecht often set his plays in the past or in a foreign country, such as The Good Woman of Setzuan takes place in China and Mother Courage and Her Children takes place in Germany’s Thirty Years War. He used this technique to get his audience to draw parallels between the past and the present in order to reflect on the social and political issues. In The Life of Galileo, Brecht set the play in the Catholic Church-dominated Italy of the seventeenth century and told the Galileo’s recantation story in order to express his opinions toward the oppressive contemporary world. He believed that by historicizing his play, the audience would then be able to detach themselves from their familiar environment and hence could adopt a critical attitude toward their society (Kellner 285). By seeing what happened in the past on stage, the audience would be able to suggest what should have been done in the past to solve the problems (Benjamin 8). By making parallels to the contemporary world, they would then be able to see what is going wrong in their societies and what could be done to solve the problems.

Although it was not until the early 1950s that Brecht wanted to change his epic theatre to a “dialectic” theatre (Schumacher 113), The Life of Galileo, which was written ten to twenty years before he theorized his dialectic theatre, showed the nature of theatre that Brecht favored at the end of his life. He demonstrated his political view in The Life of Galileo; and questioned his audience’s political standpoints in relation to their society. The play, however, manages to educate its audience in an enjoyable way. Ernst Schumacher wrote in his essay “The Dialectics of Galileo” that “Galileo . . . is a demonstration, not only in its technique but in its aesthetic essence. It is the ‘merely’ narrative and ‘purely’ demonstrative structure, as well as the appropriately ‘calm’ production of this play that allows us to grasp and enjoy dialectics in the theatre” (123). Brecht skillfully used the theatre as a place to ask people to reflect and feel for what they were experiencing in the society. The Life of Galileo shows how an artist could take a social and political action in a time when oppression existed in the society by inspiring his audience to think and to judge their society critically. This is why The Life of Galileo is still considered as one of the greatest plays in the theatre history even though it was written over sixty years ago.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Understanding Brecht. London: New Left, 1972.

Bentley, Eric. “Introduction: The Science Fiction of Bertolt Brecht.” Galileo. Bertolt Brecht and Charles Laughton. Ed. Eric Bentley. Grove Press: New York, 1966. 9-42.

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Manheim and John Willet. Pantheon Books: New York, 1971. 219-223.

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Gray, Ronald. Brecht The Dramatist. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Hill, Claude. Bertolt Brecht. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1975.

Kellner, Douglas. “Brecht’s Marxist Aesthetic.” A Bertolt Brecht Reference Companion. Ed. Siegfried Mews. Greenwood Press: Westport, 1997. 281-295.

Needle, Jan, Peter Thomson. Brecht. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Schumacher, Ernest. “The Dialectics of Galileo.” Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. Brecht Sourcebook. Ed. Carol Martin and Henry Bial. Routledge: New York. 2000. 113-123.

Stern, Guy. “Brecht’s Galileo Galilei.” Exile: The Writer’s Experience. Ed. Ohn M. Spalek and Robert

F. Bell. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill. 1982. 133-140.

Subiotto, Arrigo. “Epic Theatre: A Theatre For the Scientific Age.” Brecht in Perspective. Ed. Graham Bartram and Anthony Waine. Longman: New York, 1982. 30-44.

Still in the Dark Ages: Mother Courage and Her Children. Dec 1995. Socialist Review. 13 Nov 2006 <http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/sr192/theatre.htm>

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Wilson, Michael. “Revisiting Brecht: preparing Galileo for production.” Studies in Theatre & Performance 22(2002): 145.

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