Brecht’s radical Galileo

Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’ is a great piece of theatre with universal appeal. It’s also a particularly good one for science students because it brings the scientific method to life. Galileo’s struggle to get acceptance for the ‘Copernican’ heliocentric model of the solar system took place nearly 400 years ago and even though the Catholic church has admitted it was wrong to force him to recant in 1633, it took them quite some time to come round to this view – officially not till 1992.

Now that even his most implacable opponents have accepted his evidence, what can this historical episode still have to say to us, in the age of space travel, satellites and quantum mechanics? Brecht uses the story to remind us of the subversive power of reason. In the 17th century, as now, rational evidence is capable of calling into question long-held assumptions and the existing order. Simply by asking the right questions and relying on observation, we are capable of overturning established dogma.

Brecht’s Galileo is far from being a high-minded theorist. He has plenty of human frailty as well as a being a cussed rationalist who believes in methodical observation, questioning and putting his own theories under the most rigorous scrutiny. He teaches us the central importance of theory building, doubt and falsificationism:

We’ll question everything, everything, all over again. And we won’t run at it in great big boots, we’ll go at a snail’s pace. And what we find today, we’ll strike from the record tomorrow. And only when we find it once more will we write it in. And when we find something we want to find, we’ll look at it with fierce suspicion. (Scene 9)

And later:

As I see it, to be a scientist needs particular courage. Science is knowledge won through doubt. (Scene 14)

In his very first speech, in Scene 1, Galileo describes the movement and turbulence he sees in a world where the existing order appears so settled and unchanging:

The Pope, cardinals, princes, captains, merchants, fishwives and schoolboys thought they were stuck dead still at the centre of that crystal ball. But now we’re flying headlong into outer space.

Where belief sat, now sits doubt. The whole world says – that’s what the old books say. Now let’s look for ourselves. The most solemn truth gets tapped on the shoulder. All that was never doubted, we doubt.

Overnight the universe lost its centre and this morning they are countless. Each and none at all is the centre.

Brecht’s Galileo is quick to see the revolutionary social implications of such questioning of authority.

…a wind of questions lifts the gold embroidered robes of princes and prelates to show – just fat or thin legs, legs like our legs..…Suddenly there’s a lot of room! (Scene 1)

And later, in Scene 14:

By giving knowledge of everything to everyone, it breeds sceptics…Our new age of doubt delights the people. They tore the telescope from our hands and pointed it at their tormentors.

Galileo confronts, persuades and cajoles his detractors – most of whom are the powerful beneficiaries of the established order: cardinals and aristocrats. But it is in the moving speech of the ‘little monk’ that he has to address the fears the common people might have about turning the existing order upside down. The monk comes from a family of poor peasants from the Campagna. He is already turning to science and is conflicted about the impact the new ideas might have:

When I observe the phases of Venus I see my family…I see the roof beams above them, black with the smoke of centuries…in their hardship there is a kind of order…Whatever the disasters, life is regular…From what do they summon the strength to drag their baskets up the stony path?…From the continuity, the sense of necessity given to them by the sight of the soil…by listening to Bible texts…they are told that the whole theatre of the universe is built around them, so that they…can play their parts well…

What would my family say if I told them that they are really on a small lump of stone, spinning endlessly in empty space around an…insignificant star, one among many?  There is no part to play…no meaning in our misery…

Galileo responds:

Why is nothing left?… You’re right, it’s not about the planets, it’s about the peasants of the Campagna. ..Virtues don’t depend on misery my friend. If your family were well off and happy, they’d have all the virtues being well of and happy beings…The victory of reason can only be the victory of reasonable people…I see the divine patience of your people, but where is their divine anger? (Scene 8)

Towards the end of his life, Galileo reflects on the moral duty of a newly empowered scientific establishment. In a speech in Scene 14, added by Brecht after the Manhattan project and the use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he has Galileo say:

If only scientists had a Hippocratic oath, like the doctors, vowing to use their knowledge only for the welfare of mankind! But now, all we have is a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for anything.

Joe Wright’s brilliant new production of ‘Life of Galileo’ at the Young Vic, starring Brendan Cowell as the irrepressible lead, brings out the play’s humanity as well as communicating all the key ideas. The staging in the round creates a constant sense of movement and places the action in both the centre and the periphery of the theatre. The play’s egalitarian message is reinforced by the mingling of cast and audience. The spectacular projections onto a planetarium dome help to illustrate the scientific observations; the sun as a broiling furnace, the moon with its mountain peaks casting their shadows and the 2-dimensional view of the movements of Jupiter’s moons revealed as circular orbits when seen in 3 dimensions. Limiting the period-specific details reveals the play’s timeless case for human rationalism and restless curiosity.

For the science students who were seeing this for the first time, the excellent staging, casting, music and ensemble gave them a fantastic introduction to Brecht and to the story of Galileo. They left the theatre buzzing with questions and ideas – and, I hope, an even greater desire to move forever onwards.

See also:

Paradigm shift (October 2014)

Tamsin Oglesby’s ‘Future Conditional’ (October 2015)




About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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