Arts: Reinventing Galileo

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Philip Ball weighs up an exuberant Royal Shakespeare Company production of Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo.

A Life of Galileo

Directed by Roxana Silbert
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK.
Until 30 March 2013

It is one of the central works of drama about science, and one of the most controversial. Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo has been criticized for misrepresenting history, science and Galileo Galilei himself, with some validity. The real question, however, is whether the play works, theatrically and psychologically.


Ian McDiarmid plays the title role in Mark Ravenhill's new translation.

Shakespeare, after all, took vast liberties with history, yet such is his way with human portraiture that no one complains. Shakespeare and Galileo were born within a few weeks of each other in 1564 — a coincidence that the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) understandably makes much of for its latest production of Brecht's play. More significantly, the play shows Brecht at his most Shakespearean, with Galileo the wily, tragically compromised sensualist redeemed by self-insight that others lack — he is, as Adam Gopnik suggested in a recent article in The New Yorker, a kind of intellectual Falstaff.

The exuberance and wit of this production owe much to the new translation by RSC writer-in-residence Mark Ravenhill. Ravenhill has commented on the “comic sensibility in Brecht's language which I think [is] often overlooked”, but which he and director Roxana Sibert have found in abundance. In the title role, Ian McDiarmid is sly and worldly yet succeeds in pulling off the crucial feat of making Galileo loveable. It is with the basic fabric of the play, not its realization, that the questions lie.

In retrospect, we can see that Brecht set himself an impossible task, because even now there is no consensus on Galileo. Many scientists still prefer the narrative that prevailed when Brecht first wrote the play in 1937–39, of a martyr persecuted by the Catholic Church for his pursuit of truth about the arrangement of the cosmos. A more measured view now holds, recognizing that a less pugnacious man might have navigated the currents of the papal court more skilfully. It is certainly not to excuse the bullying, dogmatic church to point out that Galileo's evidence for a heliocentric Universe was equivocal and in some respects (his interpretation of the tides) wrong.

Galileo's mathematical approach, rightly adored by physicists today, was not, as some older science historians had it, the right way to do science. It was the right approach for celestial and terrestrial mechanics, but useless for chemistry, botany, zoology and much else. And although Einstein claimed that Galileo's rejection of logical deduction devoid of empirical input was essential to modern science, that rejection did not begin with Galileo.

Brecht must take some blame for making Galileo seem more original than he was. He fell for the idea of a scientific revolution in which great men begin thinking in a totally new way. Complaints about historical accuracy could seem carping when appraising a work of art, but Brecht himself attested of the first version of the play that “I was trying here to follow history”. Brecht was in any case disingenuous, because that original version was evidently informed by, and widely interpreted as a comment on, the political climate of the time. Brecht fled Nazi Germany after the Reichstag fire in 1933, and his cunning Galileo who subverts the ideology of the authorities — recanting on heliocentrism in order to continue his work in secret — was regarded as a symbol of anti-Nazi resistance.

That, however, is not the Galileo of the revised 1947 version — the one most often performed, and used here. Although Brecht was already reworking the play in 1944, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki transformed his view of scientists. “Overnight the biography of the founder of the new system of physics read differently,” he wrote. He felt that the Manhattan Project scientists had betrayed their moral obligations, and criticized even Einstein as a politically naive “eternal schoolboy”. Regardless of the merits of that view, it is the play's downfall.

Now Galileo, confronting his former student Andrea, launches into a diatribe on how, by focusing on science for science's sake, “you might jump for joy at some new achievement, only to be answered by a world shrieking in horror”. Nothing in Galileo's former conduct has prepared this (anachronistic) concern about the social applications of science, leaving us with a confusing portrait.

On 30 October 1947, when the new version premiered, Brecht got a taste of Galileo's ordeal: he testified before the US House Committee on Un-American Activities. He left for Europe the following day, accused of having compromised artistic freedom and with perhaps a keener appreciation that ideological interference in art and science is not confined to dictatorships.

Brecht's other impossible task was to explain how science is done. He succumbs to the view that you just need to think clearly, believe your eyes and trust in reason. He then has to skirt around the problem that your eyes tell you that the Sun, not Earth, moves. What's more, philosophers such as Paracelsus and Bernardino Telesio had been relying on experience, rather than on Aristotle, for a hundred years before Galileo, but had reached rather different 'truths'. Nor was there any 'scientific method' in Galileo's time, just as there is none today: the ad hoc combination of hypothesis, assumption, experiment, theory, logic and intuition will not reduce to any formula.

The RSC's production is spirited and visually inventive. But the play itself is pulled between too many irreconcilable poles to make a coherent whole. It is perhaps the history of the play, rather than the text itself, that reveals the most about the difficult relationship between science and the cultures in which it is embedded.

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