Brecht’s The Life of Galileo: Overturning ‘Naturalist’ Theatre
Brecht’s development of epic theatre challenged many aspects of the popular conventions of naturalism and expressionism that were prevalent during his rise to prominence in the 1920s. In The Life of Galileo, elements of epic theatre such as the use of song and verse, and, most notably, the presentation of arguments and reasoning as opposed to emotion and feeling, would have disconcerted an audience predominantly exposed to naturalistic concepts. This is due to the radically different way in which one must observe and react to the drama. In this essay, I will evaluate the profound variances between the conventional naturalistic or ‘dramatic’ theatre, and the new ‘epic’ theatre formulated by Brecht.Brecht and his contemporaries were exposed to the naturalistic drama of playwrights such as Gerhardt Hauptmann, prior to the development of Brecht’s own practice of epic theatre. Audience expectation included the principle of the suspension of disbelief, whereby the audience would forget they are watching a play and become complicit in the action. Characters were explored and developed in depth in order to connect the audience on a sympathetic level; the morals, sympathies and judgments were handed directly to the audience rather than suggested. This was true of expressionist theatre, which was also popular at this time. Esslin has criticised this style of theatre, as, in his opinion, it seeks to create ‘the maximum impression of emotional intensity by indulgence in hysterical outbursts and paroxysms of uncontrolled roaring and inarticulate anguish’ and included ‘orgies of vocal excess and apoplectic breast beating’ (Esslin 1970: 88). Indeed, Brecht found such dramatic theatre to be lacking in intellectual provocation, and thus wanted to produce a style of theatre which demanded more, mentally, from the audience. Rorrison notes that ‘from the beginning of his career Brecht had fought a running battle against the conventional theatre of his day which he dismissed as ‘culinary’, since, like expert cooking, it delighted the senses without impinging on the mind’ (Rorrison: xxxiv). Indeed, Brecht went on to develop a type of theatre that solicited the audience to make informed and subjective judgments about the issues presented. He questioned: ‘how can theatre be entertaining and at the same time instructive? How can it be taken…from a place of illusion to a place of insight?’ (Brecht 1939). In The Life of Galileo, Brecht presents a scientific debate concerning the universe; the audience is not expected to identify with the characters, as they are in naturalistic theatre. Indeed, Galileo is a fundamentally non-heroic protagonist, in that we are not privy to his thought processes as one may be in one a Shakespearean character’s soliloquy, and Brecht invites the audience to make judgements on the scientific debate and not to feel catharsis or sympathy with characters. This would be a radical challenge for those used to applying their empathy rather than their reason to their experience of drama.Unlike the ‘fourth wall’ convention of naturalistic theatre, Brecht used the verfremdungseffekt or ‘alienation technique’ to ensure that the audience was not influenced by their emotions and could make subjective conclusions about the historical account. Certainly, in The Life of Galileo, the characters are rarely explored or presented in a way that would suggest obvious spectator sympathy, as the scenes consist almost entirely of academic discourses and demonstrations; the scenes are representational of historical events (presented for didactic purposes), which differs from naturalistic drama that portrays action to be happening in the present, right before the eyes of the spectators (indented to produce an emotional response). Brecht’s development of the principle of gestus additionally helps to remind the audience that the actors are not the characters themselves, and are merely accounting for a past event. Unlike the approach expected by Brecht’s contemporary audience, whereby the actor works to identify with their character, gestus is the concept of representing a basic social attitude in a stylized way, which helps to make a point rather than exploiting, on an emotional level, the actor-audience relationship. For instance, The First Secretary replies ‘(mechanically)’ (Brecht 1980: 61); the characterisation is representational of a type of role, as opposed to a life-like impersonation. In Brecht’s productions, ‘no emotional faking was tolerated’ (Volker 1979: 72) and actors were asked to almost narrate the characters’ gestures and movements rather than becoming the character. Smith notes that, ‘by means of gestus, epic theatre draws the spectator away from the well-made play, with its closed forms and consumer ideologies, breaking the play’s conventions open to view and leaving them open at the play’s conclusion. Gestus attempts to energize the spectator to continue the text outside the theatre’ (Smith: 493). Brecht’s intentions are indeed to allow his audience to make their own conclusions of the information they have been presented; the ‘naturalist’ audience would have been more familiar with being spoon-fed a conclusive moral or feeling. Brecht first developed gestus to satirise fascists, but also ‘probably sensed…that dilemmas facing women, as estranged and disenfranchised members of society, would articulate his own views’ (Smith: 491). In scene 3, Galileo dismisses Virginia’s interest in the telescope, saying that ‘it’s not a toy’ (Brecht 1980: 31), when she asks to have a look. He is then ‘Talking past his daughter to Sagredo’ (Brecht 1980: 33). This demonstrates how Brecht undermines his characters to make us maintain a critical detachment; his inclusion of such obvious sexism (acknowledged in the stage directions) illustrates how Brecht’s Marxist beliefs encourage the viewer to challenge the status quo. Thus, here Brecht demonstrates the injustices of the privileged towards those with less power. Certainly, ‘the success of gestus depends on the production’s sensitivity to context and audience’ (Smith: 494). Therefore, by using this reference, Brecht is suggesting the importance of social change through his epic principles. Although unsettling, such issues raised in this play were of relevance to the contemporary audience. Indeed, through the satirical nature of gestus, the audience is exposed more explicitly to the themes and purpose of the play than the conventional naturalistic theatre. In Scene 6, the stage directions describe the atmosphere as ‘extremely hilarious’ (Brecht 1980: 50). Pathos may be expected in this scene as, in naturalistic theatre, the tension as Galileo awaits the results of his case would be created so that the audience may sympathise with the character. However, giving it a ‘hilarious’ atmosphere (with the monks comically mocking Galileo) steers away from this so that the audience may make their own judgments about the action without being made to feel a certain emotion. This would have been a peculiar change for the spectators used to the building of suspense and tension that articulates how the audience should feel. Through this, Brecht does not enforce a specific emotion on the observers, so that they may make independent judgments of the action. In The Life of Galileo, Brecht uses imagery as rhetoric devices, which is further indicative of a narrative in place of a dramatic plot, exploring less into character and more into the issue in the storyline. For instance, in scene 7, Galileo gives the example of when he was young: ‘When I was so high…I stood on a ship and called out ‘The shore is moving away.’ Today I realise that the shore was standing still and the ship moving away’ (Brecht 1980: 57) This simple, yet effective, image that he uses to explain the realisation of new theories and discoveries in the world of science serves as a rhetorical device, aiding Brecht’s argument, rather than the audience’s relationship with the protagonist. It also helps to shift the perspectives of the audience and challenge their fundamental assumptions. This is similarly true of the example of the oyster and the pearl that Galileo uses to describe the significance of reason over faith (Brecht 1980: 66), which would feel, to the audience, more like a stylistic argument than realistic dialogue. Brecht outlines the difference between dramatic and epic theatre as being concerned with reason rather than feeling. Indeed, these images are fluently delivered rhetoric, and therefore less naturalistic, and more of an ‘argument’ than a ‘suggestion’; ‘epic theatre was to tell a story in a way that invited the audience to consider the events involved and then to make their own assessment of them’ (Rorrison: xxxvi) In scene 7, Brecht uses Lorenzo di Medici’s famous poem: ‘this lovely springtime cannot last/ So pluck your roses before May is past’ (Brecht 1980: 60). This reference to Galileo’s limited timespan in which to research his theories portrays the information the audience requires in a stylized way, so that they are being given details of the plot rather than learning more about the thought processes of the characters, which would cause increased audience sympathy and withdraw from a subjective assessment of events. Additionally, scenes 10 and 15 include the songs and role-play with puppets. The songs are more obviously ‘gestic’ than the dialogue (much like the ‘epic’ demonstrations of fundamental theories presented in comic and infantile ways, such as the apple or the chair demonstrations of the rotation of the earth around the sun) which would have been more unsettling for an audience accustomed to viewing realistic action. It is, however, of particular importance to portray these ‘epic’ moments as the whole play is based on the arguments for and against Galileo’s theories, so must be understood by the audience even if it seems less naturalistic; the emphasis, in Brecht’s productions, was on the audience’s own informed judgement and less on displaying a realistic story. The Life of Galileo, in particular, is anti-emotionalist because the theme of the play asks the audience to use this independent judgment rather than empathy; Galileo’s theories of reason over faith directly mirror Brecht’s theories of the significance of personal reflection over dictated catharsis. Slide projections and music aid the verfremdungseffekt by commenting on the action itself, so that ‘the audience can take pleasure in taking issue with the commentary. Slides and music, let us say, create a kind of meta-representation of events’ (Stewart and Nicholls: 60) or ‘anti-illusionistic devices to eliminate suspense’ (Rorrison: xxxviii)- for example, when, in scene 3 Galileo’s letter appears on a curtain. An audience used to naturalist theatre would find this unsettling because of the way it draws attention to the illusion being presented. However, ‘to suggest that scenic headings are devices which destroy suspense is like saying that newspaper headlines make reading the stories unnecessary’ (Needle: 201). Indeed, in epic theatre, we need to know the outcome, and with anti-naturalistic theatre we are more engaged with the consciously artificial process rather than the dramatic resolution. By choosing a well-known historical narrative with a renowned outcome, Brecht was left free to experiment with presentation that was less expected by the audience.Unlike most naturalistic plays of the 1920s, Brecht’s plays, including The Life of Galileo, were presented using a neutral and bare stage, with minimal and representation props and set. ‘The bareness of the stage exposed the action in a cool, unatmospheric space which was intended to counterbalance the relative lack of epic form in the writing’ (Rorrison: xl). Indeed, Galileo, unlike most of Brecht’s work, includes a linear plot with no narrator or third party commentary, making it, in some ways, more accessible for an audience with the expectation of a naturalistic style. However, this unrealistic, representational set forces the audience to acknowledge that they are facing the issues presented in the play, rather than being involved in a stage-world through a fourth wall, which would be a radically different way of viewing for this audience. Ultimately, while dramatic theory is based on Aristotelian aesthetics that influence the audience to accept things as they are, the Church similarly wishes to preserve the traditional beliefs of the universe. In this sense, Brecht is challenging both Aristotle and the Church with his epic drama and his representation of Galileo’s theories, which both aim to initiate social change. Therefore, Brecht chose the subject matter deliberately as consonant with his theme of reason over emotion. This would have certainly unsettled the expectations of an audience accustomed to naturalism, principally because of the way it requires a didactic rather than an emotional investment in the story. BibliographyBrecht, Bertolt (1964) Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. John Willett, New York: Hill and WangBrecht, Bertolt On Experimental Theatre (1939) quoted in Hugh Rorrison’s commentary (1986) of The Life of Galileo, London: Methuen London Ltd. p xxxvEsslin, Martin (1970) Brief Chronicles, London: Temple Smith, p 80Needle, Jan and Peter Thomson (1980), Brecht, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p 201)Rorrison, Hugh commentary (1986) of The Life of Galileo, London: Methuen London Ltd. pp xxxiv-xxxviiiSmith, Iris (1991) ‘Brecht and Mothers of Epic Theatre’ in Theatre Journal, The John Hopkins University Press pp. 491-493Steward, Robert Scott and Rod Nichollas (2002) ‘Pragmatic Choices: Teaching Applied Aesthetics through Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’’ in Journal of Aesthetic Education, University of Illinois Press pp.50-60Volker, K (1979) Brecht: a Biography, London: Marion Boyars p 72
A Play as a Mirror: Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo
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. – Brecht, Bertolt, Charles Laughton. Galileo. Ed. Eric Bentley. New York: Grove Press, 1966. – Brecht, Bertolt. “Writing the Truth: Five difficulties.” Trans. Richard Wilson. Galileo. Bertolt Brecht and Charles Laughton. Ed. Eric Bentley. Grove Press: New York, 1966. 133-150. – Brecht, Bertolt. “Drafts for a Foreword to Life of Galileo.” Collected plays/Bertolt Brecht. Ed. Ralph Manheim and John Willet. Pantheon Books: New York, 1971. 219-223. – Brecht, Bertolt. “Foreword.” Collected plays/Bertolt Brecht. Ed. Ralph Manheim and John Willett. Pantheon Books: New York, 1971. 213-215. – Brecht, Bertolt. “Portrayal of the Church.” Collected plays/Bertolt Brecht. Ed. Ralph Manheim and John Willet. Pantheon Books: New York, 1971. 216-217. – Brecht, Bertolt. “Unvarnished Picture of a New Age: Preamble to the American Version.” Collected plays/Bertolt Brecht. Ed. Ralph Manheim and John Willet. Pantheon Books: New York, 1971. 224.- Dick, Geary. “Brecht’s Germany.” Brecht in Perspective. Ed. Graham Bartram and Anthony Waine. Longman: New York, 1982. 2-10. – “Galileo.” EncyclopÃ¦dia Britannica. 2006. EncyclopÃ¦dia Britannica Online. 10 Nov 2006
Church v. Hero: Should Either Win?
It is a volatile point in history: the intersection of science and religion at the height of the Inquisition; it is a time when the Church reigns and a man, a physicist, must choose life or death, himself or science. Galileo Galilei’s legendary dilemma and the circumstances surrounding it are presented in Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo from a perspective that is clearly criticizing institutions with such controlóin this case, the Catholic churchówhile reminding us that men are simply men, no matter how heroic their actions appear. These issues are expounded throughout the play; however, Scene 11 has the most significant role in Galileo’s development, as it simultaneously reveals the extent of the Church’s control and humanizes Galileo in just a few lines. Despite his courage to venture into unexplored realms of science and thought, Galileo is not a hero. He is only a man. Scene 11 is the shortest scene in the play and one of only three scenes in which the title character does not appear. Yet it is here that Galileo is made completely human. In the quest for a hero, one might ignore his almost hedonistic desire for food, thought, and fine wine and the sacrifices that he makes to acquire money. These characteristics of Galileo are revealed early in the play, when he plagiarizes another man’s telescope invention in order to get a salary raise from the city (Scenes 1 and 2), and then again in Scene 11 when the Pope says, “He has more enjoyment in him than any other man I ever saw. He loves eating and drinking and thinking. To excess. He indulges in thinking bouts! He cannot say no to an old wine or a new thought” (Brecht 109). However, one cannot ignore a hero’s cowardice in the face of physical pain. In this light, he is reduced from hero to ordinary man. In this scene, the Pope and the Inquisitor are in the midst of an argument over the pending examination of Galileo by the Inquisition and the torturous methods that may be involved. The scene subtly reveals the evil at the heart of the Inquisition: the Church, which should be Godly in practice, partakes in torturing individuals capable of testing the power of the institution, forcing them to conform to the Church’s will and thereby eliminating any danger of upheaval. The Inquisitor states, “He is a man of the flesh. He would soften at once” (Brecht 109). This describes the basic human instinct to shrink from pain. Every man has his breaking point, the point at which the pain and the fear and the shame are so great that he cannot withstand one moment more. Galileo is no different. Also, Galileo is a man of scienceóhe knows more of how pain can be inflicted than most men. As the Inquisitor later adds, “Mr. Galilei understands machinery” (Brecht 110). With this knowledge added to the fear of physical discomfort, Galileo later does what most men would do under the circumstances: he recants. Because this scene reveals the negative side of the Church and the human-ness of Galileo, the audience is not distracted from the criticism of the institution. If Galileo had been portrayed as a hero, that aspect of the story would have taken precedence over the theme of institutional control; the heroics would linger and the criticism would be forgotten. Brecht is also reminding us that heroes are unnecessaryóman is capable of anything if he opens his mind, just as Galileo does. Brecht clearly disagrees with institutions that hold complete control over the common man. Scene 11 illustrates just how broad and deep the control of the church is at this point in Galileo’s life. Here we see only two characters, both officers of the Catholic Church, each on separate sides of the issue. Oddly enough, the individual who relents is the higher in rank, the Pope. He should have complete control because he is second only to God in the Catholic hierarchy; he is a man of science, but he is also a tool of religion, as the Inquisitor reminds him: Ah, that is what these people say, that it is the multiplication table. Their cry is, ‘The figures compel us,’ but where do these figures come from? Plainly they come from doubt. These men doubt everything. Can society stand on doubt and not on faith? ‘Thou are my master, but I doubt whether it is for the best.’ ‘This is my neighbor’s house and my neighbor’s wife, but why shouldn’t they belong to me?’ After the plague, after the new war, after the unparalleled disaster of the Reformation, your dwindling flock look to their shepherd and now the mathematicians turn their tubes on the sky and announce to the world that you have not the best advice about the heavens eitheróup to now your only uncontested sphere of influence. (Brecht 109)The Pope’s duty is to serve God and tend his flock on earth, and he, like any shepherd, cannot allow God’s people to wander from their faith. He must have obedience and loyalty in the name of God, and therefore must censor anything of detriment to the greater cause; despite his personal beliefs, he must do whatever is necessary to uphold the Church and it’s control over the people. Thus, even the Pope falls under the cloak of the Church. He is a slave to duty and must answer first to his position and second to his personal feelings. As the Inquisitor tells him, the fate of faith is in his hands: Doctors of all chairs from the universities, representatives of special orders of the Church, representatives of the clergy as a whole, who have come believing with childlike faith in the word of God as set forth in the Scriptures, who have come to hear Your Holiness confirm their faith: and Your Holiness is really going to tell them that the Bible can no longer be regarded as the alphabet of truth? (Brecht 108) He is under tremendous pressure to save the faith of the people, thereby preserving the foundations of society. The Pope must choose between duty and conscienceóhe is adamantly against Galileo’s condemnation, but so many lives would be shattered if the common people were told that there was more to the universe than they could find in the Bible. Like the little monk’s parents, they would feel very alone. “‘There is no eye watching over us, after all,’ they would say. ‘We have to start out on our own, at our time of life. Nobody has planned a part for us beyond this wretched one on a worthless star. There is no meaning in our misery'” (Brecht 84). The people rely on the Church to lead them to a better life in heaven; their faith is all that they know. It is the Pope’s duty to preserve the unity that comes from shared faith, and because he is controlled by that which he governs, he cannot refuse to punish Galileo for fear of social collapse. Brecht cleverly uses Scene 11 to plant seeds of thought in the minds of his audience members. Through the controversy of Galileo’s life and the circumstances surrounding his session with the Inquisition, Galileo explores both the dangers of institutional control and the folly of elevating men to a heroic status. One will only be disappointed when both prove fallible. Bibliography Brecht, Bertolt. Galileo. New York: Grove Press, 1966.
Narrative Over Plot in Top Girls and Life of Galileo
German playwright Bertolt Brecht developed his theory of epic theatre as a response to the renaissance of Aristotelian tragic theatre in the latter part of the 1920s (Hecht, 40). Where Aristotle allowed the audience of his theatre the purgation of their emotions through dramatic scenes arousing catharsis, Brecht dared his audience not to weep or fume, but to become bothered by the offending subject: utterly, lastingly, and to the point of action. The focus of Brechtian theatre then became not the play’s story or plot, with its many Romantic devices of poetics and intense feeling, but the much more purposeful and straightforward narrative (“Brecht on Theatre”, 37). The preference of narrative over plot manifests itself in the work of a wide range of plays spanning the decades between epic theatre’s inception and the present day. This is clearly demonstrated in Brecht’s own 1943 play Life of Galileo, as well as British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls. Though the two pieces were written nearly forty years apart, their emphasis on narrative over plot has remained largely the same.
Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo is exactly what it proclaims itself to be: the life of Galileo. It reads like a biography, with language that often takes on a purely pragmatic and academic tone. The events of the play follow Galileo’s development of his telescope and subsequent discovery of the heliocentric nature of the universe through to his death. Through Galileo’s trials and tribulations, the play produces an image of the troublesome subjectivity of truth, and begs its audience to understand that the relationship between truth and progress is a line that slopes upward. This narrative is present and active first and foremost in the dialogue between characters. Scenes in Galileo often do not move the story forward so much as they are majorly composed of long debates or lessons concerning the nature of truth, usually with regard to the struggle between science and religion or, similarly, progress and tradition. For example, in Scene Four, Galileo has just moved to Florence and is in the company of the Grand Duke – Cosimo de Medici – and his scientists. The Philosopher says, when prompted to look into Galileo’s telescope, “The universe of the divine Aristotle, with the mystical music of its spheres and its crystalline vaults… add up to an edifice of such exquisite proportions that we should think twice before disrupting its harmony.” (39). Here, The Philosopher is resisting what he knows in some capacity to be true in order to preserve what he first knew as true, because he is comforted by the stagnation of the truth – which is valid in that an existence wherein one must always question what is and is not real is a maddening one, but invalid as a refusal of clear scientific evidence. The Philosopher and the Mathematician go on to say that there must be something wrong with Galileo’s telescope, if his findings contradict the great Aristotle’s (40). While this discussion is informative to Galileo’s struggle against the potency of tradition, it does not contribute to the plot: at the end of the scene, the Grand Duke is too tired to comment and leaves, while his scientists have still not looked through the telescope.
Outside of the actual content of the scenes in the play, the stage design also reflects the Brechtian priority of narrative over plot. In productions of Life of Galileo, the title of each scene are projected on the stage to be read by the audience. An example is the title of Scene 3: “10 January 1610: Using the telescope, Galileo discovers celestial phenomena that confirm the Copernican system. Warned by his friend of the possible consequences of his research, Galileo proclaims his belief in human reason” (22). Here, everything that is going to happen in the following scene is communicated to the audience, which relieves them of the pressure of following the plot and makes the plot essentially irrelevant to the scene about to unfold. The audience’s attention must then be directed to the philosophy of the argument between Galileo and Sagredo, in which Sagrado begs that Galileo keep quiet, as he would misplace God and therefore disturb all of humanity if he were to share what was verifiably true (28). This use of the stage as a separate storytelling entity is typical of epic theatre, as is described in “Brecht on Theatre”. Whereas before epic theatre, “The environment… was defined by the hero’s reactions to it,” now the stage was a character of its own, with an attitude and mechanized methods of participation (70, 71). Finally, an emphasis on narrative is demonstrated in the development – or lack thereof – in Galileo’s characters. Whereas the laws of naturalistic theatre say that dramatic characters are multi-faceted products of their heredity and environment (laws which Aristotelian tragic theatre arguably adopts), the characters in Galileo are minimalistic, only defined by their stance on the narrative issue; we as the audience do not have any insight into their past or their motivations. We only know what they believe in. Galileo is a man who believes in scientific proof, human reason, and the promotion of truth despite its inconvenience. That is all the information that is necessary for the story to unfold.
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls starts immediately after the defining action of the play, in which protagonist Marlene gets a promotion. In this way, the play is aggressively Brechtian from the beginning. The infamous opening scene features women from several different time periods and levels of existence, all well known for having faced adversity in their womanhood and their ambition as women. This scene feels like a separate play within itself, as it in no way contributes to the rest of the story; the characters are not recurring and the discussion is not brought up again. It is only concept. The figures from history converse about the ills of their lives at the hands of pathetic men: Griselda’s husband does not value himself enough to trust that Griselda will be faithful to him and thereby feels as though he must test and torture her, the women in the Emperor’s palace are beaten by the Emperor with sticks so that they will not have daughters, and the Cardinals are so baffled by the notion of a woman being as close to God as a man that Pope Joan is stoned to death when her womanhood is revealed through her pregnancy. The commentary quickly becomes concerned with the toxicity of the patriarchy, as whenever success is to be had, the women have to assume the undesirable traits of male oppressors in order to be taken seriously, risking personal and emotional vacancy. For example, Lady Nijo tells: “… when His Majesty came in Genki seized him and I beat him till he cried out and promised he would never order anyone to hit us again” (38). In order to correct the wrongs that were done to her, Lady Nijo recognizes that she must become violent, since communicating verbally, rationally, will not be effective with The Emperor. The narrative is echoed amongst the six at the dinner table, and the party ends abruptly with Joan praying as others are sick or worried sick.
Many of the characters in this play are only introduced for the purpose of fulfilling the narrative – even outside of the dinner party scene. In Act 2, Scene 1, Marlene and the audience are introduced to Mrs. Kidd, the wife of the man whose job Marlene has just been promoted to. She attempts on behalf of her husband to manipulate Marlene into simply handing him his old job back after seeing that he cannot handle being replaced by a woman: she says, “… he’s got a family to support. He’s got three children. It’s only fair” (69). After demonstrating her husband’s pathetically entitled nature, she is dominated in conversation by Marlene and, much like the ladies at the dinner party, is never heard from again. Concerning the structure of the dialogue, there are innumerable moments where characters are speaking over one another, creating a cacophony that confuses and disengages the audience from what it being said. Often times, the overlapping of dialogue occurs when the content of the dialogue has to do with the plot as opposed to the narrative. In Act 2, Scene 2, Joyce and Marlene argue about their pregnancies. Joyce says: “… if It’d sat down all day with my feet up I’d’ve kept it / and that’s the only chance I ever had because after that -”, while in between ‘it’ and ‘and’, Marlene cuts her off, starting, “I’ve had two abortions, are you interested?” (92). However, when the same two characters are speaking moments later about Joyce’s despicable ex-husband, they do not overlap one another at all; each line is clear and complete.
Although the form of Brechtian theatre has remained largely the same in the forty years between when Life of Galileo and Top Girls were written, its characteristics (specifically the emphasis of narrative over plot) have evolved in a few ways, as clearly demonstrated by the two plays when held in juxtaposition. For example, the narrative of the play has become more specific over time. While Galileo dealt with the importance of accepting truth in an evolving world, an abstract and broad struggle, Top Girls is focused on the damaging emotional effects of the patriarchy, a specific social issue. As far as plot goes, Brecht’s Galileo ironically seems to be more plot-heavy than Top Girls, perhaps because Churchill learned from Brecht that she could get away with telling a story with no plot. Life of Galileo, while not based in action by any means, does follow a journey: Galileo must find a way to get the truth out there. One scene goes logically into another following the timeline of Galileo’s life. However, in Top Girls, arguably the only plot point that is not explained in exposition is Angie’s schemes to spend time with her ‘Auntie’ Marlene. For the first act, each scene in this play is a completely different set of characters and does not have anything to do with the next; in this way, Top Girls is more ascribable to the thoughts of epic writer Doblin, who said that “with an epic work, as opposed to a dramatic, one can as it were take a pair of scissors and cut it into individual pieces, which remain fully capable of life” (“Brecht on Theatre”, 70). Finally, the narrative purpose is discussed much more blatantly in Life of Galileo than in Top Girls. In Galileo, characters often have conversations about exactly what the narrative is concerned with, as in the aforementioned conversation between Galileo and the Philosopher in Scene 4. The play is littered with the word ‘truth’. Contrastingly, when Churchill writes Top Girls, she does not write the word “patriarchy” once, instead choosing to have a more subtle discussion, in which the women in the play do not address and may not even be aware of the central issue. This is somewhat regressive from Brecht’s point of view, as he praises the “bold fundamental thesis” of the plays of Georg Kaiser (qtd. in Hecht, 64), whose work he lauds as the immediate precursor to epic theatre. He said in a radio interview that, “… before Kaiser, plays depended essentially on suggestion, whereas Kaiser appeals to the reasoning power of the public” (Hecht, 65).
However, while the aspect of narrative in epic theatre has evolved somewhat in the decades between Brecht and Churchill, the effect remains the same: the consumer of the play becomes bothered by the underlying issue and is moved to action. In today’s society, the most important function of art is its ability to motivate change, and the narrative issues of Brecht’s Life of Galileo and Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls both hold significant relevance in the context of our current political climate. Where traditional dramatic theory offers (what is viewed as necessary) escapism, epic theatre knows that it must prevent escapism by any means necessary in order to continue stimulating progress. The priority of a story’s narrative over its plot is thereby the complete epitome of epic theatre: it has a purpose, a stance, an unrelenting agenda.