From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Life of Galileo
by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by David Hare
Bertolt Brecht completed the original version of this play in 1938, as the shadow of Nazism was spreading over Europe. The play’s backdrop is the turmoil caused in Italy in the early 17th century when Galileo Galilei, the famous scientist, says he has proved that the sun, not the earth, is at the centre of the universe. With one stroke Galileo had ‘abolished heaven’ and threatened the very core of the church’s teachings.
The rising merchant class wants to encourage science and exhibit products, but is afraid of the potential social unrest if reason takes over from blind faith. The church is desperately trying to preserve the blind faith.
It is a marvellous play and this production does it proud. Brecht’s Galileo is burning with indignation at the suffering of the masses and is aroused to fury by injustice, oppression and the denial of reason. He is also, in the beginning, full of hope that science has set society moving towards a new and better age.
The authorities explain to Galileo that only with free trade can free science be developed. He realises what they actually mean is that science is only tolerable if it boosts profits. When he presents them with his telescope they immediately see its value in naval warfare.
As Galileo’s work wins support and notoriety, the authorities become increasingly alarmed. They are particularly incensed by his insistence on publishing his ideas in Italian, the language of the people, rather than Latin.
The play hinges on the confrontation between Galileo and Rome, which ends with Galileo recanting. In Brecht’s 1938 version the recantation is a wily move by the scientist to outwit the Inquisition. Galileo spends years in isolation completing his Discourses and has them smuggled out of Italy. The world knows what he has discovered. The end has justified the means.
David Hare’s adaptation is based on Brecht’s rather more pessimistic version which was completed soon after the Second World War. In this Galileo admits that he recanted out of sheer cowardice. The scientist has sold out to the ruling class.
Moreover, as he explains to his student, his recantation at that moment in history went far beyond one man’s betrayal of his principles. It was a decisive blow for the forces of reaction. He was a leader. The masses, the scientists, the free thinkers, the forces of progress, all looked to him. And at the vital moment he let them down.
Brecht’s rewrite was inspired, it seems, by the dropping of the H-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Mengele’s experiments in Auschwitz. He had also, possibly, re-evaluated the Moscow trials.
But Brecht’s post-1945 version is not entirely pessimistic. The final scene is ambiguous. The key point appears to be Galileo’s ruthless self-condemnation. However, the powerful speech he makes about the liberating potential of science and the fact that he has made a secret copy of his work show him as a sympathetic character.
Hare has trimmed several scenes and abandoned some altogether, mostly with great effect. In the final, vital, scene he retains its ambiguity but in a new way. Galileo’s sympathetic nature comes out dramatically in the stunning performance by Richard Griffiths.
Hare’s redrafting of the play’s final moments adds a subtle twist. As the old scientist sits slumped in the foreground, in the background his student arrives at the border to smuggle out the Discourses. The guard lets them through – because they are written in Latin. Was this a clever ploy to get them safely out of the country? Or was it proof that Galileo had sold out by writing in the language of the censors and purely for his own gratification?
Perhaps not surprisingly for a playwright who has written most of his plays against a background of victorious reaction, the more pessimistic version seems to be the one Hare favours.
The Life of Galileo plays at the Almeida Theatre, Islington, London N1 through March
Last updated: 8 March 2017