A staged reading of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo” was produced by the Shakespeare Theatre, one night only, at the National Academy of Sciences, in its newly remodeled, and very comfortable and large, theater/auditorium. The cast included some of Washington’s premier actors, including Ted van Griethuysen as Galileo Galleli reprising the role he had played several years earlier at the Studio Theatre.
Brecht wrote the play during the Nazi years and it was first performed, in 1943, in Switzerland. When Brecht came to the United States, he rewrote the play in English (working with actor Charles Laughton) and, after he left the United States and moved to East Germany, he completed a third version, like the original, in German. The program for last week’s production was silent on the version of the play being used, except to say that it had been translated by John Willett. I assume this would be a translation of the final version, but I do not know that.
It’s quite a long play. I understand, from a brief conversation with the director, that there were some cuts made for this production, but with one intermission, the play did run almost three hours. It’s also a talky play – there is virtually no physical drama. It is clearly an intellectual exercise.
Having said that, the writing (and the resulting translating) is wonderful, with no unnecessary or meandering conversation, with an easy to follow story line. Galileo, part scientist, part shrewd and proud con man, is a believer in reason above all. Using recent scientific inventions (most notably the telescope, a Dutch gadget for which he takes full credit), he postulates that the age old concept of the earth as the center of the universe is wrong, and that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun. He believes that not only does such a discovery have pure scientific value, but commercial value as well, improving for example navigational calculations. He understands that his discoveries do raise some issues that are in conflict with church doctrine, but this does not bother him, certain as he is that the church will modify its doctrines as required.
Of course, the church did not agree, and Galileo’s life took a turn for the difficult. It is this conflict between religion (and therefore society and power) and reason (through scientific discovery) that provides the basic conflict of the play. And it is this conflict that makes the play so universal, and not only in respect to scientific discovery.
We all know too well that society often creates facts out of fiction, fighting back when called on the carpet. It is the struggle of the individual against society, when to hold strong to one’s belief, and when to give in and remain quiet. The strength of “The Life of Galileo” is to give voice to this conflict, and get you thinking.