The play explores the pivotal moment in human history, at least in western history, when man confronts for the first time the proof that his conceptions of truth were entirely wrong.
Galileo comes alive as a larger than life genius from the pages, full of witticisms and blustering energy. Even his betrayal of his own science tends to be easily forgiven by the audience because he is such a genial revolutionary.
More than the drama of science standing up to the bully called religion, I liked more the instances of Marxism creeping into the play. In the discussions about Latin and how writing science in English will spell doom to the nobility, we get a sense that the real danger that Galileo represented was not just contradictory new knowledge but that the knowledge was suddenly out in the public realm. Galileo had to die because he was not just an academician, he was a new kind of preacher – a preacher of logic.
These instances are woven into the grander drama with small scenes of Galileo ranting about professors having to teach all seven days and having not “time for research and about “knowledge as commodity”, these are the scenes that to me made this a play of our times.
The true gist of the play comes out in the penultimate scene. I would like to put some of it here so that even if someone does not have the patience to read the play, they can still get the spirit of its core argument. This occurs immediately after Andrei discovers that Galileo has been working on a scientific treatise even during his imprisonment:
GALILEO: I had to do something with my time.
ANDREA: This will found a new science of physics.
GALILEO: Stuff it under your coat.
ANDREA: And we thought you had become a renegade! My voice was raised loudest against you!
GALILEO: And quite right, too. I taught you science and I denied the truth.
ANDREA: This changes everything, everything.
ANDREA: You concealed the truth. From the enemy. Even in the field of ethics you were a thousand years ahead of us.
GALILEO: Explain that, Andrea.
ANDREA: In common with the man in the street, we said: he will die, but he will never recant. You came back: I have recanted, but I shall live. Your hands are tainted, we said. You say: better tainted than empty.
GALILEO: Better tainted than empty. Sounds realistic. Sounds like me. New science, new ethics.
ANDREA: I of all people ought to have known. I was eleven years old when you sold another man’s telescope to the Venetian Senate. And I saw you make immortal use of that instrument. Your friends shook their heads when you bowed before a child in Florence, but science caught the public fancy. You always laughed at our heroes. “People that suffer bore me,’ you said. ‘Misfortune comes from insufficient foresight.’ And: Taking obstacles into account, the shortest line between two points may be a crooked one.”
GALILEO: I recollect.
ANDREA: Then, in 1633, when it suited you to retract a popular point in your teachings, I should have known that you were only withdrawing from a hopeless political squabble in order to be able to carry on with your real business of science.
GALILEO: Which consists in …
ANDREA: . . . The study of the properties of motion, mother of machines, which will make the earth so inhabitable that heaven can be demolished.
GALILEO : Aha.
ANDREA: You thereby gained the leisure to write a scientific work which only you could write. Had you ended in a halo of flames at the stake, the others would have been the victors.
GALILEO: They are the victors. And there is no scientific work which only one man can write.
ANDREA: Then why did you recant?
GALILEO: I recanted because I was afraid of physical pain.
GALILEO: I was shown the instruments.
ANDREA: So there was no plan?
GALILEO: There was none.
Definitely a play worth reading, not for a scientific or historic perspective but for a picture of how reason and logic broke free from dogma and of how one man made the whole world tremble by unfolding a telescope.
It is indeed a marvelous portrait of intellectual betrayal. The angry impotence of a man who realizes that he is ethically unequipped to deal with the consequences of his own genius.
- Academy Award Winner Stars As Galileo In Bertol Brecht Play (huffingtonpost.com)
- B is for Brecht | Michael Billington’s A to Z of modern drama (guardian.co.uk)
- the Starry Messenger (3quarksdaily.com)
- HAPPY 448TH BIRTHDAY GALILEO! GALILEO was one of the world’s greatest scientific pioneers. He was an inventor, astronomer and a REBEL! (greatkat.wordpress.com)
- Galileo’s Credo (3quarksdaily.com)
- Theater Review: F. Murray Abraham in ‘Galileo’ at Classic Stage Company (theater.nytimes.com)
- “Liluraren kontra”, A poem by Bertolt Brecht sung by Mikel Laboa (albokari2.wordpress.com)