Bertolt Brecht wrote The Life of Galileo between 1937 and 1939 as a response to Nazi censorship and manipulation of the work of scientists and artists. Among numerous other examples, the Nazis dismissed Einstein’s brilliant theories as “Jewish science” and jailed and persecuted many artists, Jewish and not. Brecht, like Einstein, fled Germany before the war and was already in exile when Galileo was first produced. He rewrote the play in the 1940s, in collaboration with the well-known actor Charles Laughton, when he was living in America, and that version received its premiere in this country in 1947. Though about Galileo’s famous struggles with the Catholic Church 400 years ago, the play remains as timely as today’s blogs—witness the ongoing controversies about stem cell research and about evolution.
The U-M Residential College production of The Life of Galileo Thursday through Sunday, March 26–29, is part of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts theme semester “The Universe: Yours to Discover,” which commemorates the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s discoveries. RC drama lecturers Kate Mendeloff and Martin Walsh, of Shakespeare in the Arb fame, direct the play and act the title role respectively, leading a student cast. Though it’s not a musical, there is music in Galileo, as in many other Brecht plays. Mendeloff commissioned new music for this production, and composer Dennis Davenport’s settings of the couplets, Knittelvers, with which Brecht introduces the action of each scene, are in the style of early-¬seventeenth-century madrigals, but with a decidedly modern harmonic palette.
We all think we know Galileo—the possibly apocryphal cannonballs-from-the-¬Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa story, how he invented the telescope (though he didn’t), and his troubles with the Inquisition—but Brecht focuses closer to home, on Galileo’s enormous excitement in making scientific discoveries, especially in the first scene when, using only a chair and an apple, he demonstrates the Copernican system to his housekeeper’s young son, and later, when he courageously tries to show his discoveries to Cosimo de’ Medici and his men, only to have them refuse to look through the telescope. But Brecht also shows us a man who behaves thoughtlessly with his family and household, who has an insatiable appetite and a very human fear of physical pain that forces him to recant before the Inquisition rather than defend what he knows to be true.
And Brecht went farther. After Hiroshima, he altered the end of the play to make a powerful statement about the responsibility of scientists for more than merely scientific truth. It is no small irony that only months after Galileo was first produced in the United States, Brecht himself was brought up in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, our uniquely American version of the Inquisition, albeit arguably far more civilized, if no less ideologically blinded. He left the United States, returning to Europe the following day.