“Galileo,” Classic Stage Company, New York

By Noah Millman | March 16, 2012

“Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.”

No, Andrea: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

The lines, Galileo responding to the parting words of his pupil, Andrea Sarti, who is furious and betrayed by his teacher’s recantation, are from the American version of Bertolt Brecht’s monumental biographical play about the great astronomer, currently onstage at the Classic Stage Company in New York, in a lean and sober production starring F. Murray Abraham. It’s a production very worth seeing, both as an introduction to a rarely-staged modern classic and as a demonstration of how even the most principled of artistic visions can turn back upon themselves, if pursued with honesty.

Brecht wrote the first draft of his play in 1938, at a moment when Nazi ascendancy justified a deep pessimism about progressivism and rationality’s ability to triumph in the world, when the world really did seem to need heroes for the cause of reason more than cold-eyed rationalists. He wrote the American version (in collaboration with Charles Laughton) shortly after the Americans dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a moment that justified apprehension at a minimum about whether the progress of science as such was good for the progress of human flourishing. In different ways, each was a moment when the themes that Galileo represented—progress, science, reason—could be questioned. Would they triumph? Should they triumph?

A critical questioning of principles by examining the historical forces that underlie them is central to Brechtian theatre. But in this case, the principles being questioned are the very ones that Brechtian theatre aims to promote.

Brecht’s notion of the epic theatre was founded on the concept of the Verfremdungseffekt, usually translated as alienation or distancing effect. This was Brecht’s rebuke to Artistotle’s theory of drama, founded on the concept of catharsis, an emotional purging that takes place through identification with a character when he comes to a full understanding of the tragic inevitability of his fate. Brecht rejected this identification because he rejected tragic inevitability. His was to be a progressive theatre, a theatre that liberated the audience by alienating them from apparently familiar characters and situations, forcing them to confront the oppressive social structures that are, in his view, the real cause of what appears to be inevitable tragedy.

This alienation is sometimes achieved by means of what one could call theatrical tricks—direct address to the audience, for example, which reminds the audience that it is at a play, not watching real people. The use of song to comment on, rather than advance, the action has a similar purpose. But alienation is also the product of the ironic spirit that animates Brecht’s greatest characters and stories.

Galileo provides an excellent illustration of this ironic spirit. The title character is a heroic figure, and would seem tailor-made for boulevard-theatre treatment, the kind of play in which a principal character struggles toward some great accomplishment and we, identifying with her, come to believe that it is we who have gone through the struggle, and leave the theatre feeling very proud of ourselves for what we’ve done. (The Miracle Worker is an archetypal example of the genre.) He’d be a hero in the Mosaic or Christological mold, who doesn’t reach the promised land/usher in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth—but, you know, he blazed the trail, those who come after will carry the torch further, etc. etc. But Brecht complicates this picture. His Galileo is a notably selfish hero—willing to steal other people’s inventions, indifferent to his daughter (who he never teaches), seeking after glory and constantly talking about how he likes to eat well—but this isn’t the main thing; that could merely show his single-minded determination to advance the cause of science, his indifference to any other ethical concern. The heart of the matter is that his recantation is an act, Brecht makes clear, of cowardice—from the perspective of his pupils, but also from his own perspective.

But what does this mean, that this is the heart of the matter? It means that the heart of the matter is a question of virtues. At that moment in history, Brecht is suggesting, the world needed a hero—a hero for science, for the idea of a truth that is not determined by social and political constraints, a truth whose liberation is, in Brecht’s view, actually a precondition to any real improvement in those constraints. (In the play, the Church opposes the new science because it would lead to social disorder, as poor people realize that their suffering has no transcendent purpose, whereas the advance of science and technology offers the only practical means to end that suffering.) The world needed a hero because it needed inspiration, a figure for progressive forces to identify with and rally around. It needed an Antigone to stand up to the Church’s Creon, even in the face of death.

But isn’t this exactly what Brechtian theatrical principles say is an impediment to political consciousness? Isn’t identification with a virtuous but tragic hero exactly what Brecht wants to deny us in the theatre?

It’s worth comparing “Galileo” with another play about a solitary intellectual hero being crushed by the political establishment for holding to the truth as he sees is: Robert Bolt’s “A Man For All Seasons.” Bolt’s Thomas More is, apparently, not a hero of science but a hero of the Church—a man whose religious convictions would not let him assent to Henry VIII’s divorce, much less his Reformation, who tried to thread the needle of remaining loyal to his sovereign and to his conscience, and who was killed for it precisely because the sovereign couldn’t bear being reminded that there was a needle to be threaded in this matter. But precisely because Bolt makes More’s convictions a matter of his private conscience, he becomes an existential hero. As More himself says in the play, “what matters is that I believe it—or rather, no, not that I believe it, but that I believe.” Bolt was not writing a brief for fidelity to the Church—indeed, the Church was supposed to be an allegorical stand-in for the Comintern, the play a parable about the persecution of Communists in the West. It didn’t matter to Bolt’s play that the institutional commitments of the Church and the Comintern were radically opposed—it didn’t matter because he was making a play about a hero of conscience as such—and for that purpose, it doesn’t really matter what his conscience actually held. At the end of the play, we see More as a hero—defeated by forces smaller than himself, but cosmically the victor precisely because in his martyrdom he showed them to be small. This is why, for all the Brechtian touches of Bolt’s play—most notably, the Common Man character who is the audience stand-in, and who addresses the audience directly to comment on the action—the play is fundamentally acting contrary to the Brechtian spirit of alienation.

“Galileo,” meanwhile, is a play that turns Brecht back upon himself. The play indeed shows us the social forces that drove the tragic outcome. There’s a marvelous scene of the Pope getting dressed that is a synecdoche for the whole play—the new Pope is himself a scientist, and Galileo is counting on this bit of biography to ensure his personal safety as he pursues his forbidden research. Well, before he gets dressed, when he’s just himself, the Pope demands that Galileo be left alone. But as vestment layers on vestment, and the man is buried in the office, institutional imperatives overwhelm conscience, and the Pope agrees to threaten Galileo with torture to achieve the necessary recantation. We see all this—but we long for Galileo to stand against this. We long for a hero—as do Galileo’s pupils. And we don’t get it.

And then Brecht gives himself an out. Galileo, after his recantation, continues to work in secret on his Discorsi. When his now-hostile old pupil Andrea visits him, Galileo passes him the secret book, and Andrea repents of his hostility. He gets it—his longing for a hero was just silly pre-scientific un-progressive thinking. Galileo preserved his life—and therefore was able to continue his work. And the work is all that matters. We don’t need heroes—we need progress.

But Brecht won’t take the out he gives himself. Galileo says: he didn’t recant out of calculation that he’d be more good to progress alive than dead. He was just a coward. And Andrea’s political calculation is wrong: the world did indeed need a hero, and Galileo wasn’t one.

True to Brecht’s goals, watching the play is an alienating, not a cathartic experience. F. Murray Abraham isn’t the physical type of Brecht’s Galileo—it’s strange to hear this lean and hungry actor go on about feeding his belly—but he has the requisite frigid aloofness, particularly from his daughter. His early expressions of hope for progress, confidence that man will always believe the direct evidence of his senses, come off not so much as naïve as dismissive of alternative possibilities. He doesn’t actually have faith in human reason, because he doesn’t really have any profound human relationships that would ground faith in any aspect of the human character. Rather, he has faith in his own reason—not in his omniscience, but in the clarity of his own mind. Irrationality, whether perverse or interest-driven, isn’t a concern of his, because it’s just plain wrong. (Murray’s Galileo bears some resemblance to our contemporary “New Atheists” in this.) But when he returns home after the recantation, he’s poleaxed by fear, clutching his groin as if he’d been threatened with castration—or as if the recantation was exactly that. And after that, his one note is bitterness and self-reproof.

But all of these emotions are understated in performance; Abraham never really lets us identify with his Galileo emotionally. The supporting cast paints in bolder colors (with the exception of Amanda Quaid, who is very nearly emotionally invisible as Galileo’s daughter, Virginia), with moving moments from in particular from Galileo’s pupils: Aaron Himelstein as the Little Monk, Jon Devries as Federzoni, and Andy Phelan as Andrea. And the set is understated as well, except for a vast circular screen upstage on which we see depicted the objects of Galileo’s study: the sun, the moon, the stars of the universe. These, not the human drama below, inspire awe. We, with Galileo’s pupils, are left wanting more from our hero. Which may well be how Brecht wanted us to feel.

Noah Millman blogs at www.theamericanconservative.com/millman