At the heart of Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo is the relationship between truth and power. The play, both in its form and content examines this relationship. While truth is “born of times, not of authority” as voiced by Galileo, the play also acknowledges that the “only truth that gets through will be what we force through”. It is no wonder that Brecht utilizes the anti-illusory epic theatre to provoke thought and action rather than invoke emotion and inertia.
Heliocentrism and Theocentrism, the ideological superstructure which buttressed and was in turn upheld by the feudal/capitalistic economic base begins to totter in the face of Galileo’s findings, which, with its democratic thrust threatens to upset an entire system of socio-economic relations upholding the status quo. The political-religious authority of the Church and the Gramiscian hegemony of the feudal lords is perpetuated by the ‘organic intellectuals’ of the feudal/capitalist class: the mathematicians, theologians and philosophers who rely on the authority of Aristotle. Challenge to this authority of Aristotelian knowledge system resides not only in the findings of Galileo but also in the anti-illusiory stagecraft of Brecht and it is in this context that The Life of Galileo may be examined as a tragedy in episodes.
Aristotle’s Poetics viewed tragedy as the highest form of literary art and regard plot as the most important element of tragedy. By virtue of being a mimetic process, drama had to stay as close as possible to life (as perceived), and in doing so create the illusion of reality. Brechtian theatre tradition, militating precisely against this realistically illusory nature of the dramatic theatre which encouraged a passive response among the ‘audience’, utilises various techniques to create anti-illusory alienation effect among his ‘spectators‘ of which the strategy of framing the play in episodes is an important technique. One may venture to say that what Galileo does to the illusion of Aristotelian authority on the Ptolemaic Universe, Brecht does to the Aristotelian sanction of the illusory Dramatic Theatre.
Aristotle regarded the episodic play as inferior because it disregarded the plot with unity of action, an element to which every other aspect (including character) was made subservient. Brecht’s focus isn’t as much on the figure of Galileo as an individual character and his contribution to action as it is on Galileo located within socio-economic processes. The episodic nature functions to lay bare these processes working in the background which ultimately culminates in the tragedy of Galileo’s recantation. In Scene 1 of The Life of Galileo, we witness the economic constraints within which truth has to be sought by Galileo as an underpaid scholar struggling to pay the milkman. In Scene 4 the agents of the ideological state apparatus reject Galileo’s findings and Scene 9 brings to full view the real power wielded by the feudal lords who have vested interest in suppressing his proof of the Copernican theory. The episodes also function as a complete unit where the little tragedies of power struggle are played out as demonstrated by taking the same abovementioned scenes : the first scene ends with Galileo giving in to the economic constraints within which he must function, the fourth scene ends with the philosophers and mathematicians rejecting the existence of moons of Jupiter without looking into the telescope and the ninth scene ends with Ludovico instigating the forces that will ultimately lead to Galileo’s recantation .
Verfremdungseffekt or “alienation effect”, the hallmark of Brechtian theatre is brought about by using various techniques. The narration by the chorus at the beginning of each episode is both a synopsis and a commentary. By undercutting the unities of place, time and action the episodic nature of the play directs one towards comprehending the tragedy rather than experiencing it. This play therefore is a tragedy in episodes of the epic theatre rather than of the dramatic theatre where vital features of the latter are rejected and reinvented. The foibles of Galileo isn’t the driving hamartia per se. Brecht gives the idea a unique twist by implying that hamartia is built into the socio-economic system of unequal power relations. The repeated revisions of the play whereby Brecht shifts the focus away from Galileo the revolutionary scientist, especially while staging it in the context of World War II corroborates this claim. Likewise, the cathartic effect of pity and fear blunted by the placement of torture and Galileo’s recantation offstage makes this a tragedy which implodes rather than explodes.
Brecht further interrogates the idea of the heroic figure when the tragedy of Galileo’s recantation is attributed not to his farsightedness but cowardice. A stark reality is thus revealed :
Andrea – Unhappy is the land that has no heroes.
Galileo – Unhappy is the land that is in need of heroes.
Galileo undertakes a Promethean task without being a Prometheus. This fire-stealer of a physicist is too human and too weak to brave it all for the sake of science. Indeed, the explanation of his recantation is provided by the use of a curtain – an alienating device which checks the highly emotive spectacle of the scene and neutralizes the overwhelming emotion of Andrea that the spectators may acquire. Because individuals are susceptible to the lures and sufferings that unbridled power can inflict, an individual cannot be trusted with truth when faced with naked power whether it’s a Galileo or a Pope Barberini. Brecht locates this responsibility and trust somewhere else when Galileo exclaims thus : ” The victory of reason will be the victory of people who are prepared to reason, nothing else” (emphasis added).
Brecht is claimed to have said : “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”. The Life of Galileo, a tragedy in episodes firmly ensconced in the epic-theatre tradition, with its subversive synergy of form and content thus becomes an effective hammer in forcing the truth forward, both on stage and off it.