The story told in Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo is fascinating. The way it’s being told in the version now at Classic Stage Company is murky. In the early 16th Century, Galileo invented the telescope – the play suggests he “adopted” it – and used it to validate his theory that the earth revolves around the sun. For this heretical reversal of accepted wisdom, he was persecuted by the prevailing theocracy. The Inquisition crushed Galileo’s spirit, if not his spirited mind.
Set in a vague planetarium mock-up, with various orbs suspended overhead and a galaxy screen at the rear, the most lucid part of the play is what amounts to a primer on the functioning of the telescope and on astronomy itself. And while detailing Galileo’s discoveries might seem an academic exercise, it is edifying to hear them as exposition in the play.
The device turns on a student character asking Galileo to explain stuff to him. It’s complicated,” says the master. “I think I can understand,” replies the student, speaking for the audience as well as himself. And we do. It’s unforced and welcome.
The earth revolving around the sun rather than the reverse? The Catholic hierarchy will have none of it. Galileo is called upon to recant his science under the implied threat of torture. Within the church, Galileo had some support, if you can call it that. “Do not torture him,” decrees the Cardinal. “But show him the instruments [of torture].” Turns out that’s enough. He recants at the sight of the rack.
Galileo is as much about the man’s weaknesses as his strengths. The latter are in his early determination to establish the realities of his discoveries; the latter reside largely in his inability to resist the pressure of the Catholic hierarchy. Brecht’s 1938 play about the denial of free expression by the powers-that-be was intended to parallel that same dictum by the insurgent Nazi party. The point was well made, but it is 75 years later, and the play’s potency has dimmed; it’s more a museum piece now.
In the title role, F. Murray Abraham dominates, but he’s not helped by the play’s wordiness. There are a few sparks of discovery, fewer bits of humor, and an occasional anachronism, as when Galileo’s daughter’s suitor wants to “have a look-see” through the telescope to see “what’s cooking.”
We learn from the program notes that Brecht “ran rings around” the House Un-American Activities Committee by feigning ignorance of the subtleties of the English language. (“Are you now or have you ever been…?” “Huh?”) This translation of the play from the German-language original was by the actor Charles Laughton, developed over a three-year period with Brecht himself. A later Brecht poem about their collaboration, “Letter to the Actor Charles Laughton,” includes, in part:
“Again and again I turned actor…and you turned writer. Yet neither I nor you stepped outside his profession.”
Substitute any two occupations and you have the perfect recipe for any collaboration.