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Le vagabond et son ombre

G. Nagarajan


“Galileo” and the Brechtian Dilemma

G. Nagarajan

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1For we know:
Even the hatred of evil
Distorts the features,
And anger over injustice
Also hoarsens the voice; Alas, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be friendly.
– Brecht
Nearly eleven years after entering the German world of drama, in 1931, Bert Brecht stated the basic principles of the epic theatre (of which he justifiably claimed to be the innovator) contrasting it with the traditional or Aristotelian theatre. The chief aim of the Aristotelian theatre, as understood by Brecht and others, is to produce on the stage an illusion of reality to the point of getting the audience emotionally involved with the actions on the stage, inspiring in them, the audience, the feelings of terror and pity and ultimately leading them to a catharsis of these emotions. The audience is supposed to leave the theatre cleansed of their feelings of dread and misgivings, reconciled to what is inevitable. On the other hand, the chief aim of the ‘epic theatre’ or the theatre of the scientific age, argued Brecht, must be to create in the audience a feeling of separateness from the characters on the stage, or a feeling of ‘alienation’ or ‘distantiation’ as he put it, so as to cultivate in them a critical detachment that would help them, not to reconcile themselves with what is shown on the stage as inevitable, but to revolt against it. The stage should not ‘tranquilise’ the audience but disturb them by arousing their critical faculty; it should not lull them into passive acceptance but arouse them to positive revolt.

2To achieve his aim in the epic theatre, Brecht employed a number of techniques not only in dialogues and actions, but in stage-management, mode of acting, décor and music as well. In his dialogues he tried to avoid lyricism and high poetry (which, alas, were his finest gifts) and by making them terse and matter-of-fact, (For example:-

3Sagredo: Where is God in your system of the universe?

4Galileo: Within ourselves or nowhere.)

5he kept the audience from falling into the quagmire of self-pitying sentiments or self-sacrificing reconciliation. Dialogues alone could not achieve the desired effect; everything made visible or audible to the audience could contribute its share to keep alive the critical detachment of the audience. Repetition of events and dialogues, unexpected photographic projections on the screen, subtle gestures of the actors and even the visibility of the foot-lights to the audience could serve to prevent the onlookers from falling into a somnambulistic frame of mind, which Brecht detested. The actors themselves were warned not to merge their personalities into the roles they played but to keep their separate identities. They were expected not only to play a role but to comment on the role as well. Their gestures and actions were meant to narrate or “Quote” rather than reproduce on the stage what had happened. Hence the apparent paradox often quoted to explain Brecht’s conception of stage-acting that to a Brechtian actor the assertion that he did not act Lear but was Lear himself should be a “devastating criticism” rather than a fulsome praise. Hence to understand the full impact of a Brechtian play, it must be seen on the stage and not merely read. Brecht himself was so keenly aware of the liveliness of the stage that he is reported to have said to an actor during a rehearsal, “To blazes with the play; it’s your turn now”. All this preamble is necessary before we take any one of Brecht’s plays for a critical appraisal, when we consider it as a play read and not as one acted, preferably directed by Brecht himself. Since the present writer has only read “Galileo” and never seen it performed, his criticism of it is bound to be inaccurate in details and partial to some extent.

6The theme of “Galileo” may be considered to be contained in a reported insistence of Brecht, that Galileo “must be shown as a social criminal, a complete rogue” and in a piece of instruction he gave his actors:

“Galileo is shown as a man who is right, one of the great heroes of the following five hundred years, who sweeps away all obstacles, but then collapses and becomes a criminal. That is one of the great difficulties; to bring out the criminal element in the character of the hero. In spite of all he is a hero and in spite of all he becomes a criminal”

7Commenting on the moving scene in which, Galileo, after handing over to Andrea the manuscript of his celebrated last work to be smuggled into Holland, confesses that he has betrayed his profession and admits almost in the same breath that he still likes eating, Brecht more mercilessly pours his invective on Galileo:

Our arrangement is very simple: on the one hand we have the goose-liver, which (Galileo) insists that he must have, on the other hand, science on which also he insists. So he sits between his two great vices: science and gluttony”.

8Incidentally it may appear surprising that a confirmed Marxist like Brecht who relied on science for the remaking of the world should refer to it as a “vice”. What Brecht had in mind was science pursued for its own sake irrespective of its social consequences. The memory of the atom bomb should have been all too fresh in his memory. The irony of it is that Galileo, who, Brecht would have us believe was “a social criminal, a complete rogue”, seems to have grasped this truth as well as Brecht. Says Galileo to Andrea, “Should you, then, in time, discover all there is to be discovered, your progress must then become a progress away from the bulk of humanity. The gulf might even grow so wide that the sound of your cheering at some new achievement would be echoed by a universal howl of horror”. Hardly the words to escape from the mouth of a “social criminal”.

9In the first version of “Galileo” Brecht showed Galileo’s recantation as a clever dodge to gain time and comparative freedom to finish his life’s work. In the second version, produced nearly ten years later, after the conclusion of the Second World War and at the beginning of the American Government’s witch hunting of communist intellectuals, Galileo’s recantation is shown as a result of his cowardice. Brecht’s experiences during the Second World War, when he could see scientists belonging to the two warring camps throwing themselves into their work with unconcealed enthusiasm scarcely giving their thought to the social realities of their time might have evoked his contempt for them. He could, with his keenness of vision, penetrate through their chauvinistic enthusiasm right to their subservience to authority, born out of fear. Hence even science was no more than a vice, not the activity of a free, enlightened, socially conscious man, but of a slave cowardly refusing to realize his own condition of slavery. Brecht might have had ample reason to feel disgust with some of the scientists of his day who merely delighted in the exercise of their talent and who were profoundly indifferent to the social consequences of their discoveries and inventions; but was Brecht justified in projecting his feeling of disgust on to Galileo? That is a crucial question in the play.

10Galileo, as portrayed by Brecht, is far from unaware of the practical consequences of his discoveries. At a low personal level Galileo expresses his impatience with persons who cannot make use of their brains to fill their stomach and at a high impersonal level, in a conversation with Little Monk in Scene Seven (one of the most lyrical scenes in the play, almost an un-Brechtian scene), Galileo offers Little Monk the “Consolation” that his “new waterpumps could work more wonders than their (Campagna peasants’) ridiculous superhuman efforts”. Andrea, Galileo’s disciple, in a fit of enthusiasm, eulogistically refers to Galileo’s work as “the study of the properties of motion, mother of the machines which will themselves change the ugly face of the earth”. Galileo is also aware of the intellectual revolution that must follow a popular acceptance of his discoveries, though prudence advises him against the blunder committed by Bruno, of speaking up too soon without enough evidence.

11Now, wherever “Galileo” was performed, be it in Paris or Moscow, the audience saw Galileo as a martyr to science wantonly misunderstood and cruelly treated by a bunch of unthinking idiots and bigots. Nowhere did the audience see him, with the best Brechtian direction, as “a social criminal, a complete rogue”. That the opponents of Galileo were bigots who derived their power from brute authority, Brecht did not deny. Nor could he deny that Galileo’s recantation was merely outward, as his inner conviction that he was right grew stronger and not weaker by his recantation. The charge of cowardice may indeed be laid against Galileo. But a so-called coward does not become less entitled to our sympathy just because he is a coward. A coward truly forfeits our sympathy only when he denies his cowardice or disguises it as practical wisdom or even exigency. Whatever Galileo may lose, he never loses his truthfulness to himself. When Galileo entrusts his disciple Andrea with the responsibility of publishing his last great work, Andrea changes his opinion of his master, whom he disowned before.

Andrea: And when you stooped to recant in 1633, I should have understood that you were going about your business.

Galileo: My business being?

Andrea: Science. The study of the properties of motion, mother of the machines which will themselves change the ugly face of the earth.

Galileo: Aha.

Andrea: You gained time to write a book that only you could write, Had you burned at the stake in a blaze of glory, they would have won.

Galileo: They have won. And there is no such thing as a scientific work that only one man could write.

Andrea: Then, why did you recant, tell me that.

Galileo: I recanted because I was afraid of physical pain.

Andrea: No!

Galileo: They showed me the instruments.

Andrea: It was not a plan?

Galileo: It was not.

Andrea: But you have contributed. Science has only one commandment. Contribute. And you have contributed more than any man for a hundred years.

Galileo: Have I? Then welcome to my gutter, dear colleague in science and brother in treason. I sold out, you are a buyer. The first sight of a book. His mouth watered and his scoldings were drowned. Blessed be our bargaining, white-washing, death-fearing community.

12By this one scintillating piece of dialogue Brecht blows into smithereens his own argument against empathy and identification. The sincerity of Galileo’s words can evoke disgust and contempt only in a pervert audience, who would echo Brecht’s own confession:

I am the most practical of all my brethren

And my head comes first of all!

My brethren were cruel, I am the cruelest

And I weep in the night.

13Galileo’s acknowledgment of his cowardice, not as a justifiable, or the only, course of action open to him, but as a mere fact about himself, absolves him of the contempt associated with cowardice, if not of the charge of cowardice itself. Or looking at the matter more closely one cannot but conclude that cowardice and courage are relative terms leading us to accept a new “shifting system of social ethics where nothing can be taken as fixed outside its context of time” (John Willet), a conclusion with which Brecht himself might be in secret, if not, open agreement. That Galileo, without a qualm, plagiarises a Dutch invention as his own in order to make money, that he stoops to base flattery in order to exchange a life of drudgery for one of comparative ease but lesser intellectual freedom, that he calls Bruno an idiot for having spoken too soon, that he believes he can somehow outwit the powers that be in Rome and that he finally recants to save his skin in all these one can see the interplay of hubris and nemesis, much to Brecht’s own chagrin. When finally Galileo confesses that he has betrayed his profession and that a man like him must not be tolerated in the ranks of science and admits in the same breath that he still enjoys eating, we pity the sensuousness of a man that cost him the glory that was his due, as much as hate his oppressors that put him in a dilemma beyond his powers to resolve. When Andrea curses, “Unhappy is the Land that breeds no hero” Galileo rejoins “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero”. And who is right? Brecht too might have felt himself to be on the horns of a dilemma over question.

14Note: All quotations from “Galileo” are taken from the version in “From the Modern Repertoire” second series, edited by Eric Bentley.

15(1973-June 30-INDO-GDR Friendship Association Tamilnadu State Conference Souvenir, Madurai.)

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2013

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