Escape Artist: Brecht’s Pursuit of Galilei

by Harry Heuser

And Still He Moves

Perhaps he was simply an author in search of a character.  After all, he once declared it to be basically irrelevant (“im Grund gleichgültig”) where dramatic characters originate, as long as they come alive.  At the same time, though, he thought it desirable that dramatists bring well-known personages (“bekannte Persönlichkeiten”) to the stage (Bertolt Brecht 21: 283).  During his prolific career as a playwright, Bertolt Brecht tried to procure his share of characters that were either based on historical figures (such as Edward II or Lucullus) or allude to them more or, particularly, less obliquely (such as the Hitler parody in Der Aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui).  He had also plans to dramatize the lives of Rosa Luxemburg and Albert Einstein.  Among those historical figures, Galileo Galilei stands out, especially since Brecht not only turned but returned to the Italian scientist throughout his career and made him the central character of Leben des Galilei (1938/39 and 1955), as well as Galileo (1947).  While it was not unusual for Brecht to revisit his works, the Galilei plays are more than occasional returns; they are the result of a continuous pursuit.

Prior to determining why Brecht remained interested in the Galilei figure, it may be valuable to find out when—and under which circumstances—this interest in Galilei arose.  Shortly after the end of World War I, when young Brecht began writing for the stage and about all aspects of drama and theater, Galilei was not on the top of his list of “bekannte Persönlichkeiten.”  Although his engagement with the theater was hardly limited to his reviews of productions at the Augsburger Stadttheater during the early 1920s, there is no evidence in his writings that Brecht was even aware of the plays about Galilei written after 1918, namely Hans Müller’s Die Sterne (1919) and Bernhard von Hindenburg’s Galilei (1925).  At least, since no written comments on these productions exist, they are unlikely to have had a profound effect on him.  Then again, based upon Ernst Schumacher’s assessment (329-31), these obscure theatricals deserve neither production nor critique.  What these minor plays prove, though, is that the Galilei figure was frequently exploited by bourgeois writers at the time, whereas Brecht had not yet discovered or considered the potential value of this figure to his own plays.

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