Escape Artist: Brecht’s Pursuit of Galilei

Escape Artist: Brecht’s Pursuit of Galilei

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.

By 1931, according to Schumacher, Brecht owned Das Weltbild der neuen Physik, which analyzes the philosophical consequences of Galilei’s studies and discoveries (41).  Knowledge of, or interest in, the figure of Galilei is not reflected in Brecht’s writings during that period.  In 1932, for instance, trying to illustrate his marginal interest in Descartes, Brecht relates an anecdote according to which Galilei had a scientific revelation at church while observing a swinging chandelier:

Ich springe aber mit [Descartes] nur um, wie einer, der, wenn er liest, Galilei habe in der Kirche, das Schwanken eines Leuchters betrachtend, das Pendelgesetz entdeckt, anfängt zu fragen: warum ging er in die Kirche, oder: warum sah er dort nach den Leuchtern? (21: 409) 

Significant here is not only that the great scientist has been reduced to an anecdotal figure, but that Galilei’s name was actually missing—that Brecht remembered the anecdote, not the figure, and, instead, left a blank space—in the original manuscript of this entry in one of his notebooks (757).  And while the year 1933, which marked the tercentenary of the recantation of Galilei, as well as another forced return to the stage (in Jakob Bührer’s Galileo Galilei), probably brought this historical figure to the attention of many artists and thinkers, references to Galilei of any great length or importance in Brecht’s writings do not occur until 1938, and that despite the intriguing analogies between Brecht’s exile and Galilei’s house arrest.  

Brecht began writing poems and songs about Galilei in the spring of 1938 (Schriften14: 665) and incorporated some of them into a new play, written, as we know from his letter to  Ferdinand Reyher on 2 December 1938, in three weeks during the month of November 1938 (Briefe 380).  The original title of the play was Die Erde bewegt sich, as was announced in January 1938, and not Leben des Galilei, as it was already referred to in November 1938 (Schumacher 386).  This change of the title has perhaps more than nominal value to our study, since it seems to indicate Brecht’s increasing interest in Galilei as he started to fictionalize his life, and, at the same time, the author’s irresolution, or perhaps even reluctance, to establish the center and focus of his play—which, after all, deals with the discovery that even the established center of the universe can no longer hold—by turning Galilei into the titular character.  

The result, Leben des Galilei (1938/39), could be described as the cornerstone of Brecht’s near epic struggle to appropriate a historical figure and to fashion it according to his theory of epic theatre, a pursuit that Brecht continued for nearly 18 years until his death in August 1956, when rehearsals for a new production of Leben des Galilei were in progress.  The fact that Brecht did not express much interest in the figure before 1938 already suggests that the he was not so much intrigued by the historical Galilei, not in recreating the scientist’s life, as in the very process of creation, in adopting and adapting it for the stage.  Nonetheless, the initial appeal of this figure to Brecht, which triggered the subsequent pursuit, needs to be examined.

Some critics, Günter Rohrmoser among them, argue that Galilei did not interest Brecht as a character at all, but as a case only (120).  Yet, as Eric Bentley observes, while “[m]uch is known of the trial of Galileo, and the material has the highest human and dramatic quality, on which various biographers have capitalized,” Brecht “passes by the trial ‘scenes’” (184).  If Brecht had been interested primarily in the case Galilei, in Galilei’s either/or struggle when faced with the tortures of the inquisition, he would have undoubtedly made use of clearer didactics, characteristic of his earlier “Lehrstücke,” such as Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis or stronger dialectics, noticeable in his parables Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis and Der gute Mensch von Sezuan.  Instead, Brecht began to develop a figure of such emotional depth and psychological complexity that it is a fair assumption that he was, after all, primarily interested in the character, not in the case.

The Legend Continues

As Schumacher insists, characters are not chosen randomly by their authors; and Brecht’s choice of Galilei is no exception:

Wenn Brecht Galilei zum Helden eines Dramas machte, so besass er zu dieser geschichtlichen Persönlichkeit ein ganz anderes, im Wesen positives Verhältnis, als etwa zu anderen geschichtlichen Helden, die er in seiner Dramatik behandelte. . . .  In der historischen Gestalt des Galilei war ungleich mehr Subjektivität, die Brecht . . . faszinierte. . . .  (349)     

Yet initially, as the notebook entry from 1932 suggests, Galilei appeared to have been to Brecht, as he was to many other Europeans, primarily a mythical figure comparable to, say, Wilhelm Tell.  This, as Bentley points out, seems to be common to the great characters in so-called history plays, that a

glance at history plays that have had success of any sort will reveal that they are not about the great figures of history taken indiscriminately but only about those few, like Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, and Napoleon, whose names have become bywords.  Another paradox: only when a figure has become legendary is he or she a good subject for a history play.  (185)

The likelihood of an audience’s lack of knowledge about Galilei as scientist offers a first clue to the appeal of this primarily legendary figure to Brecht, namely that a focus on the scientific aspects of Galilei’s life already helped, even before the application of the “Verfremdungseffekt,” to distance the audience from the character, thus to eliminate, or, at least, reduce, the act of identification:

Der Zuschauer kann sich nämlich von dem Dritten Richard des Shakespeare-Theaters leicht mit dem Schauspieler zusammen verwandeln, da dessen Politikmachen und Kriegführen nur vage vorkommt, nicht viel mehr davon, als ein Träumender verstehen müsste; zum Galilei fehlt dem Zuschauer immerfort, dass er nicht so viel von den Naturwissenschaften versteht wie der Galilei.  (25: 22)

At the same time, Brecht aware of the appeal of the legendary Galilei, scientist of the people:  

Dem Galilei selber, zum Dank für seinen Glauben an eine volksverbundenen Wissenschaft, erwies das Volk die Ehre, jahrhundertelang und über ganz Europa hin, nicht an seinen Widerruf zu glauben.  (25: 22)

If the appeal of Galilei, scientist of the people, has been strong enough to cause Europeans to doubt his retraction for centuries, the Galilei myth could very well influence an audience’s perception of Galilei and interfere with Brecht’s presentation of the character.

Yet there is an indication that Brecht, too, remained interested in legend, rather than history, and that his approach to Galilei did not necessarily change after considerable research on the scientist’s life and career.  This interest in the mythicized Galilei becomes apparent in this passage from Kleines Organon für das Theater (1947), in which Brecht, who had, at this point already written two plays about Galilei, reiterates the “chandelier anecdote” he already referred to in 1932:

Damit all dies viele Gegebene [dem Menschen] als ebensoviel Zweifelhaftes erscheinen könnte, müsste er jenen fremden Blick entwickeln, mit dem der grosse Galilei einen ins Pendeln gekommene Kronleuchter betrachtete.  Den verwunderten diese Schwingungen, als hätte er sie so nicht erwartet und verstünde er nichts von ihnen, wodurch er dann auf die Gesetzmässigkeiten kam.  Diesen Blick, so schwierig wie produktiv, muss das Theater mit seiner Abbildungen des menschlichen Zusammenlebens provozieren.  Es muss sein Publikum wundern machen, und dies geschieht vermittels einer Technik der Verfremdungen des Vertrauten.  (23: 82)

Now Brecht turns this anecdote into an analogy, illustrating not only the purpose, mechanics, and results of the “Verfremdungseffekt,” but also its prerequisite, namely an active, alert, and open-minded audience.  In a peculiar, paradoxical twist, Brecht casts the legendary “great Galilei,” with his open eyes and open mind, in the role of such an audience member.  Thus, the Galilei myth steps onto Brecht’s stage as a character, enters his theater as an audience, and makes its way into Brecht’s theory as well.

The significance of the legendary Galilei to Brecht becomes apparent, and even though Leben des Galilei sets right oft distorted scientific and historical facts in some detail, and seeks at times to dispel the myth surrounding the historical Galilei, such as story of the origin of the Galilean telescope, the play nevertheless perpetuates the notion that Galilei intended his science for the “Mann auf der Strasse” (4: 43, 4: 223), for the masses, that he wanted to make science accessible and to bring “proof to everyone,” “Beweise für jedermann, von Frau Sarti bis hinauf zum Papst” (5: 32, and 5: 213).  Schumacher, who generally supports Brecht’s portrayal of the historical Galilei as a man unmistakably, often explicitly disdainful of the “intellectual populace,” as a man whose belief in reason was identical with the believe in the common man (62), concedes that

Brecht schrieb Galilei gesellschaftspolitische Einsichten und Folgerungen zu, die der historische Galilei nicht hatte und haben konnte.  Galilei ist in seiner Darstellung nicht nur Aufklärer, sondern sozusagen einer der Vorläufer des wissenschaftlichen Sozialismus.  (66)

Bentley agrees that Brecht did not 

pay his respects to historical accuracy except in the broad outline and in certain details.  Not a great deal is known, but one can be sure that the historical Galileo was nothing like this. . . .  (83)

Bentley comes to the conclusion that the appeal of the legendary Galilei as a rebel and seeker of truth to Brecht can be summarized in “a single anecdote (incidentally, not found before 1757),” according to which Galilei, after having recanted, exclaimed “Eppur si muove” (187), the very myth that perpetuated Europeans disbelief that Galilei defied the Inquisition.  The fact that the alternative title Brecht had in mind for Leben des Galilei, namely Die Erde bewegt sich, is based on the German translation of these words—”Und sie bewegt sich doch!”—supports Bentley’s assertion.

Initially, then, Brecht’s character was based on a vague notion of Galilei as a rebel and truth seeker.  Unlike the historical figure, the legendary Galilei, in its vagueness, seemed to allow many different characterizations.  Much earlier in his career, Brecht wrote that the secret of great figures in drama is, in part,

dass sie nahezu jeden Körper haben können und Platz für eine Menge privater Züge in ihnen ist.  Ebenso wie in den in Betracht kommenden Dramen mehrere Ansichten über den Stoff zugelassen werden vom Dichter, sind die Figuren ganz unfixiert.  Edward 2 z.B. kann ebenso ein starker böser Mann wie ein schwacher guter sein.  Denn die Art von Schwäche, die Art von Bosheit, die er hat, ist eine ganz tiefe und metaphysische und bei Leuten aller Arten vorhanden.  (21: 241)

Seeing Galilei, too, as “not fixed” but flexible, seemed to enable Brecht to reinvent his character, to turn strength into weakness, goodness into evil, exactly the changes Brecht intended for Galilei as the character returned in Galileo, as well as in the final version of Leben des Galilei.  Did Brecht merely employ this chameleonic character to comment on certain aspects of social and political issues he deemed relevant?  And did Galilei have to play the role of either hero or villain according to the situation to which Brecht chose to allude?

Multiple Impersonalities

In comparisons of the three versions of Leben des Galilei, it has been noted—and often disapprovingly so—that, qua histories, the play became increasingly inaccurate (Szezensny 63).  Less troubled by this was Eric Bentley, who in his Brecht Commentaries declares it to be

one of the open secrets of dramatic criticism that historical plays are unhistorical.  They depend for their life on relevance to the playwright’s own time—and, if he is lucky, all future times—not on their historicity.  (83)  

Did Brecht write and rewrite Leben des Galilei in order to keep up with the times, to deliver apropos comments on pressing socio-political issues, such as the rise of Adolf Hitler and the oppression of German thinkers and scientists in the first version of the play (1938/39), the connections between science and society in the wake of Hiroshima in the American version (1947), or the continuation of this discussion, with a focus on the scientist’s societal obligations based upon the proceedings against Oppenheimer in the play’s final version (1955)?  Did Brecht fashion this “historically inaccurate” figure to point, quite accurately, to the various historical changes he witnessed in his own time?  After all, it is not the aim of Brecht’s method of “Historisierung” to appeal to the “Ewig-Menschliche,” the eternally human, to bring out universal themes but to show human actions in a concrete societal, historical context.  Brecht rejected “das Zeitlose” for his plays, the timeless quality that he detected—and detested—in traditional, bourgeois theater.  As he puts it in “Verfremdungseffekte in der chinesischen Schauspielkunst” (1936):

Das bürgerliche Theater arbeitet an seinen Gegenständen das Zeitlose heraus.  Die Darstellung des Menschen hält sich an das sogenannte Ewig-Menschliche.  Durch die Anordnung der Fabel werden solche “allgemeine” Situationen geschaffen, dass der Mensch schlichthin, der Mensch aller Zeiten und jeder Hautfarbe, sich nunmehr ausdrücken kann.  Alle Vorgänge sind nur das grosse Stichwort, und auf dieses Stichwort erfolgt die “ewige” Antwort, die unvermeidliche, gewohnte, natürliche, eben menschliche Antwort.  (22.1: 208)

It may seem rather peculiar that Brecht, who did not want to show the eternally human, chose a seventeenth-century figure for reenactments of twentieth-century situations.  At one point, Brecht questions this decision himself and speculates whether this decision is, perhaps, an expression of escapism, thus suggesting an avoidance of current issues.  “I hope not,” he concludes in this planned preface to Leben des Galilei, written in 1938:

Liege ich schon auf meinem Nachtlager und denke, and den Morgen denkend, an den, der vergangen ist, um nicht an den zu denken, der kommt?  Beschäftige ich mich darum mit jener Epoche der Blüte der Künste und Wissenschaften vor 300 Jahren? Ich hoffe nicht.  (24: 237)

Consequently, the three versions of the Galilei play have indeed been modified to allow Brecht’s comment on particular social and political issues of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.  As Bentley puts it, 

Brecht’s plays naturally attach themselves to such issues, and Brecht himself always was concerned that the attachment should be firm and visible.  His is a theater of commitment, and his plays seldom get across unless they carry some of the appropriate activist fervor.  (213)

And even though Brecht, in an interview published a few weeks after the completion of Leben des Galilei/Die Erde bewegt sich in the Danish newspaper Berlingske Titende, denied that the play was written as a comment on the political situations in Germany and Italy (qtd. in Schumacher 18-19), there can be no doubt that Leben des Galilei—which was, after all, written in November 1938, the month of the ignominious “Kristallnacht”—and Galileo were, if not inspired, at least very much influenced by such historical events.  Bentley, for example, points to Galilei’s warning to Andrea, “Nimm dich in acht, wenn du durch Deutschand fährst und die Wahrheit unterm Rock trägst,” “Take care when you travel through Germany with the truth under your coat!” and concludes that “this sentence from the first version of Brecht’s Galileo puts in a nutshell the most striking analogy between that version of the play and the time when it was written” (189).  Later, after rewriting the play with Laughton, Brecht is more candid about the connections between play and reality.  In Aufbau einer Rolle: Laughtons Galilei, Brecht declares that “[m]an muss wissen,” that one needs to be aware of the connections between the play and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima:

Man muss wissen, unsere Aufführung fiel in die Zeit und das Land, wo eben die Atombombe hergestellt und militärisch verwertet worden war und nun die Atomphysik in ein dichtes Geheimnis gehüllt wurde.  Der Tag des Abwurfs wird jedem, der ihn in den Staaten erlebt hat, schwer vergesslich sein.  (25: 65)

In a preface to Galilei, Brecht states quite clearly that his attitude toward the historical Galilei changed after 6 August 1945: “Von heute auf morgen las sich die Biographie des Begründers der neuen Physik anders” (24: 241).  After Brecht’s death, Oppenheimer’s book Science and the Common Understanding and a collection of newspaper articles were found in Brecht’s belongings, which indicates that the final version had probably been reworked with the parallels between Oppenheimer and Galilei in mind (Schumacher 240).  The personal relevance these historical figures and events had to Brecht is perhaps best summarized in Walter Benjamin’s “Svendborger Notizen,” according to which Brecht remarked on 3 July 1938, in a discussion about Baudelaire: “Ich bin ja nicht gegen das Asoziale—ich bin gegen das Nichtsoziale,”  (Benjamin 130).  And since the eponymous character in Leben des Galilei or Galileo does not resemble the historical Galilei, could he be standing in for other historical figures?  Here, critical positions—none too convincing but nonetheless noteworthy—vary considerably.

Betty Nance Weber, for example, who follows the footsteps of Isaac Deutscher, tries hard and, I suppose, quite seriously to establish that the life of none other than Leon Trotzki, as well as Russian history, “provide the structural scaffolding for the [first version of the] play” (70).  In her bold juxtaposition, Weber likens the telescope of Brecht’s Galilei to Trotski’s Pravda; she also compares the plague depicted in the play to the Balkan Wars and World War I:

With the disclosure of direct links between those plays generally considered to be Brecht’s least tendentious, least political pieces and the most controversial issues and events in the revolutionary history of the twentieth century, one of the oldest problems in Brecht’s work surfaces once again: the difficulty of writing the truth in “dark times.”  (76) 

To be sure, Brecht followed the developments in Russia and read Trotkzi’s writings, as we know from Benjamin’s entry in his “Svendborger Notizen” from 25 July 1938 (131).  Yet, with his forced move from Denmark to Stockholm after being threatened by the Nazis only months prior to his work on the first version of Leben des Galilei, Brecht was facing “dark times” of a different and far more urgent nature, and more “[p]rominent in his thoughts was the underground political worker plotting to subvert the Hitler regime” (Bentley 187).  

Furthermore, Weber’s remark that the unveiling of the historical scaffolding for the Galileo drama should not be interpreted as an effort to expose Brecht’s secret political life [and that the speculation w]hether Brecht sympathized with Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin, or whomever has little to do with the primary issue of the play: the truth of the Copernican view of the universe and Galileo’s guilt” (74), deflates her argument and renders it almost pointless.  Why would Brecht sneak in hidden analogies with such detail when he was primarily interested in the historical Galilei?

Brecht had always commented very candidly on political and social issues.  To argue, then, that he, trying to rearrange church history to “parallel the history of the old Social Democratic Workers’ party in Russia,” used a seventeenth-century setting rather than a “shopworn reference,” namely the French Revolution, so that “worldwide audiences might abstract from the fable, that they might distill the conflicts of the piece without prejudgment” (62), is hardly convincing, since such “direct links” remained for Weber and Deutscher, a poor fraction of Brecht’s “worldwide audiences,” to unravel.  Besides, the time for the clear didacticism of his “Lehrstücke” had passed and Brecht had, for the most part, moved to “more complicated, less schematized moral-social arguments of the plays from about 1938 on” (Willett 86); and even though speculations about Leben des Galilei seem to have “Snowball-ed” over the years, it is certainly not another Trotzki parable, a dramatic rendering of, say, Animal Farm.

Commenting on similarly dubious “disclosures” or “unveilings” of comparisons between Brecht’s Galilei and other communist figures, namely Sinowjew, Bucharin, or Rakowski, Schumacher points out that

aus den fixierten Intentionen der schriftstellerischen Arbeit Brechts in den dreissiger Jahren, der wiederholt bekundeten Entschlossenheit, “für den Faschismus tödlich” zu schreiben, lässt sich überhaupt kein Anhaltspunkt dafür finden, dass Brecht mit . . . Leben des Galilei die Vorgänge in der Sowjetunion . . . durch die geschichtliche Analogie des Verfahrens gegen Galilei transparent machen wollte.  (110)

Critics who are eager to discover a certain “hidden message” in Leben des Galilei generally ignore—or conveniently overlook—the fact that there exist, after all, three versions of this play.  Therefore, Weber’s interpretation of the first version of Leben des Galilei as a covert portrayal of Trotzki’s life may, our suspension of disbelief presupposed, account for Brecht’s Galilei of 1938/39, but not for the return of Galilei in 1947 and 1955.

Instead, Brecht’s attachment to the Galilei figure demonstrates that while his plays may attach themselves to issues, the playwright does not necessarily attach his Galilei to any particular historical figure, especially since he appreciated the legendary figure, as well as the flexibility of the great figures in drama.  To a

historian it would seem bizarre to suggest that he should reverse a judgment he had made on something in the seventeenth century on account of something which had just happened in the twentieth.  To a dramatist, however, the question would mainly be whether a subject which had suggested itself because it resembled something in the twentieth century would still be usable when asked to resemble something quite different in the twentieth century.  (Bentley 188)

However, did Brecht, as Bentley implies, merely meet the challenge of historical plays that, as Hans Mayer observes, show a peculiar resistance to the adaptation for non-Aristotelian theater (107)? And, more importantly, did he, while trying to point out the dangers of non-social behavior and disdaining the traditional theater’s obsession with the eternally human, inadvertently turn a recycled, multivalent Galilei into the Forrest Gump of epic theater? Brecht could have easily commented on twentieth-century events by creating new characters, by employing different historical figures, rather than returning to Galilei.  

So, the focus is, after all, on Galilei, not on certain issues, and Galilei is more than a mere comment-carrier, a reusable multi-purpose statement-container.  Instead, Brecht’s Galilei enters the stage very much alive, with distinct gestures not meant to mimic those of other historical figures, emerges as a passionate, sensuous man who, after many struggles, exits aged and weary.  These “human qualities” in Galilei, not found in purely parabolic figures, as well as Brecht’s apparent attachment to the character, have prompted many critics to believe that Brecht, deliberately or involuntarily, created Galilei as his double, commenting on the playwright’s own failures and weaknesses, and that the changes the character underwent through the years reflect the changes in Brecht’s Weltanschauung.  Bruce Cook, for example, discussing Brecht’s reassessment of the character, argues that “Brecht offers his own confession through Galileo, characterizing him as far worse than he really was in the process” (8), as if Galilei’s chief function were to serve as the ersatz-priest of a closet-catholic.  Nonetheless, such comparisons seem almost as inevitable as death in Aristotelian tragedy, considering the abundance of autobiographical documents, of letters, notes, and journals, which invite critics to parallelize—and, in the process, often to confuse—the artist and his subject.  Schumacher, more subtle in his analysis and less prone to precipitate conclusions, suggests that the parallels between the Brecht and the historical (or legendary) Galilei are to be found in their “originality of thought”:

Was Brecht mit Galilei ungleich mehr verbindet als mit allen anderen geschichtlichen Helden, denen er sein Interesse zuwandte, war die Ursprünglichkeit des Denkens, der fehlende “Glaube” an Autoritäten, die “letzte Wahrheiten” darstellen sollten, der integrale Intellektualismus originärer Art.  (350)

Hence Brecht’s interest in—and attraction to—the “chandelier anecdote,” in which Galilei is scientifically, not spiritually, inspired, in which research originates in church, and in which open eyes prevail over blind veneration.  

Brecht, who resented critics in general, was particularly annoyed by these comparisons, and repudiates them as based upon “ridiculous superstition”:

Durch das hundert Jahre dauernde Anwachsen einer ästhetischen Bibliothek und den Persönlichkeitskult der Schulen und Zeitungen hat sich über die Stückeschreiber ein lächerlicher Aberglauben erhoben, als seine ihre Stücke nicht mit Tinte, sondern “mit Herzblut” geschrieben und als beschrieben sie weit weniger die Welt als ihre Schreiber.  Der Anblick der Welt, immerhin in ihren Stücken gewährt, wird zu einem Anblick des Anblickes, nicht wie die Welt ist, erfährt man aus ihnen, sondern: wie die Schreiber sind.  (21: 407)

Brecht was, of course, aware that his character, any character presented on paper, and particularly the characters on the stage of epic theater, are no longer his own, but subject not only to judgment, but to the appropriation by their audiences.  “What other prospect, then, for the audience—as the subject is salvaged from the atomization of history—than to construct its own meanings, which also break up and form themselves anew?” as Herbert Blau puts it (175).  While epic theater hardly seeks to encourage such viewer-response, it clearly seeks to elicit the audience’s judgment of characters shown on stage.  It is an audience’s prejudgment of the characters based upon assumptions about the author that Brecht resented.  Still, critic’s speculations about the autobiographical elements in the Galilei plays continue.  As Bentley tries to put these speculations to rest:

Even should his material stem from himself, the test is whether he can get it outside himself and make it not-himself.  He has to let himself be strewn about like dragon’s teeth so that other men may spring up, armed.  In Galileo, a contradiction that had once merely been Brecht’s own—had been, then merely a character trait—is translated into action, into an Action, and this action, reciprocally, attaches itself to someone who is neither Bertold Brecht nor the Galileo Galilei of history.  Though he bears the latter’s name, he is a creature of the former, and surely a very notable one.  (206)

While Bentley justly points to the limits of such compare-and-contrast efforts, of chronicle-criticism, his assertions that Galilei is Brecht’s “creature” deserves to be questioned as well.  After all, while the various attempts of presumptuous critics to capture Galilei prove to be far too limited and confining, Brecht himself was never really able to manage this flexible figure either, to make him, even prior to audiences’ inspection, entirely his character, his creature, as a closer look at the revisions, the three versions of Leben des Galilei, as well as Brecht’s changing perception and interpretation of the figure will make apparent.

The Elusive Galilei

Almost immediately after the completion of the first version of Leben des Galilei, Brecht expressed his reservations about his play.  On 25 February 1939, he already considered it to be “technisch ein grosser Rückschritt,” and concluded that it needed to be rewritten  (qtd. in Schumacher 19).  The fact, however, that the plays last version is not a complete or even drastic revision, particularly not in a technical sense, has intrigued critics such as Schumacher, who wrote

Es erhebt sich die Frage, warum er zumindest bei der zweiten deutschen Fassung, als er über eine eigene Bühne verfügte, das Stück nicht . . . auf den “höchsten Standard” des epischen Theaters brachte, wie der ihn 1939 zum Vergleich heranzog, warum er es bei den “Interieurs,” der “Atmosphäre,” der “Einfühlung” beliess.  (248)

Instead, it seems as if the play’s structure remained, apart from deleted or inserted scenes, as rigid as the old Ptolemaic System itself, with an earthy, uncelestial Galilei at its center.  And even though, as Gerhard Szczesny points out, Brecht did not question his original characterization of Galilei (48), the most significant changes seem nevertheless to occur in the presentation of Galilei.  Leben des Galilei was, Cook observes, “revised in each successive version apparently to make the scientist seem less sympathetic, less conventionally heroic” (8).  Critics generally agree that Brecht intended a drastic shift in the presentation of Galilei, from hero to villain, even though John Fuegi argues that in “the final American and German versions, enough of the ‘good’ Galileo of the first Danish version still shines through the dark layers painted over him in successive versions for the portrait to have considerable depth and ambience,” and that the “character becomes most sympathetic precisely because he has such depth” (93).

Originally, Brecht saw his adaptation of the Galilei figure as an opportunity to revise standard misconceptions about the “Gelehrte,” the scholar—who was often portrayed as removed from society, as an “impotente, blutleere, verschrobene Figur, “eingebildet” und nicht sehr lebensfähig”—in order to show “den Forschungstrieb,” the research urge as a social phenomenon (24: 242).  In a letter to the illustrator Hans Tombrock, written in 1940 or 1941, Brecht sums up Galilei’s fleshy and fleshly qualities and points to the importance of portraying him as an earthy, strong and boisterous man, rather than a pale, spiritualized scholar:

Wichtig, dass Du den Galilei nicht idealisierst.  (Du weisst, Sterngucker, bleicher, vergeistigter Idealisten-typ!). . . .  [D]ie Bilder, die Du in den Büchern sehen wirst, sind schon idealisiert.  Bei mir ist er ein kräftiger Physiker mit Embonpoint, Sokratesgesicht, ein lärmender, vollsaftiger Mann mit Humor, der neue Physikertyp, irdisch, ein grosser Lehrer.  Lieblingshaltung: Bauch vorgestreckt, beide Hände auf den beiden Arschbacken, Kopf zurück, mit der einen, fleischigen Hand dann immer gestikulierend, aber knapp, Kostüm nicht das Parade-Kostüm (ausser bei Repräsentation), bequeme Hose bei der Arbeit, Hemdärmel, oder (besonders am Schluss) lange weissgelbe Kutte mit weiten Ärmeln, über dem Bauch mit einem Strick gegürtelt. . . .  Hab aber keine Angst vor Humoristischem.  Historie ohne Humor ist abscheulich.  (Briefe 1: 422)

With his lively gestures, his sense of humor, and his appearance in simple and comfortable clothes, Brecht’s Galilei, based upon the legendary figure, was meant to demonstrate the “Volksnähe” of science, a scientist’s kinship to the commoners.  

By 1945, however, Brecht’s perception of Galilei had changed, practically over night, due to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and Galilei seemed to personify “soziales Versagen,” the scientist’s failure to act according to this kinship to the people:

Galileis Verbrechen kann als die “Erbsünde” der modernen Naturwissenschaften betrachtet werden.  Aus der neuen Astronomie, die eine neue Klasse, das Bürgertum, zutiefst interessierte, da sie den revolutionären sozialen Strömungen der Zeit Vorschub leistete, machte er eine scharf begrenzte Spezialwissenschaft, die sich freilich gerade durch ihre “Reinheit,” das heisst ihre Indifferenz zu der Produktionsweise, werhältnismässig ungestört entwickeln konnte.

Die Atombombe ist sowohl als technisches als auch soziales Phänomen das klassische Endprodukt seiner wissenschaftlichen Leistung und seines sozialen Versagens.  (24: 240)

Galilei’s “soziales Versagen,” his social failure, is mainly  expressed through changes in the dialogue between the aged scientist and his former pupil, Andrea.  The public recantation, once interpreted as a deliberate act of deception which allowed Galilei to continue his studies, now, in the second version, becomes a sign of Galilei’s weakness—to Brecht an inexcusable weakness.  In another statement written in 1945, Brecht makes quite clear that the end, the publication of the Discorsi, does not justify the means, namely the recantation of Galilei:

Es wäre eine grosse Schwäche des Werkes, wenn die Physiker recht hätten, die mir—im Ton der Billigung—sagten, Galileis Widerruf seiner Lehre sei trotz einiger “Schwankungen” als vernünftig dargestellt mit der Begründung, dieser Widerruf habe ihm ermöglicht, seine wissenschaftlichen Arbeiten fortzuführen und der Nachwelt zu überliefern.  In Wirklichkeit hat Galilei die Astronomie und die Physik bereichert, indem er diese Wissenschaften zugleich eines Grossteils ihrer gesellschaftlichen Bedeutung beraubte. . . .  Die Kirche und mit ihr die gesamte Reaktion konnte einen geordneten Rückzug vollziehen und ihre Macht mehr oder weniger behaupten.  Was diese Wissenschaften selber betrifft, erklommen sie nie mehr die damalige grosse Stellung in der Gesellschaft, kamen nie mehr in solche Nähe zum Volk.  (24: 240)

According to Brecht, then, the recanting—thus fearful and obedient—Galilei made his scientific contribution by robbing science of its social significance as a revolutionary tool and by permanently corrupting the “Volksnähe” of science and the scientist, acts of corruption which, after all, Brecht reasons, in a leap many critics refuse to follow, resulted in the development and dropping of the atomic bomb.

By 1947, Brecht considered Galilei to be a criminal (“Verbrecher”), at once the technical creator and social traitor (“technischer Schöpfer und sozialer Verräter”) of the Industrial Revolution (24: 245), a contention Brecht maintains until his death.  This less than subtle move from “Volksnähe,” to “soziales Versagen” to “Verbrechen” and “Volksverrat” gives new meaning to the term “V-Effekt.”  Yet the way in which Brecht tried to accomplish this “demonization” of Galilei is not so much based upon the principles of epic theater, let alone attribute to the playwright’s genius, as it is the result of more traditional, and highly manipulative, cheap dramatics, as the treatment of Virginia in the third version illustrates.  

Virginia, instead of willingly surrendering her relationship with Ludovico by deciding to assist her father, as she does in the first version, is, in the play’s final version, practically reduced to Galilei’s servant and faints when her despotic father makes this decision for her.  Obviously, Brecht, in what is, unquestionably, the single most revulsive change inflicted upon the play, exploits this poorly developed character to bring out the worst in Galilei. 

A somewhat more intricate victor-to-villain change involves the reinsertion of—and addition to—scene 5, the pestilence scene, missing in the more condensed American version, in combination with Galilei’s averment that the Inquisition never meant any real danger to him.  These changes, Werner Zimmermann suggests, are indicative of Brecht’s struggle with a moralistic assessment of his protagonist (67).  Ernst Schumacher points out that the inclusion of this scene in the first version makes sense dramatically, despite its historical inacuracy, since it causes the audience, which knows that Galilei has defied death once before, to judge his recantation more severely:

Der Einbau der Pestszene ist . . . dramatisch sinnvoll im Hinblick auf die spätere Abschwörung.  Er besagt, dass Galilei einmal den Tod nicht gefürchtet hat, dass sein Fall also um so schwerer zu bewerten ist.  (46)

In the play’s first version, of course, Brecht allows the old Galilei to redeem himself, whereas, with the reinsertion of this scene into the last version, the playwright tries to turn his character’s recantation from an act of personal weakness into one of social indifference.  Several critics, including Gert Sautermeister, have found this to be a rather laborious form of argumentation, awkward, and all too transparent: 

Angesichts des Schicksals Giordano Brunos, auf das im Drama mehrfach angespielt wird, und angesichts der faktischen Todesfurcht Galileis ist die nachträgliche Erwägung, eine tödliche Gefahr habe nicht bestanden, eine allzu durchsichtige Konstruktion und gezielte Erfindung, um Galileis “Fehlverhalten” zu betonen.  (138)

While these comparisons of the two version allows us to identify the playwright’s attempt to turn Galilei into a domestic ogre or social villain, critics agree that Brecht, despite his efforts, does not manage to present Galilei as a less sympathetic figure—and his main stumbling block appears to be the vibrant and powerful Galilei himself.  And even though his perception of science and the scientist changed over the years, Brecht, in his portrayals of Galilei, does not do away with all flesh.  Despite his awareness of the possibilities of an audience’s “Einfühlung,” clearly considered a flaw in epic theater, Brecht did not revise the figure according to his own theory.  All he offers to his critics and players is the following advice in Aufbau einer Rolle: Laughtons Galilei, which reads like a disclaimer:

Die Darstellung des Galilei sollte nicht darauf ausgehen, ein sympathisierendes Sicheinfühlen mit Mitgehen des Publikums zu etablieren; vielmehr sollte dem Publikum eine mehr staunende, kritische und abwägende Haltung ermöglicht werden.  Er sollte dargestellt werden als ein Phänomen wie etwa Richard III., wobei die emotionelle Zustimmung des Publikums durch die Vitalität dieser fremden Erscheinung erreicht wird. (25: 20)

Apparently unable to perform it himself, Brecht leaves the impossible task of turning an earthy character into a “phenomenon” almost entirely to the actor.  In his essay, “The Life of Galileo: The Focus of Ambiguity in the Villain Hero,” Charles Lyons comments on this passage with the objection that the “spectator responds to the figure of Galileo not only as a ‘phenomenon’ of human evil but also as a human being who shares, with him, the weakness of being human” (61), and argues that “the image of Galileo as a human being is so strong that such a detachment seems impossible.  The very complexity of the character and the play denies that detachment” (60).

Even Brecht was not entirely convinced of his own reinterpretation of Galilei as a villain.  In a response to a letter from his son, Stefan S. Brecht, from September or October 1946, thus after the bombing of Hiroshima, Brecht still defends Galilei.  Stefan Brecht, comparing Galilei and Luther, complains that, since the historical Galilei was probably not aware of the peasants’ plight and only too generally revolutionary, the character should definitively be disagreeable (Briefe 2: 1065).  Brecht replies that, “[Galilei] ist aber nicht ‘für die Bauern,’ wenn er dem Mönchphysiker widerspricht, er ist nur gegen den untermenschlichen Zustand, in dem sie gehalten werden” (not for the peasants but against the sub-human conditions in which they are kept), but comes to the conclusion that “[e]igentlich ist G. einfach nur für die ungehinderte Ausübung seiner Wissenschaft,” and that the “’Sympathische,’ das Dich ärgert, ist seine Vitalität” (Briefe 1: 539).  Thus, Brecht curiously offers his perception of Galilei as interested simply and solely in his studies, as, after all, indifferent to the social significance of his own discoveries, as a defense of his character, and dismisses a critique of Galilei’s failures as a revolutionary with the laconic remark: “The agreeable that bothers you is just his vitality.”  

The increasingly adversarial relationship between Brecht and the character of his plays is perhaps best expressed in Brecht’s letter to the actor Axel Triebel from 27 December 1955, in which Brecht reminds himself to see to it that Galileo’s enemies are portrayed as positively as possible—otherwise, Brecht concludes, he would “make it too easy” for Galilei:  “[I]ch muss darauf achten, dass die Gegner Galileis, die Kirchenfürsten und Hofleute, so positiv wie möglich dargestellt werden.  Sonst mache ich es dem Galilei zu leicht” (Briefe 768).

What emerges out of these and many other contradictory statements of defense and assailment is Brecht’s pronounced ambivalence toward the figure which he assumed to have created or reinvented, and which, in its complexity, eludes Brecht’s attempts of appropriation.  An ambiguous character at once sensuous and scientific, irresponsible and dependable, naive and cunning—not a pale and lifeless scholar, but, as Brecht hastened to “clarify,” “natürlich kein Falstaff” (24: 247)—a man, in short, that invites “Einfühlung,” as well as speculations about his psyche, both approaches Brecht passionately abhorred.  In a letter to Ferdinand Rehyer from August 1946 Brecht criticizes the reviewer Harold Clurman and wonders whether he could stop psychologizing—”wie will er das Psychologisieren unterlassen, da mein Theater diesen Approach nicht verträgt. . . ?” (535)—since such an approach does not agree with his theater.

Willet reminds us that Brecht “always disclaimed any interest in psychology” yet nonetheless builds up “such complicated living figures as Galileo, Courage, Puntila, Schweik, each of whom finishes by dwarfing not only the background but often the actual ideas which he represents” (85-86).  In the case of Galilei, the attempted changes only intensified the frictions between figure and form, between stage praxis and drama theory.  Bentley complains: “I don’t see how the theory of Epic Theater could do justice to the ambiguity here.  It calls for a theory of tragedy.  The problem is not social and conditioned but personal and inherent” (84).  However, he makes the mistake, commonly made among critics, of assuming that there is a single theory of epic theater, a set of rules Brecht established early in his career and to which he tried—and often failed—to adhere throughout his life.  Instead, Brecht’s theories underwent several changes, went through stages of reassessment, just like his character, Galilei.  The theories have mostly been modified—noticeably during and after the completion of Galileo, in Aufbau einer Rolle and Kleines Organon für das Theater—to respond to the demands and limitations of actors, stage, and audience, but also, as it seems, to justify an ambiguous character such as Galilei.

Yet despite these ambiguities—and this leads us to the very core of Brecht’s difficulties with the character—Galilei’s complex personality cannot be reduced to neat binary oppositions.  Critics such as Lyons, who asserts that the play’s “ambiguity is focused in the implicitly schizoid structure of its hero” (67), Jendreiek, who argues that Brecht’s Galilei needs to be understood as hero and criminal, and that the character becomes a programmatic figure of Brecht’s theater precisely through this dialectic tension (248), and Benjamin, who calls Brecht’s “thinker characters,” such as Galilei, untragic heroes (24), are caught up, like Brecht, in the very dialectics the three Galilei plays so obviously defy.  Critics merely respond to—and consequently accept—the contradictory labels Brecht attached to Galilei.  The figure itself is neither heroic or villainous, nor is he both.  The paradox, as Esslin describes it (351-52), does not exist here.  Instead, there is something rather garboesque about Galilei who simply wants to be left alone and to pursue his studies, who surrounds himself with a very small circle of friends, whose closest and lifelong servant is his own daughter, who neither wants to teach nor free the masses, but who is, in return, celebrated and censored, venerated and violated, subjected to inspections and misinterpretations.

Procuring him as a character and placing him in the center of his pseudo-biographical plays, Brecht, too, tries first to force the role of the hero, then the role of the villain upon a recalcitrant Galilei.  Audiences, meant to judge Galilei’s failure and fall, his actions—or lack thereof—are more likely to develop compassion for a man who admits to his weaknesses, being enslaved by his habits (“Sklave meiner Gewohnheiten” [5: 104, 280]; “I recanted because I was in physical pain” [5: 178]), but who also does not rely on the strength of others, rejecting and ridiculing any form of hero worship (“Andrea:  Sie lachten immer schon über die Helden” [5: 282]; “Unglücklich das Land, das Helden nötig hat” [5: 274]).  Thus, neither role (hero or villain) can be established convincingly and Brecht fails to present Galilei as a traitor, simply, as Bentley correctly observes, because “Galileo has not offered to do ‘anything’ he might be ‘asked to do’ at all” (194).

Commenting on the character’s changes throughout the years, Cook concludes that the “historical Galileo and the character created by Brecht join forces to resist every effort by the playwright to denigrate them.  We have all heard of plays that are actor-proof and director-proof; Galileo seems to be one that is playwright proof” (180).  Brecht had hoped that “das Werk zeigt, wie die Gesellschaft von ihren Individuen erpresst, was sie von ihnen braucht” (24: 242), that the play would show how society extorts from its individuals what it needs from them, but the development of the play shows, instead, how the playwright unsuccessfully tries to extort from Galilei what he needs from him.

Unable to accept and release Galilei as one of those characters who, as Bentley puts it, “’take up their bed and walk’—who can assume the frightening autonomy of the six who once stood in the path of Pirandello,”—Brecht appears to have been haunted by this figure until his death, not unlike Victor Frankenstein was haunted by the creature he supposedly conceived, resurrected, as it were, from the dead.  In both cases, the “creature” claims independence.  Galilei, as the reactions of audiences and critics prove, gets away with it, too; he does not have to retreat to the most northern extremity of the globe, but continues to resurface all over the globe, on stage.  Commenting on Andrea’s last line in the first version of the play, and his disagreement with Andrea’s words, Brecht once proclaimed that “[d]er Stückschreiber wünschte nicht das letzte Wort zu haben” (24: 245), that the playwright did not wish to have the last word.  In his argument with Galilei, however, Brecht hardly seems to get a word in.  Galilei seems to master Brecht’s pursuit like an escape artist, a reluctant character in flight from an author.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter.  Versuche über Brecht.  Suhrkamp, 1966.

Bentley, Eric.  The Brecht Commentaries: 1943-1980.  Grove, 1981.

Blau, Herbert.  “The Thin, Thin Crust and the Colophon of Doubt: The Audience in Brecht.”  New Literary History, vol. 21, no. 1, 1989, pp. 175-97.

Brecht, Bertolt.  Bertolt Brecht: Briefe. Ed. Günter Gläser.  2 vols.  Suhrkamp, 1981.

—.  Bertolt Brecht: Grosse kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, edited by Werner Hecht, et al.  25 vols. to date.  Suhrkamp, 1988-.

—.  Gesammelte Werke.  Vol. 10.  Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1967.  20 vols. 1967.

Brown, Hilda Meldrum.  Leitmotiv and Drama: Wagner, Brecht and the Limits of “Epic” Theatre.  Clarendon, 1991.

Cook, Bruce.  Brecht in Exile.  Holt 1982.

Esslin, Martin.  Brecht: Das Paradox des politischen Dichters. Athenaeum, 1962.

Fuegi, John.  Bertold Brecht: Chaos According to Plan.  Cambridge UP, 1987.

Jendreiek, Helmut.  Bertold Brecht: Drama der Veränderung.  August Bagel, 1969.

Lyons, Charles R.,  “The Life of Galileo: The Focus of Ambiguity in the Villain Hero.”  Germanistic Review, vol. 41, no. 1, 1966, pp.: 57-71.

Mayer, Hans.  Bertold Brecht und die Tragödie.  DTV, 1965.

Rohrmoser, Günter.  “Brecht’s Galileo.”  Translated by  J. F. Sammons.  Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Peter Demetz.  Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 117-26.

Sautermeister, Gert.  “Zweifelskunst, abgebrochene Dialektik, blinde Stellen: ‘Leben des Galilei’ (3. Fassung, 1955).”   Brechts Dramen: Neue Interpretationen, edited by Walter Hinderer.  Reclam, 1984.  125-61.

Szczesny, Gerhard.  Bertolt Brechts “Leben des Galilei”: Dichtung und Wirklichkeit.  Bouvier, 1986.

Weber, Betty Nance, and Hubert Heinen, ed.  Bertolt Brecht: Political Theory and Literary Practice.  UGA, 1980.

Willett, John.  The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht.  New Directions, 1968.

Zimmermann, Werner.  Bertolt Brecht, Leben des Galilei: Dramatik der Widersprüche.  Ferdinand Schöningh, 1985.

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