The Life of Galileo
I re-read The Life of Galileo. I had first read this drama in 2009. It was a feast for the soul and remained so in the second reading. Though I haven’t written a single drama so far, I have read a lot of them as I enjoy dramatic writing like anything. Starting from Greek tragedy (Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides) and comedy (Aristophanes), breasting through the waves of Renaissance Literature (Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson…) going to modern works like Ibsen’s plays, I have befriended dramas of almost all kinds.
Credit goes to Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), the fabulous German playwright and theatre director, who wrote this play (the first version written between 1938 and 1939). The drama starts with Galileo’s learning of an invention, telescope, which he replicates for the people of his home town. He uses his telescope to substantiate Copernicus’s idea of solar system wherein all planets including the earth revolve round the sun, which was against a commonly held belief of the times; thus, his interrogation before the Church. Instead of facing the punishments/tortures for confessing such a heinous crime (as it was), Galileo publicly refused to admit that he ever said so, and got released from the clutches of the Church; nonetheless, remained house arrested. This surrender on his part shocked his students. However, during his period of house arrest, he handed over a number of his works to one of his students and admonished him to deliver the same outside Italy for knowledge dissemination. Galileo believed he did not admit anything before the Church for his self-interest, nothing more and nothing less; nonetheless, his student believed that his work was heroic as he intended to befool the Church.
Brecht was the one who projected, some say started, the Epic Theatre. This kind of theatrical work poses challenges for a reader who is ardent follower of Aristotelian concept of drama. Aristotle sought his audience to identify with the character in the drama, with full emotional bond, as he believed the same would pave way for a proper cathartic experience either through fear or sympathy. On the contrary, Brecht projected this kind of drama wherein the reader feels himself alienated, rather emotionally detached, who observes the plot through one’s mind and reason, the technique he called “Verfremdungseffekt”, translated as “estrangement effect, distancing effect or defamiliarization effect”. This, Brecht believed, incited curiosity and astonishment about the events in the play. In fact, due mainly to his association with Marxist philosophy, Brecht propagated the idea of Epic Theatre against Aristotelian concept of drama, because, he believed that the modern times needed a materialistic synergy to understand from a broader perspective the issues circling man in his physical environment, especially the issues of inequality and exploitation, for which a drama that pulled man’s critical ability and rational approach would suit the theatre more appropriately than the one where emotions played a vital role. So is evident in The Life of Galileo.
Brecht was an outstanding dramatist, who received global recognition for his work. He was awarded, inter alia, a prestigious Kleist Prize for his three plays (Baal, Drums in the Night and In the Jungle). I would close this discussion with the words used for him in the citation of the award “[His] language is vivid, without being deliberately poetic, symbolical without being over literary. Brecht is a dramatist because his language is felt physically and in the round.”