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Life of Galileo


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AT: Galileo A: Bertolt Brecht (with Margarete Steffin) Pf: 1943, Zurich Pb: 1955; rev. 1957 Tr: 1953 G: Hist. drama in 15 scenes; German prose with 1 song S: Padua, Venice, Florence, Rome, 1609–37 C: 42m, 10f, extrasGalileo scrapes a living, teaching students in Padua. When he learns of a new Dutch invention, the telescope, he sells the idea to the Venetian senate and then uses the new instrument to prove the Copernican system: that the earth revolves around the sun. Although warned of the dangers of disseminating his views, Galileo places his faith in human reason. He even leaves the liberal regime of Venice to earn a higher salary at the court of Florence, where he meets with opposition from reactionary academics. Galileo continues to work on in the city even when it is affected by the plague. In Rome, the papal astronomer confirms Galileo's findings, but the Church forbids him to publish them. A Little Monk begs Galileo not to rob the poor of the stability of their faith, but is won over by Galileo's appeal to truth. Eight years later, a new pope, a scientist, is enthroned, and this encourages Galileo to resume his research. As his ideas become known, even the common people celebrate the new age that has begun to question established authority. In 1633 Galileo is summoned to Rome, and the Grand Inquisitor persuades the Pope, as he is being robed, that Galileo must be silenced. Galileo recants when he sees the torture instruments, and his loyal pupil Andrea cries out: ‘Unhappy the land that has no heroes!’ Galileo replies: ‘Unhappy the land that has need of heroes.’ Forced to live under house arrest, Galileo, though half blind, secretly continues his work. When Andrea visits him, Galileo, aware that he has betrayed his belief in truth and his responsibility as a scientist, gives him the manuscript of the Discorsi, which Andrea smuggles across the Italian border to be published in the Netherlands.

AT: Galileo A: Bertolt Brecht (with Margarete Steffin) Pf: 1943, Zurich Pb: 1955; rev. 1957 Tr: 1953 G: Hist. drama in 15 scenes; German prose with 1 song S: Padua, Venice, Florence, Rome, 1609–37 C: 42m, 10f, extras

Undoubtedly the best 20th-century play about a historical figure, Life of Galileo, like all Brecht's great plays, contains ambiguities and caused the author much heart-searching. Galileo himself is full of contradictions: a sensualist who loves intellectual activity, a coward who bravely defies the plague, and an unrelenting seeker after truth who perpetrates fraud and subterfuge. Especially after the explosion of the atom bomb, Brecht began to question whether he had been too indulgent towards Galileo, and he added a lengthy speech in the penultimate scene warning of the dangers of scientists abdicating their social responsibilities. Although essentially realistic, the play offers many opportunities for ‘gestic’ acting (action clarified by the visual element, as in Scene 12, where the Pope's individual beliefs disappear under his robes of office). The American premiere in 1947, co-directed by Brecht, boasted Charles Laughton in the title role.

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Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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