Though completed in the late 1930s, Brecht’s Life of Galileo was frequently revised through the war years and only received its first production with Brecht’s participation in Los Angeles in 1947. It was perhaps the first play by a major dramatist to address the new invention of the atomic bomb (Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists would come much later, in 1961 at the height of the Cold War) — an invention which led Brecht to reassess Galileo’s recantation before the Inquisition in 1632, which he had originally considered somewhat valorous in that it allowed Galileo to continue his research. With the invention of the bomb, however, Brecht revised his original play to present a far more ambivalent picture of Galileo’s recantation. No longer a hero, he became something rather more ambiguous, and certainly not a figure to be admired.
In this sense it is a companion piece to the 1939 Mother Courage and Her Children. In the interests of conducting her business, Mother Courage loses all three of her children to the war — and despite this, goes on, as Galileo goes on after he has sacrificed the happiness of his daughter, the admiration of his colleagues, and his own freedom to express. But neither Courage nor Galileo is presented as a figure of unequivocal pathos or admiration. As Galileo says in the clip from the film below, his recantation has permitted the continuing power of the church to impose ignorance upon the masses, as Courage’s continued determination to remain in business even after she has lost her children permits the continuing pursuit of the war which killed them. Because Galileo castigates himself in the penultimate scene of the play, it is difficult for the spectator to feel either pity or admiration — but Courage, who has no such monologue, is often granted that by the audience.
This is much against the intention of the play (if we can call it that), I might add. In a recent interview with Michael Billington, Tony Kushner, who has written an adaptation of the play, said: “Anyone who believes that Mother Courage is reducible to its political points is deluding themselves. In its own way, it’s a great medieval mystery play. Brecht was sincere in his desire to polemicise, but his greatness — and he would hate me for saying this — is that he can move you to terror and pity. Don’t we all cry at the end of Mother Courage as she continues to lug her cart round the battlefields of Europe?” This was a question that haunted Brecht through his career, especially as he considered the role of “entertainment” in the theatre. Brecht was fond of saying that all theatre, even his, had as its first necessary quality that it be entertaining; but his many notes and poems on the question demonstrate that he was far from settled on the question of what this “entertainment” consisted of, especially where the desire to entertain shades into the desire to emotionally manipulate the audience to tears. If we cry at the end of Mother Courage, we may well conclude that Courage is the victim of forces beyond her control. But she is not — to say otherwise is to rationalize her suffering as beyond her control and deny her the agency to change the society and culture that leads to war through individual action — and she does not deserve either tears or pity. This isn’t a mere political point, but a characteristic of Mother Courage’s personality that permits war itself to continue.
Life of Galileo remains a fascinating play, perhaps Brecht’s greatest, and it has surprising echoes of plays from both ends of Brecht’s career. The treatment of the conflict between individual sensuousness and social duty can be foreseen as early as Brecht’s 1920 Drums in the Night, and the difficulty of “being good” is also a theme of the contemporaneous The Good Person of Szechwan and Puntila.
The clip below is from the 1975 film version produced for the American Film Theatre and directed by Joseph Losey, who also directed the original 1947 U.S. stage production. Galileo is played by Topol, and his student Andrea by Tom Conti. The line about the “universal howl of horror” and the final song were not present in the original 1938 draft and were only added after the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. (The music in this excerpt is from the original score for the production by Hanns Eisler.) As Brecht was working on the U.S. production, of course, he was doing so with the knowledge that he would soon be facing an Inquisition himself, which could not have been far from his mind as he helped Charles Laughton rehearse the monologue below. The 2008 Penguin Classics republication of the John Willett translation features a foreword by Richard Foreman. There is a DVD available of the Losey film from amazon.com here.