Early thoughts on Galileo

wcb's picture

Ann Dixon has asked me to start the discussion thread off with some thoughts about the Wilma’s production of Life of Galileo. These aren’t the most stimulating thoughts I’ve had, but here goes. More of my thoughts (and translator David Edgar’s) are online at our website, along with rehearsal (and soon performance) photos of the play.

We had our first preview of Galileo last night. Considering it was only the second time the actors have been able to run the play in the past week, it went surprisingly well. This is a real workout for them, especially for John Campion as Galileo, a role comparable in size to King Lear and requiring him to give the illusion of aging nearly 30 years over the course of the evening.

Now comes the exciting and challenging part: will it seem as exciting to the audience as it has to us during the rehearsal process? Does the play resonate with the audience’s everyday life? Pope Benedict did us a favor this week, questioning science’s ability to answer humanity’s questions. And the larger question remains the same as for all productions of the play: does the audience accept Brecht’s judgment on Galileo? Have we been too soft on him? I personally have always found myself more in agreement with Andrea – that, even if Brecht is correct in seeing Galileo’s recantation as a betrayal of science and humanity, his self-condemnation cannot be the final word, any more than Brecht’s inability to stand up to the GDR’s government in June 1953 (or his treatment of his friends and lovers) can be the final word on him for me.

Our panel discussion series is also beginning this week, an undertaking much larger than we usually attempt alongside a production. Hopefully these will stimulate more discussion on this site as well.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Revisiting Galileo ... and science

I saw Galileo again last night and came away even more strongly moved by what seems to me Brecht's core insight about science, as relevant in Galielo's time as in Brecht's and our own: "what is important about being a scientist isn't one's product (which someone else might create) but one's willingness to stand up for the importance of doubting, to resist any effort to get people to settle for existing understandings from whatever authority."

Yes, scientists need to resist institutional/cultural forces that attempt to prevent them from carrying out research that would challenge authority (whether religious, political,, or economic). But, even more importantly, scientists need to resist selling their own souls by failing to encouage others to challenge authority, including that of scientists themselves.

"Unhappy is the land that needs a hero"

"That obligation being to insist, at all times and all places, that knowledge is only won through doubt ... I hold it that the only proper goal of science is to relieve the miseries of human existence. If scientists, cut off from the masses by selfish rulers, seek merely to heap up knowledge for its own sake, then science is a cripple and your new inventions will merely bring new drudgeries ... the steadfastness of one man could have challenged everything, for the benefit of everybody ... If I had resisted, maybe scientists would have pledged themselves to apply their knowledge soley for the human good. As it now stands, all we have is a race of moral midgets, who can be hired out by the hour to anyone."

"We must take care of science's light/Guard it, keep it, use it right/In case it proves a flame to all/Downwards, to consume us all."

"Isn't it high time we broke the yoke/That binds us to our Lords and Masters?"

Brecht clearly understood what science is capable of as a contributor to human culture, and equally understood the kinds of barriers, cultural and personal, that could get in the way of science living up to that potential. Are we doing better, can we?

Maybe. If we keep at it. After all ... "We're really just at the beginning."

Anne Dalke's picture

where was the doubt?

I attended the panel discussion entitled "Knowledge is Only Won Through Doubt" @ the Wilma last night. What surprised (and pleased me no end) was the interest and willingness of the panelists to let the audience set the agenda for the evening. We were invited, @ the outset, to describe the scenes from Brecht's play which were most memorable to us, and to say why; those descriptions were then used to identify the issues that were talked about for the next 1 1/2 hours...I'd never been to a panel that was so open-ended, so...transactional, so interested in hearing what the audience was thinking--for which I thank you all.

What surprised me, though, especially given the title of the panel, was how very little doubt was expressed by any of the panelists as the evening went on. Each knew a lot; and I learned a lot from all they had to say. But doubt? Actually demonstrating how knowledge is won through doubt? By revising what they thought, in reaction to what someone else said? From Galileo to the 21st century, the desire to say what we know, rather than to question it, or allow it to be changed by what others say...I don't see that changing much. Not yet.

Linda E.'s picture

Where was the doubt?

I also liked the open nature of the panel discussion and invitation to the audience. I think the format made it unlikely that during the evening any of us would be able to say, oh, my mind has been changed. What panelists and audience members alike expressed, however, could be seen as opinions derived from lifetimes of doubting and following curiosity to new findings. That doesn't mean our doubts have ended, nor that we might not change opinions as a result of what we heard that night. To ask for it all to take place in 90 minutes is a lot.

Seeing the play after the first panel discussion, I found the scene striking in which people refused to look through Galileo's telescope to see what he had found. It was symbolic to me of what has happened in the last decades as we Americans have refused to see and act on facts of environment and global warming. This is a case of politics, not religion, preventing appropriate action; our societal failure to face facts and take action.

Even as awareness has risen and states have taken leadership, how many people are really thinking about what fundamental changes should take place? Perhaps people should give up second houses (and big houses), travel to distant places, children's travel sports teams? How many are thinking about sacrifices beyond buying a hybrid car (if they have moved that far in their thinking)?

Ann Dixon's picture

doubt as a private and public experience/performance

I wonder if doubt *has* to be a *private* experience of questioning whatyou know.  In public, one can doubt others' data, findings, opinions andstories, and can thereby refine what is known. But if one publicly doubtsone's own conclusions, everything one says may be undermined, for example, with modern day charges of "flipflopping."

Anne Dalke's picture

time for revision

This could also be a matter of timing: taking the time to reflect, in order to revise....

Paul Grobstein's picture

Some more opening thoughts

Welcome to the on-line forum for conversation about the Wilma production of Brecht's  Galileo, the discussion panels associated with it, and the various issues that arise from those. Walter has provided some valuable background, both at the Wilma site and in program notes. Some additional Serendip materials that may be relevant include

Brecht's Galileo is a play I've long admired, and I very much enjoyed seeing the Wilma performance last Saturday. Each time I see it, I'm struck by something different. This time it was Galileo's self-condemnation speech, in which he asserts that what is important about being a scientist isn't one's product (which someone else might create) but one's willingness to stand up for the importance of doubting, to resist any effort to get people to settle for existing understandings from whatever authority. Galileo may have failed to live up to that ideal himself but he stands as an inspiration to others to try and become less wrong.
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