Doubting--or Shouting?

Anne Dalke's picture

For the past five years, I have been using Brecht's The Life of Galileo in a first-year writing course called Questions, Intuitions, Revisions: Storytelling as Inquiry, which I co-teach each fall at Bryn Mawr College. But I had never actually seen the play staged, and have very much been looking forward to the current Wilma performance. I finally saw the play last night, and thought it a magnificent production, in all the ways that Wilma's productions often are magnificent.

In light of the current conversation in this theater forum about the willingness of scientists to stand up for the importance of doubting, the performance highlighted two tensions that, in my multiple readings and re-readings of the script, I hadn't noticed before. The first is the gap, or elision, between the first act, in which the church hierarchy attempts to suppress the freedom of scientific inquiry, and the second act, when Galileo tells his former student Andrea about the need for scientists to "pledge to apply their knowledge for human good." There's a slide, in other words, from the 17th century encounter, in which religion oppresses science, and the 20th century use of science in the service of the state.

The program notes explain that Brecht's later versions of the play were written in response to the atomic bombing. Although there's obviously a connection between the two scenarios, Brecht doesn't make it explicit--my impression was that, in his usual didactic mode, he wanted to make his point about a contemporary issue, and wasn't really bothered about tieing it too closely to the (ostensible) subject of the play's first act.

Brecht's "wanting to make his point" is the second tension I saw in the production. I'd noted a few weeks ago, after I saw the first panel discussion sponsored by the Wilma, a marked tension between its ostensible claim--"Knowledge is Only Won through Doubt"--and the actual performance of the panelists, all of whom were quite certain about the claims they were making; it seemed ironic to me that no doubt was enacted in that discussion of the importance of doubt.

So I was particularly struck to see the same tension in last night's performance of the play. If its core claim is really about the significance of doubting, how come there is so much shouting in the production? I was seated in the second row--close enough to see all the spit, and to feel the full assault not only of Galileo's tirades, but those of the churchmen and others who felt and expressed their views very strongly. There was no give and take, but only assertion, after assertion, after assertion....From Galileo to the 21st century, the desire to loudly proclaim 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

Performance of Doubt

Theater may be a difficult venue for showing the performance of doubt (although another version of "Doubt" is on display at the Merriam.)

An interesting novel that deals with how science works out in a lab, and in other, more political settings, is "Intuition" by Allegra Goodman. She shows the variety of personalities who may come together in lab research, pressures for results, and later, how controversies may be played out in public and political arenas, where even more numerous personal agendas are at stake.

Science is a human enterprise, subject to human faults, but we do keep working at it.