Bertolt Brecht remains one of the few great geniuses of twentieth-century theater. Marxist didacticism notwithstanding, his best plays set up contradictions upon contradictions that shake us awake and require us to think poetically. Because finally, it is Brecht's poetry more than his politics that penetrates through to truths about the human condition.
Galileo, now at the Denver Center Theatre Company, is one of Brecht's greatest plays--and one of the DCTC's finest efforts to date. It is by no means a purist production, lavish as it is and more warmly human than usual. But it is lively, intelligent and splendidly performed.
The mathematician/astronomer and Renaissance man Galileo Galilei discovers through his own telescope that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. His search for truth, however, threatens the whole hierarchical system of the medieval church, which placed man at the center of God's universe. Galileo naively thinks he can present this truth to the world because he has proof. But when he tries to show his proof--the movement of the stars as well as the presence of stars invisible to the naked eye--he is met with philosophical and theological arguments that refuse to look at physical facts. The "new" stars couldn't exist because they would be superfluous, the churchmen tell him. All the proof in the world is useless in the face of such pedantry.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Galileo teaches a young boy his new theory to his own peril and to the chagrin of the boy's mother (the hilarious Kathleen Brady provides much of the comic relief in the show). The church authorities forbid Galileo to try certain experiments. But when the old pope lies on his deathbed and a liberal pope, himself a mathematician, rises to power, Galileo thinks he can dive headlong into experimentation with impunity. Eventually, he's brought up on charges of heresy before the Inquisition.
Brecht's Galileo is a man of reason and principle, but he is also a physical coward who loves his pleasure and fears pain. He has openly despised those forced by the church to walk the party line. But when push comes to shove, Galileo is as weak as the others. Shown the instruments of torture, he recants. It is only as an old man that he comes to realize he was never in any real danger--that he was held in such high esteem that those involved in the Inquisition would never have dared torture him, much less burn him at the stake. Brecht gives the old man a beautiful speech in which he foresees all the horror that science will eventually unleash (the final version of the play was written just months after Hiroshima) and insists that if only he had not been a coward, he could have influenced science to serve humanity.
Unsophisticated as that may sound to us now, Brecht's call for a Hippocratic oath for scientists may not be a bad idea. So much suffering might have been avoided if, say, scientists refused to grow germs for germ warfare. Of course, how many of them would really be bound by such an oath is open to question--but as Brecht points out, conscience is missing in so much of scientific inquiry that science is easily put to the service of evil.
At the same time it questions the motives of science, though, the play argues for the pursuit of truth: Nothing is easy in Brecht's vision. Galileo is a terrible father, a flawed man subject to his own hedonism, a hypocrite. Still, he is irresistibly--even heroically--drawn to the rigorous scientific inquiry that the church fathers rightly anticipate will unseat their domination forever. Brecht's history lesson demonstrates how religion was used to keep workers content in their misery, expecting their reward in heaven. The playwright could not have known at the time the play was written that television (the product of science), not religion, would become the opiate of the masses. But he did realize that the pursuit of scientific fact was fraught with danger. And so Galileo stands on paradox and contradiction.
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One of the most interesting things about the play is Brecht's characterization of Galileo. He does not allow us to sink into Galileo's personality, remaining true to human psychology without resorting to self-indulgent psychoanalysis. Fortunately, John Hutton gives a riveting performance in the title role--another milestone for the DCTC, rivaled only by Jamie Horton's recent performance in The Dresser. Hutton's confident, witty and powerful Galileo is also vulnerable, petty and base. It's a sophisticated reading of a difficult role.
But the entire ensemble is consistently polished and involving. Director Laird Williamson harnesses the elements and the actors, creating an intellectually vibrant force before our eyes. Many of the actors play multiple roles--generic characters such as "Theologian" and "Mathematician" meant to underscore Brecht's break with traditional theatrical naturalism--and the effect is stunning.
The whole production is designed to arouse the mind and challenge the eye. The fabulous set, by Andrew Yelusich, is a work of art in itself--a fantastic revolving stage painted with images of science, art and religion of the period. Yelusich's highly evocative series of metal arches and spheres overhanging the stage remind us simultaneously of the new astronomy and the medieval model of the universe breaking apart. The set becomes one of the principal characters in a production that is always stimulating but never intoxicating.
Galileo, through May 4 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.