Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 23, 2024

JHU Theatre’s Galileo follows Brecht, not the “Brechtian”

By TIMOTHY MCSHEA | April 10, 2024



The mechanic, Federzoni (Asa Woo; left), takes a look at the cosmos through Galileo's (Katherine Budinger; right) amplified adaptation of the telescope.

In a continued effort to bring relevant plays to Homewood Campus, JHU Theatre recently presented Galileo, a play by Bertolt Brecht, with five performances from Wednesday, April 3 through Sunday, April 7. The production comes in a long line of scientifically and academically centered plays selected by the department, including Aristophanes’ The Clouds and D.W. Gregory’s sobering Radium Girls, which portrayed the startling effects of radium on women working in a dial-painting factory. 

The play tells the story of Galileo Galilei’s (Katherine Budinger) astronomical discoveries, specifically his founding of the Copernican system, which denied that Earth was the center of the universe and proved the solar system was, indeed, heliocentric. In order to attain funding to support his scientific research, after gaining a tip from Ludovico Marsili (Hanna Al-Kowsi) about the telescope being used in sailing, Galileo makes his own telescope and markets it as a new invention. Behind the scenes, while the curator of the University of Padua — Priuli (Melissa Shohet) — is busy trying to sell the tool to a public already aware of its cheap reproducibility, Galileo is using the telescope to discover startling facts about the universe.

First, Galileo must contend with the stubborn Philosopher (Benjamin Roberts) and Mathematician (Kate Ketelhohn), who repudiate the idea of heliocentrism while never taking a single glance through the telescope themselves. The public trusts the two holdouts, and the crowd laughs at the Mathematician’s crude jokes.

Next, the Inquisition investigates and forbids Galileo to argue for the results of his research. Through many heartbreaking scenes, we are forced to realize the futility of the situation. Long before the tenets of empiricism, Galileo’s faith in humanity’s evidence-based logic was unfounded. Eventually threatened with death, Galileo finally succumbs to the Church’s threats and publicly revolts against his own beliefs, living the rest of his life under house arrest, conducting secretive research which would go on to become immensely important for the study of physics.

To summarize: Galileo is not portrayed as a clear-cut hero. Brecht’s combined passion for historical accuracy and Marxist belief culminates in a retelling where Galileo is neither martyr nor savior. He deceives the University of Padua for funding, both for his research and his own cost of living. And when his life is directly threatened, he turns back on his research. He isn’t willing to die just for some grand “idea.” As Brecht said, “Grub first, then ethics.” Galileo needs grub, and so certain ethical considerations, both of his own conscience and the field of science, are forgotten.

In my talk with the director, James Glossman, after the performance, I asked the obligatory question: How do the “Brechtian” elements factor into this production? Brecht, alongside figures like Kafka and Orwell, has become more of an adjective than a proper noun. Things like gestus, historicization and the “alienation effect” have become staples of multiple 21st-century playwrights. So, while it might seem redundant to try and pinpoint what is so “Brechtian” about this play by Brecht, it is a legitimate question: How far has our perception of the “Brechtian” been abstracted, when compared with Brecht himself?

“I think people get messed up by sometimes studying the essays of Brecht,“ Glossman said. “Because he was a poet, I mean he was a poet before anything else. He's a dramatic poet like Shakespeare, or Molière … And I think there’s this idea of Brecht that’s very formal, [partially] because of the Berliner Ensemble that did it a certain way because that’s what the first directors did. They did masks and heavy makeup … a stylized performance. And at some point that became ‘Brechtian.’ The plays are what the plays are.”

It’s no secret that Brecht was a strong proponent of political advocacy in art. His main goal was a “dialectical materialism,” which would in some ways alienate the audience from the plot of the play itself, encouraging the spectator to be critical of what was presented. In Galileo, this can be seen from multiple angles. The cardinals in Rome use Biblical idioms to dispute claims of science, an older cardinal emphatically preaches against Galileo’s “theories” before falling over from physical weakness, and in general, when the whole stage laughs, the audience is dead silent. In this effect alone, Galileo is a good example of this alienation. 

But aside from this, there were a few moments where the “alienation” hardly felt intentional. Some of Brecht’s internal ironicisms and sarcastic lines seemed to fall flat, either due to a poorly timed stumbling of words or the projected animation of real photos taken by space telescopes, which felt more like a cheesy ending to a Disney movie. These moments were hardly Brechtian; there is an important difference between intended alienation and purely unintentional detachment from a spectator’s perspective. 

There were multiple scenes in the second half of this production which legitimately made me feel sick to my stomach, in a good way. The bell scene, which I take to be the climax of the story, is adequately prefaced by multiple scenes of uneasy tension. As Galileo and his daughter, Virginia (Lulu Hassanein), walk through the streets of Florence heading toward the Medici Palace to deliver the astronomer’s newest book on the “mechanics of the universe,” they notice that no one wishes to look at them directly or engage in any conversation. 

Troubled, the two wait at the palace, until the Cardinal Inquisitor walks past, and in a quite deliberate instant of gestus, slowly looks up toward Galileo with a mischievous grin. Nothing in their short exchange of words inherently admits hostility, but the sheer gravity with which the Inquisitor chooses to acknowledge Galileo creates a tension I have never before felt in a theater. 

The clear embracing of gestus in this play through revealing movements and gestures made me aware of the intense cruelty of the situation presented. To me, sitting right in front of the stage next to the far side, against a wall, the Cardinal Inquisitor had become more than an abstracted figure portrayed by actor Mark Gonzales, an artist focused in his craft, but somehow the character and the actor became simultaneous — I felt that the Inquisitor was aware of the function of the play itself and was taking gleeful pride in the portrayal of its most indecent qualities. 

The following scene held even more of a vise on my gut, taking us to Rome where our only indication of Galileo’s fate rested in the premonition of St. Mark’s bells. As the many characters on stage indirectly explain, including Galileo’s prized companion Andrea Sarti (Audrey Douglas) and mechanic Federzoni (Asa Woo), if the bells chimed, then it would mean Galileo has decided to renounce his findings.

After a prolonged silence, which went on … and on … pulling the audience closer … the bells do not chime. With elation, Andrea and Federzoni rejoice, in long exclamations of joy and bliss, dragging the play further and further, until … the bells cut their victory short. Galileo has disavowed the results of his research. His friends collapse in despair.

In the next scene, when Andrea learns Galileo has been doing research in secret, Andrea once again attempts to make a hero out of Galileo, thinking he had renounced his beliefs only so that he could continue to do more incredibly important research. Galileo, in his humility, stops Andrea. “I recanted because I was afraid of physical pain,” he says. And, with intense gravity, “They showed me the instruments.”

Despite its criticisms of the Church and religion, there is still an element of faith in this scene, albeit detached from its theological connotation. From faith to nihilism, from nihilism to faith, Brecht is an expert at making you expect one thing, anticipate another, and in the end renounce both, either leaving you with a gut-wrenching despair, or a sober, contented wisdom. Each scene ends with a confusing mixture of heartbreak and absurd hope. Whatever the aim, it’s a feeling one can’t commodify. It might be scientific, artistic or simply human — it’s a discovery nonetheless.

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