Brief Biography of Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht is known for his work in the theater, both as a playwright and director, as well as a theoretician. He was also an accomplished poet. Like all Europeans coming of age in the early twentieth century, the course of his life was drastically altered by World War I (which began when Brecht was just 16 and ended four years later) and by World War II (which Germany started in 1939). Brecht avoided being drafted into WWI by registering as a medical student at Munich University, where he first began working in theater. In the two decades between the wars, Brecht wrote multiple plays (including his most famous, The Threepenny Opera), established a theater company, and became wildly influential. When Hitler came to power, signaling the beginning of the second World War, Brecht (a socialist) fled the country, fearing political persecution. He ultimately landed in America, where he had a short-lived career in Hollywood, prior to being questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee and subsequently blackballed in movies. He moved to East Berlin shortly after the war, where he worked on refining his theory of “epic theater.” Today these theories of Brecht’s are his strongest influence. Most serious theater directors must, in some way, respond to them in their productions, and his impact can even be seen in the works of movie directors such as Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke.
Historical Context of The Life of Galileo
Life of Galileo can be said to take place at two times. The first is the time in which the play is set (Galileo’s Italy in the 1600s), and the second is the time in which the play was written (Brecht’s Europe in the 1930s). The two hold striking similarities. In Galileo’s time, new scientific ideas were emerging that challenged centuries of religious understanding of the world. In Brecht’s time, new political systems were coming to power in the form of fascism and communism. Like the scientific knowledge of Galileo’s day, the political changes in Brecht’s day were met with extreme resistance. Two facets of sixteenth-century Italy are important to understanding Life of Galileo. The first is the omnipresence of the Inquisition, a kind of religious police force first founded in medieval times to investigate charges of witchcraft and reestablished in Galileo’s day to protect against the rise of Protestantism. The Inquisition had extensive power in the Church and could bring people to trial (and punish them) at will. The second facet, not unrelated, is the importance of Aristotle to scientific knowledge at the time. Aristotle believed in a universe where the Sun and all other heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth. In turn, the Church accepted and promoted this belief. Others, most importantly Copernicus, had promoted the heliocentric model (of the Earth revolving around the Sun) with virtually no success, and sometimes at the risk of their own lives. Challenging Aristotle became a type of heresy: something the Inquisition would be very much involved in. Indeed, the trial of Galileo is likely the most famous of the Inquisition’s undertakings. The rise of fascism alluded to above specifically refers to the ascension of Hitler to the chancellorship of Germany just prior to World War II as well as the coming to power of fascist leaders in Italy and Japan. With Hitler’s rise the ability to speak out against the government became increasingly difficult, indeed illegal. At the same time, it became clear that a Europe already badly wearied by the events of World War I would soon be plunged into another global conflict. Some world leaders, such as Neville Chamberlain, attempted to stave this off by appeasing Hitler, but to no avail. It was a time of tumultuous change.
Other Books Related to The Life of Galileo
Using historical events to draw parallels with modern politics was a tool Brecht used in many of his plays, such as Mother Courage and her Children and The Threepenny Opera, Brecht’s most famous works. This has also been done by many other playwrights, including Arthur Miller with The Crucible and Jean Anouilh with Becket. Brecht’s ideas on “epic theater” (which can be seen in an early stage of development within Life of Galileo) were a direct response to Aristotle’s Poetics. They inspired multiple playwrights and stage directors, such as Dario Fo and Augusto Boal, as well as film directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Key Facts about The Life of Galileo
- Full Title: Life of Galileo
- When Written: 1938
- Where Written: Denmark
- When Published: 1940
- Literary Period: Modernism
- Genre: Play, Agitprop (Political Propaganda), Epic Theater
- Setting: Venice, Florence, and Rome
- Climax: Galileo (who appears to have abandoned his commitment to science) manages to secretly write a new scientific treatise and smuggle it out of Italy with the help of his former student.
- Antagonist: The Roman Catholic Church
- Point of View: (Play)
Extra Credit for The Life of Galileo
Life of Galileo opens on Galileo Galilei, a professor of mathematics at Padua University. He’s talking to Andrea (his housekeeper’s young son), who has just brought him breakfast. They’re discussing the solar system and how it works. Galileo shows Andrea a wooden model that illustrates the current, generally accepted understanding of the planets. In it, the Earth is in the middle of the universe and is surrounded by eight crystal spheres. These spheres represent the moon, the sun, and all the planets. People have believed this model for two-thousand years, Galileo says, but as mankind progresses in technology and knowledge, he suspects they won’t believe it for much longer. He teaches the ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus to Andrea (who calls Copernicus “Copper Knickers”). The new ideas place the Sun at the center of the solar system, with the Earth and planets revolving around it. All the other stars in the night sky are at the center of their own systems. Galileo uses the wooden model as well as a series of common-sense demonstrations with an apple to show Andrea how Copernicus’ theory could be true. Andrea believes him somewhat, but also questions Galileo whenever an argument seems weak. When Andrea’s mother, Mrs. Sarti, arrives, she expresses serious concerns about what Galileo is teaching Andrea, since it goes against the Church’s approved model and could therefore get Andrea into trouble at school.
Throughout all of this, another concern repeatedly appears: money. Galileo doesn’t have any, but he needs it—not just to continue his research and buy books—but also to do simple tasks like pay the milkman. So when Ludovico arrives, hoping to hire Galileo on as a tutor, Mrs. Sarti insists that Galileo accept the offer. He does, though not happily. Shortly afterwards, Galileo’s supervisor at Padua University (the Procurator) arrives to tell Galileo that his recent request for a raise has been denied. The Procurator suggests that, if the mathematician needs more money than his teaching job provides, he should invent something useful. He reminds Galileo that, while Padua (and more broadly, Venice) might not pay much, it at least offers freedom from persecution by the Church, which he might experience in other, better funded places (like Florence). Galileo responds that such freedom of thought may be nice, but it is meaningless if he spends all of his free time working to make ends meet instead of thinking.
Ludovico, however, provides a possible solution to Galileo’s problem: a new invention by the Dutch called the telescope. It’s still unheard of in Italy, but Ludovico has seen it put to wondrous uses abroad. Galileo instantly understands the mechanics behind the device and quickly replicates one, pawning it off as his own original invention. The Procurator, seeing the great many uses that the telescope could be put to, guarantees Galileo his raise. Shortly thereafter, however, a Dutch merchant arrives in Venice with a boatload of telescopes and Galileo’s deception is revealed. It doesn’t matter, though. He’s already used the telescope to empirically prove Copernicus’ theory (which he’d previously only been able to prove theoretically using mathematics). He excitedly tries to show this proof to his friend Sagredo, but Sagredo only reminds him that a man was burned at the stake for quoting Copernicus only a few months before. Undeterred, Galileo remains confident that the Church will be unable to avoid the truth when it’s right before their eyes. This confidence causes him to move to Florence where, despite being under strict religious censure, he believes he will have the time and money to explore his new findings.
With Galileo newly settled in, Cosimo Medici, the Grand Duke of Florence (who is still just a child), is brought by his counsellors to see the telescope at work. Among Cosimo’s party are a theologian, a mathematician, and a philosopher. All of them are wholly skeptical of Galileo’s latest findings and, after some heated debate with him, they decide that he’s a waste of time at best if not an outright lunatic. In the end, they won’t even look through the telescope to see the simple, observable evidence that Galileo presents as proof, though they do agree (in a way that seems less than sincere) to present Galileo’s information to the Church’s chief scientist, Clavius. Shortly thereafter, a deadly plague rips through Florence. Galileo, his daughter Virginia, Mrs. Sarti, and Andrea are given the chance to flee, but Galileo declines it, citing his need to work. Mrs. Sarti decides to stay behind with him, but they send Virginia and Andrea away. Andrea, however, opts to return despite the danger so that he can continue assisting Galileo.
All manage to avoid the plague and Galileo soon finds himself at the Vatican awaiting Clavius’ review of his work. The scene plays out in much the same way that the confrontation in Florence did: the Church’s scholars are simply too dedicated to the Church’s existing understanding of the universe to entertain alternatives. They all feel that Galileo’s telescope is a dangerous object and that his questioning of age-old wisdom is even more dangerous. A kind of fever overtakes the discussion and at one point an older cardinal faints while berating Galileo. Nevertheless, the scene ends with Clavius confirming that Galileo is correct. His words are followed up by “deadly silence.”
Though Galileo understandably feels that his work has been vindicated by Clavius, he soon discovers that the Inquisition has other ideas. They’ve decided that Copernicus remains heretical and cannot be taught. Paradoxically, though, they’ve accepted Galileo’s findings. What this means is that the Church has decided to allow Galileo to continue his research but not to publish it to the outside world. Galileo is upset by this, but also slightly overwhelmed—he is, after all, a devout Catholic who doesn’t wish to go against his Church, and these orders come from the highest levels of authority.
In the following scene, the Little Monk visits Galileo. He has looked through a telescope and observed the same things Galileo has. The discovery has shaken his faith, and in order to recover that faith, he has decided to abandon astronomy. He visits Galileo to explain why—perhaps in an effort to convince Galileo to do the same. Their long conversation doesn’t go quite as planned, however, and Galileo ends up converting the Little Monk into one of his students by offering him his manuscripts. Galileo compares these to “an apple from the tree of knowledge,” something he knows the Little Monk won’t be able to resist. Kept from publishing, Galileo has instead spread his knowledge to his students, who now include the Little Monk, Andrea, and Galileo’s telescope lens manufacturer, Federzoni.
Meanwhile, the Pope is dying and it seems likely that his successor will be Cardinal Barberini, a mathematician with whom Galileo has had favorable interactions in the past. Assuming that Barberini will be far more receptive to his work than the previous Pope, Galileo resumes publication. His ideas spread far and wide, seemingly overnight: he even becomes the subject of ballads sung at public fairs and carnivals. Naturally, this catches the eye of the Inquisition, who summon Galileo to the Vatican. While Barberini does indeed agree with Galileo, the politics behind supporting him are just too risky and complicated. Therefore, the new Pope has given the Inquisition the right to imprison Galileo, and even to threaten him with torture, in order to force him to renounce his work. Their plan succeeds, and Galileo recants his doctrine. His students can hardly believe it, and they turn their backs on him. They feel that Galileo has abandoned their hard and important work to save his own skin.
Nearly a decade passes. Galileo has been imprisoned in his home by the Inquisition and will remain so for the rest of his life. He’s forced to write dissertations approving the Church’s opinion on a number of banal matters, all of them below his abilities. These texts are carefully checked by a monk for any heresies they might contain, and any other writing is forbidden. Nevertheless, Galileo has, in secret, finished his magnum opus, TheDiscourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences. One day, Andrea comes to visit (the first of his old pupils to do so). At first, Andrea is cold towards his old mentor. Galileo reveals, however, that he did not recant his work in order to save his life. Rather, he recanted it so that he could continue it in secret. With Andrea’s help, Galileo manages to sneak The Discourse out of the country and into Holland, where it is published without censure.
Gill, Sean. "The Life of Galileo Plot Summary." LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 18 Sep 2017. Web. 13 Mar 2018.
Gill, Sean. "The Life of Galileo Plot Summary." LitCharts LLC, September 18, 2017. Retrieved March 13, 2018. http://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-life-of-galileo/summary.