A “new” and “historical” theatre in Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo ?
The Almeida Theatre charges around £22 per performance, the National Theatre even more. Most probably these were not the kind of figures that Brecht, a leftwing, if not to say Marxist writer, had in mind when he set out to create a theatre for the masses, to be driven out into “the suburbs”. However, just like Brecht’s ideas about theatre changed throughout his career as a dramaturg and a playwright, most prominently embodied in the three different versions of Life of Galileo (in addition to minor variations of different productions Brecht was involved in himself), moving away from the formalist epic theatre towards a dialectical one, so have our perceptions of the theatre, and what was new and revolutionary during the early years of the play’s production has now been reappropriated by high culture. While Brecht displayed a great awareness of the need to continuously adapt his play in order to not only make it appropriate for the times, but also to maintain it appropriate in the light of changing times, different productions of the play have only done so with limited courage and success, leading to the sad result that what Life of Galileo once embodied is usually not entirely what it embodies now.
Brecht lived at a time of ideological crisis. During his lifetime he experienced and bore witness to two World Wars, the rise of fascism, political persecution and the exploitation of scientific advance, culminating in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima in 1945. New advances in science changed previously held beliefs about life, and his involvement with Marxism in the 1920s led him to believe that a new society was to arise and that it was his responsibility as an artist to contribute to its formation and to represent it. The inevitable result was his dissatisfaction with the “old” forms of European theatre based on Aristotle, which, in the face of changing contemporary circumstances were, Brecht thought, inadequate to represent social reality.
Brecht’s “new” and “historical” theatre was in opn opposition to the European tradition of theatre that, up to that point, had to a large extent been defined in terms of Aristotle’s theory of drama. In Aristotelian tragedy the fall of the great (usually caused by wrong decisions) is supposed to cause empathy in the spectator and lead, thus, to Aristotelian catharsis. It usually takes places in only one setting and over a very limited period of time, aiming for a “closed” form of drama with a clear, linear plot and with a definite beginning, main part and end. ”. Opposed to Aristotles’ “closed” drama, Brecht aimed for an “open” form, thematically reflected in the play by the “shut in” ptolemaic system based on Aristotle’s world view. The individual episodes were to be only loosely connected, all contributing, however, to the play’s main theme. Instead, the scenes are united by means of the repetition of the main characters, settings and motifs. While Aristotelian theatre aimed at the identification of the spectator with the character and at emotional involvement, Brecht believed that, in order for the audience to be critical and intellectually involved in the play, distance was needed, the audience needed to be alienated. His new, epic theatre was not to be “culinary”, or, in other words, for easy consumption, but to appeal to reason.
As critics and playwrights claim alike, Brecht revolutionarized the theatre. Through a new form of drama, he wanted to create a theatre for the masses, which was to “use the means of representation to create an understanding of the “rules” by which society was “governed”. This accurate representation of social reality was to serve the aim of entertaining the “children of the scientific age”. What Brecht missed in the bourgeois theatre, which he heavily criticized, was fun. “In all the easily heated, prettily lighted, money-devouring, imposing looking theatres, and in all the stuff that is offered in them, there is no longer five cents’ worth of fun.” By providing a pleasurable theatre for the “children of the scientific age”, Brecht was simultaneously attempting to unite learning and entertainment, creating pleasure out of the dialectics in life, opposing the “high” modernists’ emphasis on aesthetics.
Brecht himself wrote three distinct versions of Life of Galileo and different translations and interpretations of the play make it impossible to treat it like a single entity. Since the so-called “American version” of the play has formed the basis for most subsequent performances, it is this version I will be referring to when discussing Brecht’s own realization of his ideas. However, since the text was written for performance, the play’s success, with reference to Brecht’s aims, largely depends on the decisions and interpretations of the corresponding directors so that the text cannot be regarded as entirely authoritative. Furthermore, I will, in particular, look at Losey’s 1947 production as well as his 1975 film version, both based on Laughton’s translation of the play and, thus, show how far Brecht’s ideas about theatre were embodied in Life of Galileo, as written by Brecht himself (with Laughton’s collaboration), as well as through two somewhat differenttypes of representation (theatre and film) at different times.
As Brecht elaborated in his Short Organum for the Theatre, the main aim of his “new theatre” was to provoke the audience to think about the status quo, question what is commonly accepted to be the “Truth”, and to show both as alterable. In Scene 1, Ludovico expresses his confusion about a concave and a convex lense, one magnifying and the other one reducing, not cancelling each other out, an assumption that most of us would have made, too, yet we do not question how a telescope works. His use of a historical setting, moreover, emphasizes how common (and possibly wrong) beliefs have managed to survive. While scientific “ignorance” may not surprise us in a rich young man living in the 17th century, realizing that we still hold the same beliefs nowadays is disturbing and alienating. Brecht, thus, shows that some things are so obvious to us today that we take them for granted. Similarly, when Federzoni exclaims that nobody ever “checked up” on Aristotle, who had claimed that a needle could not float (again, something most of us would have assumed, too), the audience is more or less explicitly invited to “check up” on old beliefs, such as the way society works. (Indirectly, the reference to Aristotle here could also be seen as a further criticism of his theatre and a justification of Brecht’s new theatrical practices.)
 Walder, in Brown & Gupta, p. 327
 in Hecht (1961), p. 54
 Brecht (1949)