A Note From Galileo’s Artistic Director
A Mighty Rotation
“Brecht!” a friend of mine exclaimed with that faint touch of disdain that is usually reserved toward those of us who are woefully ignorant of the latest lengths in hemlines or widths of ties. “Shouldn’t he be as gone as the Berlin Wall?” my unnamed friend continued. “Sure, you can find pieces of the Wall on someone’s shelf or in some musty museum, just like you can still find fragments of Brecht’s influence in our modern musicals or in some quote from an essay by Tony Kushner—but would you really want to reassemble either? I mean who, in their right mind, would want to be shut up again within all that antiquated ideology?”
I suspect my friend is not alone in feeling that Brecht, his plays, poetry and theories have somehow all become invalid with the fall of the Soviet Union. But Brecht seems to have been too wily in life and in art to allow his work to be so easily dismissed. Brecht was a master of many things. Thankfully top on his list of specialties was the art of survival—a knack he developed to great aplomb, enabling him to flee the Nazi menace as well as run rings around the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was able to dodge the infamous interrogative: “Are you now or have you ever been…” by feigning an ignorance to the subtleties of the English language—a language, mind you that he had no problem collaborating in when it came to screenplays, adaptations and even a possible Broadway musical. But Brecht politely answered the committee’s enquiries as best he could, then left for a departing airliner bound for his homeland. Even when he became one of East Germany’s most famous citizens he still maintained a Dutch passport, just in case he changed that wonderfully dialectical mind of his.
Certainly someone so skilled in navigating the dangers of those perilous times would know how to protect the future of his work. A slow but steady resurgence of articles, books and productions seems to suggest this might indeed be the case.
Returning to many of Brecht’s late works, one is immediately surprised by how vital, alive and just plain fun the storytelling remains; along with the discovery of a dazzling multiplicity of potential interpretations that moves beyond the expected Marxist allegory. In fact, with the distance of time, our early (polarized) reading of Brecht as merely allegorical feels less accurate; the work seems to have deepened, opening up to the richer and more ambiguous realm of parable. It is, perhaps, this move toward a parable structure that places Brecht’s late work in a similar relationship to that of Shakespeare and Chekhov.
Take, for example, GALILEO. One quickly dispenses with the historical representation of the famous astronomer and is confronted with a dizzying array of potential modern relevancies. Brecht, himself, was eager to help an audience toward such readings by initially hinting at the historical parallels between Galileo and Oppenheimer; how Galileo’s submission to the church was similar to Oppenheimer’s submission to the government’s need for nuclear supremacy. Here, in this reading, the promise of a new physics does not usher in a new era of possibility but a return to the age-old battles of dominance that are now given a nuclear inflection.
Although Brecht alluded to this corollary over and over again, it is interesting to note that several significant drafts of GALILEO would be completed before Brecht had ever heard of Oppenheimer or his terrible new creation. This has led other commentators to suggest that the actual secret reading of GALILEO has little to do with Oppenheimer and much more to do with the systematic destruction of the legendary Soviet revolutionary Bukharin who was one of the first victims to recant as part of Stalin’s show trails. In this reading of the play, Bukharin represents the emancipatory energies of revolution that are ultimately muzzled by Stalin’s return to authoritarian control; an impulse that marks so many historical moments where radical change flourishes for a brief moment and then is inevitably contained.
Other commentators cannot help seeing Galileo as a mirror for Brecht himself. Particularly the Brecht in his American exile whose radical new theories of theater and playwriting had been met with a kind of blanket indifference that rivaled the blind intolerance that confronted his hero Galileo. This seemingly universal dismissal by Hollywood and Broadway took its toll on Brecht, who subsequently jettisoned his new, experimental writing for a return to a more old-fashioned, normative manner of storytelling that the play GALILEO inaugurates. One cannot help but wonder what the younger Brecht would have made of his future self’s stylistic submission? Would he not see it as a kind of aesthetic recantation in the grand manner of Galileo Galilei? Yet another acquiescence of the revolutionary to the status quo?
Critic Fredric Jameson sees a common thread running through each of these three scenarios, regardless of whether the secret focus is on Oppenhiemer, Bukharin, or Brecht himself. What each of these stories re-enacts, for him, is the perennial battle between “the new” and “the old.” Jameson writes that Galileo’s fundamental sin is against “the New Itself…that mighty rotation in the river of time” that leads to the dawning of a New Age, and, conversely, how quickly that New Age is susceptible to the diurnal pull of a counterrevolution that contains and controls these potential progressive/revolutionary forces, silencing them before they fully speak.
History, according to Brecht, offers us these windows of opportunity and change. The question is, how can we keep such “windows” open? His GALILEO tells us, “As a scientist I had an almost unique opportunity. In my day astronomy emerged into the marketplace. At that particular time, had one man put up a fight, it could have had wide repercussions.” Brecht and Galileo left this “fight” to a later day, to us. The question is can we, at the dawning of this New Age, heed Brecht and Galileo’s “call to arms” and make a better, truer world? Can we, at this late date, even afford to wait with the advent of such hotly-contested issues as global warming? Will this indeed be a “New Age” or the much-dreaded “End of Times”? I cannot help but think of the following couplet that concludes the prologue of the play: “For if we don’t learn from Galileo’s experience/Our planet might be making its final appearance.”
– Brian Kulick, Artistic Director