Home > 1930, 1950, 20th Century, American Literature, Brecht Bertold, Classics, German Literature, Highly Recommended, History of the USA, Theatre, Uncategorized > Theatre: The Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht and The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Theatre: The Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht and The Crucible by Arthur Miller

December 1, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

November was German Lit Month and a total miss for me. I still couldn’t read Berlin Alexanderplatz and didn’t have time to read anything else. But! I finished this month on an excellent note. I saw the play Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht.

As frequent readers of this blog know, I have a subscription to the Théâtre des Célestins, a majestic theatre in Lyon. This Life of Galileo (1938) was directed by Claudia Stavisky and Galileo was played by the great actor Philippe Torreton.

Brecht relates Galileo’s life from the moment he figures out that the Earth rotates around the sun and subsequently destroys Aristotle’s vision of the cosmos. The play shows a Galileo who unknowingly works on the foundation of modern physics by putting emphasis on experimenting and demonstrating concepts. We know what happened, the Catholic Church felt threatened. Religions in general work on the basis of certainty and “absolute thinking”. They know the truth, which automatically means that what they say can’t be challenged and those who don’t think the way they do are in the wrong. And here we have a man who preaches doubt as a way of thinking: challenge everything you take for granted, you might be surprised. It can’t go well for him. Religions also hold their sacred texts as the truth and sometimes take them literally. How to reconcile the Bible with science? That’s another question.

Brecht’s point is also that the Catholic Church is an instrument in the hands of princes and kings to keep the people under their yoke. Don’t worry if your life is miserable, you’ll go to heaven and eternal life is way longer than this earthly one, so why bother. If the Church has to acknowledge that the Aristotelian vision of the world was a mistake, then it means that what they taught was wrong. It will undermine their power on the little people’s minds.

Galileo also believed in the democratization of knowledge. He wrote books in Italian instead of Latin because he wanted them to be accessible. That was another thorn in the Church’s side. (Remember that the mass was in Latin until 1962.)

The holy trinity of theatre was met for Life of Galileo. First we have a brilliant text by Brecht, easy to follow and engrossing. Then we have Claudia Stavisky’s wonderful direction. She managed –again—to give a contemporary vibe to a text and inject liveliness in something that could have been a dry argument. (Read here how she turned a play by Corneille into a fun rom com without betraying the original text). And last but not least, we have Torreton’s exceptional acting skills. I’ve seen him several time on stage, like in I Take My Father on My Shoulders by Fabrice Melchiot or in Cyrano de Bergerac and I’m always in awe. He’s on stage as if he were in his living room. His speech seems effortless and for the public, it’s magic. We’re catapulted into the story because he sounds real, not staged.

For the anecdote, I noted two small anachronisms in the text: once a character mentions “cm3”, when the metric system came with the French Revolution and another time, a character says “Versailles” to refer or France but Louis XIV moved permanently in Versailles in 1682 and Galileo died in 1642.

So, if you’re in France and you see La vie de Galilée in your theatre, hurry up and buy tickets for this play, it even has subtitles in English. As far as German Lit Month is concerned, maybe I should stick to reading plays, I enjoy Brecht and Bernhard.

Earlier in the theatre season, I also saw The Crucible by Arthur Miller, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. (In French, it’s translated as Les Sorcières de Salem). Miller wrote this play in 1953 as an allegory of McCarthyism. While I disliked the hysterical parts when the witches behave as if they were possessed, the process leading to the wrongful condemnation of twenty innocent people was implacable.

The play shows what happens when people are impervious to objective reasoning. It explores how quickly a community becomes suspicious and falls under the spell of people who are affirmative, who shout louder than the others and stir up our basest instincts.

It also pictures well how greed comes into the equation and how the witch hunt becomes an opportunity to put one’s hands on someone’s property. The play dissects the fight between Reason and Religious Belief. Here, Religion presses the buttons of intellectual laziness: nothing needs to be challenged and the scriptures are always right. Plus, you have to believe first and think after. The Crucible shows how difficult it is for sensible thinking to engage swords with objective reasoning. The mechanics of the trial is unstoppable and until the end, the spectator of the 21st century expects that the truth wins, that such a blatant mistake cannot be hold as the truth. But of course, that’s not what happened.

These two plays echo with our times. Social networks are an open agora where everyone’s opinion has the same weight. Opinions are the great influencers of our century. How long will real journalists and honest scientists have voices strong enough to be heard over the mayhem of unruly tweets and intellectual dishonesty? Seen from my European corner, the battle seems lost in the US. Sandwiched between an opinionated trash TV, a president who spouts nonsenses on a daily basis and loud fundamentalist Christians, is there room left for rational thinking? If Galileo came to visit the 21st century, wouldn’t he be distraught to see creationism taught in some schools?

But Europe is not out the woods either. These are hot topics here too. The fact that theatre directors pick these plays proves that it is a preoccupation. J’accuse, the film about the Dreyfus Affair made 0.8 million of entries in two weeks. (4th in the French box office) It is the breathtaking relation of the Dreyfus trial and the long way to his rehabilitation. It sure doesn’t show France into a favorable light, something Proust describes thoroughly under the apparent lightness of society life. Zola and Voltaire are pillars of our national Pantheon because they fought for someone trialed and condemned, not fort their acts but due to the biased functioning of the courts. Dreyfus for Zola, Calas for Voltaire. J’accuse coming out in 2019 is not a coincidence. We see extremists raise their ugly heads again and it is a cold reminder of what happens when they worm themselves into the workings of administrations.

It all comes down to safeguarding the concepts of the Age of Enlightenment.

  1. December 1, 2019 at 1:22 pm

    Ha, interestingly, I had both The Crucible and Galileo as texts for my entrance examinations to university (for English and German literature respectively)… I suppose you can see how under Communism they were perceived as anti-church texts, although of course they say much more about any kind of ideology that is left unquestioned and becomes tyrannical.

    Like

    • December 1, 2019 at 1:37 pm

      They are anti-ideology texts in general.

      For the director of the Life of Galileo, we are facing the same challenge as the people at Galileo’s time. His theories put their world upside down. We have to face the fact that globalization and capitalism have gone wild and that we need to change of ideology.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. December 1, 2019 at 1:43 pm

    I studied early astronomy and physics years ago at uni, but didn’t know Brecht had written a play about Galileo. There were a number of scientists at that time who were sure the Earth went round the Sun, which after all was first postulated by the Greeks. My favourite was Kepler, who worked out that the orbits of the planets were elliptical and not compounded circles which was the old idea. But Galileo was the greatest publicist and he suffered for it, though don’t forget Bruno who was burnt at the stake.

    Like

    • December 1, 2019 at 9:39 pm

      Brecht mentions Copernicus and Bruno, who was burnt, indeed.

      I didn’t know you had studied astronomy, wow. I was never good with physics and that kind of concept. It’s a great play to read. (or listen to? Maybe there’s an audio version)

      Like

      • December 1, 2019 at 11:41 pm

        I passed maths in first year engineering then switched to History and Philosophy of Science. But dropped out after passing first year. And here I am, a truck driver.

        Like

        • December 2, 2019 at 10:48 pm

          You are much more than a truck driver, Bill. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  3. December 1, 2019 at 3:17 pm

    Thank you the wonderful post, you’ve made those theatre productions so vivid I can almost see them. Don’t totally despair of the US; the crazies scream very loudly but there are many more quieter voices of sanity that may hopefully prevail.

    Like

    • December 1, 2019 at 9:41 pm

      Thanks for the warm comment. I often wonder if it’s really that interesting to read about plays when you didn’t see them. You just told me it can be interesting.
      We have a lot of theatres in France, often full. Yesterday’s play was sold out. I guess we love live shows.

      I hope you’re right and that the crazies are just the most visible and that the silent majority will keep the power.

      Like

  4. December 2, 2019 at 6:02 pm

    Wow, the Brecht, I would have gone to that one. What a theater.

    The English translation of Galileo is thought to be especially good. It is by the English actor Charles Laughton, collaborating with Brecht. I’ve never seen it performed, though.

    Like

    • December 2, 2019 at 10:49 pm

      The Brecht was outstanding. And now, they put English subtitles on some plays! The theatre is tending to international inhabitants of the city.

      Like

  1. December 15, 2019 at 11:02 am

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