I said last time I posted that I would write about the RSC’s current production of Bertolt Brecht’s A Life of Galileo, performed in Mark Ravenhill’s new translation. Unfortuately, life got away from me this week, and as a result it is now seven days since I saw it. Nevertheless there are aspects of the production still clear enough in my mind for me to want to think about it afresh, so better late than never.
The first thing I should say is that this is a very fine production and if you have the chance to see it you should take it. Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of Galileo himself is superb. Mind you, what else would you expect? I don’t think I’ve ever seen him put a foot wrong on the stage. However, it is an ensemble piece and there isn’t a weak link in the company. No, it isn’t the production that made me want to write about this play, but the way in which I found myself reacting to what I was watching and how that made me think about the nature of what Brecht was trying to achieve.
The first thing that struck me was how difficult it is these days to stage Brecht in a way that provokes a Brechtian response. As audiences, perhaps particularly as Stratford audiences, who see so much theatre done in non-traditional ways, we are very hard to alienate. Believe me, over the years I’ve been going to Stratford (more than half a century, now) I’ve seen directors try pretty much everything to put a new face on Shakespeare, so the techniques that worked for Brecht in the 1930s are really the norm now. I have a caveat to this, but it belongs in another post so I won’t go there for the moment. My immediate point is that I’m not certain it’s possible for us to experience any Brecht play as the playwright intended and I feel that as a loss.
More particularly, however, I don’t feel that we can experience this play as Brecht intended for a different reason and that is the way our attitude to the Church has changed in the intervening years since it was written. Seeing this at the end of a week in which a Pope prepared to retire and a Cardinal resigned after allegations of sexual impropriety were brought against him, how is the fact that the Church is accused of suppressing knowledge to ensure that its power base isn’t threatened supposed to shock me? That isn’t to say that I didn’t want to get up on stage and thump the clerics responsible, I did. (I am not someone you should ever go to the theatre with – I bring getting involved to a whole new level!) But that’s the way I feel about anyone who abuses power and thinks they have a right to suppress whatever threatens their status. It had nothing to do with an institution I thought could not be challenged being exposed as hypocrites and sadists. I thought this was a really good play, but I don’t think I was seeing the play that Brecht wanted his audiences to see.
However, there is, of course, a fact that we have to take into account here. Brecht actually re-wrote this play. The first script was completed in early 1939 and was the playwright’s reaction to the rise of the Nazis, having himself fled Germany six years earlier. In this version Galileo’s recantation is a means of covering his continuing research. He is the glimmer of hope that while persecution holds sway over much of the world in some small corner discoveries are still being made that will eventually bring about great good. Only the discoveries that Brecht saw being made by the scientist who had fled the Third Reich did not, to his mind, bring about great good. Already uneasy about some of the activities he had seen in America, after the dropping of the Atomic Bombs in August 1945 Brecht re-wrote the ending of the play to reflect those concerns and it is this version that has made its way to the Stratford stage. So, perhaps Ironically, rather than seeing the Church as the real complicated villains I found myself asking if the villain of the piece wasn’t actually Galileo himself. It wasn’t that he recanted. I’m absolutely sure that faced with the prospect of torture I would have done the same. I am no hero. No, it was more to do with his attitude that you pursue science step by step to its logical end, regardless of what the consequences might be, and that anyone who challenges you is wrong. Galileo could be seen as building a new power base every bit as tyrannical as the one he had rebelled against.
The ethical waters that I’m getting myself into here are deep and very very murky and it is a bright sunny morning, so I’m not going there. But, I shall go on thinking about this over the next days and weeks. It will worry away at the corners of my mind. And ultimately that is what good theatre should always be about. It should make the audience think and question the world in which they live. This was very good theatre indeed.