Now that my novel is done and dusted I’ve been concentrating on writing a collection of short stories inspired by science. One of the stories is about Brecht writing, and then rewriting, his play ‘Life of Galileo’ (Timely, because there’s a new production by the RSC).
Brecht wrote the first version of this play in Norway in 1938. In this version he’s a cunning man, publicly telling the Catholic Church and its inquisitors what they want to hear, but only as a strategy for survival so that he can secretly carry on with his work. He’s a typical Brechtian anti-hero, fully able to subvert the power of the authorities for his own purposes.
Partly prompted by the use of atom bombs at the end of the second World War Brecht did a major rewrite of the play, when he was living in the USA in 1947. This version shows Galileo as someone who recants his life work, simply out of fear of the Inquisition. Even when other characters in the play attempt to put a better gloss on his actions, he corrects them and says he was afraid of being tortured, and that is why he gave in. In this version Galileo has a long speech at the end of the play in which he says;
‘Science’s sole aim must be to lighten the burden of human existence. If the scientists, brought to heel by self-interested rulers, limit themselves to piling up knowledge for knowledge’s sake then science can be crippled and your new machines will lead to nothing but new impositions. Your cry of triumph at some new achievement will be echoed by a universal cry of horror. As a scientist I had a unique opportunity. Had I stood firm the scientists could have developed something like the doctors’ Hippocratic oath, a vow to use their knowledge exclusively for mankind’s benefit.’
So the moral of the story has completely changed, from ‘subvert the authorities in any way possible; the ends justify the means’ to ‘behave in such a way as to set an example to others; the means are all-important’.
Brecht portrayed Galileo as the first of modern scientists, someone who had a responsibility to set an example of how scientists should engage with the authorities. He saw a link between Galileo failing to stand up to the Inquisition and the scientists in the Manhattan project agreeing to develop a nuclear bomb for the US Government, and he meant Galileo’s despairing speech to be taken as a cry of warning to twentieth century scientists.
But the reality of the interaction between scientists and the authorities (whether they’re the Church or a democratically elected Government) is rather more complex, and perhaps Brecht knew this. At the same time as Galileo denies that he has done anything to undermine the authorities, he is giving a copy of his forbidden manuscript to a friend so it can be smuggled out of Italy. His actions challenge any simplistic interpretation of his words.
And Brecht’s own actions somewhat complicate his interpretation of how scientists should behave. Shortly after ‘Life of Galileo’ was given its first English performance in Los Angeles, Brecht was summoned to give evidence to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which was just beginning to consider the influence of organised Communist activities in the USA. Brecht was one of the very first people required to give evidence and initially decided against doing so. However he then changed his mind, gave evidence and left the USA for good the next day.
As ever with Brecht, there is more than one interpretation of his actions. By appearing at HUAC, he helped to validate the process and this was explicitly acknowledged by the Chairman who thanked him for setting a good example to the other witnesses. But if you watch his testimony, it becomes apparent that he was also mocking the whole set-up, and his performance made the onlookers laugh. So again, he undermines his own text and reminds us that we are more complex than any single belief system can account for.