Galileo in Venice, Florence, Berlin, London

The London portion (also known as the active portion) of my summer has now begun. I arrived Thursday evening, and feel quite vindicated in my championing of daytime (vs. overnight) transatlantic flights; I have thus far made a fairly seamless transition to the different time zone. Of course, I say this on the evidence of only two nights' sleep, and I will now doubtless be punished for my arrogance with a series of sleepless nights and haggard days. I should also note that my internet access is quite erratic here, and my blog entries may come not only in fits and starts (as they have always done before) but also in odd little flurries, as I transfer them in groups from my notebooks to the web.

On my first full day here I had, in my desperate mania for the stage, scheduled a trip to the theatre, so I sleepily marched off to the South Bank with my grandparents in tow (as much as the world's most energetic octogenarians could ever be said to be in tow). We arrived to see the strip of the riverside between the London Eye and the National Theatre (and even beyond, I suspect, past the Millennium Bridge) looking more lively and welcoming than ever before. The restaurants and shops (now 1 year old) at the base of Royal Festival Hall have drawn chirpy young crowds, the skaters have not been displaced (nor the booksellers), and when we arrived at the National Theatre an enormous bicycle race was just beginning in front of it.

We saw a very serviceable production at the Olivier Theatre of Brecht's "Life of Galileo," in a comfortable adaptation by David Hare and directed by Howard Davies. I hadn't read "Galileo" since high school, and remember almost nothing about it, so I am afraid I can't really speak to the success of the translation or any differences between Hare's play and the original. Simon Russell Beale does a nuanced, sympathetic turn as the scientist, whom the plays follows from mid-career in the Venetian mercantile Republic through his decision to move to Florence and the protection of the Medici family to his eventual capitulation to the Inquisition. Unfortunately, several of the other principal actors (mostly, I am sad to say, the women) give uneven, mechanical performances, and the play relies to a lamentable degree on the inconsistent performances of child actors. Although these theatrical glitches disrupt the intellectual cohesion of the play in a not altogether Brechtian sort of way, they cannot outweigh the strength of Beale's performance, which is natural and seamlessly didactic.

The set, I should note, is quite brilliant, structured by an all-encompassing, skeletal globe. The Olivier's complex drum-revolve staging turns perpetually within this sphere, evoking both the rotation of the earth and metal models of the Copernican universe. At the same time, we are constantly reminded of the oasis of Galileo's thinking (the stage surrounded by this skeletal globe most often represents his study) contained within the constant pressure of the Church (dominating much of Italian and European thought surrounding him) to adhere to a Aristotelian crystal-spheres cosmology.

There is always the fear with Brecht's work that it will urge its case too earnestly and with too much reference to its own historical context. Does a materialist or historicist worldview (clearly at the root of this play, as Galileo's cry that "Truth is the child of Time!" makes more than clear) sow the seeds of its own undoing, a sort of literary planned obsolescence?

In fact, the play is very timely (such a wonderfully double-edged word), creating a palimpsest that allows us to see through Galileo's Venice, Florence and Rome to both Brecht's world and our own. This is, fundamentally, a narrative about the drive towards knowledge and that contentious idea of truth. Its conflict is the conflict of knowledge's relation to justice. What, the play asks, is the proper relationship between the proletariat and middle-class academics under pressure to produce profitable and ideologically acceptable discoveries? In Venice we see the insidious effects the free market has on research, and in Florence and Rome the even more pernicious effects of religion.

My grandmother wondered why Brecht made Galileo's daughter stupid (an excellent question, since Dava Sobel's "Galileo's Daughter" reveals that at least one of his daughters was a trusted intellectual interlocutor). The answer, I think, is that Brecht's Virginia Galilei (or at least Hare's) is less stupid than faithful, and her affectionate presence in the household places Galileo at the crux of the dichotomy between faith's emotional pull and his quest for a more empirical, verifiable truth. My grandmother also wondered what her mother, who adhered strictly to her church's teachings, would have made of this play's debates. I myself could only respond by questioning how present-day creationists would view them.

"The Life of Galileo" - ***1/2
by Bertolt Brecht
In a version by David Hare
Directed by Howard Davies
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
London, UK