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Life of Galileo

Life of Galileo
1971 Berliner Ensemble production
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Characters Galileo, Andrea Sarti, Mrs Sarti, Ludovico Marsili, Virginia, Sagredo, Federzoni, Mr Priuli, Cosimo de Medici, Father Christopher Clavius, Cardinal Barberini, Fillipo Mucius, Mr Gaffone, Vanni, Senator, 1st Monk, Puppeteer, Rector
Date premiered 1945
Original language German
Subject Social responsibility of scientists
Genre Historical drama
Setting Renaissance Italy

Life of Galileo (German: Leben des Galilei), also known as Galileo, is a play by the twentieth-century German dramatist Bertolt Brecht with incidental music by Hanns Eisler.

The second (or 'American') version was written between 1945–1947, in collaboration with Charles Laughton. The play received its first theatrical production (in German) at the Zurich Schauspielhaus, opening on 9 September 1948. This production was directed by Leonard Steckel, with set-design by Teo Otto. The cast included Steckel himself (as Galileo), Karl Paryla and Wolfgang Langhoff.

The second version (in English) opened at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles on 30 July 1947.[1] It was directed by Joseph Losey and Brecht, with musical direction by Serge Hovey and set-design by Robert Davison. Laughton played Galileo, with Hugo Haas as Barberini and Frances Heflin as Virginia. This production opened at the Maxine Elliott's Theatre in New York on 7 December of the same year. A third production, by the Berliner Ensemble with Ernst Busch in the title role, opened in January 1957 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm and was directed by Erich Engel, with set-design by Caspar Neher.[2] The play was first published in 1940.[citation needed]

A screen adaptation of the play, directed by Joseph Losey for American Film Theatre, was produced in 1975 under the title Galileo with Topol in the title role.

The plot of the play concerns the latter period of the life of Galileo Galilei, the great Italian natural philosopher, who was persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church for the promulgation of his scientific discoveries; for details, see Galileo affair. The play embraces such themes as the conflict between dogmatism and scientific evidence, as well as interrogating the values of constancy in the face of oppression.

Versions of the play

After emigrating to the United States from Hitler's Germany (with stopovers in various other countries in between, among them the USSR), Brecht translated and re-worked the first version of his play in collaboration with the actor Charles Laughton.[3] The result of their efforts was the second 'American version' of the play, entitled simply Galileo, which to this day remains the most widely-staged version in the English-speaking world.[citation needed] The same version formed the basis for Losey's 1975 film adaptation as part of the American Film Theatre series.

In September 1947, Brecht was subpoenaed in the US by the House Un-American Activities Committee for alleged communist connections. He testified before HUAC on 30 October 1947, and flew to Europe on 31 October. He chose to return to East Germany and continued to work on the play, now once again in the German language. He felt that the optimistic portrait of the scientific project present in the first two versions required revision in a post-Hiroshima world, where science's irrational and harmful potential had become far more apparent.[4] The final German version premiered at Cologne in April 1955.[citation needed]

Matej Danter offers a readily-accessible and detailed comparison of the early, the American, and the final German versions.[5]

In 2013 the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered a new translation of A Life of Galileo by its Writer in Residence Mark Ravenhill in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.


Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans

Galileo is short of money. A prospective student tells Galileo about a novel invention, the telescope ("a queer tube thing"), being sold in Amsterdam. Galileo replicates it, but then sells it to the Venetian Republic as his own creation.

Galileo uses the telescope to substantiate Copernicus' heliocentric model of our solar system, which goes against both popular belief and church doctrine, and which he publishes in vernacular Italian, rather than traditional scientific Latin, so that it is accessible by the common people. His daughter's marriage to a well-off young man (with whom she is genuinely in love) fails because of Galileo's reluctance to distance himself from his unorthodox teachings.

Galileo is brought to the Vatican for interrogation. Upon being threatened with torture, he recants his teachings. His students are shocked by his surrender in the face of pressure from the church authorities.

Galileo, old and broken, living under house arrest, is visited by one of his former pupils, Andrea. Galileo gives him a book (Two New Sciences) containing all his scientific discoveries, asking him to smuggle it out of Italy for dissemination abroad. Andrea now believes Galileo's actions were heroic and that he just recanted to fool the ecclesiastical authorities. However, Galileo insists his actions had nothing to do with heroism but were merely the result of self-interest.

Historical background

The play stays generally faithful to Galileo's science and timeline thereof, but takes significant liberties with his personal life. Galileo did in fact use a telescope, observe the moons of Jupiter, advocate for the heliocentric model, observe sun spots, investigate buoyancy, and write on physics, and did visit the Vatican twice to defend his work, the second time being made to recant his views, and being confined to house arrest thereafter.

One significant liberty that is taken is the treatment of Galileo's daughter Virginia Gamba (Sister Maria Celeste), who, rather than becoming engaged, was considered unmarriageable by her father and confined to a convent from the age of thirteen (the bulk of the play), and, further, died of dysentery shortly after her father's recantation. However, Galileo was close with Virginia, and they corresponded extensively.


There are a number of allusions to Galileo's science and to Marxism which are not further elaborated in the play; some of these are glossed below.

The discussion of price versus value was a major point of debate in 19th century economics, under the terms exchange value versus use value. Within Marxian economics this is discussed under the labor theory of value.

More subtly, Marx is sometimes interpreted as advocating technological determinism (technological progress determines social change), which is reflected in the telescope (a technological change) being the root of the scientific progress and hence social unrest.

The mention of tides refers to Galileo's theory that the motion of the earth caused the tides, which would give the desired physical proof of the Earth's movement, and which is discussed in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, whose working title was Dialogue on the Tides. In actuality Galileo was wrong. Kepler correctly believed that the moon's gravity caused the tides.

The bent wooden rail in scene 13 and the discussion that the quickest distance between two points need not be a straight line (though a straight line offers the shortest path, the fastest descent of a rolling ball in fact follows a curve) alludes to Galileo's investigation of the brachistochrone (in the context of the quickest descent from a point to a wall), which he incorrectly believed to be given by a quarter circle. Instead, the brachistochrone is a half cycloid, which was only proved much later with the development of calculus.

In performance


  1. Feuchtwanger Memorial Library at the University of Southern California: Bertolt Brecht's Galileo at the Coronet Theatre, February 1998
  2. Willett (1959, 46–47).
  3. McNeil, Dougal (2005). "A new, sharper light: Laughton’s Galileo". The many lives of Galileo: Brecht, theatre and translation's political unconscious. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang Academic. pp. 45–47. ISBN 3-03910-536-1. 
  4. McNeil (2005: 63; 111–113)
  5. Danter (2001)


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