The Elements Of Epic Theatre In Bertolt Brecht’s Life Of Galileo

Life of Galileo is Bertolt Brecht’s chronicle play revolving around the 17th century scientist Galileo Galilei. Brecht was influenced by the unconventional lines of French poets - Villon, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. Brecht was a follower of German “expressionism”.

In 1930, Brecht had started publishing his writings in periodical form called Versuche (Experiment). He evolved the concept of “epic theatre”, which was his opposition to Aristotle’s idea of Tragedy. As far as epical, his ideas of Tragedy were more Platonic. Aristotle’s Poetics defines Tragedy as an “imitation of an action- through pity and fear-effecting the proper purgation of these emotions”. In Munich, he was greatly influenced by the music-hall comedian Karl Valentin’s concept of theatre audiences, beer-drinking and cigar smoking. Brecht conceptualized and transformed the stage radically into “epic smoking theatre”. The Jungle of the Cities was his debut “epic theatre”. In his opinion, the traditional or Aristotelian drama encouraged writing of plays that offered comforting but false notions to the audience. His epic theatre was intended to stimulate the audience for societal changes. It was designed to make the audiences judge and assess events on the stage and not to be unquestionably acceptable. This objective was of course a product of Brecht’s sympathy with Marxist ideologies.

In Life of Galileo, Brecht alludes to the century that started with Shakespeare and ended with Issac Newton, as he finds in that time, the basis of his own ideas of scientific humanism “of all the days”. Brecht’s called scenes self-contained ‘episodes’ that are staunchly against the conventional illusionary theatres. Althusser, a French Marxist philosopher, considers Brecht as a revolutionary Marxist playwright. Life of Galileo uses historical background to deal with contemporary issues. Through this play, Brecht offered to the German intellectuals a method of surviving in a country where the government exercised despotic power, Hitler. His plays had traditional morality ironically stood on its head to force the audiences to ponder over social issues, and the plays are deliberately open-ended, encouraging them to draw individual conclusions.

The first instance of the “epic theatre” was a production of Piscator in 1924, where, in addition to actors, he made the use of placards and stills. Piscator called this technique a new age realism- narrative realism. Brecht believed that social reality demanded thought, a reverse of the traditional view that thought demanded reality. Brecht’s epic theatre uses slides, film projections, simultaneous scenes, and tableaux. In addition, epic theatre demanded the actors to play their roles externally, by using choric commentary, through narrators, songs and other interruptive devices, to make the audience pause and analyse. “Epic Theatre” is structurally a narrative sequence without the superimposition of Aristotelian unities of time, place and action. He believed that the Catharsis through fear and pity led to a “calm of mind, all passion spent”, opposite to the technique of critical response. Even though he tried very hard to not create it as a tragedy, many believe it to be one.

“Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero/Galileo: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

Brecht never romanticises Galileo’s character or make him a martyr of science. Galileo in the play is a great man with many frailties. He is nothing like the tragic hero; he is what modern and post-modern critics call a Brechtian Anti-hero. Galileo is a sceptical rationalist; in fifteen scenes, it depicts more than thirty years of Galileo’s life in a dispassionate, non-dramatic way, conforming to Brecht’s epic theatre. The natural climax, Galileo’s recantation, takes place off-stage. After the recantation, he frankly admits to fear of physical pain-he turns into a resigned old man, given to material comfort. Brecht manages to introduce a social slant: street singers chant a ballad, giving the planetary movement a Marxist interpretation. Unlike Aristotle’s Hamartia, Brecht’s are follies and weaknesses. This is a play of the conflicts between the respective struggle for the attainment of truth and the commanding ideas of the ruling class.

According to Brecht, Galileo is, “the pallid intellectualized idealist” – “a powerful physicist with a tummy” – “earthly, a great teacher”. The idealist in Galileo co-existed with his weaker self. He is a realistic figure with a sense of humour. He is neither heroic nor tragic, because neither he stands by his works nor sacrifices for a new age; a deliberate attempt to decentralize the attention of the audiences. Often this human Galileo is relatable to certain against Brecht’s techniques of “Alienation”. The play is a psalm to reason and also the need to be sceptical. Bertolt Brecht writes the play when in exile, and just as Galileo was living in a dynamic age, the world was facing negative effects of science- the Atomic effect- the world wars-the horrors of Hiroshima.

There were three versions of the play-the first was for the working classes, so that they can resist Hitler’s Fascism. He praises Galileo, for his book the ‘Discorsi’, whereas in the English version, he condemns Galileo and calls the act of completing the ‘Discorsi’ as sheer cowardice. Then in the American version, Brecht considers the act of recantation of Galileo as an ‘original sin’ and brings under quotation the responsibility of the scientist. The ‘hero’ of this work, says Walter Benjamin, is not Galileo but the people.

No denial of the fact that the play is episodic covering the journey of a forty-six-year-old Galileo till the death of him as a prisoner of inquisition. Anti-sentimentality of Brecht, though shocking was common in twenties Germany. Dissecting the play and the central character, it is very individualistic for a reader to conclude it as a tragedy in its real sense. Galileo lives through the time, despite all the obstacles and with his gluttony, greed, and sensuality, to emerge as someone who ushers in the ‘new age’ though he warned his pupil while passing Germany “with the truth under your coat”. The ambiguity of the play and the character compels to Brechtian “epic theatre” and maintains the dichotomy whether a tragedy or a play of allegory, hero or anti-hero? 

10 Jun 2021
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