Dallas — Undermain Theatre has made an international name for itself through the innovative, fierce production of experimental new plays and groundbreaking modernist work of the 20th century (and late 19th). Now Artistic Director Katherine Owens opens the theater’s 2017 productions with Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, starring company regular Bruce DuBose in the title role.
The German playwright, who established himself in the 1920s with The Threepenny Opera, Man is Man and other works, fled his homeland during Hitler’s regime and settled in America. During the war years he wrote Mother Courage and Her Children, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Life of Galileo. He translated and reworked Galileo into English in collaboration with Charles Laughton, the version that remains the most widely staged version in English.
Brecht’s story of the brilliant 17th century astronomer celebrates his genius and examines his trials. Galileo taught his students that the earth moves around the sun, and is not the center of the universe as the Roman Catholic church taught. Imprisoned for heresy and tortured, he recanted his theory, but kept writing secretly.
The production also features Rhonda Boutté, Christopher Dontrell Piper, Justin Duncan, David Fenley, Lauren Ferebee, Gelaciõ Eric Gibson, Edna Gill, Parker Gray, Christopher Lew, Landon Robinson, Jeremy Schwartz and Shane Strawbridge.
TheaterJones talked with Owens and DuBose about their interpretation of Brecht’s complex play.
TheaterJones: Brecht’s Galileo, the story of a 17th century scientist’s troubles with the Vatican, hasn’t been produced in North Texas since 1984. When did you choose this play for this season, and why?
Katherine Owens: Brecht was a great theorist as well as a dramatist and poet. He brought out many new theatrical ideas: Verfremdungseffekt (the “making strange” effect sometimes called alienation); Gestus, the use of contrapuntal and contradictory gesture; Epik, the practice of employing epic scale to a production to give the audience a sense of the march of history. He also revered the Volkstheater style of playing, a broad theater-of-the-people style that originated in the folk plays of Germany. One of the questions about Brecht’s theories is whether or not they should be applied as Brecht himself intended, or used as a line of inquiry in an effort to discover new theories and gain fresh insight into his plays.
For directors, his theories go hand in hand with the production of a Brecht play. He developed these theories to make audiences think for themselves and not be persuaded by appeals to the emotions. Brecht wanted people to see how things happen in the world so they could choose a better life for themselves and their country. Brecht was a giant of 20th century theater. Understanding Brecht is key to understanding the modern theater.
Bruce DuBose: This play has been on our list for many years. We are not alone in viewing it as Brecht’s masterwork. In recent years, we’ve felt it to be more prescient as we’ve witnessed the rise of denying scientific data such as climate change usually, on behalf of corporate or political interests. However, since the time we decided to include the play in the season, Brecht’s warnings against authoritarian power structures in the play have come to the fore. The zeitgeist will always have its way. It’s fascinating how it emphasizes different aspects of a classic like Brecht’s Galileo.
Bruce, how do you prepare for a role like Galileo? What kind of background reading is required? How do you work yourself into the hyper-rational state of a mathematical genius?
BD: Of course there is a lot of research material available and I’ve been reading his body of work—I’d recommend The Essential Galileo edited and translated by Maurice A. Finocchiaro—as well as many fine biographies of the man. However, what I’m concentrating on is his heightened imagination. In order to think in concepts and queries one needs to give one’s imagination free reign even to a sense of dream-like wonder.
In many descriptions and even his own writings this side of Galileo is made quite clear and his ability to draw on the imagination of his reader is what made him an early influence of many scientists. I try to be constantly drawing or writing or engaging in experiments on the stage to bring this out. I share this imaginative nature with Galileo and am often described by people as a bit of a daydreamer.
So, I've identified quickly with this aspect of the character as I like to find some area of common ground with characters I portray. Galileo’s father, Vincenzo Galilei, was a musician and composer who played the lute and did his own experimenting on the fretboard of the lute in his search to broaden the knowledge of harmony and dissonance. He was thought to be influential in Galileo’s imaginative approach to physics and mathematics.
Also, Brecht emphasizes the human thirst for knowledge and truth as a force which draws Galileo as a calling and a motivation to serve as a channel for enlightenment. He also has a quick wit and there’s a lot of humor at work in the play.
Katherine, Brecht presumably was writing for people living under the threat of Hitler; are we to think of the Vatican leaders as equivalent to Hitler’s regime? How will you present this analogy to your Undermain audience in 2017?
KO: Yesterday I was talking to one of the actors, a Tolkien fan, who said Tolkien and his great friend C.S Lewis fell out over whether Aslan, the sacred lion in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was an allegory for Jesus Christ. This actually broke up their friendship. So, I am mindful of the dangers of allegory, or its more straightforward cousin, analogy.
While it’s healthy never to forget Hitler’s regime, what leaps to my mind in our production are the present-day warning signs of authoritarian actions where truthful information is suppressed. Brecht was keenly aware he was creating a document that was a guide for negotiating a dangerous world where common men and women can become pawns in an authoritarian nightmare where access to the truth is denied. Many lines from the play leap out in light of our experience today, such as, “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”
Bruce, the historic Galileo was brilliant, but was he a moral man? True, he discovered the rings around Saturn and confirmed Copernicus’ theory that the earth circles the sun, and not vice-versa. However, he stole other scientists’ ideas and passed them off as his own, and he took it all back when he was threatened. No suffering saint, for sure. How do you physically and mentally incorporate these seemingly contradictory aspects of your character?
BD: The only invention that Galileo took upon himself to “improve” was the telescope, and he never actually passed it off as his sole invention. In his own writings and letters on the subject he tells others that the instrument first appeared in Holland and that he improved his own version which led him to turn it on the sky. It was originally developed in Holland, but upon merely hearing a description of the telescope Galileo made his own instrument. His prototype is described as being three times as powerful as the Dutch telescope and he quickly improved on that to make a model that was eight times as powerful as the original.
This is the telescope that he pointed toward the heavens to launch the new age of astronomy. He was the first to use the telescope to investigate the stars and planets. Brecht’s portrait of Galileo has him seemingly stealing the idea in order to pursue Brecht’s approach to tearing down the character of his protagonists to prevent audiences from having too much sympathy for them.
Likewise, in Brecht’s description of Galileo’s recantation, his character is brought into question. However, this serves to make Galileo ever more human and relatable. A paragon of virtue is difficult to play and indeed can be a deadly bore. Not so Brecht’s Galileo. His claim in the play of inventing the telescope is also motivated by his need for support because his annual sum he receives as professor of mathematics at the University at Padua is not enough to live on.
Thus, combining the creativity of an artist and the savvy of an entrepreneur, Galileo finds a way to make an income, quench his thirst for knowledge and advance his career. His later recantation before the Inquisition can only be seen as human and it allowed Galileo time to secretly create his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which was smuggled out of Florence to Holland and which became a foundational document to the scientific community at large.
Katherine, I take it from the press photo that you will present the play in 17th century period settings and costumes, although Brecht wrote it in the 1940s and modern dress might work. How do you make such decisions on a production?
KO: Costumes occupy an imaginative sphere. Period costumes are not real period clothes, of course, but something created for the theater and as such are more theatrical. In this way, I think they have a little advantage over clothes created for real life and used or modified for use in the theater.
But the decision to work in 17th century costumes has more to do with meaning.
The splendor of the renaissance garments says a great deal about the beliefs of the people of the time and how they thought of the universe. Perhaps their optimism and their ideas came in part from their clothes, as perhaps did the cruelty of that age. So, the period costumes help tell the story more precisely and without having to translate the play from a modern idiom. Designer Amanda Capshaw brings an epic grandeur to the production with her beautiful brocaded gowns and vestments which also have transform seamlessly when the actor changes character.
BD: Brecht’s play concerns a 17th century historic figure even though he had the dilemma of the mid 20th century world in mind. Brecht’s early productions of the play were all in period costumes, but many modern productions—especially in Europe where Brecht is performed regularly—are most often in modern dress.
Bruce, maybe you’ve answered this in some form already, but if you were to run into this Galileo dude today, how would you describe him?
BD: He’s a visionary and a seeker of truth who has a magical sense of wonder and inspires a quest of knowledge in others. He also possesses earthy and even Dionysian aspects as opposed to being a dry intellectual.
The “American Version” you’re producing often runs nearly three hours and has a large cast. This is approaching opera in its epic undertaking. How do you time intermissions, and what other concerns arise with a longer play?
KO: The play has a number of characters and takes place over several decades. John Arnone and I have concentrated on fluidity and momentum in the transitions and the production emphasizes intimacy rather than pageantry. The core of the play is a series of philosophical discussions and the Undermain space—and this set in particular—lends itself to that. Brecht said, “The future of the theater is philosophical.” I felt free to concentrate on that. Brecht has great respect for the audience and allows them to witness arguments where both sides have compelling points of view.
DuBose: Our version has been coming in at just under two hours including intermission.
Bruce, do you think Brecht saw something of himself in Galileo? Do you? If so, how so?
BD: Brecht probably identified somewhat with Galileo. He created multiple versions over a 17-year period, never being completely satisfied that he had quite captured it to his satisfaction.
As for myself, I identify with this Galileo’s dreamlike use of his imagination and his interest in the nobility of mankind’s search for knowledge and the quest for the enlightenment of truth. He’s also got quite a sense of humor and that’s something I find essential.
KO: Before a play is selected, Bruce and I discuss a character and when we find that we have connecting ideas, we move forward toward the possibility of production. We’ve discussed Galileo for many years and had been coming to terms with Brecht’s Galileo as distinct from the historical figure. During this time, the country moved toward some of the very problems that Brecht was warning us about, and it seemed that Galileo’s suffering was now our own.