Dallas — We keep returning to the real. We love not only the deep odors of musky grapes and red cabbage, but our human curiosity is thrilled to learn that enormous galaxies surrounding the sun and its planets are expanding at an accelerating rate. We love our belief that intellectual freedom and justice for all is our birthright.
However, we are also in love with our personal safety and comfort. Would we stand up for the physical and moral truths we have tested with our own brains and hearts if threatened with prison or torture? Would we deny our hard-won knowledge, or just look the other way? Conversely, who or what would we betray to protect the truth we know to be fact?
These questions intrigued the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, a primal force in modernist political theater. The search for how the machinery of the cosmos works, and how the human brain reflects that amazing symmetry drives the mathematician and physicist Galileo Galilei. In Brecht’s Galileo, translated by Charles Laughton and directed with symphonic pacing by Katherine Owens at Undermain Theatre, the brilliant 17th century polymath, played by a seductively forceful Bruce DuBose, explains how the world works to his students. Contrary to Aristotle and the Vatican, the earth is not the center of the universe, after all. Earth circles the sun. “Truth is the daughter of time,” says Galileo.
As such, it is evolving.
Institutional authority has always had a hard time adjusting to the ever-changing horizon of discovery, and Galileo is one of many men and women pressured into silence or recantation by a powerful institution claiming to own the truth. Brecht emigrated from Hitler’s Germany to the U.S., where he lived until 1947. In Galileo, he was clearly writing about the present, as much as the past. Galileo’s confirmation of Copernican heliocentric theories is subversive because it questions the church and its social order. When Galileo famously recants, has he betrayed the scientist’s vow to tell the truth for all humanity? Brecht’s protagonists in Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944) must constantly wrangle with the ethics of personal survival, and how best to serve the greater good of the people in the long run. For Brecht, a so-called heroic do-or-die posture has far less meaning than somehow staying alive to make the world better.
Brecht’s characters are flesh and blood. DuBose’s complex Galileo is a vigorous man in love with the discoveries he has made through his “optical tubes” (telescopes), a device from Holland he claimed credit for to get funding for more research. Why not? The truth is furthered, and the brilliant man charts more planetary courses. The army can see the enemy in advance—and an astronomer can train the device on the moon.
We see the rapturous scientist at his intellectual peak surrounded by ardent students in his warmly lit Venice laboratory. The scene is brought close by John Arnone’s intimate theater-in-the-round design, with antique astrolabes—dismissed by Galileo—and Robert Flood’s medieval book illustrations illuminating a circular tiled floor, anchored by columns covered with mathematical formulas. In this production, costume designer Amanda Capshaw‘s handsomely outfitted men and women in deep red velvet capes and exquisitely boned taffeta gowns circle the luminaries of the papal court and public promenades in timeless grandeur.
Moving and explaining with patience, and fired by his incisive understanding of cosmic movement, DuBose’s Galileo delights in revealing the truth through observation and careful charting. He thrives here. His students worship him. As his brilliance attracts attention, Galileo moves to Florence (and the columns become red and gold palace colors), and his fame and theories come under fire from authorities. The Vatican in Rome bears down on the gifted man and his unsettling theories.
Our hopes are raised for the brilliant, charismatic physicist when a presumably liberal pope (a majestic and ironical Jeremy Schwartz) ascends to rule the Vatican. The conflict between the two men is dramatized in the production at a distance. We see Schwartz’s elaborately robed Pope retreating to his palace, refusing to acknowledge the inconvenient truth, despite his own experts’ confirmation of Galileo’s findings.
Brecht never lets us forget that a genius is also a human being made of appetite and survival instincts. DuBose’s Galileo clearly loves his daughter Virginia (an elegantly patrician Lauren Ferebee), but he refuses to give up his inquiries to deliver her into a romantic marriage into the religious family of Ludovico (handsome, cavalier Justin Duncan). When a shiny young student (slight and passionate Parker Gray, doing double duty as the young Prince Medici) talks of his laboring peasant parents’ dependence on religious faith, Galileo dismisses the plea. Their plight will be bettered by the truth, rather than false hope.
Great scenes swell and inspire throughout. The anxious students play chess and wait in suspense, as we do, to hear the bells announcing that their master has recanted. When challenged with the whereabouts of the creator in the new universe, Galileo says, “God is nowhere or within us.” Heady air to breathe.
The rhythm of the play, masterfully narrated by Galileo’s admirer Andréa (a buoyant Christopher Dontrell Piper) pulls us forward to the inevitable fate of Galileo—and on to universal reflections on truth and individual responsibility.
As timely as ever, Brecht’s characters and concerns make us ask ourselves, what do we owe each other and ourselves in a time of political turbulence and social sea change? Must we resist a refutation of fact and reality coming from the mouth of authority? Do we have an option?
This vibrant production will engage your mind and ignite your sense of ethics. Don’t miss it.