A paradox of human existence is our ability to have faith in things we cannot prove, and our ability to use reason and logic. In Auckland Theatre Company’s sumptuously staged production of The Life of Galileo, we see how that paradox plays out and the impact it can have on our lives.
The play was written by Bertolt Brecht on the eve of the Second World War. On the surface, it is about the life of aptly named ‘father of science,’ and covers a large swathe of time. We see him lecture on reason and truth, develop scientific theories, and improve the telescope.
Despite this being a play, with its obvious fictionalised dialogue and literal dramatic licence with some aspects of his life, it is fascinating to be reminded of Galileo’s genius and his remarkable contribution to the advancement of knowledge.
His dogmatic approach to both his work and his ethics is ultimately what causes the big crisis of his life, the clash with the dogma of the Catholic Church.
The church was all powerful and corrupt. It controlled governments across Europe, and most importantly, it controlled information and the supposed ‘truth’ of how the universe worked. In Galileo’s time, the orthodox view of the universe, rigidly enforced by the church, was that put forward by Ptolemy. It said the Earth was at the centre of the universe, and the sun and all other celestial bodies moved around it.
The alternative Copernican view claimed it was actually the sun that was at the centre of the known universe, and Galileo successfully proved that was the case.
To the Church, this was heresy, mainly because the Ptolomaic theory justified the church’s right to power. If the earth was indeed the centre of the universe, then so was the Pope, with only god above him. The power, influence, and money that position brought with it therefore was in danger from these new ideas.
So while the play disseminates all of that history, it is actually about so much more. Brecht wrote it as an allegory to the world he inhabited. It was the rise of totalitarian governments in Europe in the mid 20th Century that frightened Brecht, and that is at the core of this play.
It is a warning about how truth and reason are the first casualties when authoritarian governments and leaders seek dominance over people and countries. We have seen this again and again across the world. Just this week, presidential candidates were banned by the theocracy in Iran. We’ve seen it in the West, with the rise of Trumpism, and the warping of facts and outright lies on media outlets such as Fox News. When people gain enough power, the ruthless desire to control and remove dissent can become murderous.
Ultimately, Galileo is forced to recant the truth in order to avoid torture. But his view of the world survives and indeed becomes the new orthodoxy.
What we are reminded by watching this play is that freedom of thought is precious, liberating, and also potentially dangerous. What’s more, the struggle to maintain that freedom is ongoing, even in a civilisation as developed as our own.
The life and beliefs of a 17th Century scientist are as relevant today as they were then, and the Life of Galileo is a pertinent reminder.
THE LIFE OF GALILEO
25 June – 10 July 2021
ASB Waterfront Theatre