It’s an absurdly beautiful world you walk into when seeing Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo at Classic Stage Company. Set designer Adrianne Lobel has hung the high-ceilinged space with huge, silvery spheres, suggesting a universe that builds its planets from giant balls of recycled aluminum foil. Lighting designer Justin Townsend streaks it with broad bands of whiteness and circles of glowing pastels; Jan Hartley’s projections litter the surrounding walls with pinpoint stars. The sound score, by Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery, makes the place throb with electronic thrums and tinklings—a literal music of the spheres.
And then the humans arrive dressed in Oana Botez-Ban’s stark, monochrome costumes. The courtly Italy of Galileo’s time was ornate in both manners and dress, but this is Brecht’s 17th century, and Brian Kulick’s production, like the costumes, is stripped-down, straightforward, no-nonsense. Its acting, too, is blunt and colloquially easy, everything clearly articulated without fanciness or fuss.
The unfussy staging underscores, by contrast, the tormented tangle at the play’s heart. On the surface, Brecht’s thesis is simple: Galileo (F. Murray Abraham), with his farseeing brain, might have inaugurated a new scientific era in Italy, but, fearing that his ideas would disrupt the established order by removing Man from his presumed place at the center of a tidily organized universe, the church and the ruling class stopped him. Galileo, loving life’s pleasures and frightened at the prospect of a martyr’s death, contrived to have it both ways, recanting in public and researching in secret.
This painful half-tragedy seems more relevant than ever, given our Republican politicians’ newfound passion for anti-scientific notions straight from the Dark Ages that Galileo struggled to escape. Listening to them rant on about evolution, contraception, stem-cell research, and global warming gives us ample reason to wish, like Galileo’s loyal disciples, that some hero would arise to launch a new Age of Reason.
Or does it? Begun when World War II was just starting, premiered nine years later in the shadow of the atom bomb, Galileo is probably the most rewritten and rethought of all Brecht’s works. In addition to the hero’s wily, compromising complexity, two ideas disrupt the straightforward logic of the play’s seemingly simple thesis: first, that even in the face of rational proof, human irrationality persists; and that rational achievements themselves can have irrational, unexpected consequences.
Galileo‘s disquieting final scene conveys the first notion in a miniature dramatic parable: A child, taught to disprove superstition through factual observation, goes on chanting superstitious nonsense anyway. Does he do it out of peer pressure, ingrained habit, laziness of mind, or some innate human tendency that finds superstition more fun than cold factuality? Brecht doesn’t know, any more than we do. But in the scene framing the parable, the same ignorance that bred the boy’s superstition allows the young exile who has tried to teach him factual observation to smuggle the manuscript of Galileo’s Discourses safely past the illiterate customs guards.
Scientific advances that bred destruction, climaxing in Hiroshima, were on plentiful view as Brecht wrote. So was mankind’s knack for turning new ideas into marketable sources of social upheaval. After Hiroshima, nuclear power plants. After that, Fukushima. “Maybe,” Galileo muses in the 1947 version played here, translated by its then-star, Charles Laughton, “new ages look like blood-spattered whores.” And maybe all ages do. Fighting human irrationality, science equally has to fend off the human shrewdness that peddles thalidomide, spyware, fracking.
Galileo, dependent on princely support and churchly sanction, knows from whoredom: His situation nudges his genius toward scrounging, opportunism, and cowardice. He’ll gladly fudge his scientific ethics to put food on the table but will sacrifice anything, even his beloved daughter’s future happiness, for the sake of a new astronomical postulate—which he will then readily renounce when threatened with torture.
Hard to blame, Galileo is equally hard to like, incredibly brilliant but all too credibly flawed. While making science seem poetic—an achievement—Galileo also strongly evokes the travails, in our time, of troublesome artists, not least Brecht himself. Abraham, borrowing a hint of Brecht’s wiliness, cleverly dodges all opportunities to grandstand. Unheroic and unflamboyant, he faces daily life like a busy magnate but talks science, bewitchingly, like a wooer making love—a performance as quietly vibrant as Lobel’s silvery spheres.