Together with Mother Courage, the Good Man of Sezuan and the Caucasian Circle, Brecht's Life of Galileo is considered one of his most important dramatic works. For those not familiar with it, I would like to begin with a brief summary of the play in its best known and last version of 1955.
The opening scenes show a middle-aged Galileo in Padua in the Republic of Venice, where his teaching obligations earn him a meager income and largely restrict his time for research. He decides to move to the less liberal, but more luxurious court of Florence. Using the telescope for astronomical observations, he can experimentally confirm the Copernican theory of the solar system. This brings him into conflict with the official Church position, that endorses the aristotelian view and condemns the copernican system by placing it on the index in March 1616. Galileo wisely follows the Inquisition's advice to keep silent and to direct his research efforts to less dangerous endeavours. When he learns eight years later, in 1623, that the Pope is dying and that the mathematician Cardinal Barberini will succeed him, he believes that more enlightened times return, and he resumes his astronomical research. Ten years later in 1633, however, he is forced to recant his findings in support of a heliocentric solar system. The final scene depicts Galileo as an embittered, halfblind old man, who lives with his daughter Virginia under the close supervision of the Inquisition. His former disciple Andrea visits him, and Galileo gives him a secretly produced copy of his Discorsi. But when Andrea praises him enthusiastically for recanting in a well-calculated service to scientific progress, Galileo rejects the flattering interpretation and mercilessly condemns himself for having betrayed his profession, or rather, the role he could have played as a scientist. The drama ends on a more positive note, as Andrea crosses the border unharmed with the Discorsi.
The central theme of the play is not the historical Galileo and his contributions to astronomy or mechanics, but the complex relationship between science, politics and society. Though on the whole Brecht adheres closely to the biographical facts and the general course of events covered in the years 1609 to 1637, he deliberately attributes some unhistorical motivations and beliefs to his main character and draws an anachronistic picture of the sociological situation of early 17th century Italy. These accents invite both a parabolic and timeless interpretation of the events described, and allow for a more or less transparent comparison with the contemporary conditions of Brecht's writing.
Of particular importance are the changes that present Galileo as a determined advocate of the lower classes, as illustrated by the many explicit links between scientific and social progress. Thus, the Copernican solar system means not only an astronomical, but also a social revolution: whereas before the Pope was the fixed center of the social hierarchy, now everybody is of equal importance:"…"and the earth is rolling cheerfully around the sun, and the fishwives, merchants, princes, cardinals and even the Pope are rolling with it. The universe has lost its centre overnight, and woken up to find it has countless centres, so that each one can now be seen as the centre, or none at all." This has also metaphysical consequences, since the revaluation of the individual causes a devaluation of God's authority. In this context, Brecht's Galileo displays clearly atheistic views. When his friend Sagredo asks him where God's place might be in this new solar system, Galileo's answer is: "within ourselves and nowhere."
Needless to say, the historical Galileo held no such views. Brecht seems to have chosen Galileo's contemporary Francis Bacon as a model, whose materialistic concept of nature and empirical scientific method are also reflected in the strong...