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Times of Brecht Context - An Analysis

Evaluates of one of his most famous texts to the ideologies of its informing context.

Europe in the early 1930?s was a cauldron of social and political unrest. Literature sought not to provide accurate images but instead provoke change and encourage thought and evaluation. Bertolt Brecht, a renowned German playwright, attempted to highlight the undeniable triumph of reason and knowledge and emphasise victory over authoritarian oppression. The Life of Galileo is a play that, although being set in the past, concentrates on presenting contemporary implications and consequences of the remarkable account of the struggle between Galileo?s scientific discoveries and the extraordinary power and influence of the Catholic Church. The foundations of world literature have always been based on the attitudes and values of society. Authors, playwrights and poets are influenced fundamentally by the ideologies around them. All of Brecht?s plays were a form of social and political instruction. He did not consider drama to be a form of entertainment, and instead portrayed important images to the people of Europe, showing them the potential for social, political and economic change. Being a Marxist, having grown up in an ordinary German family and having seen the progress of several regimes of European history, including the ascendance of Adolf Hitler and the affects of government ideology on people, Brecht became a respected social commentator. He seldom conformed with the views of the government, and many of the ideologies the that playwright questions in The Life of Galileo were prevalent in governments in Europe at the time. It?s not difficult to realize why his texts were banned from Germany not long after they became widely read. His support for the empowerment of the common man and those marginalised in society is clear, and his endorsement of socialism is outright.

In the mid 1930's, Europe was undergoing significant change. Legal, social and political traditions were being swept away by the onslaught of totalitarianism. Governments were introducing policies of restricting individual freedom and seeking to subordinate all aspects of the individual's life to the political ideology of the time. The promises that the industrial revolution proclaimed were unfulfilled and people were disillusioned. Fascist and totalitarian governments were taking over most of Europe, particularly in Italy, under Benito Mussolini, in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and in Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler. Each government pursued its own special goal, and anything that could foil the goal would be rejected, often at significant social and humanitarian cost. In Germany, the Nazi government sought to purify the German race and champion the common man.

In order to ensure their political longevity, governments in Europe at the time of Brecht influenced the people into believing that they were perched on the dawn of a new age. Through shocking reforms and proclamations of a bright future for all, rulers in several parts of the continent led everyone in their country to believe they were on the verge of huge changes and reforms for the better. The Nazi government successfully indoctrinated its people. The chant "Now a new age is dawning" was repeated throughout Germany. By ensuring that citizens were dazed and remained dreaming of the endless possibilities that the new age would bring, successive governments could do as they pleased in the name of change. The very first sentence of Brecht's notes on The Life of Galileo express the importance of this ideology in the text.

?It is well known how felicitously people can be influenced by the conviction that they are poised on the threshold of a new age.?

Undoubtedly Brecht was aware of this policy of the Nazi planned to use his theatre to question it. Use of the words 'felicitously' and 'influenced' show that the new age of which Brecht was speaking was artificial and induced only by the evils of politics. In The Life of Galileo, however, he chooses to present a historical situation where there was potential for a new age to dawn, an age brought about by the convictions of the people, not false claims by the government. Brecht presents the character of Galileo not as a hero, but as a real and flawed human being. Galileo's recantation put on hold for years the progress he had made and allowed the Catholic Church's teachings and values to continue unquestioned. The silent message from Brecht is that we should put society before ourselves, just as Galileo should not have recanted to continue the momentum of thought and evaluation set against the 15th century social system. It is human nature to change and progress ? in very few societies in the modern world has equilibrium been maintained. Brecht was telling those seated in the theatre to strive to change and question what they saw around them in the way that they wanted by not conforming with the views of others and not simply accepting what is set down by the government. He also pointed out the catalysts for further, genuine change in society ? after all, the influence of several great reformists was spreading in the mid-1930's ? Marx, Freud and Einstein, among others. Even though Galileo was presented as far from perfect, he was a man who desired change and progress. Despite Sagredo's warning that man is not 'amenable to commonsense' and predictions of Galileo being burnt at the stake; despite the onslaught of the Plague; despite Bellamarin claiming that Galileo's teachings are 'foolish and heretical'; despite all possible adversity, Galileo proclaims a new age.

?Andrea and I have made discoveries which we can no longer withhold from the world. A new era has dawned, a great age in which it is a joy to be alive.?

In addition to Brecht presenting his audience with images of the Dawn of a New Age in The Life of Galileo, he similarly questions a core political ideology of the time. In 1933, Adolf Hitler came into power in Germany, Brecht's homeland. He began a campaign that included suppressing all literature that in any way questioned the beliefs of the government. He had all of Brecht?s plays, poetry and books burnt in an attempt to keep the public uninformed about the potential for change in their government. Subsequently, Brecht was deported from Germany and had his passport removed. These events in the playwright's life undoubtedly had an affect on his writing and impelled him to write plays that questioned the creed of the government. The Life of Galileo, particularly the initial version written in 1939, presents the genius scientist Galileo as a man who, despite blindness, outsmarts the inquisition and ensures that his life's workings are not suppressed. In doing so, Brecht was subtly pointing out that suppressing knowledge will always be futile.

Throughout the play, Galileo sustained his belief in mankind?s sense of reason. He perceived that our innate curiosity and desire to explain the universe must prevail over everything else. He remarks, ?Knowledge will become a passion and research an ecstasy?. The final scene of the play is particularly significant in understanding Brecht?s stance on the suppression of knowledge and discovery. As Andrea, Galileo?s student, heads off beyond Catholicism and into new areas, he takes with him Galileo?s Discorsi, the product of a lifetime of research and experimentation. He crosses a border post with the manuscript hidden under his coat, prepared to spread Galileo?s teachings throughout the world. Despite the inquisition putting Galileo under guarded house arrest and despite the Catholic Church?s constant efforts to maintain its dominance, knowledge and reason won. Brecht saw in Galileo?s case a historical precedent for successfully spreading the truth despite the adversity of the Gestapo and secret police in Germany. With every step outside of Italy, Andrea enacts how new ideas are irrepressible. The final line of the play demonstrates the implications of the new discoveries and an optimistic view of the future with Galileo?s knowledge changing the face of the earth.

?We are really only at the beginning.?

Brecht had strong Marxist convictions. Living in a time when the industrial revolution had taken its toll - working and living conditions were poor for millions of Europeans, Marxism offered the promise of improvements for the working class. A socialist system was particularly attractive for the masses in Germany - instead of their lives being controlled by a totalitarian government as a result of which they felt like pawns, socialism offered the potential for everyone to contribute to the country. In The Life of Galileo, Brecht conveyed several strong Marxist ideals. Galileo was portrayed not only as a scientist, but a humanitarian who could change the face of not only science, but society too. This is most abundantly clear towards the end of the play, where Ludovico points out that Galileo's discoveries could incite a revolution among the peasants, not because of scientific fact, but because the well-established social and political system could finally be questioned and changed.

?? your treatise on the satellites of Jupiter in no way disturb our peasants. Their work in the fields is too arduous. Yet it could disturb them to learn that frivolous attacks on the sacred doctrines of the Church now go unpunished.?

In the 15th century, the wealthy and advantaged had dominance over their servants and workers. The peasants worked freely, but they led a limited, unenlightened life. This was mainly due to the fact that they were intellectually cut off from the rest of the world - all major publications were in Latin, which they were not able to read. Galileo insisted that all of his findings be published in the Vulgate so that everyone would have access to them. People believed that this could have disastrous consequences for the equilibrium in Italy. Not only would Galileo's teachings undermine the main ruling body, the Catholic Church, but each person previously suppressed would realise that the world was undergoing both scientific and social change, and that they need not be treated differently to their masters. All of the peasants were born into their role, the upper class intentionally keeping them focused only on their work and ensuring that they were kept illiterate, uneducated and totally dependant on those in control.

Until Galileo's time, the study of science and philosophy was combined. Science was not interpreted objectively, but the workings of the world were analysed according to the philosophical beliefs of the time. Ever since Aristotle had handed down the Ptolemaic system, its supremacy was unquestioned because it was protected by the combined entity of science, religion and philosophy. The Catholic Church adopted Aristotle?s philosophy, and for decades it reigned unchallenged. Bellarmin remarks, ?Science is the legitimate and dearly beloved daughter of the Church, Signor Galilei?. Galileo questioned this age-old system, maintaining that science should not be related to philosophy. A group consisting of both scientists and philosophers visited Galileo in Florence to discuss his new discoveries. They refused to look into the telescope to evaluate Galileo's work, despite his constant pleading, ?But really, you gentlemen need only look through the instrument!?. In a famous quote from the play, Galileo challenges the obstinate outlook of the scholars.

?The world of knowledge takes a crazy turn
When teachers themselves are taught to learn.?

Instead of supporting new developments and change, the philosophers and scientists are completely unconcerned with scientific truth. As the philosopher remarks furiously to Galileo, ?The truth may lead us absolutely anything!?. Even Cardinal Barberini, the man who subsequently becomes Pope must uphold the status quo despite being a scientist and appreciating Galileo?s discovery. Brecht naturalizes the upper class? inconsiderate outlook towards the working class. In the first scene, Ludovico remarks:

?My mother thinks that a little science is necessary. All the world takes a drop of science in their wine nowadays, you know?

Ludovico, an upper class gentleman, was sent to Galileo to 'take a drop of science' - his position in society dictated that he should have a basic understanding of the workings of the world. Galileo made a miraculous change to Europe's approach to science. Instead of science being something handed out to only the upper class with their wine, by the end of the play, everyone in Italy and Europe had access to science through a language they could read and even through entertainers on the street! Galileo transformed expensive wine to water affordable to all, Brecht drawing clear parallels with Marxism which endorsed a classless system.

The gulf between the quest for knowledge and absolute religious faith can be very wide, and has caused problems at many points in history. Galileo?s doctrines which proclaimed that the sun, rather than the earth, is at the centre of the universe displaced the accepted position of the heavens and the supremacy of the Catholic Church. When his trusted friend Sagredo asks him ?where is God in your cosmography??, Galileo responds, ?Within ourselves or nowhere?. In the early 20th century, when Darwin?s theory of natural selection and evolution became widely studied, science once again came in conflict with the Catholic Church. The conflict between such ideologies is unmistakable in The Life of Galileo. Just as the political ideologies of Germany deported Brecht and had his literature burned, the ideologies entrenched in the Catholic Church destroyed the brilliant scientist Galileo. The similarities between the lives of Galileo and Brecht run deep in the text and were a prime motivation for Brecht writing the play. Just as he continued reforming theatre long after he was deported from his homeland, Galileo continued to secretly compose his Discorsi despite blindness and being under heavily guarded house arrest.

"We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself."

Brecht rose to the occasion of transforming the social field in Europe. Change around him and his strong political convictions unquestionably had an impact on his writings. In a single performance, Brecht manages to succinctly yet powerfully challenge the belief that knowledge can be suppressed and simultaneously endorse the belief of a genuine new age in society. In combination with his strong Marxist ideals, Brecht produced a performance that had extensive social and political significance. The ideologies of the people, the ideologies of the government and the ideologies of some of the world's greatest thinkers come together in Brecht's The Life of Galileo to provide an astonishing insight into our social reality.

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