Galileo at Burbage: A Masterful Portrayal

A familiar touchstone of the modern age is that the Roman Catholic Church and its Inquisition threatened Galileo with torture for the heresy of asserting that the earth orbits the sun rather than, as several biblical verses imply, that the earth is fixed and immovable. Galileo by Bertolt Brecht starts from this premise and, while indisputably bad history, is very entertaining, engaging and effective.

Copernican model stage floorboard for Galileo at Burbage Theatre, designed by Andrew "Ike" Iacovelli (Photo: Michael Bilow)
Copernican model stage floorboard for Galileo at Burbage Theatre, designed by Andrew “Ike” Iacovelli
(Photo: Michael Bilow)

Richard Noble is a masterful Galileo in the starring role in the final production by Burbage Theatre Company after their long residency at Aurora in Providence before relocating to new quarters in Pawtucket, solidly capturing the essential character and presence of the man whose modern empirical thinking brought him, inevitably, into cataclysmic conflict with the antiquated scholastic thinking of the Church. Andrew “Ike” Iacovelli, in addition to designing and creating the impressive floor mural representation of the Copernican solar system, plays both Narrator and the adult version of Galileo’s faithful student Andrea, creating a clever closure of yet another circle in a story packed full of them. The female characters, Mrs. Sarti (Liz Hallenbeck) and Galileo’s daughter Virginia (Andrea Reid), are kept in deliberate ignorance of the serious matters of concern to the men, leading especially to conflict with “Ludovico” (Dillon Medina), a wealthy suitor of Virginia whose social class makes him unwilling to be drawn into scandalously heretical ideology.

The play opens with Young Andrea (Douglas Meeker) being tutored in science by Galileo, explaining that the ideas of the ancients about the earth as the center of the universe may be wrong. As Galileo tries to wangle an increase in pay from the Bursar (Brian Kozak) of the university, he tries to avoid taking on private paying students because he needs the time to do his own research. He is surrounded by like-minded, forward-thinking experimenters, Sagredo (Roger Lemelin) and Fulganzio (Emma Sacchetti), who are forced to confront the heretical implications of their direct observations; as well as Frederzoni (Nicholas Menna) and, eventually, the Inquisitor (Aaron Morris).


Director Vince Petronio presents a cerebral theater-in-the-round experience nevertheless calculated to provoke as visceral a reaction as possible, but the whole success of the play stands or falls on Noble’s outstanding, faithful portrayal of Galileo, a man compelled to impolitic and even rash words and deeds because to do otherwise would be a betrayal of truth and integrity.

As the late Mort Briggs told me decades ago in teaching the history of science, the root of the controversy was never about whether the earth moves or is fixed, but about who gets to decide. Galileo asserted that anyone could see truth by looking through a telescope, but that assumption put him at odds with the rationalist view of the Church, which held since the Middle Ages that the reasoning of the mind from sound premises, was a more reliable path to truth than the seeming evidence of the senses, which could be easily fooled or mistaken. Looking back from our 21st century, or even from Brecht’s 20th century, it is difficult to comprehend the mindset of the 17th century where there was serious debate whether comets, which are plainly observable with the naked eye, were merely atmospheric phenomena: The concept of “outer space,” which seems natural to us, had barely been imagined. The official view of the Church, based upon the astronomical theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy from ancient Greece that were already 2,000 years old even in Galileo’s time, was that the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars were affixed to “crystal spheres” in a literal unearthly realm of unchanging, undecaying, heavenly perfection – that is, heaven was an actual place with a physical location in the sky. The Copernican hypothesis that the earth was one of many planets orbiting the sun was therefore heretical not only because it contradicted biblical verses (“He hath founded earth on its bases, It is not moved to the age and for ever.” – Psalm 104:5) but because it implied that the “heavenly bodies” were not separate from our common realm of change and decay.

Galileo did not invent the telescope, and Brecht approvingly portrays him stealing the invention for commercial purposes. There is considerable autobiographical irony in this because it has been well known for at least 30 years that Brecht was a notorious plagiarist, passing off as his own the work of many others – especially his wives and mistresses, who as women in that era were far less able to gain respect writing under their own names, consistent with Brecht’s equally notorious misogyny. But Galileo seems to have been the first to point a telescope at the sky, and the idea that one could learn something significant by doing so was an anti-authoritarian “up yours” to the Roman Catholic Church: If anyone could seek truth through direct evidence of the senses, who needs the Church whose entire self-defined identity is to be the uniquely ordained mediator between God and man?

Every Brecht play has to come to terms with what he called the Verfremdungseffekt that since the 1960s has often been mistranslated as the “alienation effect,” but lately there has been an emerging consensus that a better translation into English is the “distancing effect.” (Brecht was a Marxist and Karl Marx used the similar but quite different word Entfremdung to describe the “alienation” of individuals resulting from economic coercion and loss of agency as a consequence of involuntary membership in their social class.) What Brecht meant was not that the audience should feel disconnected from the play, but rather that the audience is intended to relate to the play intellectually rather than emotionally, understanding rather than feeling. For Brecht, social conditioning fostered emotional obstacles to real truth, making the audience incapable, without effort, of transcending their limited worldview and in consequence resistant to gaining insight by perceiving connections between theater and real life.

Because of this goal, Brecht’s Galileo is a polemical piece rather than a history. There is no shortage of good histories, and in my opinion the best is The Crime of Galileo by Giorgio de Santillana, written in the 1950s from primary sources. (There are also bad histories such as Galileo’s Mistake by Wade Rowland in 2003 that laid the blame squarely on Galileo for provoking the Church, in my opinion one of the worst and most incompetent books on the subject.) Yet the most amazing thing about the Galileo affair is its persistence as an active controversy to the present day.

Modern defenders of the Inquisition in the Galileo affair are surprisingly easy to find. In January 2008 Pope Benedict XVI was forced to cancel a speech at the largest, oldest and most prestigious university in Rome, La Sapienza, because of protests from faculty and students resulting from his 1990 speech there (as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became pope in 2005) in which he quoted philosopher Paul Feyerabend (ironically a friend of Brecht) as saying: “The church at the time was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just.” Ratzinger certainly could not have agreed with Feyerabend who as an epistemological anarchist saw science as a kind of popularity contest rather than a methodical search for truth – or, as historian John Lukacs said, “History of science not only is inseparable from the history of scientists; it is the history of scientists.” In a speech later that year marking the winter solstice, Benedict suggested that Galileo could be seen today as unifying faith and reason, which I criticized at the time as misguided and offensive.

As recently as 2011 in a debate among candidates for the Republican nomination for the presidency, Texas Governor Rick Perry explicitly compared himself to Galileo because of Perry’s skepticism about climate change, asserting that “Galileo got outvoted for a spell.” James Fallows of The Atlantic deemed it necessary to publish a second article apologizing for his first article, saying that instead of calling Perry’s statement “flat-out moronic” initially, “I should just have said that his comment seemed ill-thought-out, weird and self-defeating, for exactly the reasons I set out the first time through.”

This surprisingly contemporary relevance of the Galileo affair is what clearly motivates Burbage to produce it. “We were looking at the Moliere play… The Misanthrope but we had to announce our season late because of the whole move and everything, so we were looking for maybe something else that was a little more topical. I came across Galileo and I can’t think of a better allegory for climate change deniers than this particular play,” Jeff Church said in an interview. The company chose to use the 2013 Mark Ravenhill version that premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Festival, which is highly abridged and shortened from the original. “This translation had a ‘feel in the mouth’ that we could understand without being overly English colloquial or being a really bad translation from the German,” Church said.

The Burbage performance hit its mark, Church said: “We’ve gotten feedback saying how relevant it is and how it struck a chord with what they call the ‘post-truth America.’”

Galileo, written by Bertolt Brecht and translated by Mark Ravenhill, directed by Vince Petronio. Performed by Burbage Theatre Company at Aurora, 276 Westminster St, PVD. Handicap accessible. Cash bar available. On-street metered (until 9pm) and paid lot parking. About 1h30m in one act with no intermission. Through Sep 16. Web: Facebook: