We all think we know Galileo—the possibly apocryphal cannonballs-from-the-¬Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa story, how he invented the telescope (though he didn’t), and his troubles with the Inquisition—but Brecht focuses closer to home, on Galileo’s enormous excitement in making scientific discoveries, especially in the first scene when, using only a chair and an apple, he demonstrates the Copernican system to his housekeeper’s young son, and later, when he courageously tries to show his discoveries to Cosimo de’ Medici and his men, only to have them refuse to look through the telescope. But Brecht also shows us a man who behaves thoughtlessly with his family and household, who has an insatiable appetite and a very human fear of physical pain that forces him to recant before the Inquisition rather than defend what he knows to be true.
And Brecht went farther. After Hiroshima, he altered the end of the play to make a powerful statement about the responsibility of scientists for more than merely scientific truth. It is no small irony that only months after Galileo was first produced in the United States, Brecht himself was brought up in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, our uniquely American version of the Inquisition, albeit arguably far more civilized, if no less ideologically blinded. He left the United States, returning to Europe the following day.
[Originally published in March, 2009.]