Bertolt Brecht, Galileo (Grove Press, 1952)
[originally posted 7Jan2002]
Publishers who put out “literature” (perhaps I should capitalize the L) have felt it necessary for the past half-century or so to include long-winded dissections of the texts as a part of their editions. No mind is paid, seemingly, to whether these long-winded dissections contain major plot spoilers (they almost always do). Add Eric Bentley’s interminable preface to the Grove Press edition of Brecht’s Galileo to the list. Perhaps Grove assumes anyone reading the thing will either have already read the play or will be so turned off by Bentley’s wooden prose style that they won’t read far enough to get to the spoilers. My advice: go the second route. And book publishers, if you’re putting essays in your editions, PLEASE put them AFTER the actual text, so the novice reader of a given work will be able to approach it without the coloring of another reader’s analysis.
Bentley spends forty-odd pages discussing the historical inaccuracies of Brecht’s Galileo and the two extant versions of the text (though Bentley says both are presented in the Grove edition, this is not the case; from his comments, I gather this is the second version of the play, completed after WW2 [the first was completed in 1937]). Bentley goes on forever about the socialist qualities of Galileo, and whether the scientist makes a worthy Marxist hero, both in the reader’s eyes and in Brecht’s. Whether anyone outside those writing a paper for a Marxist lit class would care doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind. Brecht is one of the few authors who is capable of taking a political statement and couching it in such writing as to make the statement itself visible only to those looking for it; Galileo’s Marxism, or lack of same, doesn’t hit the reader in the face with a dead herring (or a dropped pebble, as ’twere) throughout the text. Commendable, especially for as fervent a Marxist as was Brecht. Here is a man who never let the message overtake the medium, and scads of modern authors could do with repeated readings of this text to get a handle on what it is they’re doing wrong.
Bentley aside, the play itself is certainly worth the reader’s time. Galileo is presented from the time of his first findings with which Mother Church took offense until twenty years after his recantation. While the play mainly focuses on Galileo and how his own views toward his work affect him and those around him, we’re not allowed to go away without understanding how those views also affected the Italian society around him; as with all things, the subversion to be found in Galileo’s discovery that the Earth revolves around the Sun instead of vice-versa seeps into the public mind, much to the Church’s dismay. But at its heart, the play is about the man himself and those around him. Galileo himself, historically accurate or not, is a convincing character, and his family, friends, and supporters are also very well-drawn (with the arguable exception of his daughter, who never seems to really flesh out and become a believable human being; her actions and reactions are predictable and wooden). Whatever the message underlying, and whether the reader agrees with it or not, Galileo is first and foremost a decent piece of drama. Leave Bentley’s preface until after you’ve drawn your own conclusions. ** ½ (**** for the play, zero for Bentley’s comments)