Life of Galileo

Life of Galileo (German: Leben des Galilei), also known as Galileo, is a play by the twentieth-century German dramatist Bertolt Brecht with incidental music by Hanns Eisler. The play was written in 1938 and received its first theatrical production (in German) at the Zurich Schauspielhaus, opening on 9 September 1943. This production was directed by Leonard Steckel, with set-design by Teo Otto. The cast included Steckel himself (as Galileo), Karl Paryla and Wolfgang Langhoff.

Life of Galileo
1971 Berliner Ensemble production
Written byBertolt Brecht
CharactersGalileo, Andrea Sarti, Mrs Sarti, Ludovico Marsili, Virginia, Sagredo, Federzoni, Mr Priuli, Cosimo de Medici, Father Christopher Clavius, Cardinal Barberini, Fillipo Mucius, Mr Gaffone, Vanni, Senator, 1st Monk, Puppeteer, Rector
Date premiered1943
Original languageGerman
SubjectSocial responsibility of scientists
SettingRenaissance Italy

The second (or 'American') version was written in English between 1945–1947 in collaboration with Charles Laughton, and opened at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles on 30 July 1947.[1] It was directed by Joseph Losey and Brecht, with musical direction by Serge Hovey and set-design by Robert Davison. Laughton played Galileo, with Hugo Haas as Barberini and Frances Heflin as Virginia. This production opened at the Maxine Elliott's Theatre in New York on 7 December of the same year.

In 1955 Brecht prepared a third version. A production, by the Berliner Ensemble with Ernst Busch in the title role, opened in January 1957 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm and was directed by Erich Engel, with set-design by Caspar Neher.[2] The play was first published in 1940.

The action of the play follows the career of the great Italian natural philosopher Galileo Galilei and the Galileo affair, in which he was tried by the Roman Catholic Church for the promulgation of his scientific discoveries. The play embraces such themes as the conflict between dogmatism and scientific evidence, as well as interrogating the values of constancy in the face of oppression.

Versions of the play

After emigrating to the United States from Hitler's Germany (with stopovers in various other countries in between, among them the USSR), Brecht translated and re-worked the first version of his play in collaboration with the actor Charles Laughton.[3] The result of their efforts was the second 'American version' of the play, entitled simply Galileo, which to this day remains the most widely staged version in the English-speaking world. This version differed in tone from the original, as Brecht felt that the optimistic portrait of the scientific project present in the first version required revision in a post-Hiroshima world, where science's harmful potential had become more apparent.[4] This second version formed the basis for Losey's 1975 film adaptation for American Film Theatre under the title Galileo with Topol in the title role.

In September 1947, Brecht was subpoenaed in the US by the House Un-American Activities Committee for alleged communist connections. He testified before HUAC on 30 October 1947, and flew to Europe on 31 October. He chose to return to East Germany and continued to work on the play, now once again in the German language. The final German version premiered at Cologne in April 1955.

Matej Danter offers a readily-accessible and detailed comparison of the early, the American, and the final German versions.[5]

In 2013 the Royal Shakespeare Company performed a new version of the play based on a "pared down" translation by Mark Ravenhill; the Swan Theatre production received a favorable review from the veteran theater critic Michael Billington.[6]


Galileo, an eminent professor and scientist in the 17th century Venetian Republic, is short of money. A prospective student tells him about a novel invention, the telescope ("a queer tube thing"), that is being sold in Amsterdam. Galileo replicates it, and offers it to the Republic as his own creation. He gains an increase in his salary, but within a short time his ruse is discovered.

Galileo then uses the telescope for careful observations of the Moon and the planets, and he discovers the moons orbiting Jupiter. His observations strongly support Nicolaus Copernicus' heliocentric model of our Solar System, which is counter both to popular belief and to the doctrine of the powerful Roman Catholic Church. He furthermore publishes in vernacular Italian, rather than traditional scientific Latin, thus making his work and conclusions more accessible to the common people.

His daughter's engagement to a well-off young man (with whom she is genuinely in love) is broken because of Galileo's reluctance to distance himself from his unorthodox teachings. Galileo is brought to the Vatican in Rome for interrogation by the Inquisition. Upon being threatened with torture, he recants his teachings. His students are shocked by his surrender in the face of pressure from the church authorities.

Galileo, old and broken, now living under house arrest with a priest monitoring his activities, is visited by one of his former pupils, Andrea. Galileo gives him a book (Two New Sciences) containing all his scientific discoveries, asking him to smuggle it out of Italy for dissemination abroad. Andrea now believes Galileo's actions were heroic and that he just recanted to fool the ecclesiastical authorities. However, Galileo insists his actions had nothing to do with heroism but were merely the result of self-interest.

Historical background

The play stays generally faithful to Galileo's science and timeline thereof, but takes significant liberties with his personal life. Galileo did in fact use a telescope, observe the moons of Jupiter, advocate for the heliocentric model, observe sunspots, investigate buoyancy, and write on physics, and did visit the Vatican twice to defend his work, the second time being made to recant his views, and being confined to house arrest thereafter.

One significant liberty that is taken is the treatment of Galileo's daughter Virginia Gamba (Sister Maria Celeste), who, rather than becoming engaged, was considered unmarriageable by her father and confined to a convent from the age of thirteen (the bulk of the play), and, further, died of dysentery shortly after her father's recantation. However, Galileo was close with Virginia, and they corresponded extensively.


There are a number of allusions to Galileo's science and to Marxism which are not further elaborated in the play; some of these are glossed below.

The discussion of price versus value was a major point of debate in 19th century economics, under the terms exchange value versus use value. Within Marxian economics this is discussed under the labor theory of value.

More subtly, Marx is sometimes interpreted as advocating technological determinism (technological progress determines social change), which is reflected in the telescope (a technological change) being the root of the scientific progress and hence social unrest.

The mention of tides refers to Galileo's theory that the motion of the Earth caused the tides, which would give the desired physical proof of the Earth's movement, and which is discussed in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, whose working title was Dialogue on the Tides. In actuality Galileo was wrong. Kepler correctly believed that the Moon's gravity caused the tides.

The bent wooden rail in scene 13 and the discussion that the quickest distance between two points need not be a straight line (though a straight line offers the shortest path, the fastest descent of a rolling ball in fact follows a curve) alludes to Galileo's investigation of the brachistochrone (in the context of the quickest descent from a point to a wall), which he incorrectly believed to be given by a quarter circle. Instead, the brachistochrone is a half cycloid, which was only proven much later with the development of calculus.

In performance


  1. Schuetze-Coburn, Marje. "Bertolt Brecht's Galileo at the Coronet Theatre, February 1998". Feuchtwanger Memorial Library at the University of Southern California:. Archived from the original on 2012-02-03.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  2. Willett (1959, 46–47).
  3. McNeil (2005: 45–47)
  4. McNeil (2005: 63; 111–113)
  5. Danter (2001)
  6. Billington, Michael (February 13, 2013). "A Life of Galileo – review". The Guardian.


  • Brecht, Bertolt (1952). Galileo. Trans. Charles Laughton. Ed. Eric Bentley. Works of Bertolt Brecht Ser. New York: Grove Press, 1966. ISBN 0-8021-3059-3. p. 43–129.
  • Brecht, Bertolt (1955). Life of Galileo. In Collected Plays:Five. Trans. John Willett. Ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. Bertolt Brecht: Plays, Poetry and Prose Ser. London: Methuen, 1980. ISBN 0-413-69970-6. p. 1–105.
  • Danter, Matej (2001). "History of changes of Brecht's Galileo". New Mexico State University. Archived from the original on 2006-12-14.
  • McNeill, Dougal (2005). The Many Lives of Galileo: Brecht, Theatre and Translation's Political Unconscious. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang Academic. ISBN 3-03910-536-1. OCLC 61178224.
  • Squiers, Anthony (2014). An Introduction to the Social and Political Philosophy of Bertolt Brecht: Revolution and Aesthetics. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 9789042038998.
  • Willett, John (1959). The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-34360-X.
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