A version of The Life of Galileo nine years ago, by the Berliner Ensemble in Germany, may stand as the best play I've ever seen. The Wall had fallen eight months before, and without any special help from the costume designer, or the set, or histrionics from the actors, members of the company founded by Brecht staged an elegant farewell to Communism. They gave a straight fable about a scientist who insisted that power founded on lies couldn't last. The parallels with Honecker and Krenz and all the other high-level clerks losing face in the East were obvious, and no one had to push it. Compared to that show, the Ensemble's American tour last July with Arturo Ui was thin stuff, and the Berkeley Rep's revival of Galileo to kick off their current season has, at least on this page, a lot to live up to.
The Berkeley set is clad in corrugated tin, evoking the mid-20th century; Galileo's kitchen, where Mrs. Sarti works, has a propane stove. One panel of corrugated metal at the rear of the stage has been tipped on its corner, dramatically cutting the pattern of lines, and there's a general sense of hip off-kilteredness meant to evoke the edge of the millennium. Two shifting mirrors reflect title-slides and video pieces; at various points in the play we see Galileo's handwriting, images of the moon, a college of churchmen, and an Italian Wheel of Fortune. So the set (by Douglas Stein) is a multimedia one. “Today,” writes artistic director Tony Taccone in a program blurb, “the daily crush of new ideas, technology, and information provokes a desperate longing for the fixed and familiar, a need for control not unlike that which brought Galileo to trial.”
Hmm. Well, before we deal with that, a quick summary: The play opens in 1609, when Galileo Galilei steals an idea from a Dutch inventor and builds a telescope, which not only improves his salary at the University of Padua but also lets him see magnified planets and stars. Soon he can prove that the earth orbits the sun. Copernicus' theory of the solar system is right, he argues, and the old theory upheld by Ptolemy and Aristotle, which has the sun orbiting the earth, is wrong. But church fathers prefer the Ptolemaic system because it places them at the center of the cosmos, so Galileo's proofs disturb not just an article of faith but also the Vatican's pretensions to power. He's arrested and forced to recant.
Brecht wrote three versions of the play between 1938 and 1953; the most complex and final version shows the old scientist as a compromised hero, beaten in his lifetime by the Pope. In the course of the often-didactic show you can actually feel Brecht coming to grips with Stalinism, which turned the Marxist dream he'd argued for since the 1920s into a bloody authoritarian nightmare. (Brecht also had to wrestle with the birth of the atom bomb, and its implications for ethics in science.) The Berkeley Rep uses the last and fullest version, in a new translation by David Hare. Hare does direct and simple work. But aside from the new translation by a famous playwright, and renaissance in media technology, is there any clear reason to do Galileo now? Does Mark Wing-Davey's production find a modern tyrant with “a desperate longing for the fixed and familiar”?
Well, not quite. It finds an idea, not a person or system. The idea has to do with the fracturing of “narrative” in electronic media. An essay in the program by Luan Schooler — sorry for all these quotations — cites an editorial by Lewis Lapham in Harper's: “The linear order of the printed page aligns itself with … sequence, composition, narrative, hierarchy, classification, continuity, cause and effect; perceptions of the world associated with the electronic media tend toward discontinuity, improvisation, intuition, repetition, simultaneity, and incantation.” So the idea driving this show, if you believe what you read in the program, is that we should get out of the road if we can't handle discontinuity, improvisation, intuition, repetition, etc. All that old composed and organized narrative stuff is passé. Just look at the Internet. You don't see a controlling mind there, do you?
No, you don't. And a certain amount of control is also missing from the production. There is, to start with, a lot of yelling. Galileo yells at his friend Sagredo, and Sagredo yells back. The cardinals yell at Galileo. Galileo's students yell at each other. And Mrs. Sarti, after praying for Galileo's soul, goes yelling into the wings. The script is one of Brecht's strongest and doesn't need to be overplayed — in fact, the shouted argument between Sagredo and Galileo at the telescope shatters the force of more than one brilliant line. “Where is God?” Sagredo asks the scientist, when he realizes the theological ramifications of what Galileo wants to prove. “In us, or nowhere,” Galileo says. He really, really doesn't have to shout.
Michael Winters plays Galileo with a wide-eyed, childish energy, the way Robin Williams might play him, and comes off as a TV science teacher. He has almost none of the gruff dignity that would let him find real force in his lines. And his change after the recantation is marked: Galileo appears as a brusque and shambling ex-hero who takes more pleasure in food and wine than in battling the Vatican with science. In one major respect he's a failure, a disappointment to himself, and Winters makes this side of Galileo very clear. You just wish the earlier, heroic Galileo could have been more arrogant.
Héctor Correa is a nicely strident Signor Priuli, the University of Padua official; Anne Derragh is a sometimes-wooden Mrs. Sarti; L. Peter Callender does a balanced and dignified Cardinal Barberini, who later ascends to Pope. Robert Sicular's Very Old Cardinal is hilarious, swinging his cane, losing his glasses, ranting, “I am the center… Everything depends on me…!” and falling on the floor. Sean San José has a strong debut as Fulganzio the Little Monk; his debate with Galileo is one of the most affecting scenes. And Ken Ruta, as the Cardinal Inquisitor, turns in the best performance of the show. He's the only cast member who enlivens his lines by scanning them — weighing every syllable — and his scene with Galileo's daughter (Amy Mordecai) is tense with lust and restrained power.
As a whole, though, Wing-Davey's production feels scattered. Galileo and his friends wear modern clothes while the fathers of the Church and authorities at Padua wear the old-fashioned pomp of scholasticism and popery. Sure, Galileo was ahead of his time. But Wing-Davey seems to have no clear idea which authorities, exactly, might be toppled by the champions of logic on his stage. At the risk of sounding Old Media, I don't accept that “sequence, composition, narrative” are the ignorant Vatican of a bright new world. They are elements of clear and logical thought. “Discontinuity … intuition,” and especially “incantation” are messy, valuable things, but if this production wants to argue that their prevalence in the media makes them the building blocks of a revolutionary, new-millennium reason, it's flat-out wrong.