Saturday, March 02, 2013

Falstaffian science

Here’s a review of the new production of Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo from the Royal Shakespeare Company, published in Nature.


It is one of the central works of drama about science, and one of the most controversial. Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo has been criticised for misrepresenting history, science and Galileo himself, with some validity. The real question, however, is whether the play works, theatrically and psychologically.

Shakespeare, after all, took vast liberties with history, yet such is his way with human portraiture that no one complains. Shakespeare and Galileo were born within a few weeks of each other in 1564 – a coincidence that the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) understandably makes much of for its latest production of Brecht’s play. More significantly, the play shows Brecht at his most Shakespearean, with Galileo the wily, tragically compromised sensualist redeemed by self-insight that others lack — he is, as Adam Gopnik suggested in a recent article in The New Yorker, a kind of intellectual Falstaff.

The exuberance and wit of this production owe much to the new translation by current RSC writer in residence Mark Ravenhill. Ravenhill has commented on the “comic sensibility in Brecht’s language which I think [is] often overlooked”, but which he and director Roxana Sibert have found in abundance. In the title role, Ian McDiarmid is sly and wordly while pulling off the important trick of making Galileo loveable. It’s with the basic fabric of the play, not its realization, that the questions lie.

In retrospect we can see that that Brecht set himself an impossible task, because even now there is no consensus on Galileo. Many scientists still prefer the narrative that prevailed when Brecht first wrote the play in 1937-39, of a martyr persecuted by the Catholic Church for his pursuit of truth about the arrangement of the cosmos. A more measured view holds now, recognizing that a less pugnacious man might have navigated the currents of the papal court more skilfully. It is certainly not to excuse the bullying, dogmatic Vatican to point out that Galileo’s evidence for a heliocentric universe was equivocal and in some respects (his interpretation of the tides) wrong.

Galileo’s mathematical physics, rightly adored by physicists today, was not, as some older science historians had it, the right way to do science. It was the right approach for celestial and terrestrial mechanics, but useless for chemistry, medicine, botany, zoology and much else. And while Einstein celebrated Galileo’s rejection of logical deduction devoid of empirical input as essential to modern science, Galileo was not the first to do that.

Brecht must take some blame for making Galileo more original than he was. He fell for the idea of a Scientific Revolution in which Great Men begin thinking in a totally new way. Complaints about historical accuracy could seem carping in a work of art, but Brecht himself attested of the first version of the play that “I was trying here to follow history”.

Brecht was in any case disingenuous, for his original version of the play was evidently informed by, and widely interpreted as a comment on, the political climate of the time. Brecht fled Nazi Germany after the Reichstag fire in 1933, and his cunning Galileo who subverts the ideology of the authorities – recanting on his heliocentrism in order to continue his work in secret – was regarded as a symbol of anti-Nazi resistance.

That, however, is not the Galileo of the revised 1947 version – the one most often performed, and used here. Although Brecht was already reworking the play in 1944, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki transformed his view of scientists. “Overnight the biography of the founder of the new system of physics read differently,” he wrote. He felt that the Manhattan Project scientists had betrayed their moral obligations, and criticized even Einstein as a politically naïve “eternal schoolboy”. Regardless of the merits of that view, it is the play’s downfall.

Now Galileo, confronting his former student Andrea, launches into a diatribe on how, by focusing on science for science’s sake, “you might jump for joy at some new achievement, only to be answered by a world shrieking in horror.” Nothing in Galileo’s former conduct has prepared this (anachronistic) concern about the social applications of science, leaving us with a confusing portrait.

On 30 October 1947, when the new version was premiered, Brecht got a taste of Galileo’s ordeal: he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (others involved in the production refused). He left for Europe the following day, accused of having compromised artistic freedom and with perhaps a keener appreciation that ideological interference in art and science was not confined to dictatorships.

Brecht’s other impossible task was to explain how real science is done. He succumbs to the view that you just need to think clearly, believe your eyes, trust in reason. He then has to skirt around the problem that your eyes tell you that the sun, not the earth, moves. What’s more, philosophers such as Paracelsus and Bernardino Telesio had been relying on experience, rather than Aristotle, for a hundred years before Galileo, but had reached rather different ‘truths’. Nor was there any ‘scientific method’ in Galileo’s time, just as there is none today: its ad hoc combination of hypothesis, assumption, experiment, theory, logic and intuition will not reduce to any formula.

The RSC’s production is spirited and visually inventive. But the play itself is pulled between too many irreconcilable poles to make a coherent whole. It is perhaps the history of the play, rather than the text itself, that reveals the most about the difficult relationship between science and the cultures in which it is embedded.


JimmyGiro said...

"It is perhaps the history of the play, rather than the text itself, that reveals the most about the difficult relationship between science and the cultures in which it is embedded."

Indeed, I can't help thinking of Sam Harris' interview with Bill Maher, especially at the 8 minute mark, whereby he believes that 'rationalists' should pressure those that have wrong ideas. For the New Atheists believe that being 'irrational' by not following the 'science' template of absolutism, is some kind of social defect, to be forcefully corrected.

So the next 'Galileo' will probably be a scientist who dares to believe in his own orthodoxy, and it will be 'scientists' that will be applying the rack.

Philip Ball said...

It's certainly the way some of those chaps are heading. And let's not forget that Sam Harris is happy to condone torture, albeit only for the right reasons of course.