The physical nature of the heavens was an idea that obsessed Galileo, and a play based upon the life of Galileo was an idea that seemed to obsess Bertolt Brecht. Composition commenced in the mid-1930s in conjunction with the Stalinist Purge Trials in the Soviet Union. A decade later found Brecht collaborating with noted actor Charles Laughton for the American production. A decade later in Berlin, Brecht would pass away while directing Galileo.
Still, it was that that period of origination that wielded the more profound influence on his drama. One of the most unlikely victims of Stalin’s purges was a former close supporter of the Russian dictator, Nicolai Bukharin. Bukharin now found himself facing charges of conspiring with foreign governments to plan the assassination of Stalin and subsequent coup d’etat. Eventually, Bukharin would bow to pressure and recant all public criticism he’d directed toward the Soviet Premier, but it was of little use: he was executed in 1939.
Bukharin thus becomes historically linked with Galileo in Brecht’s play to a point from which he cannot be extricated even as enjoyment and understanding is in no way diminished as a result of utter ignorance of Bukharin’s story. The central story of Galileo’s conflict with medieval thinking and the authority of a Catholic Church with a preference for sacred ignorance over secular knowledge is deeply rooted in historical events occurring well after the setting of the play. The detonation of the nuclear age over the skies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki contributed to the continuing evolution of Brecht’s vision in a profound manner that makes later versions depart in thematically significant ways from earlier versions.
The ushering in of the Atomic Age brought down the curtain on the play’s situating of its title character in an unrelenting positive light in which he proves himself far more cunning than his persecutors. Brecht’s post-war disillusionment with science notably alters that image to the point that what was a tragedy is transformed into an ironic tragicomedy and its lead character—in the words of the playwright—is reduced to an “intellectual prostitute.”