GALLIED by Bertoilt Brecht; adapted into English by Charles Laughton; directed By Martin Fried; setting by Tony Straiges; costumes by Marjorie Slaman; lighting by Arden Fingerhut; music by Jack Eric Williams. With Robert Prosky, Robert W. Westenberg, Annalee Jeffereis, Stanley Anderson, Richard Bauer, Halo Wines, Charles Janasz, Terrence Currier, Ernest Graves and Jack Eric Williams.
At Arena Stage through Nov. 23.
Galileo is having a good week.
The Vatican, after an interval of 347 year, has just decided to reexamine the data behind the 17th-century astronomer's heretical picture of the earth moving around the sun. With any luck, he could be back in papal favor in another century or two.
Meanwhile, Arena Stage has launched its 30th-anniversary season with a spectacular production of Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo," one of the few history plays with a real sense of history, and -- thanks to a fortuitous collaboration between Brecht and Charles Laughton -- one of the few European plays that speak to us in easy, lucid, lyrical English.
Brecht's Galileo is not one of those impossibly courageous and farsighted heroes who have inhabited so many stage and film recreations of history. He is a genius but also a glutton, a man who "cannot say no to an old wine or a new idea." He is also a cheat, claiming the invention of the telescope (which has come to him from Holland via a student) in order to gain a university appointment. "I improved it," he tells the disapproving student.
At first, as he begins to prove Copernicus' forbidden, century-old theory of the solar system, the Brechtian Galileo is too naively confident of his ability to appeal to universal common sense. But once threatened with torture by the Inquisition, he is too easily bent to the will of the Church. Only years after his public recantation, as he continues his work on the sly (losing his sight in the process), does he see the magnitude of his surrender.
Robert Prosky's performance may lack the ifinite, effortless variability of genius, and too often may strike notes it has struck before. But Prosky is as life-size as Brecht's vision, and all of the shadings and fluctuations of his interpretation are well-considered and plausible. He makes Galileo, in short, a warm body.
And as directed by Martin Fried on a set created by Tony Straiges, this "Galileo" is an eyeful -- as Brecht meant it to be. Galileo's debates with his friends and students are lavishly illustrated with vintage Renaissance gadgetry.
The supporting cast is so numerous that people show up for the curtain call whom you may not remember seeing in the play. There is the occasional odd bit of casting -- a clearly middle-aged figure being introduced as a "young monk," for example -- but otherwise the actors are admirable right down the line. Robert W. Westenberg and Annalee Jefferies (as Galileo's apprentice and daughter) are particularly so. Not only do they read the lines well, but also between the lines, conveying a vivid sense of time's imprint on their characters.
It is to Brecht, however, that we owe the rich texture of the secondary characters and the many confrontations that involve them. Although often maligned as an ideologue, Brecht's intellectual curiosity was too intense to allow him to write the usual straw characters who advance erroneous or evil positions in the theater. So the backward people of "Galileo" are as eloquent and whole as the forward people. We have, for example, an astronomy-minded monk saying, "We must be silent from the highest of movites -- the inward peace of less fortunate souls." And a cardinal saying: "I am informed that Signor Galilei transfers man from the center of the universe to the outskirts . . . I won't have it! I won't be a nobody on an inconsequential star briefly twirling hither and thither."
Brecht wrote this marvelous play under the worst circumstances -- in mid-exodus from Nazism, as he paused in Denmark just before the war. He rewrote it (with Laughton writing the English version) at the end of the war, newly and uncomfortably installed in Hollywood. And the atom bomb was clearly on his mind as the ultimate example of subservient science, growing ever more specialized ad ever more accommodating to state interests.
The Brechtian conviction that the mass of humanity is always ready for a new idea may be debatable. But that's just one of the debates that make "Galileo" a pleasure.