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January 10, 1610: Heaven abolished

The title of this post refers to the date when Galileo Galilei, physicist, mathematician and astronomer, spots the moons of Jupiter through his new telescope. Their presence, and his subsequent discovery that Venus waxes and wanes like the moon, proved to Galileo and his followers that Copernicus’ theories about the universe were right, and that the earth revolves around the sun.

Heady Stuff! Under the direction of Lynn Parker, Rough Magic’s excellent cast play out the political impact of this discovery in Brecht’s series of dialogues between Galileo, the central force of the play, and the bodies revolving round him. The Church, businessmen, politicians, his students, his religious daughter, all present conflicting views and needs to Galileo. He must balance them with his his search for knowledge, a balance as delicate as the universe itself, if he is to survive with his discoveries intact.

On a round set, segmented like a compass, canny Venetian and Florentine businessmen appear disinterested in theology, hoping Galileo can go back to inventing looms and pumps and compasses that shunt progress along. The church princes who dabble in science beg him to keep schtum, concerned his discoveries will reduce humanity to despair. What point is there to suffering and toil if man is not the centre of the universe, one of them asks Galileo? What indeed! His students thirst for knowledge and truth, and see political compromise as a betrayal of science. His daughter hopes to draw him back to her Catholic faith. The revolutionary set, represented by a group of street performers, use Galileo’s egalitarianist tendencies and his ideas to promote liberty, equality, and fraternity amongst the peasants of the Campagna.

Galileo, a man addicted to knowledge, fine wine and good food, cannot play the political game at this level of intensity. His outspoken views force his good friend and fellow scientist, Pope Urban VII, to bow to the pressure, and his arrogance brings the Inquisition on his head. Galileo has ‘the instruments’ shown to him. There is no need to use them: fear of torture makes him recant his theories. His toppling reverberates across Europe, and other Catholic scientists begin to self-censor. The New Age falters: Galileo retires to secluded house arrest, where his work is supervised and locked away each night by smug, middle-ranking Church officials.

The play, three hours long in this presentation, is intellectually relentless, the formal dialogues between Galileo and the other characters move the audience through an extensive examination of the role of science in society.

When finally, Galileo has his theories smuggled out of Catholic Italy to Protestant Holland where they will be welcomed, his victory is Pyrrhic. He had an opportunity to sacrifice himself to further the attainment of individual freedom, but his fear of ‘the instruments’ prevented him from taking that step. At the time, he rationalised his cowardice by claiming “Unhappy the country that has need of heroes”. After an extended period of reflection, he concludes that the only goal of science is the welfare of man, and in subjugating what he knows to be true to shore up the hierarchical power structures of Catholic society, he has failed. The Church itself finally acknowledged this by pardoning Galileo in 1992. I kid you not!

Shortly before his death, Arthur Miller asked: “How many times do we have to indulge the same idiocies for which we must later be ashamed?”

Brecht wrote The Life of Gallileo in Santa Monica, California in the ‘forties, while Oppenheimer and his colleagues busied themselves just a little ways up the road. Brecht himself was ‘shown the instruments’ by the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, and recanted his own theories. He fled for Europe next day, where he ended his career under the watchful eye of the East German Stasi.

Brecht’s epic theatre asks the audience to engage with it on an intellectual level. There is no room for empathy with the characters. Sitting in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin last night, we smiled knowingly at references to seventeenth century idiocies, reminded of the current rise of Creationism, of those who are being ‘shown the instruments’ in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, of individuals such as Aung Sung Suu Kyi, locked away in seclusion by smug, middle-ranking officials.

Two things struck me as particularly interesting. The first was the role of business in the play. As far as the merchants and mill owners of Italy were concerned, Gallileo could do what he liked so long as his innovations made them money. A mill owner even offers to smuggle him into the Venetian Republic, away from the influence of the Inquisition, and it is only Galileo’s arrogance that loses him this opportunity to escape.

The second was the pertinence of the play to the great intellectual struggle underway in the USA at present. In a society created to provide freedom from religious persecution, it is terrifying that public opinion is being increasingly influenced by intolerant groups and individuals trying to suppress homosexuality and the works of Charles Darwin.

For me, these two issues raised a question I hadn’t thought of before.

To what extent does business have a role in the current debates taking place in the USA, between Christian fundamentalism and liberalism? Diversity management is the new buzzword in European business circles, but it has been kicking around American corporations a lot longer. Is it contributing to the debate? Or is it sitting on the fence, save for a few individual ‘mill owners’, like it did with Galileo?

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