|Theatre Department Presents Brecht's Interpretation of Famed Italian Scientist "Galileo"
November 15, 2010
by Kelly Beggs '09
The Davidson College Theatre Department will present an innovative playwright's take on the classic conflict between progress and tradition as a cast of 13 Davidson actors perform Bertolt Brecht's Galileo November 17-21.
The play is inspired by the life of the 17th Century Italian scientist Galileo Galilei. After Galileo uses a telescope to prove Copernicus's theory that the earth revolves around the sun-and publishes his finding-he is brought to the Vatican for interrogation. Threatened with torture, he recants and is sentenced to house arrest for life. "He's not a heroic, Don Quixote figure," explained the play's director, Adjunct Professor of Theatre Jack Beasley. "He does what he has to do to survive."
The play will begin at 7:30 p.m. on November 17 to 20, and at 2 p.m. on November 21. All shows will be in the Barber Theatre in The Cunningham Theatre Center. Admission will be $8 for general admission; $5 for faculty/staff/seniors; and $4 for students. For tickets call 704-894-2135 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays or visit www.davidson.edu/tickets.
Will Ames '11 will play the title role. Ames said, "Galileo's recantation haunts him. There's a tension between what he wants-the truth-and the people in his life who stand in the way."
As a philosophy major, Ames says he's intrigued by his character's complexities. He said, "Galileo won't accept anything based on faith alone. All his ideas are grounded in reason and empirical evidence."
The play's interdisciplinary appeal has piqued the interest of many Davidson faculty members. Professors in the political science, psychology and biology departments will incorporate a viewing of the play into their classes' curriculum.
Beasley said, "Brecht is one of the great playwrights of the 20th century, and this is one of his most mature works. It's about the conflict between dogma and reason."
Though inspired by Galileo's true story, Brecht took liberties with the facts to serve the play's purpose. Brecht, who Beasley calls "a Marxist by convenience," molded the story to convey a political message-that hierarchical structures of power impede progress.
Beasley continued, "Brecht is saying in the play that the world only advances so far because those in power keep it from advancing more. In the instance of this play the impediment is the Catholic Church, but Brecht would say that whoever's in power will suppress common people with the ability to reason."
Brecht wrote three versions of Galileo between 1938 and 1956, and the play's themes were relevant to the political events that he experienced during that time. Beasley said, "It was a play he could never let go of. In that period between ‘38 and ‘56 you get Hitler, Stalin, and the advent of nuclear weapons. Brecht kept adjusting the content of his play to respond to whatever was going on politically."
The Davidson production will employ the 1947 script that Brecht wrote in the United States after he had emigrated from Hitler's Germany to avoid persecution. In September of that year, Brecht was subpoenaed with about 40 other Hollywood writers, directors, actors and producers to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Though he initially vowed not to testify, he eventually appeared in front of the committee and said he was never a member of the Communist Party. Interrogations, it seems, were present in the life of both playwright and the play's main character.
Despite the plot's poignant elements, Brecht's goal was to dissuade his audience from emotional entanglement. Beasley explained, "His most famous production theory was his ‘distancing effect.' He kept the audience one step away from getting too emotionally and sentimentally involved so that they could examine what was going on."
Brecht achieved that distance by writing short songs into his plays to interrupt action, using harsh, exposed lighting elements, and sometimes having actors speak stage directions aloud.
"I like Brecht because within one work, he juxtaposes a realistic story with all kinds of fantastical theatrical touches. I'm going to try to achieve that in unpredictable ways," Beasley said, hinting that puppets might be involved.
The Davidson production of Galileo promises to make its audience critically reexamine a familiar conflict of history. Beasley said simply, "I just want them to pay attention."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.