Galileo, the Earth, the Sun, the Catholic Church and Injustice

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

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Galileo Galilei was a world-renowned Italian astronomer, mathematician and physicist of the seventeenth century. He discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter (appropriately known as the Galilean moons); he was one of the first observers of sunspots; he improved the telescope and the military compass; and he wrote several well-received books. The brilliant Galileo remains a legendary figure in science today.

History does not remember him best for peering through a telescope and staring at the stars, though. It remembers his war with the Catholic Church over heliocentrism, the theory that the earth revolves around the sun. The Church, armed with two thousand years of religious and scholarly tradition and Biblical notations, steadfastly did not agree. The church made the scientist an outcast.

Acclaimed playwright Bertolt Brecht (of The Threepenny Opera fame) took that battle and made it the focus of his 1922 play, Galileo. A revival of it, starring Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham, opened last Thursday at the Classic Stage Company in New York. It is a detailed and vigorous look at Galileo’s last eighteen years and his battles with Pope Urban VIII, the Jesuits and the Church over the earth/sun debate.

There are two central questions in the history play, which unfolds amid bitter political disputes in Rome, Florence and Venice. The first is whether or not the Church had the right to bully the scientist and the second is whether or not, as Galileo says midway through the play, history would have been changed if he had used his fame and influence to stand up to the church to prove his point.

After some eight years of debate over his theory, the pope called Galileo to Rome, where he was put on trial by the Inquisition in 1633 for heresy, connected to his claimed of heliocentrism, and his career and standing in history were threatened.

This latest version of the play arrives in the middle of a presidential election in which former GOP candidate Rick Perry, governor of Texas, when asked about his stand that there is no global warming, insisted that he was right and said that “Galileo got outvoted for a spell.”

Galileo is never out of fashion.

The enlightening play has a strong finish, but a slow start. Galileo and his friends spend far too much time debating the theory of heliocentrism and what the Church thought about it. A good fifteen minutes could have been cut from the first act. The play stumbles a bit at the end of Act One but then picks up speed in Act Two. Here Galileo is championed by his loyal daughter and his friends and starts to refute the Church. The Inquisition challenges his theories and he does not back down, forcing the much publicized trial that is the conclusion of the play. Act two is much better than act one. The great emotional scenes in the play happen in Act Two, such as the Pope’s tirade and Galileo’s daughter’s distraught prayers in the garden while he is being grilled by prosecutors from the church.

Brecht’s play basically tackles one question that is asked again and again in history. How far do you go and how many banners of righteousness can you wave when the enemy threatens to torture you?

That was Galileo’s dilemma for eighteen years. He was a noted scientist with a large following. He was fighting the doctrines of a powerful Catholic Church, whose Inquisition was routinely torturing people to get them to recant any critical statements they had made towards the Pope or the Church. Should Galileo become a bold martyr to his beliefs or back down under intense pressure and live out his days in quiet happiness? Conversely, the play argues that the Church should never have flaunted its power through the Inquisition.

Theatergoers and historians will revel in the argument.

Galileo offers two hours of splendid history that history lovers will embrace. The audience learns all about Galileo’s scientific theories, his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the Jesuits, the nature of the Pope’s election in the early 1600s, the power of the church, European astronomers and physicists, the history of science, styles of dress and living and the roles of women. The only important item Brecht left out of his play was the fury unleashed when Galileo published his book The Assayer. Brecht also failed to add in the sarcastic wit and personal venom of Galileo that historians have noted brought him far more enemies than an ordinary scientist should have had at that time.

The set features a huge window in which photos and videos are shown and large silver planets and a huge sun that hang from the ceiling and descend from time to time. It is stunning.

The acting in the play is solid. F. Murray Abraham does not play Galileo as either the champion of the rebels or the sainted scientist, but as a bright but candid man who is trying to figure out what he should do to save his career, help his friends, bring happiness to his daughter and keep his professional reputation intact in the storm that surrounds him.
Abraham leads a talented cast that includes Andy Phelan as his servant Andreas, Amanda Quaid as his daughter Virginia, Nick Westrate as Ludovico, her fiancée, John DeVries and Robert Dorfman as two cardinals and Aaron Himelstein,  Stever Rattazzi and Steve Skybell.
PRODUCTION: Produced by the Classic Stage Company. Sets: Adrianne Lobel, Costumes: Oana Botez-Ban, Lighting: Justin Townsend, Music & Sound: Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery, Projection Design: Jan Hartley.

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