The Drama of Galileo — and of Losey, Eisler, and Brecht

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“I believe in the gentle force of reason; in the long run, no one can resist it. Nobody can watch me drop a pebble and say it doesn’t fall. Nobody can do that. The seduction of truth is too strong.”

So says Galileo Galilei in Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. The staged biography by the famed East German poet and dramatist pitted science (truth) against religion (rigorously enforced falsehood) and placed intellectuals on the side of the former.

Brecht’s work went through several versions beginning in the late 1930s, all of them featuring incidental music by the German/Austrian composer Hanns Eisler. In America, it played on Broadway in 1947 in a production directed by Joseph Losey. Losey’s conception of the play is still with us, in the form of the Losey-directed movie from 1974 that has the Israeli actor Topol in the lead role.

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Topol expressed admiration for the director but said that he was a man preoccupied “22 out of 24 hours of the day” with his own persecution by the U.S. government. Losey had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. After being blacklisted, he exiled himself to Europe (where he made Galileo, among other pictures).

If the theme of the creative mind under pressure from the Inquisition was relevant for Losey, it was more so for his longtime friend, Eisler, and his role model, Brecht. Both had run-ins with HUAC. Much more dedicated Reds than Losey (the American’s membership in the Party had been brief), they got deported as the communist controversy in America neared its height.

After deportation came the attempt to live in East Germany, “the land of real and existing socialism.” It was dicey; the truth was superintended by the scientific and cultural commissars of the Soviet bloc.

Hanns Eisler’s most ambitious project, an opera based on Goethe’s Faust, was condemned by East German academicians. They were enforcing the policy of Andrei Zhdanov, the Russian tasked with patrolling music and the arts behind the Iron Curtain and stopping any imperialist influences from creeping in. Eisler was denied authorization for his interpretation of Goethe and gave up writing the opera in 1952.

As Staatsdichter (state poet) of the German Democratic Republic, Bertolt Brecht fared better. He minded his p’s and q’s and was given the use of the grand Schiffbauerdamm theater for productions by his Berliner Ensemble, which became East Germany’s most distinguished institution. Aware that the theater could be taken away from his ensemble if he stepped out of line, he paid lip service to the theories of the Russian dramatist Stanislavsky and the socialist realism demanded by Zhdanov.

Brecht also doffed his hat to Trofim Lysenko, the truth-arbiter in the field of biology. “Lysenkoism” held that Mendelian genetics were a capitalist hoax; agronomists and horticulturalists in Russia and its satellite nations were to eschew Mendel and build upon Soviet theories exclusively.

He may be one of the few who, while being subjected to Zhdanovism, also dabbled in Lysenkoism. Die Erziehung der Hirse, a children’s ballad that Brecht wrote in 1950, about how to grow millet, highlights the wonders emanating from “Lysenko’s greenhouse in distant Moscow.” Stalin, “the Soviet peoples’ great harvest leader,” appears in a cameo role.

Brecht won the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.

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