Understanding Theatricalism and
Epic Theater
The stage as platform
• Expressionism in
Germany as early as 1912
was highly influential in
the arts, most especially
in writing and
performance styles for
the theater.
• The stage was treated as
a platform and was used
to comment on the social,
economic and political
issues of the times.
Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956)
Georg Kaiser (1878-1945) From Morning to
Midnight (1913) The oppressive restrictions of
life lead to a banker’s suicide
Ernst Toller (1893 - 1939)
Epic theory and practice
• As evolved by Erwin Piscator and Brecht,
epic theory was both a new way of
writing for the theater and a different
style of performance.
• Developed over 40 years, Brecht’s own
ideas of “epic theater” were more
complex and ambitious than those of
Erwin Piscator(1893 -1966 ) was
German theatre
• As a playwright, Brecht thought of dramaadirector
and producer who,
as episodic and narrative: a sequence of with Bertolt Brecht, was the
incidents or events narrated without
foremost exponent of epic
artificial restrictions as to time, place, or theatre, a form that emphasizes
the sociopolitical content of
formal plot.
drama, rather than its emotional
manipulation of the audience or
on the production's
formal beauty.
Bertolt Brecht
The play Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, translated
by Charles Laughton and directed by Gary M.
English, opened at UConn’s Harriet S.
Jorgensen Theatre.
Bertolt Brecht
• 1898-1956
• A German poet, playwright, and theatre
director. An influential theatre
practitioner of the 20th century, Brecht
made equally significant contributions
to dramaturgy and theatrical production,
the latter particularly through the seismic
impact of the tours undertaken by
the Berliner Ensemble—the post-war
theatre company operated by Brecht and
his wife and long-time collaborator, the
actress Helene Weigel—with its
internationally acclaimed productions.
Critical introduction to Galileo
• Brecht’s only play based on a historical
figure, the 17th century Italian astronomer
and physicist, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642),
who challenged prevailing notions of
astronomy by suggesting that the earth
was not the center of the universe but
rather revolved around the sun, was
written in three versions over a period of
19 years.
• The play embraces such themes as the
conflict between dogmatism and scientific
evidence, as well as interrogating the
values of constancy in the face of
Critical introduction to Galileo
• The second version opened at
• The first version of the play was
the Coronet Theatre in Los
written between 1937 and 1939;
Angeles on 30 July 1947. This was
the second (or 'American') version
directed by Joseph Losey and
was written between 1945–1947,
Brecht, with set-design by Robert
in collaboration with Charles
Davison. Laughton played Galileo,
Laughton. The play received its
with Hugo Haas as Barberini
first theatrical production at
and Frances Heflin as Virginia. This
the Zurich Schauspielhaus,
production opened at the Maxine
opening on 9 September 1943.
Elliott's Theatre in New York on 7
This production was directed
December of the same year. A third
by Leonard Steckel, with setproduction, by the Berliner
design by Teo Otto. The cast
Ensemble with Ernst Busch in the
included Steckel himself (as
title role, opened in January 1957
Galileo), Karl Paryla and Wolfgang
at the Theater am
Schiffbauerdamm and was directed
by Erich Engel, with set-design
by Caspar Neher. The play was first
published in 1940.
Critical introduction to Galileo
• As a playwright, Brecht used
historical material – what he
called historification – drawn
from other times and places in
order to get audiences to
reflect on oppressive social
and political problems and
events of the present time.
• As a historical scientific figure,
Galileo’s life embraced a two
fold responsibility: to thee
work to be achieved and then
Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans
to humankind.
Epic device
• Brecht described his ideal theater as using
three key devices: historification, epic and
alienation. Brecht’s theory of epic staging
included progressive scenes with no act
divisions to show the ascending or declining
fortunes of the central figure.
• The epic devices allow Brecht to express his
political, sociological and economic
arguments, such as the connections
between science and industry, individuals
and governments and the ultimate
victimization of common humanity by both.
• The inner makeup of Brecht’s Galileo is
determined by a hedonistic indulgence of
life’s pleasures and an excessive joy in
scientific experimentation and discovery.
1971 Berliner Ensemble
I am become death, the destroyer of worlds
• The 1945-46 version of
Galileo only slightly
masks the theme of the
relationship of scientific
research to the most
profound moral and
social questions
illuminated by the
explosions on
Hiroshima and
J. Robert Oppenheimer. We knew the world
would not be the same. A few people laughed,
a few people cried, most people were silent. I
remembered the line from the Hindu scripture,
the Bhagavad-Gita... "Now, I am become
Death, the destroyer of worlds."
I am become death, the destroyer of worlds
• Brecht’s concept of alienation is at
work on two principal levels in the
play: Galileo himself finds his world
of 1600 to be unfamiliar, outdated
and in need of explanation
• Despite the epic devices, Galileo
remained an old-fashions play
centered on the central figure’s
choices under pressure during
which he has campaigned to change
the world and has capitulated
unheroically when faced with
physical pain.
Eric Bentley called the play a
tragicomedy of “heroic
combat followed by unheroic
Dialectical theater
• Between 1948-1956,
Brecht referred to his
theater and plays as
“dialectical,” further
stressing the collision of
conflicting ideas and
social forces in his plays.
• Galileo is an important
document as the last
aesthetic testament of
Bertolt Brecht as a
playwright and director.
Dramatizes Galileo’s conflict with the church
over his assertion that the earth revolves
around the sun
• Beatrice Manley as a
Party Guest
in Galileo by Bertolt
Brecht. SFAW. Directed
by Herbert Blau, l962.
• Beatrice Manley as the
Housekeeper in The Life
of Galileo by Bertolt
Brecht, SFAW. Directed
by Herbert Blau, l962.
• - Robert Symonds as
Galileo and Beatrice
Manley as the
Housekeeper in The Life
of Galileo by Bertolt
Brecht, SFAW. Directed
by Herbert Blau, l962.
• The CRT performance of
Bertolt Brecht's
"Galileo" at UConn
through Dec. 12.
• Dudley Knight as Galileo
Galileo and Gretchen
Goode as his daughter,
Virginia Galileo, in the
CRT production of
Bertolt Brecht’s
“Galileo,” playing Dec.
3 – 12 in the Harriet S.
Jorgensen Theatre.
• Galileo is short of money. A prospective student tells
Galileo about a novel invention, the telescope ("a queer
tube thing"), being sold in Amsterdam. Galileo replicates it,
but then sells it to the Venetian Republic as his own
• Galileo uses the telescope to
substantiate Copernicus' heliocentric model of our solar
system, which is highly incompatible with both popular
belief and church doctrine, and which he publishes
in vernacular Italian, rather than traditional scientific Latin,
so that it is accessible by the common people. His
daughter's marriage to a well-off young man (with whom
she is genuinely in love) fails because of Galileo's reluctance
to distance himself from his unorthodox teachings.
• Galileo is brought to the Vatican for interrogation.
Upon being threatened with torture, he recants his
teachings. His students are shocked by his surrender in
the face of pressure from the church authorities.
• Galileo, old and broken, living under house arrest, is
visited by one of his former pupils, Andrea. Galileo
gives him a book (Two New Sciences) containing all his
scientific discoveries, asking him to smuggle it out of
Italy for dissemination abroad. Andrea now believes
Galileo's actions were heroic and that he just recanted
to fool the ecclesiastical authorities. However, Galileo
insists his actions had nothing to do with heroism but
were merely the result of self-interest.
Historical background
• The play stays generally faithful to Galileo's
science and timeline thereof, but takes
significant liberties with his personal life.
Galileo did in fact use a telescope, observe the
moons of Jupiter, advocate for the heliocentric
model, observe sun spots, investigate
buoyancy, and write on physics, and did visit
the Vatican twice to defend his work, the
second time being made to recant his views,
and being confined to house arrest thereafter.
Historical background
• One significant liberty that is taken is the
treatment of Galileo's daughter Virginia
Gamba (Sister Maria Celeste), who, rather
than becoming engaged, was considered
unmarriageable by her father and confined to
a convent from the age of thirteen (the bulk of
the play), and, further, died of dysentery
shortly after her father's recantation. However,
Galileo was close with Virginia, and they
corresponded extensively.
• There are a number of allusions to Galileo's science and to
Marxism which are not further elaborated in the play; some
of these are glossed below.
• The discussion of price versus value was a major point of
debate in 19th economics, under the terms "value in use"
(value) versus "value in exchange" (price). Within Marxian
economics this is discussed under the labor theory of value.
• More subtly, Marx is sometimes interpreted as
advocating technological determinism (technological
progress determines social change), which is reflected in
the telescope (a technological change) being the root of the
scientific progress and hence social unrest.
• The mention of tides refers to Galileo's theory that the motion of
the earth caused the tides, which would give the desired physical
proof of the Earth's movement, and which is discussed in
his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, whose
working title was Dialogue on the Tides. In the event this theory
was a failure - Kepler's suggestion that the moon's gravity caused
the tides instead being correct.
• The bent wooded rail in scene 13 and the discussion that the
quickest distance between two points need not be a straight line
(the path of fastest descent of a rolling ball being a curve, not a
straight line (which is the shortest path)) alludes to Galileo's
investigation of the brachistochrone (in the context of the quickest
descent from a point to a wall), which he incorrectly believed to be
given by a quarter circle. Instead, the brachistochrone is a
half cycloid, which was only proved much later with the
development of calculus.
A Portrait of Galileo As Coward
• Brecht wrote the play partly because he believed that theatrical works
must provoke the audience into thinking critically about the world they
lived in. And since the intellectual and working life of the 20th century has
been dominated by science, the so-called father of modern science,
Galileo, was a perfect figure to be represented on stage.
• Brecht first wrote the play in 1938 and originally the final scene was
sympathetic to Galileo -- he came across as a cunning scientist who
recanted before the authorities in order to promote the long-term
interests of science. While in exile in the United States during the war,
however, Brecht rewrote the play and the major change concerned the
final scene. For the dropping of the atomic bomb developed by allied
scientists led Brecht to see in Galileo the first instance in the modern era
of a scientist giving in to political authority.
• Modern science, in other words, was tainted from the very beginning.
Galileo became for Brecht a symbol of the tendency of scientists to
collaborate with authority in order to protect its narrow interests rather
than to align itself with the best interests of humanity as a whole.
A Portrait of Galileo As Coward
• Andrea: Galileo’s former student who turned against
Galileo when he recanted. He is passing through and
visits Galileo who passes him a book he has been
secretly writing to take out of the country.
• Virginia: Galileo’s daughter, whose live has been ruined
by her father’s bad career moves and now looks after
him during his house arrest.
• Galileo: The aged, nearly blind scientist seems to
regret his decision to recant even though he has been
able to complete a revolutionary work in physics. In
this final speech, he reflects on the value of scientific
truth in the lives of ordinary people.
Building up a part: Laughton’s Galileo
• In America, Laughton worked closely
with Bertolt Brecht on a new English version
of Brecht's play Galileo. Laughton played
the title role at the play's premiere in Los
Angeles on 30 July 1947 and later that year
in New York. This staging was directed
by Joseph Losey.
• The processes by which Laughton
painstakingly, over many weeks, created his
Galileo – and incidentally, edited and
translated the play along with Brecht – are
detailed in an essay by Brecht, "Building Up
A Part: Laughton's Galileo.“ Brecht's essay is
a testament to Laughton's greatness as an
actor, and is remarkable for the sympathetic
and detailed portrait it gives of an actor at
Revisiting epic theater
• The work of Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht changed the
course of modern European theater.
• Although many of the concepts and practices involved in
Brechtian epic theatre had been around for years, even
centuries, Brecht unified them, developed the style, and
popularized it. Epic theatre incorporates a mode of acting
that utilizes what he calls gestus.
• The epic form describes both a type of written drama and a
methodological approach to the production of plays: "Its
qualities of clear description and reporting and its use of
choruses and projections as a means of commentary
earned it the name 'epic'." Brecht later preferred the term
"dialectical theatre.
Revisiting epic theater
• Brecht’s experiment with epic writing and
staging resulted in both episodic and narrative
plays, the aims of which were to show social
and political contradictions at work in the
• Writing styles that revolted against the
“illusion of the real” in the theater spap a
period from the early 1900s to the present.
Youtube Links
• A documentary on the theatre of Bertold Brecht.
– Brecht on Stage - 1/3
– Brecht on Stage - 2/3
– Brecht on Stage - 3/3
• Saggio Vita Di Galileo B.Brecht
• The Wilma Theater presents The Life of Galileo
• Rehearsal for Theatre Pro Rata's production of
"Galileo" by Bertolt Brecht
• Brecht, Bertolt. 1952. Galileo. Trans. Charles Laughton. Ed. Eric
Bentley. Works of Bertolt Brecht Ser. New York: Grove Press,
1966. ISBN 0802130593. p. 43–129.
• Brecht, Bertolt. 1955. Life of Galileo. In Collected Plays:Five. Trans.
John Willett. Ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. Bertolt Brecht:
Plays, Poetry and Prose Ser. London: Methuen, 1980. ISBN
0413699706. p. 1–105.
• Danter, Matej. 2001. "History of changes of Brecht's
Galileo". Online: New Mexico State University. (accessed 18 March
• Willett, John. 1959. The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from
Eight Aspects. London: Methuen. ISBN 041334360X.
• British Royal National Theatre's web page about its production
of Galileo

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