About this Evening

School material, classic, casual historical drama and funny physics lesson, written in Denmark, revised in Hollywood and East Berlin, marked by the flight from the Nazis, the Stalinist terror and the atomic bomb: Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo) by Bertolt Brecht. There’s too much of everything; too much politics, discourse and explanation. But after all, it is about everything: Galileo discovers modern science, fights against the Church - the greatest seat of power at the time - and proves the new Copernican world view, in which, as Brecht writes, "everyone is now regarded as the centre" - no longer just Rome, the Pope, the father or the president.

Exactly 80 years before our premiere, on 9 September 1943, Leben des Galilei premiered at the Pfauen. In the meantime, everything has turned around once again: science and technology are showing their Janus face ever more distinctly, the autonomous subject is being inexorably pushed out of the focus, and biology is expanding our understanding of dependencies and networks. Everyone is a centre, and at the same time "... no one", Brecht says. But how is that supposed to work? Become a nobody, and give up even the smallest bit of Hollywood heroism? Galileo couldn't do that, and neither could Brecht. But is it possible in an ensemble?

Bertolt Brecht
Nicolas Stemann
Live music
Andrina Bollinger
Stage design
Jelena Nagorni
Costume design
Ellen Hofmann
Johanna Bajohr
Christoph Kunz
Moritz Frischkorn
Show all contributers
Audience Development
Silvan Gisler
Touring & International Relations
Sonja Hildebrandt
Artistic Mediation T&S
Manuela Runge
Production Assistance
Mahlia Theismann
Stage design assistance
Johanna Bajohr
Costume design Assistance
Renée Kraemer / Anna Toni Vyshnyakova
Production intern
Linda Hügel
Michael Durrer
Katja Weppler
Surtitle Set-up
Raman Khalaf (Panthea)
Surtitles Translation
Kim  Robe
Surtitles Operators
Maya Scharf / Josephine Scheibe / Holly Werner
Show less contributers

Duration: 170 minutes, break included
Premiere: 9 September 2023, Pfauen

Supported by D&K DubachKeller-Stiftung

The music by Hanns Eisler was adapted for the production by Andrina Bollinger and Nicolas Stemann

For some shows in September and October 2023 (Sept. 15, 20 and 21 and Oct. 8, 12), Pujan Sadri will play instead of Steven Sowah. On 21 November director Nicolas Stemann fills in for Stevan Sowah.

Performance rights : Suhrkamp Verlag AG, Berlin

About This Play

The common ground is lost. Aristotle's crystal spheres of heaven burst and fly around in space as splinters (stage design: Jelena Nagorni). Nothing is as it used to be, "there is no pillar in the sky, no foothold in the universe". Arguments are fought out, the innovator Galileo against the institution of the church. A long, heavy text, full of arguments, thoughts, theories and references, worked out by Brecht in collaboration with physicists (with a student of Niels Bohr in Denmark and Hermann Reichenbach in Los Angeles), underpinned by the delicately-playful, sad music of Hanns Eisler.

Seven actors (Alicia Aumüller, Gottfried Breitfuss, Matthias Neukirch, Karin Pfammatter, Maximilian Reichert, Sebastian Rudolph and Steven Sowah) inhabit this text and the initially almost empty stage, equipped with furniture, a curtain and research instruments - all references to the second premiere in the USA. They are in search of connection, with each other and with the text, which gradually begins to flow. The performers seem to send the arguments of the scientist Galileo and his antipodes, from the curator to the Pope to the inquisitor, through the room like particles of light. They weave a tablecloth of thoughts, with the help of which it is to be assessed whether doubt and reason, the great forces of modernity, can be a new foundation for living together.

A web of relationships unfolds, like a long, grim and somnambulant dinner party where stoned people talk about the whole world. Songs are sung that tell us what happens on stage while our hearts melt (music: Andrina Bollinger). There is no hero, only many (anti-)heroes. We witness people fighting for new things and getting excited. We witness how they get scared, hold on to their privileges, can't give up the status quo. How they offend each other and fight each other with words. There is no more heaven, no eye that rests on people, and there is no justice yet. There are only words that are shared, gestures, shirts, clothes (costume design: Ellen Hofmann), and references that seem to suggest to us how and who is speaking here. And in the end, possibly, a feeling of connectedness remains. All this, this is Nicolas Stemann's production of Leben des Galilei by Bertolt Brecht. How did it come about?

The Many Versions of the Play

On 28 February 1933 - a few hours after the Reichstag fire - Bertolt Brecht flees Berlin. The very next day, the Gestapo cleared his flat and confiscated everything. Brecht himself travels via Prague, Vienna and Zurich to Denmark, where he sets up house in Svendborg with a view of the water and of Germany. He listens to the radio and cannot believe what is happening in Germany. In between, he writes plays, and on 23 November 1938 he notes in his journal: "Das Leben des Galilei completed. Took three weeks." The play premiered at the Schauspielhaus Zürich on 9 September 1943, exactly 80 years before our premiere, but without Brecht's participation, who only watched the premiere from the distant USA. And this, when according to Brecht, Leben des Galilei was also "technically a great step backwards, (...) all too opportunistic". The play would have to be "completely rewritten", he thought. Less atmosphere, less empathy, more "planetary demonstrations", that would be the solution.

In Santa Monica, California, where Brecht had fled from Finland in July 1941, he was offered the opportunity to revise the play. There, trying desperately and rather unsuccessfully to keep his head above water by writing screenplays for Hollywood, he met the well-known American writer Charles Laughton, with whom he worked on a new version of the play for the American market. Laughton and Brecht met daily in Laughton's villa overlooking the Pacific. This is where the second, English version of the play was created and performed in Beverly Hills on 30 July 1947. Among the illustrious guests at the premiere were Charlie Chaplin, Ingrid Bergman and Gene Kelly. Igor Stravinsky also saw the Californian performance and compliments Eisler on his accompanying music. Although the play became even more topical after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it flopped. Brecht then abandoned the American theatre market once and for all. Only three months after the American premiere in 1947, Brecht left the USA. He moved to Feldmeilen near Zurich, where the stage designer Caspar Neher welcomed him. Neher immediately put Brecht in touch with Kurt Hirschfeld from the Schauspielhaus, where Brecht started to work as a kind of external consultant. But he never managed to really settle down in Switzerland. The police had him shadowed. His production of Antigonein Chur was not a success. He was also drawn back to Berlin. On 4 May 1949 the time had finally come: Brecht, Helene Weigel, their children and Ruth Berlau - his lover and collaborator - left Zurich for good and moved to (East) Berlin.

There, as founding director of the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht finally revised Das Leben des Galilei for a third time. In December 1955, rehearsals began for his first own production of the play. Now Ernst Busch, already famous at the time, played the leading role, with whom Brecht does not get on well. After his experiences with Hollywood, especially Laughton’s light, finer style of acting, Brecht had the impression that Busch was blustering in an incredibly simple-minded way. This visibly upset him. The last rehearsal with Brecht, who died on 14 August 1956, took place on 27 March 1956. The rehearsals were continued by Erich Engel. It was not until 15 January 1957 that the play was finally shown in (East) Berlin (after its German premiere in Cologne in April 1955). Whether Brecht would have been satisfied with this production is highly doubtful. He would have wanted to continue working on it, certainly: more "planetary demonstrations", less atmosphere, more insight. But why does it seem impossible for Brecht to finish the play, or to stage it himself? Why does he die during rehearsals, why is Leben des Galilei simply never finished?

The Play as a Filter for Political Events

The fable of the play is easily told: The historical figure of the mathematician and physicist Galileo Galilei represents the new, Copernican world view: the sun no longer revolves around the earth, as the Church and Aristotle had taught for centuries. In order to prove the new world view, Galileo collects evidence for the new, heliocentric world view. With the help of the telescope, which he develops further himself, he examines and draws the craters and mountains of the Earth's moon. And he observes Jupiter's four moons, which apparently orbit it and would thus pierce the invisible, crystalline celestial sphere to which the planet is supposed to be attached according to the ancient, geocentric view of the world. Galileo risks his own life for his research and sacrifices his daughter Virginia, whom he denies a scientific education throughout the play, although she expresses interest in his research. His political mistake, however, is that he publicly argues against the geocentric view of the world advocated by the Vatican, thus directly addressing questions of theology. He is then forced by the Inquisition to recant his own teachings. After Galileo recants, he has to spend the rest of his life under house arrest near Florence. There he writes his final research report, the so called Discorsi, which would secure his world fame. At the end of the play, he is secretly transported across the Italian border to the Netherlands by his student Andrea.

Brecht is strongly oriented towards historical facts. Leben des Galilei oscillates between historical drama and a theatrical physics lesson. In his theatre-theoretical text Kleines Organon für das Theater [Small Organon for the Theatre], Brecht reflects at length on this relatively conventional form of theatre: In addition to alienation, the central means of his epic theatre developed in the 1930s, a little entertainment, even identification, should also be allowed. Nevertheless, the figure of Galileo clearly serves as a foil to deal with current political issues. For example, Brecht explicitly wants the church to be understood as a "secular institution of power", which can thus be mentally replaced by the political energies of fascism, the Communist Party, the unfolding great chapter, the military-technical complex, and so on. Two aspects of Leben des Galilei are thus central to answering the question raised above: By making the play a filter for current political events that affect him as a playwright and a political person, Brecht condenses and changes the play over the course of his life. On the one hand, it functions in its various versions like a fabric in which ever more political problems and historical events become entangled and begin to shimmer. On the other hand, the play necessarily remains unfinished. So what is inside this unfinished monument?

The theatre scholar Hans-Thies Lehmann has argued that the first version in particular, written in Denmark, is an examination of Stalinism and the Moscow show trials against "Trotskyists and right-wingers" in 1936-38. Brecht himself had friends and acquaintances, including his former lover, the actress Carola Neher, who were imprisoned and executed in Stalinist Russia, and whose release he at least did not publicly seek. The moral of the play can be described as follows: Keep your head down. Don't get involved with the party leadership. Try to continue working without dying (or letting die). Lehmann cites, among other things, conversations between Brecht and Walter Benjamin from the 1930s, in which both profess not to publicly criticise Stalinism, even though they know about the associated crimes. As Lehmann writes: "Galileo is both at the same time: a scientist who continues his research with cunning, on the other hand a guilty man who himself ruthlessly condemns his 'self-destruction'." Initially, however, as Hanns Eisler also puts it, Brecht looks with fascination at the historical figure of Galileo, who succeeds in completing his final work while under house arrest. Galileo is a strategic gambler who knows about his transgressions.

The second, American version is marked by the dawn of the atomic age. As early as 1939, Brecht takes note of the news that nuclear fission has been successfully achieved. Later he will write about Galileo, whose revocation was the indirect predecessor of the atomic bomb: "Galileo's crime can be regarded as the 'original sin' of modern natural science. He turned the new astronomy, which fascinated the new class of the bourgeoisie, since it promoted the revolutionary social currents of the time, into a sharply limited special science, which, of course, was able to develop relatively undisturbed precisely because of its 'purity', i.e. its indifference to the field of production. The atomic bomb, as both a technical and a social phenomenon, is the classic end-product of its scientific achievement and its social failure." But with this, the interpretation of the title hero underwent a change: There is no longer fascination for the strategist Galileo, but disgust at his collapse before the Church. Only a steadfast reaction by Galileo could have led to social change. The scientist did not live up to his responsibility, he betrayed society.

Humanity’s Grievance

As Brecht works on the play once more in East Berlin, he is marked by further personal and political slights: in 1953, in the aftermath of the 17 June uprising, he felt compelled to take a public stand in favour of the GDR regime. In old age, it seems, Brecht always recognised his own weakness and the injuries produced by his theatre work, but also by his conflict-ridden, self-centred love life. He knew about his own cowardice, his own fear. No question: Brecht's self-confidence did not leave him, but it crumbled. All these political and personal experiences are reflected in the text, and the individual versions differ at crucial points, so that the interpretation of the play is different in each case. While Galileo was originally a "relay runner of truth" (Hanns Eisler), in the second and third versions, especially in the final monologue, Galileo clearly accuses himself of betraying science and social progress. On another level, the question concerning the mortification of humanity emerges: if humans are no longer at the centre of creation, what gives them support? How to deal with their own failures?

Brecht's play thus bears the characteristic of structural incompleteness. The longer Brecht had lived, the more often he would have rewritten Leben des Galilei. It is his impossible grand oeuvre, which he does not survive. Perhaps, planetary demonstrations are not for ordinary theatre people? A thêatré à venir, as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida would have said, a theatre in the coming, the theatre of the coming, the theatre that is yet to come but can never have come already. A call to the future, to those who are to come, and thus to us - at least from Brecht's perspective. So how can we continue to work today?

From a contemporary perspective, this brief historical-critical account of Brecht's Leben des Galilei is followed by the following considerations: On the one hand, Brecht is interesting for us as a reader of Sigmund Freud's text Kränkungen der Menschheit, the first of which, according to Freud, is the Copernican turn. Two others follow: the biological mortification of the descent from apes and the psychological mortification of constant subconscious drive control. But how to deal with the fourth mortification of humanity (which even Freud could not yet formulate), which makes it clear that the sovereignty and freedom of the liberal subject is a fantasy; a fantasy, moreover, that has always been based on the oppression and exploitation of other human beings and natural resources? If our task today is to learn to what great extent we are dependent on natural raw materials, on plants, animals and our fellow human beings, how can we, together with other human beings and living creatures, search for ecological forms of living together? And what contribution can art make to this? Here, quite incidentally, another fundamental paradigm shift announces itself. While the Copernican turn marks the beginning of modernity, it is this ecological turn that proclaims its end.

Contemporary Criticism of Science

This is followed by further questions about the role of science at the end of modernity or at the beginning of the new age of the Anthropocene, in which the baleful power of humans is also evident at the planetary level of geology. Science has the status of a multiple tipping point for us: it has long been clear that scientific-technical progress is partly responsible for the ongoing destruction of our environment. The modern subject has never succeeded in taming its own powers. This is what the atom bomb stands for. Furthermore, modern science is characterised by inherent mechanisms of exclusion. The character of Virginia, Galileo's daughter, who is banished to a convent, stands metaphorically for the thesis that modern scientific doubt about authorities or institutions delegitimises itself insofar as it denied people of other genders or skin colours equal access for a long time and even today.

And yet, science is precisely the means that is needed for the cautious, provisional description of different dimensions of a social, political and ecological reality. Especially in the face of public questioning of scientific methodology, e.g. by the post-factual politics of Donald Trump, by militant climate change deniers or anti-democratic conspiracy theorists, a debate about socially legitimised practices of research seems desirable. The question would then be: What kind of science do we need today? What research practices are actually necessary to shape a habitable Earth in which not primarily white men come into their own, but all humans, animals and plants?

For this further development of science, feminist science theorist and biologist Donna Haraway argues, it is precisely the insight into the productive situatedness of scientific perspectives that is necessary. Because scientists do not live and research independently and outside the world, they should be aware of their fundamental dependence on and connection with the world, and seek to preserve this through their research instead of making it accessible primarily for commercial purposes. And perhaps it is precisely here that a kind of theatrical research, a review of one's own working methods on the basis of the impossible grand oeuvre, the future world theorem that will never come, based on Life of Galilei, can potentially be helpful:

The Ensemble Takes Over

Nicolas Stemann is known for his expressive post-dramatic works in which both classics and contemporary texts are chopped up in a kind of mechanical operation and charged with pop-cultural references. In the process, the bond of actor and character is also called into question. The two are no longer understood as identical; the relationship between character and role is renegotiated in every moment of these dazzling productions.

Our production uses this methodology to theatrically test the following hypothesis: How many people can be Galileo? The play is performed and commented on at the same time, whereby each commentary itself leads back into the play. When Galileo, for example, utters the admittedly somewhat kitschy sentence in the 13th image of the play: "Sad is the country that needs heroes", it is a deeply paradoxical, ambivalent statement in the context of the play, since the title character of the play subsequently takes the floor once again to justify himself in a monologue lasting about 20 minutes and to stylise himself as a (broken) hero. For our theatre work, however, the sentence from Brecht's play is an impossible but productive challenge: voice is bound to individual bodies, narratives operate with individual characters. Even though the hero is confronted with the chorus, the latter mostly has a commentary or evaluative function, since it has no agency. What then would be a chorus capable of acting, an ensemble, even a more-than-human ensemble that acted together individually, beyond a simple opposition of ensemble and soloist, ensemble and character, ensemble and hero?

These are precisely the questions that are examined in this production. It always succeeds when several people speak, when several players act together, when characters emerge between the players, when the play of thoughts changes from one person to the next as if casually, not without the presence of every other person on stage co-determining the situation energetically. The individual would then be above all a kind of messenger, a messaging effect of the ensemble and the play. Group and individual would cease to exist as opposites, they would be different expressions of the same social energy, just as particle and wave are expressions of the same physical energy. Perhaps the author and theatre-maker Brecht also dreamed of such a form of social togetherness, such a form of theatre. The hero of Leben des Galilei is not Galileo, but the people, Walter Benjamin is supposed to have said to Brecht. The people, or, one could say less pathetically: an ensemble of all possible forms of co-actors. In any case, dreaming on is allowed. (mf)

Editor: Moritz Frischkorn
Photography: Philip Frowein

Season 2023/24
Artistic direction: Benjamin von Blomberg / Nicolas Stemann

Offizielle Ausstatter des Schauspielhauses Zürich:
MAC Cosmetics, Optiker Zwicker, Ricola, Südhang Weine, Tarzan Swiss Streetfashion