April 08, 2009

The politics of science

by Greg Boyle

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre (MET) has taken a bold step in their current production, Galileo. Written by Bertolt Brecht in 1936, the play details the struggle of the famous physicist/astronomer with the political forces of his time.

The Catholic Church exerted a smothering influence over all matters in the spiritual and temporal worlds in Italy in the early 1600s. The bible dictated a construct of the universe, which Galileo’s telescope debunked. That model put everything, including people, in a certain immovable arrangement. A challenge to that model was a challenge to the authority of the Church, and could not be tolerated. If that construct were proven wrong, the common people would not know their place. Then the very fabric of society would be threatened.

Since Europe’s population was Catholic, no one could afford to get on the wrong side of the Church, not even the nobility. It speaks to the maxim, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

For the Church, the issue came down to faith versus doubt. Faith allows everyone to know and accept his or her place in the universe. Near the end of Act II, Galileo states that “Knowledge is the art of doubt.” These positions could not be reconciled. Therein lies the tale.
T.Max Graham as Galileo (far right) explains the science of his telescope to Church Cardinals (Paul E. Orwick and Marilyn Lynch) while a secretary (Ari Bavel) takes notes

The MET production features a number of sparkling performances. T. Max Graham as Galileo effectively gives us a complicated intellectual genius who is at once a sly manipulator and a political naïf. Galileo worries more about where his next bottle of wine is coming from than whether his daughter will marry well.

Alan Boardman portrays a number of characters with conviction and strength. Hughston Walkinshaw gives the audience a brilliantly understated performance of menace and malice as the Grand Inquisitor. During one of the ensemble segments, Erik J. Pratt came running onstage juggling three clubs. I don’t think many people understand how hard that combination of actions is. Some of the other casting is uneven, but the show still satisfies.

Bob and Karen Paisley share directing credits for the production, and a fine job they’ve done. Obviously, the Paisleys have a strong understanding of the Brechtian style of keeping the audience from getting too comfortable. They’ve disregarded race and gender in casting roles, updated placards to wall projections, had costumer Susan Wiegand design clothes that look like a closeout sale at an upholstery shop. The set by Evan Hill is very effective in working for all scenes, but also insightful with the painting of star galaxies on the stage floor.

When one considers a piece of art, it’s necessary to take into account its historical context. Looking at a painting from the 1500s, an uninformed visitor to a museum might wonder what all the fuss is about. It helps to know that a particular artist was the first to experiment with certain uses of shadow, for instance. The fact that every painter ever since has used that technique, and that now neither painters nor viewers are aware of who first brought the concept into being, is what makes the original worth studying.

The same is true of theatre. Very few plays are anything more than reflections of their times. Even the greatest dramatists, like Shakespeare, are best appreciated when the audience understands the customs, jargon and politics of England at the time the plays were written. After all, artists of the written word make points about current events by having them spoken in some other historical period.

Bertolt Brecht was a groundbreaking German Marxist playwright who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s. His plays have their own style, elements of which are incorporated in many productions since that time. For instance, we don’t flinch when a character speaks directly to the audience, or when a song or poetry is interjected in the middle of an act, or when words are projected on a wall of the set. Brecht included these things as a way to deliberately shatter the theatrical conventions of his time.

Brecht didn’t want audiences to suspend disbelief by entering a world created onstage. As a dramatist, he was more of a teacher. He wanted people to understand and deliberate on the political lessons that were being demonstrated by the action.

The current relevance of this play is obvious. Galileo’s dilemma is directly related to the evolution vs. creationism controversy of our fair state of Kansas. In addition, during our previous national administration, science was subverted, disputed, dismissed and undermined for political purposes. Again in Act II, Galileo states, “If you give way to coercion, science is crippled.” History never stops repeating itself.

Metropolitan Theatre Ensemble is located at 3614 Main Street. For tickets to this perennially relevant production, call the MET box office at 816-569-3226 or visit

Greg Boyle can be contacted at


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