By Bertolt Brecht, Eric Bentley, Charles Laughton

11,043 ratings - 3.74* vote

Considered by many to be one of Brecht's masterpieces, Galileo explores the question of a scientist's social and ethical responsibility, as the brilliant Galileo must choose between his life and his life's work when confronted with the demands of the Inquisition. Through the dramatic characterization of the famous physicist, Brecht examines the issues of scientific moralit Considered by many to be one of Brecht's masterpieces, Galileo explores the question of a scientist's

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Book details

Paperback, 155 pages
January 11th 1994 by Grove Press

(first published 1943)

Original Title
Leben des Galilei
0802130593 (ISBN13: 9780802130594)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


"Unhappy the land where heroes are needed."

History and literature studies have a natural connecting point in the human need for heroic action and (self-)sacrifice. Reading novelists, historians and poets who experienced the first and second world war first-hand, I slowly came to the conclusion that heroism itself is a flaw in human culture which rarely brings any benefits, but often creates suffering on a big scale, as heroes can be made instruments for dogma and set up as "martyrs" for a cause. And "causes", unfortunately, more often than not include violence and death.

How to live for freedom, truth and plurality of opinions if the majority of your community doesn't embrace your liberal curiosity, but believes in one single truth which needs to be protected at any cost?

That is the question Galileo has to ask himself, and the question Brecht raised by choosing the topic during the darkest years of German oppression.

Galileo is not a hero.

He is not a religious martyr.

He is not a perfect human being.

He is independent, intelligent, inquisitive and inwardly free. He is interested in truth, but not in sacrifice to protect his truth from the institutionalised stupidity of his era, symbolised by the Inquisition and its pathetic struggle to keep the Bible an artificial authority in a world that increasingly builds on scientific facts and knowledge.

Why does he recant? The question is not entirely answered, and there might not even be a straight forward answer to it. Brecht's Galileo claims that he is afraid of physical pain. And there is nothing shameful in that. Why suffer because of a doctrine which you know to be wrong? Whether Galileo is tortured or not, the world keeps moving. Eppure si muove, as he probably didn't really say.

Being a scientist does not mean being a fanatic. You do not have to die to prove you are right. The experiments you conduct can be carried out again, with the same results - if your theory is correct. That is the main difference between ideology and science: the latter does not need heroes, because it can prove its point with reasonable, non-violent arguments and facts.

Why is Galileo so unhappy then?

Apart from being a scientist, he is also a human being living in an oppressive society, and with knowledge, you also acquire responsibility. As a teacher, you turn into a role model - not only for your subject, but for a recommendable behaviour within your community. And this is where he feels he has failed in the end. He should have made a point, stood up for his values and his discoveries, to set the stage for a future without oppressive ignorance in power. He didn't do that, and therefore he is unhappy.

I still believe martyrdom is wrong.

You won't win against dogma by using their means and their rhetoric, thus turning into the evil you want to fight. The only way to change the world is by educating the next generation NOT to believe in the ol' lie "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori", NOT to believe in having to "win" arguments against others, NOT to believe that there is only one solution to the great questions of humanity, NOT to believe that some people have the right to impose their worldview on others, NOT to believe that some people have more rights than others, NOT to believe that some people are entitled to privileges based on faith, looks, gender or other superficial distinctions.

Education, in short.

Galileo taught that torture is wrong by choosing not to suffer it. What he gained was more time to think and study and live. Inner emigration and civil disobedience are better means to fight oppression than violence, which always has a terror aspect.

I could go on and on about this play, which left me shaken and confused all three times I read it (in high school, with my students, and on my own). Like Brecht's Galileo, I seem to change my mind on the "right" behaviour all the time, favouring different solutions depending on the changing political climate.

Maybe we sometimes have to be heroes. But it should not be a career.

Riku Sayuj

The play explores the pivotal moment in human history, at least in western history, when man confronts for the first time the proof that his conceptions of truth were entirely wrong.

Galileo comes alive as a larger than life genius from the pages, full of witticisms and blustering energy. Even his betrayal of his own science tends to be easily forgiven by the audience because he is such a genial revolutionary.

More than the drama of science standing up to the bully called religion, I liked the instances of Marxism creeping into the play. In the discussions about Latin and how writing science in English will spell doom to the nobility, we get a sense that the real danger that Galileo represented was not just contradictory new knowledge but that the knowledge was suddenly out in the public realm. Galileo had to die because he was not just an academician, he was a new kind of preacher - a preacher of logic.

These instances are woven into the grander drama with small scenes of Galileo ranting about professors having to teach all seven days and having not "time for research and about "knowledge as commodity", these are the scenes that to me made this a play of our times.

The true gist of the play comes out in the penultimate scene. I would like to put some of it here so that even if someone does not have the patience to read the play, they can still get the spirit of its core argument. This occurs immediately after Andrei discovers that Galileo has been working on a scientific treatise even during his imprisonment:

GALILEO: I had to do something with my time.
ANDREA: This will found a new science of physics.
GALILEO: Stuff it under your coat.
ANDREA: And we thought you had become a renegade! My voice was raised loudest against you!
GALILEO: And quite right, too. I taught you science and I denied the truth.
ANDREA: This changes everything, everything.
ANDREA: You concealed the truth. From the enemy. Even in the field of ethics you were a thousand years ahead of us.
GALILEO: Explain that, Andrea.
ANDREA: In common with the man in the street, we said: he will die, but he will never recant. You came back: I have recanted, but I shall live. Your hands are tainted, we said. You say: better tainted than empty.
GALILEO: Better tainted than empty. Sounds realistic. Sounds like me. New science, new ethics.
ANDREA: I of all people ought to have known. I was eleven years old when you sold another man’s telescope to the Venetian Senate. And I saw you make immortal use of that instrument. Your friends shook their heads when you bowed before a child in Florence, but science caught the public fancy. You always laughed at our heroes. “People that suffer bore me,’ you said. ‘Misfortune comes from insufficient foresight.’ And: Taking obstacles into account, the shortest line between two points may be a crooked one.”
GALILEO: I recollect.
ANDREA: Then, in 1633, when it suited you to retract a popular point in your teachings, I should have known that you were only withdrawing from a hopeless political squabble in order to be able to carry on with your real business of science.
GALILEO: Which consists in ...
ANDREA: . . . The study of the properties of motion, mother of machines, which will make the earth so inhabitable that heaven can be demolished.
ANDREA: You thereby gained the leisure to write a scientific work which only you could write. Had you ended in a halo of flames at the stake, the others would have been the victors.
GALILEO: They are the victors. And there is no scientific work which only one man can write.
ANDREA: Then why did you recant?
GALILEO: I recanted because I was afraid of physical pain.
GALILEO: I was shown the instruments.
ANDREA: So there was no plan?
GALILEO: There was none.

Definitely a play worth reading, not for a scientific or historic perspective but for a picture of how reason and logic broke free from dogma and of how one man made the whole world tremble by unfolding a telescope!

It is indeed a marvelous portrait of intellectual betrayal. The angry impotence of a man who realizes that he is ethically unequipped to deal with the consequences of his own genius.


Recently I attended a production of this play translated into Spanish and adapted in a striking way. The vague notions I have of Brecht’s idea of the theatre, the Epic theatre, did not seem to be staged in this performance. There was no Verfremdung. On the contrary, the theatre hall had been transformed and the stage was in the middle and had a circular platform that rotated, and we the audience were siting around it. Various lights and shadows and images were projected onto its floor-screen. A presentation entirely fitting to the cosmological concerns of the play, but which seemed to incorporate the audience by bringing it in, an effect reinforced by having the characters also walk outside the stage proper.

Another modification was that Bertolt Brecht himself appeared on the scene. I mean an actor playing Brecht, of course. He arrives at the beginning to supervise a Spanish troupe that is going to perform his play. The simultaneous dialogue in German and Spanish created a somewhat comical scene, which again had the opposite effect from Verfremdung. Or may be that is what Brecht wanted, since his objective was that the audience would never forget that they were assisting to a representation and not witnessing reality itself.

The character playing Brecht then decided to play Galileo himself.

The production maintained the musical ingredient, originally by Hanns Eisler, but I cannot vouch whether that was the version I heard. We had a singer with a wide voice range of voices, since he could move from a high baritone to a counter-tenor pitch. The incidental music was very effective and helped to set the different moods as the play unfolded.

As the stage, apart from the images screened on the floor was rather sparse, another remarkable invention to suggest an Italian setting was when various actors suddenly froze and posed as various well known figures around the circled stage. Most of them were by Michael Angelo, his David, Moses, Pietà, but there was also the Roman Boy with the Thorn.

After attending the performance, I read the play and it is then that I recognized more of the Epic theatre aims of Brecht. Instead of acts, he has fifteen frames and there are few stage indications. The play lets itself be comfortably read, like an epic.

And of course, one could make a parallel between the story of Galileo during the last years of his life, when he was confronted by the (Catholic) authorities, to the one that Brecht had to endure during his exiled years in the US, when he was associated with Communism. Brecht left the country; Galileo suffered house arrest.


Performance at the Valle-Inclán theatre, in Madrid.


In the comment thread to the review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell which I posted a couple of days ago, much of the discussion has turned on the concept of martyrdom. Dennett argues that religion is a self-reproducing pattern of behavior (a "meme"), and that a martyr is someone who has been taken over by a meme to the point where he is willing to sacrifice his life for his beliefs. Maybe irrational for the martyr, but perfectly rational from the meme's point of view: the history of religion shows that martyrdom is an effective way for religions to spread.

Dennett draws a sharp distinction between science, which he says is rational and fact-based, and religion, which isn't. It seemed to me at the time that this wasn't so clear; even if a given scientific theory may be rational and fact-based, the scientific world-view itself is as arbitrary as a religious one. I happen to approve of rational, fact-based belief systems, but any attempt I make to justify them will presuppose rationality and facts, so my arguments don't add anything. It's as good, or bad, as a religious person justifying their own world-view by telling me it's the Word of God. But there are some objective differences between science and religion, just viewed as behavioral patterns, and one of these is martyrdom. There are very few people in history whom one could reasonably call martyrs to rationality. Socrates looks like a clear example; but who else is there? Of course, we immediately thought of Galileo. The fact of the matter, though, is that Galileo wasn't martyred. He was threatened by the Inquisition, and he backed down.

Why? This is perhaps the central issue in Brecht's play. Brecht does not presents Galileo as a particularly admirable human being. He fraudulently passes off the telescope as his own invention in order to improve his financial position, he ruins his daughter's life by his thoughtless behavior towards her fiancé, and, finally, he exhibits simple cowardice when confronted by the enraged Pope Urban VIII. Even as a scientist, he is by no means above reproach: in the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, his most important work, the central plank of his argument to demonstrate the movement of the Earth rests on an explanation of the tides which is simply wrong. Feyerabend, in Against Method, takes pleasure in making him look like a bungler and near-charlatan, and annoyed many scientists by witnessing against him when the Vatican reopened the case in the late 20th century.

But despite all this, Galileo has become one of the most respected people in the history of science, and his influence on its subsequent development is incalculable. In Brecht's version of the story, Galileo doesn't know why he behaves the way he does. His student, learning of the important work on dynamics that he has completed during the last years of his life, wants him to say that he carried out a clever strategic retreat, but Galileo is having none of it. There was no plan; he was just afraid of being tortured. He sounds bitter and sincere.

I would be interested to see Dennett's take: from his perspective, the moral of the story is perhaps that memes for rational thought do not spread in the same way as memes for religious conviction. I'm still not sure why that would be, but thinking about this play may help me understand it better. Thank you, Herr Brecht.


Young man, I do not eat my cheese absentmindedly.

Despite my perforated memory, I can still cling to triumph, most of which are the achievements of others but alas I can still appreciate. I thought about Brecht at the end of his life this morning while enjoying this masterful narrative. Did he regard himself as recanted? Did his petty tyranny of the women in his life strike him as abominable? Galileo as depicted by Brecht is too pragmatic to be disarmed by such pondering. He is at ease groveling for appointments as he understands the alternative. Aside from the necessity of obsequiousness he recognizes the need of discretion and the effects of The Age of Reason not only on the established order but on human existential orientation. He anticipates Weber’s disenchantment but finds solace in wine, bread and conversation.

What of my own missteps and absences? As a reader I blunder about with wistful grasps at concepts and reverie. Muddled by self deprecation, labor and lager—somehow I persevere. I needed this play today.

Mira Jundi

As I finished reading this masterpiece of Brecht, I sat thinking about how to go through everything in this play in one review, it's impossible!
This play is absolutely one of the best literary works I've read and will ever read. I couldn't find anything more appropriate to say about it than Brecht's own words from the play itself.
"For where belief has prevailed for a thousand years, doubt now prevails."
"He who does not know the truth is merely an idiot. But he who knows it and calls it a lie, is a criminal."
"The aim of science is not to open a door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error."
"Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes."


There are many reasons why I chose to write about this in my common application to American colleges. This book has had a phenomenal influence on me. I have loved and enjoyed every part of this play. Life of Galileo is not merely another book about the enraging conflict between science and its mindless counterpart religion, but also about society and in the end life itself.

People oft forget that Bertolt Brecht was a Marxist intellectual and his plays not only reflect that but also impersonate his Marxist leanings. It was not Das Kapital that made me a Marxist but rather this play. This play has a bigger theme than just the inquisition of Galileo by the Church- it talks about powers, class struggles, the role of science in society and much more. It is a book about revolutions-not just in science but in society.

This book will not appeal to many and I will not recommend it to any reader who wants a controversy-free book. I will not suggest this book to any of my friends who have presuppositions that will hinder their understanding of this book. If you have a scientific bent of mind, if you love to question and love to be questioned. If you hate tradition and don't play chess with pawns but are Bohemian and adventurous to move forward to attack with your best forces, then is your BIBLE. Put simply, if you love freedom, you will love this book. If you believe freedom can be traded for tradition and conservatism has a role to play in our present time, STAY AWAY FROM THE BOOK. Its 5 out of 5, or even 6 out of 5, if you are like me, an open-minded individual who loves science and freedom!

Annie ☽

English title: Life of Galileo

“Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.”

This is a play about Galileo, and at the same time it is not.

Galileo's relationship with the Church is one of the most obvious (and possibly also the most famous) examples of the age-old conflict between science and power, a conflict that at the time this play was written in was very significant; the use of scientific discoveries as means of human annihilation by the ruling class was rampant during WWII. One may be brought to think that science should be free from any bond to authority for mankind to benefit from it.

Brecht wanted exactly this: to make people critically think about the science-power connection. He gave very specific instructions to represent Life of Galileo on stage. He wanted the audience to be alienated, rather than empathise with any of the characters. People had to be able to look beyond the events happening on stage and see the bigger picture, question the times they were living in. And this is why now Life of Galileo, like all the masterpieces of dramaturgy, sounds as modern and significant as almost a century ago.

Dhanaraj Rajan

May be three and half stars.

As a performance, I think this would have been a five star play. To read, I think something was lacking. There were lengthy dialogues that sounded more preachy for me than dramatic. This is where the rating suffered.

But the presentation of the life of Galileo Galilei is complete. He comes alive as a curious scientist, mathematician and most of all a frightened human being at the threat from the Church. He stands for science and human reason. He also portrays that human reason can bend in the face of physical torture.

Go for it. It is worth your time and money. You can have the feeling of being in the working studio of Galileo Galilei of 17th century.


this is getting ridiculous!every book I read in 2016 is so good that I can't avoid giving 5 stars,lol. will be back with a review.