Stanford Repertory Theater explores the ethics of science with Brecht's Life of Galileo

Do scientists have an ethical responsibility to serve the greater good? In two free performances on May 15 and 16, Stanford students, professors and professional actors will present Bertolt Brecht's masterful exploration of the roles of commerce, politics and religion in shaping the future of scientific research.

Corrie Goldman Students reading Brecht

Galileo, played by TAPS grad student Alex Johnson, discusses the moon, as seen through his telescope, with his mathematician friend Sagredo, played by professional actor Chris Carter.

German playwright Bertolt Brecht is considered to be one of the most influential figures in 20th-century theatre. Like so many of Brecht's plays, the themes in Life of Galileo resonate decades after it was written.

The story centers on the great Italian scientist and natural philosopher Galileo Galilei, during the period when the Roman Catholic Church persecuted him for what it considered blasphemous scientific discoveries.

In his masterful play, Brecht probes how religious, political and commercial interests influence scientific endeavors, and how these influences can prevent scientists from their primary goal, which in Brecht's view is to serve humanity.

In Stanford Repertory Theater's (SRT) production, professional actors join professors, undergrads and graduate students to bring Brecht's tale to life. Life of Galileo will be performed on Friday, May 15, and Saturday, May 16.  Performances begin at 8 p.m. each night in Lathrop 282 and are free and open to the public.

Part of the "Imagining the Universe" series at Stanford University, Life of Galileo is a collaborative project of Stanford Arts Institute (SAI), SRT, German Studies, and Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS).

The play incorporates multimedia elements including visual projections, songs and music recordings. Jessi Piggott, a TAPS graduate student, and Alex Scott, an undergrad in biology and TAPS, designed visual projections based on Italian models of the period: astronomical charts, telescopes and vistas of Florence, Venice and Rome. Shu Chen Ong, an undergraduate music major, arranged the vocal music, which is based on early 17th-century Italian styles.

SRT Artistic Director Rush Rehm directs the staged reading. Rehm, an actor and a professor of theater and performance studies and of classics, answered a few questions about the show:

How do you see Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo fitting into the larger themes of the "Imagining the Universe" series?

Brecht's play goes back to the Renaissance re-thinking of the cosmos from a heliocentric perspective. There were ancient Greek thinkers who held this view, but their voices died away. So it's a return to beginnings. Much of the SAI series has focused on the future; Brecht takes us back so we can understand the foundations of modern science and scientific research, which, as he so artfully depicts, were deeply compromised in Galileo's age by money, politics and powerful institutions

How would you describe the significance of Life of Galileo as compared to Brecht's other works?

Life of Galileo is a "big" play, covering many years in the life of a historical character, named as such – unlike The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, for example, in which Brecht re-imagines Adolf Hitler as a small-time Chicago thug who rises to power. Although deeply interested in history, Brecht rarely took a real historical character and dealt with his biography in the way he does with Galileo.

Do you think Bertolt's story about Galileo will have a particular resonance with Stanford audiences?

Oh, yes, in many ways! Most importantly, I think, Brecht's play raises central issues about the purpose of science – to discover what? why? for whose benefit? – and scientific ethics. Both should be of cardinal significance at a major research university like Stanford.

As a professor of theater and performance studies and of classics you experience the potential of the humanities through both performance and education. What is it about storytelling through performance that allows people to better understand or appreciate complex issues, such as the intersection between ethics and science that Brecht explores in Life of Galileo?

Theater makes one think and feel in ways that are hard to describe, but palpable to an audience. Brecht dedicated his theatrical work to developing plays that make one think about, and think through, extremely complex issues. Rather than striving to get audiences to "identify" with the characters, he aimed to get his audiences to observe the characters' actions, keeping the consequences in the foreground, rather than sinking into the emotional comfort of identification.

Brecht was not against emotion in theater but was deeply wary of "thoughtless" emotion – so instead of liking Galileo, we need to look at what he thought and did, the forces at work in the larger society in which he lived, and how the successes and failures of that period reflect on our own

In your opinion, how did the incorporation of other mediums affect how you and the cast thought about the story you needed to tell?

Theater is inherently "multimedia," even if one doesn't use "modern technology." Music, movement, costume, sound, speech, situation, live performers, sets, stage props – all these help tell the story and allow the audience to put it together even as they see its contradictions.

In terms of messages, what would you most like audience members to take away from this show?

I'm not sure that "messages" is what the theater delivers, and Brecht, in spite of what people say about him, was not into "takeaways" or "messages." He offers a picture of the world in which we can understand better science and its current situation – heavily funded, serving certain interests at the expense of others, answerable to few except those who fund it, socializing the cost of research while privatizing the profits. The role of research in weapons development, for example, should be a concern to us all. Brecht saw Galileo as standing at a crux in the future direction of science, and the play explores that historical crisis.

From an ethics perspective, could you share what students learned from working on this production?  

Several students have thanked me for the opportunity to work on Brecht, who is not a playwright popular in the commercial theater. The recognition of complexity, and also of finding one's way through that complexity, on matters of real ethical moment cannot help but engage intelligent actors who face an uncertain world ahead of them. And I don't just mean finding work in the theater!

Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communication: (650) 724-8156,