The central tourist strip of Stratford-upon-Avon is not the sort of place you expect to find much Marxism. It's all a bit Ye Olde Costa Coffee, Anne Hathaway fudge, postcards, postcards, postcards and pink fridge magnets quoting As You Like It. The most subversive it gets is a pile of Terry Deary's Terrible Tudors in the front of Waterstone's (i.e. not very).
But Bertolt Brecht's A Life of Galileo is currently playing at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre, and Roxana Silbert's production of Mark Ravenhill's new translation puts the themes of class struggle front and centre.
On the surface, it's a play about the clash between science and religion, but the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts manages to miss the point by a heliocentric system or three when his review complains of a post-Dawkins boredom with such "hectoring atheism". The point of the play isn’t to privilege scientific thinking over others, it’s a critique of the way science can be captured by particular interests, a tale not of a hero but a complex, flawed man who wants to give science and its power over it to people and (crucially) improve science by listening to the people too.
The play is very much a product of the late 1940s, re-written by Brecht in 1947 in the still-blazing light of Hiroshima. The Galileo portrayed here is far from heroic. He's patronising, arrogant, manipulative and happy to sell his work to not only the church, but the military too, if it only gives him some time to quietly peruse the stars. (He's also extremely dismissive of women, but that might be more the play itself than a deliberately crafted negative character trait). Even the basis for the moment of technological determinism often cited as an expression of Brecht's Marxism in the play – the invention of the telescope – is the product of theft. The play may start with Galileo naked, but he makes no pretence at purity. As he exclaims to an old pupil in his final speech “Welcome to the gutter, brother in science”.
More to the point, the play is much more about the distribution of power than the doctrines of Catholicism. It’s the organised in organised religion that's of importance here, and how this may be all-too-often enacted to perpetuate social inequality. The church's role in the play is largely a symbol for hegemonic power, part of Brecht's preoccupation with science for the few compared to science for the many. Galileo wants to publish his work in vernacular Italian instead of Latin (the court philosophers laugh “the argument will lose brilliance”) and argues for the worth of the knowledge and skills of his working class collaborators. Later, after Galileo is threatened with torture and renounces his earlier work as heresy, one of these workers turns to the others to complain: “He never paid you properly for your work. You couldn’t buy a pair of trousers or publish your own work.” Galileo was exploitive too, part of the character’s fashioning as an anti-hero.
In many ways, the science is there for symbolic purposes too. Galileo's story is picked above any other case study of attempted rebellion not just because of his relationship with the church but because his work displaced the idea the Pope sat at the centre of the universe. The order of the heavens Galileo science speaks of is used to reflect upon orders on Earth, a metaphor which runs thickly throughout the play and was especially drawn out by the set design for the National Theatre's 2006 production. There is much talk of being unsettled and the people not knowing their "place", as this particular thread of the scientific revolution is used as an extended allegory for possible social ones.
There is, importantly, still the worry that scientists themselves will become too powerful and simply create new hierarchies based on their own claims to expertise. But I think Brecht’s keen to avoid the suggestion we replace religious authority with a technocratic one. This is why Galileo is shown up for exploiting his workers and we are continually told of the use of the worth of listening to people to make better science. When Galileo’s old pupil feels let down near the end of the play and exclaims angrily "Unhappy the land that has no heroes". Galileo replies humbly "No. Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes". Our scientist is an anti-hero not just for dramatic reasons or historical accuracy, but because Brecht wants to argue for collective rather than individual agency when it comes to understanding our world and working out how to make it better. The rallying cry of this play is to build a science and technology for the people, by the people, not simply defer to experts.
Perhaps befitting the astronomy-based talk of a topsy-turvy world, this new RSC production is a highly carnivalesque affair. At the start of the second half, a singing monk strips to reveal a fat suit over a tuxedo, in which he dances in along with the rest of the chorus, also in playful fancy dress, bathed in a pink light which runs through the set's blue graph paper backdrop. This street festival then turns into a ball, with Galileo in shiny shoes, his daughter in a gown to announce her engagement to a wealthy landowner and clerics in glittery animal masks. Throughout, the historical span of the play is connected with a chorus who set the scenes by sing into large microphones. Ian McDiarmid, playing Galileo, seems to dance around the stage as the boyish scientific excitement comes almost entirely from his hips.
One might be tempted to critique this as simply licensed carnival - moments of sanctioned freedom to distract you from everyday oppression - especially as you leave the theatre and return to central Stratford-upon-Avon, walking past the mosaic of Shakespeare’s face adorning the local HSBC on the way to the station, as well as the Anne Hathaway fudge, fridge magnets and collected works of Terry Deary. Or when you read that the RSC have announced a new partnership deal with BP. Indeed, the BP deal invites us to think about one of the plays key themes: the corrupting role of patronship. More relevent, perhaps, is the role of BP in university-based scientific research and or science education, which invite us to consider the ways in which the play's are still relevant. As Galileo bitterly declares in his closing speech: "Surely the purpose of science is to ease human hardship. If scientists follow the orders of those in power, if they store up knowledge for the sake of storing it up, then science will be crippled and your new machines will bring new forms of oppression.”
The RSC production ends with a nice touch: a young scientist throws an apple at a small child, telling her to learn to use her eyes. Apples have iconic status in the history of knowledge. Newton told the story of his apple not just because it’s a fruit that falls, but because it echoed Adam’s loss of knowledge in Eden; Newton had now got it this knowledge back. There’s a crucial difference, however, between whether Newton and other scientists felt such knowledge was now theirs, or whether it was seen as something for the whole of humankind. (Apparently Newton also thought he was no coincidence he shared a birthday with Christ, make of that what you will). We should expect scientists to share their work and be public accountable, but non-scientists should be proactive in the processes of opening it up too: stand up for the public funding of science and actively go forth and ask questions of professional researchers and their managers so you might be part of their research. Work with scientists and put them to work because other people already are. Check they’re building machines for liberation, not opression.
Go on. Be inspired by the possibilities. Bite into that apple.
Dr Alice Bell is a research fellow at the University of Sussex, focusing on public engagment with science. She also blogs about science policy for the Guardian and is New Left Project’s climate change editor.