4 April 2009: Goodwin, Two Men of Florence

Matinee. Huntington Theatre Company (Boston University). Directed by Edward Hall.

Brecht tried it, some years ago, in his Life of Galileo, with far different ends and different results; it is one of the best examples of his attempts to “make it strange” (the so-called Verfremdungseffekt). Brecht’s Galileo is an un-ideal character, with gross imperfections and robust fleshly habits. As in another Brechtian dramatic essay explaining the drab human truth behind history, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, his aim was to show that society progresses only when people brave up to the challenges that face them; or to put it in more negative terms, there comes point after point when people could stand up, practice some heroism, and prevent tyrants from succeeding (Arturo Ui is a mask for Adolph Hitler); but they don’t do it. Of the two plays, it seems to me Brecht’s Galileo is more subtle, less a one-note lesson than a meditation on what it may finally take to turn the world in a more productive, humane, and intellectually responsible direction.

The different endings of the two plays are instructive, and enlightening. The last we see of Brecht’s character (in the penultimate scene), he bitterly and scornfully accuses himself of treason to his profession, and even goes so far as to speculate that he held a stronger hand than he thought he did. Over against that, his faithful student, Andrea, leaves Italy reading Galileo’s book (his ultimate defense of Copernicus’s system, which Galileo has had to disavow), but stopping at the border to prove to some young boy that a woman they taunt as a witch is not really a witch — and seeing the boy, against the evidence of his senses, persist in his delusion. That’s the ending of Brecht’s play, sardonic to the last moment.

Richard N. Goodwin’s play ends with Galileo, having recanted and having been placed in house arrest for the remainder of his life, forbidden to publish ever again, uproariously enjoying a wry joke with his faithful companion and former student, Father Benedetto Castelli, and then saying to him, “Come; let’s go. We have much work to do.” At which point they stride vigorously up stage into the descending but promising darkness. Instead of the depressing ignominy and defeat experienced by Brecht’s character, who feels he has deeply betrayed himself and all who stand for free scientific inquiry, and who leaves us nary a glimmer of hope that some good might eventually come out of this shameful defeat, we have a character who, only a few moments ago, has been harshly condemned and sent into perpetual exile by the cardinal who presides over the Holy Inquisition, and whose physical state is one of rapidly declining strength, can now show us that the human spirit is truly and ultimately invincible.

It is meant to make us feel happy and relieved — and indeed the entire play has headed itself toward this perpetually hopeful end — but the true effect of Goodwin’s last scene is merely to blunt and effectively contradict the sobering outcome of the penultimate scene, between Galileo and Maffeo Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII. There is such a scene, or a comparable scene, in Brecht’s play, and Goodwin must have studied that scene with some feelings of discomfort and asked himself how he could contrive to have his own, at least somewhat different, dramatic collision between these two figures. It is, as the dramatists of the pièce bien faite of late nineteenth-century dramaturgy would call it, the scéne à faire—the obligatory scene: once you have chosen your characters and built your action, this is a scene you omit only at your peril. To his credit, Goodwin writes an engrossing final-encounter scene. (Barberini and Galileo have first met quite early in the play, when Barberini is moved to visit Galileo in his studio by Galileo’s burgeoning reputation.) In this climactic scene, Galileo still wants to save himself if he can, in some vain hope that the new Pope will somehow rescue him. For all the flexibility and susceptibility to nuance exhibited by Barberini earlier in the play, the now-Urban VIII shows himself as rigidly a prisoner of traditional church doctrine as we thought he would ultimately prove himself to be. After all, the very first scene of the play shows an abject Giordano Bruno hanging by his wrists from chains, being told he must recant or be burned, and Bruno replying, in agony, “I cannot recant! I cannot recant!”—an establishing scene if there ever was one, saving what otherwise would have been a full half-hour of tedious dialogue in which the absolute inflexibility of the Church on the issue of doctrinal astronomy (if it might be called that) is gradually made clear. And, in case that didn’t make a large enough impression, the next scene has Barberini talking with a subordinate who queries whether Bruno really needed to be burned to make the requisite point and Barberini insisting that he did; he is quite comfortable with that decision, he adds.

The result is a clear, unwavering progression of the lamb-like, naïve idealist, Galileo, who is sucked into the illimitable ocean of retributive “justice” by the treacherous undercurrent of ostensible admiration for his intellectual gifts and his much-remarked-upon ability to come up with inventions that better humankind’s lot. And so the encounter scene ends (we could have predicted, if we had been paying better attention to the arc of necessity articulated by the succession of scenes) with Galileo still naïvely regretting that he has been condemned as a “heretic of logic” and asserting his hope that the Pope will revisit the arguments propounded by Copernicus. “I will,” Urban says, quite unconvincingly, and then adds, “ . . . if I have time.”

And he exits, without another word.

In a curious but somehow evident way, “ . . . if I have time” makes a direct appeal to us, sitting in the theatre here and now, to consider how many centuries have gone by since Urban’s half-hearted promise to revisit Copernicus if he has time, how many centuries had to pass before the Church came to recognize that Copernicus was partly right (he thought the movement was circular, not, as we now know, elliptical) and openly acknowledged the condemnation of Galileo was improper and to be apologized for. Sure enough, a note in the program, “Changing Tides: Galileo and the Catholic Church,” summarizes the Church’s atonement for its error and notes that Benedict XVI is the second pope, after Pope John Paul II offered the Church’s apology for Galileo’s treatment, “explaining that undue interest was taken in a matter of science.” Umm. Well, it seems that these two latter-day pontiffs did find some time, finally. But what did they find time for? It was just a matter of disproportionate concern, that’s all. Science is science, and religion is religion, etc., etc.

Fortunately (the play’s premise insists), we can relate to Galileo as one of our own, safely bypassing Galileo’s own failure to stand up for what he believed in (as, perhaps, none of us would do, were we to do so at the cost of being tortured to death) and, more important, even, bypassing the more thorny theological issue raised by the condemnation of a human being for holding onto what he is convinced is the truth by a Church that claims to be the possessor of eternal, unchanging truth. With friends like John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, science doesn’t need enemies.

I’ve been focused here on a particular controversy over science and religion that held sway in Galileo’s time and have not paused to examine either the relevance of this issue to, say, the current controversy over the teaching of Creationism in American public schools or that other controversy generated by the misdeeds of the Bush administration that resulted in torture going on in the prisons of Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere in the world, in so-called “Black Sites” identified just last month by a shocking report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (see the article by Marc Danner in the April 9 New York Review of Books). The audience at the matinee of Two Men today was presumed to be thinking of these modern-day analogies as well, no doubt. But somehow we were not cheered up much about Creationism and Iraq and the likelihood that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Yoo, and assorted other miscreants will ultimately escape unscathed by the ending of Goodwin’s play. Goodwin’s career in government might have taught him greater skepticism.

Meanwhile, Edward Hall and his colleagues in costume, scene, and lighting design, Francis O’Connor and Ben Ormerod, offered a fine, even splendid mounting of Goodwin’s play. A large revolve, which took up almost all of the stage, allowed the swift changing of scenes, thanks partly to a set of semi-transparent traveler curtains pulled open and shut by black-garbed stage hands, which came together at the downstage center terminus of the revolve and, opening, traveled its perimeter. Sometimes the revolve would be moving as the scene progressed, calling for actors to walk fairly briskly along as they spoke and giving extra, but never extraneous, momentum to the scene in progress. And at one point the revolve became involved in the fiction of the play, when Galileo was asked to explain how, if the earth really was moving all the time, a bag of coins thrown up in front of one would not fall down behind one when it hit the ground. As the revolve turned, Galileo threw the bag up — and it landed before him, at his feet. We suddenly realized we had witnessed, there in the theatre, the living physical proof that the historical Galileo was right about the movement of the earth — and everything on it. The tragic predicament of Galileo was that even direct demonstration with material examples was not enough to dissuade cardinals and lesser persons from believing what they had been taught to believe, not what the evidence of their own eyes told them. (Here we seem to have unwittingly revisited the very last scene of Brecht’s play; but in Goodwin’s case, there was some distance to go yet, and in quite a different direction.)

In the surround of the stage, a vast structure of open shelving, verticals and horizontals, had what seemed to be votive lights on them; Galileo’s daughter even seems to light one or two at the conclusion of an early scene. But they were in fact centrally controlled, and as the fiction of the developing scenes required, the lights changed to the stars (“billions and billions” of them, to quote a famous astronomer), and the black background to the night-time sky. In Act II, the wooden structure somehow changed to an equally vast metal grillwork, with hidden doors constructed of the same grill-work material, articulating the encroaching, imprisoning threat of the Inquisition. This development in scenic terms carried out in a remarkably adroit, compelling way some important thematic substance of the play. It was brilliantly done.

The acting was strong as well. Jay O. Sanders as Galileo bore an interesting facial resemblance to his historical counterpart; even aside from this, he captured an immensely energetic, assertive and vital character, transparently what Goodwin evidently wrote (though a good bit less transparent and didactic than Brecht’s character). His actorly counterpart, Edward Herrmann, as Maffeo (later Urban VIII) seemed to me not so convincing in the early scenes: not sufficiently clerical, and notably pious, but not as a cardinal sufficiently able to wear and wield his power in suitable ways. That may in fact have been an indicator that Goodwin might have strayed from historical accuracy, to some extent, in his anxiety to make Maffeo scrutable to us, make him something of a modern mixed character, neither fish nor flesh nor good Early Modern red herring. The question was, how were we to take him? And he came across, now this way, now that way, and neither way definitely. That was probably Goodwin’s way of keeping us guessing, and keeping up the suspense of what would really happen to Galileo, even though intellectually we already knew how it was going to turn out.

That, in fact, is a reminder of the two difficulties that so often beset playwrights who take on a historical subject at whose center is a well-known historical character who falls afoul of the establishment. (Shaw’s Saint Joan is another; his preface to the play is enlightening in both these ways.) That is, the author only has two or three hours to put his case, and so he has to start off by making good ground right away by being perhaps over-explicit about the Big Issues. In other words, there is a tendency to over-didactiveness. Characters end up telling us too explicitly what the real points of the controversy are — at the evident expense of characterization. The other difficulty is of a complementary kind, and the character of Barberini is a nice example, as mentioned. He has to be someone like us, someone we might recognize, someone who could hold a successful press conference on the steps of St. Peter’s in the Vatican — someone who can translate the issues into the language of our own time. And yet he must not be too much like us, because as the antagonist of the drama he has to set about his dramaturgical duty of doing in the protagonist with all due dispatch and deliberate speed. The more he seems like us, the more we end up feeling betrayed by him when his bounden duty takes precedence over his faux likeness to the man in the street.

I think Goodwin didn’t finally resolve this contradiction, dramaturgically or characterolog­ically, but he hid it pretty well in certain scenes, most notably in that final encounter. Finally, it has to be mentioned that the play was roundly applauded by a full audience, who were quite held by the tension for much of the time — and then were relieved of their worries (I’m sorry to say) by the feel-good scene that ends the play. I don’t think this play has a chance of taking on the classic status of Brecht’s, which is really, really good at working its way inexorably to an insoluble dilemma, a crisis that turns out to be a tragic failure (though Brecht himself might have read it a different way.) Mother Courage and her Children raises the same difficulty, I think: western audiences insist that they want to pity Mother Courage for what she has to go through, and especially for the hard choices she has to make, and of them particularly the ones that involve her children (note the full title of the play). Brecht wanted to turn all that into a diatribe against the impossible choices forced on inadequate human beings by capitalism. Goodwin doesn’t want to force any choices on us, whether they have to do with corrupt capitalism or corrupt and maleficent governments. His is an entirely, or predominantly human, and sympathetic, task. He just wants us to feel sorry for Galileo because he’s such a good guy, after all, and really smart, and no match for an intellectually corrupt, hide-bound theocracy, and all that; but what’s reassuring about him is that finally he doesn’t give up hope and is, by and large, after all, true to himself.

All that can certainly hold an audience for the better part of three hours, but it doesn’t add up to classic status. It adds up only to middle-class self-reassurance and let-them-off-the-hook relief. But if you can cloak that assurance with a truly first-rate scenic surround and well prepared actors, eleven of them doubling and tripling in order to play some twenty-four roles, and rehearse it sufficiently to have it go along at quite a good clip, with no cues missed, you can provide viable entertainment for audiences that make it worth coming out on a rainy, windy day in Boston, where the promise of spring is mostly just a promise. That’s what happened at the Huntington this afternoon.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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