“THE RECANTATION OF GALILEO GALILEI” (PART II: THE PLAY)
Last week, I began my two-part discussion of Eric Bentley’s “The Recantation of Galileo Galilei,” focusing on the historical background of Galileo’s trial before the Roman Inquisition (Not to be confused with the Spanish Inquisition, which would have been quite unexpected).
This week, I look at the play itself.
The play covers the years between 1608 and 1633. It begins and ends with Galileo, the penitent, recanting his belief in heliocentrism and the theories in his book The Two World Systems. In between, the play travels between Padua, Florence, and Rome. As the play’s fourteen scenes unfold, we see Galileo, against the advice of his friends and colleagues, develops the scientific support for the heliocentric model.
This brings him to the attention of the Roman Inquisition. Cardinal Bellarmine initially gets Galileo’s promise not to address the issue. Sixteen years later, however, Galileo publishes The Two World Systems, breaking his promise. The Inquisition comes down on him full force, with the Jesuits calling for his execution for heresy.
Galileo escapes being burned at the stake by accepting what is, in essence, a plea bargain. He agrees to recant his “heretical” ideas, accept house imprisonment for the rest of his life, and agrees not to publish any more books. In return, the Inquisition spares his life.
Rather than an act of desperation, cowardice, or submission, Galileo’s recantation is portrayed as an act of defiance. At the critical moment, Galileo throws himself on the ground in a public mea culpa in front of his accusers. They are now caught on the horns of a dilemma. Although the Inquisition (particularly the Jesuits) want to be rid of Galileo, they cannot refuse a penitent’s request for repentance.
Thus, in the end, Galileo is spared, and was able to continue to work on his “revolutionary” ideas.
Neophyte Lawyer’s Review
Once again, Bentley appears to be taking on a variation of the same theme he addressed in “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been:” the struggle between the individual’s right to express the thoughts of his or her conscience and the forces of conformity. As Bentley himself states in an introduction to “Are You Now:”
Oscar Wilde said “most people are other people,” meaning thereby that they live as if they had no selves: they are completely identified with the others, with the mass… I believe that except for hardened fanatics on both political sides, the Communist issue falls into the background, and what we see in the play is some people, faced with a challenge, settling for being other people, and others managing to be themselves.
(Eric Bentley, Rallying Cries: 3 Plays by Eric Bentley, Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press (1977), p. 6.)
Here, we see Galileo’s transformation. Through most of the play, Galileo is trying to be “other people,” or, rather, trying to gain the approval and acclaim of other people. It is only near the end, when he finally realizes that neither the Inquisition nor Pope Urban VII are going to respond to his scientific truths, that he determines to be himself.
But there remains one question: Which is the braver course of action, the willingness to die for one’s beliefs, or the willingness to live for them? On the surface, it would seem that the former is the noble course. Bentley’s Galileo makes the argument that it is actually better to live for one’s beliefs. Galileo accepts the humiliation of public penance, house arrest, and the inability to publish his theories for the rest of his life. In return, he lived, continued to ponder the mysteries of the universe, and write (albeit covertly).
“The Recantation of Galileo Galilei” is another troubling work. The play covers 25 years of time, with several different settings, and a cast of no less than 27 different characters (not including soldiers, guards, servants, attendants, and assorted other walk-on roles). It is difficult to see anyone actually willing (or able) to produce this show unless they had a lot of resources. I have worked with a number of community theaters (none of which have very deep pockets). It would simply be impossible to stage this show at any of them.
In addition, I must admit that I’m not particularly enamored with the character of Galileo as Bentley portrays him. He seems almost aggressively stupid when it comes to the potential dangers he faces in supporting the heliocentric model of the solar system, while at the same time trying almost desperately to gain public approval. As the central character in the play, Galileo should be at least somewhat sympathetic. Unfortunately, he really isn’t. As such, his “transformation” at the end seems more self-serving rather than noble.
I give “The Recantation of Galileo Galilei” six out of ten mockingbirds on the world-famous Mockingbird Scale:
It’s not the worst play I have ever read, nor is it the worst legal drama (broadly defined). But it is far from the best.