The Life of Galileo is a play in fifteen scenes that Brecht worked on, endlessly revising it, for over twenty years. The first version dates from November 1938, during the author’s exile in Denmark. At this stage Galileo appears as a hero who astutely chooses to bow down before power in order to continue his scientific research. But the historical events of the day, first nuclear fission and then the atom bomb, led to great changes in the text. Galileo becomes an anti-hero and his abjuration the act that dramatically calls into question the relationship between science and society. It is on this basis that the Life of Galileo was revised during the long preparation of the play starring Charles Laughton staged in the United States.
Wrote Brecht, "In the midst of our work, the ‘atomic age’ made its debut at Hiroshima. From one day to the next, the biography of the founder of the new physics took on another meaning. The hellish power of the great bomb cast a new, glaring light on Galileo’s conflict with the authorities of his time. Few changes were needed in the play. None in its structure. Already in the original the church had been represented as a secular power and its ideology, in reality, as exchangeable with many others. Since the start, as keystone of the gigantic figure of Galileo, his concept of science linked to the people had been adopted."
The play revised in this manner – most notably in scene XIV – was performed in July 1947, directed by Joseph Losey, at the Coronet Theater in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. But the American version too failed to satisfy Brecht, and for the 1955 representation at the Berliner Ensemble, he revised the play still further. This is the form it appears in today, which for Brecht, who died during the rehearsals, was not yet definitive.
To condense the complex meanings of the Life of Galileo into a few lines would be entirely reductive, but a key to interpreting the text is suggested by its author’s words: "Galileo enriched astronomy and physics, while contemporaneously stripping them of much of their social significance. […] With the discredit they had thrown on the Bible and the Church, these sciences had for a certain time manned the barricades in defence of all progress. In spite of this, however, a radical change took place in the following centuries; but it was a radical change, not a revolution. The scandal degenerated, it might be said, into a dispute among specialists. The Church, with all of her reactionary forces, was able to retreat in good order, conserving her strength virtually intact. As concerns the sciences themselves, they never reacquired that function so important for society, never again returned to positions so close to the people.
"Galileo’s wrongdoing may be considered the ‘original sin’ of the modern natural sciences. Modern astronomy, for instance, had strongly attracted a new social category, the educated middle class, insofar as it upheld the revolutionary social currents of the time. He made of it instead a strictly limited specialized science, which, expressly due to its ‘purity’, that is, its indifference to the production system, could develop quite undisturbed. The atom bomb, as a technical no less than a social phenomenon, is the classic end product of his scientific conquests and his social failure."