‘Reason’s gentle tyranny’: Life of Galileo review

Play: Life of Galileo
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht
Venue: Young Vic Theatre
Director: Joe Wright

 

A director best known for loyal screen adaptations of classic literature, Joe Wright now switches two sides at once: loading an Adrenalin shot into the theatrical canon. His reworking of Brecht’s Life of Galileo is brash, loud, funny and makes a maverick of Galileo. The imperious Catholic Church is hiked up as the high horse, happy to play ‘the man’ keeping him down.

You might expect Brechtian casts to be alienating; an avengers group that Spiderman-scale that 4th wall. And we get some of that, in audience micro-interactions when the actors navigate the stage’s middle section, the theatre’s best seats laid out in lounge cushions around their feet. It’s also in the self-conscious scene intros which go to pot in Galileo’s absence.  Wright never makes these reflexive moments uppity, or arts-clique congratulatory. Instead, they are funny and self-deprecating. High theatre concepts are made to serve an engaging and important narrative, even if the revised content verges into science lesson/PSA territory. Success is gleaned in equal parts from a hugely talented cast, a bass-pumping soundtrack, and an innovative 360 degree staging.

The set is more bared down than a deliberately-unfinished Hipster hangout. There’s a thin ring that forms a walking platform. A few boxed-off vignettes around the edges. Some scaffolding in one corner, doubling as a Venetian tower. That’s about it. Among exposed steel and mortar, it’s the orchestration that stands out.

Life of Galileo at the Young Vic. Photo by Leon Puplett Projections by 59 Productions.

Set plan of Life of Galileo at Young Vic Theatre. Main stage is the ring around the centre, some scenes take place on upper rung. Projections shot onto on concave dome overhead

Orbit is closely held around Brendan Cowell’s Galileo. He’s like a leaner, Australian Mark Addy, and his enthusiasm for theorems and reason is infectious. In the first act, his star is in unchecked ascendancy – which has a counter-effect of Galileo not seeming like a real person. We’re taken in, like his followers, by the myth of his genius. But the second act challenges his unstoppable force with the immovable object of the Church. Then he becomes more human.

Until Act 2, we’re satisfied with a stellar supporting cast. There’s Galileo’s young protégé, played by Billy Howle, who ages boisterously as the play progresses. Howle has more than a little Malcolm McDowell about him. His loud and impetuous speeches are a few steps away from goading the Pope to ‘come and get one in the yarbles!’ He’s electric; physical comedy rolling off him through cross dressing and childish fervour at his master’s ideals. Paul Hunter, as head of the grand inquisition, is a more established pair of hands. He’s worked with Wright before, on last year’s Pan, and reminds me a lot of Toby Jones (a good thing on all counts).

In the mouths of these players, Brecht’s script gains new relevancy. Particularly in Galileo’s breakdown, as he loses faith in the general public’s essential rationality. Recent election results (before GE17 of course) might prompt us to despair in similar ways. The great helio-displacer here agonises over misdirected effort: how scientific progress for the sake of it just leads to more complex machines of corruption, used to further segment society. He argues science should operate with a conscience.

But his own moral compass fails him. He admits his confession was motivated by avoiding torturous pain. The grand inquisitor’s threats led him to label his own, proven theories as heretical. This reason dethrones one of pragmatic survival, an explanation hopefully theorised by his followers as a masterstroke, letting Galileo covertly publish the Dialogues in the long term. Instead he maintains it was simple self-preservation. Galileo returns to his faith in ‘the gentle tyranny of reason’ – of the mundane triumphs of everyday science, where the public cannot fail to accept theories accompanied by irrefutable proof.

Like the big G’s Copernican research though, there’s some key things that de-centralise the magic of the production. The Planetarium-style projections are cool in themselves, but jar with the bared down visuals of the surrounding action. Their segments swirl through space, through galactic dust-clouds and Jupiter satellites. While it’s visually impressive and hints at Galileo’s vast theoretical reach, they feel like science museum promos. Albeit with a banging synth and bass soundtrack, courtesy of The Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands. The soundtrack and sound design work wonders for the minimalist 360 set, usefully indicating a larger world; but its part in the astral projections is amplified too much, further exposing their anomaly.

These effects recall Wright’s lesser works, like the uneven film adaptation of Anna Karenina. Overall though, Life of Galileo infuses a newfound energy and relevance into a previously inaccessible script, not to mention a controversial period of history where religion and science were much more evenly matched. Its exploration of the moral responsibility of reason is by turns enthusing, troubling, and necessary.

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The War, On Drugs: a review of ‘Blitzed’ by Norman Ohler

Truth might well be stranger than fiction. But as Ohler’s study of the Nazis shows us, humans need fiction to bear reality: in forging our own version, and then enduring it. Hitler’s ideological fiction, built on ideals of Aryan purity and Antisemitism, was insidious enough to enrapture a fractured nation. Donning a pharmaceutical lens, history now reveals the Fuhrer’s need for psycho-active substances (drugs, for short) to hold his interior fictions in place. Ohler also dramatically documents how widespread drug use in Nazi Germany facilitated some of the nation’s greatest victories, while also contributing to the population’s collective euphoria.

Ohler’s Blitzed frequently beggars belief. How historians have made do without such a central jigsaw piece of Hitler’s psyche is equally baffling. The list of revelations is shocking but also cathartic – they help de-mythologise the hyperbolically evil Nazis.

To understand the preponderance of drugs in Nazi Germany, Ohler traces a huge influx of synthetic research post World War I. In a landscape ravaged of natural resources by reparations, German scientists turned to synthetic substances that could be manufactured chemically. Through necessity then, German pharmaceutical companies created a smorgasbord of substances: from methamphetamine to cocaine, from aspirin to heroine (this last pair within one week of each other). From this fruitful study, drugs began making their way into military testing, medical prescriptions, and eventually, Hitler’s personal bunker.

‘High Hitler’ 

From the early 1940s until the end of the war, Hitler was routinely injected with an eclectic cocktail of hard drugs. These included methamphetamine (Crystal Meth), Eukodal (Heroin’s more potent cousin), cocaine, and various animal stimulants (including bull prostate and porcine adrenal glands). This array was steadily built up by his personal physician Theo Morell, a figure largely overlooked by World War II history. Morell’s remedies started out as treatments for Hitler’s physical ailments. But as the war dragged on, and the Nazi dream of victory retreated, Hitler’s psyche demanded more and more attention. The Fuhrer needed the same level of conviction of his early speeches, perhaps even more so, to mobilise his flagging army and troubled government around his ultimate aim.

So we get the disturbing situations that Ohler outlines in the war’s climax. Hitler, spending months in his damp underground bunker, barely seeing daylight, yet coaxed into euphoria by Morell’s magic needle. It helps explain Hitler’s unaccountable switches of mood, which fellow Nazis assumed was down to a secret weapon he had discovered. There was nothing up his sleeve but track-marked veins.

Hitler’s war train literally stopped for injections: Morrel rolling up the Fuhrer’s sleeve beside steaming carriages, unable to administer the dose on a moving vehicle. Hitler badly needed his pick-me-up before meeting Mussolini, near the end of the war, when the morning of the meeting saw him doubled over with gastric pain and dizziness. A quick shot of Morell’s euphoric cocktail, and Hitler talked Mussolini out of the room, not halting his verbal tirade for four straight hours. This inner conviction held off the Axis collapse, and Mussolini returned to Italy with renewed vigour.

Ohler frames Hitler’s battle as an inner one. If he could convince himself all is well, then his psychology could spread like a virus-blanket across army and government. There is a Shakespearean quality to this, where a head of state rages against inner demons, turning to addiction and abuse, in a fatal and tragic quest for power. Hitler is revealed not as the anti-christ, but a fatally flawed man whose poisoned, vengeful mind was propped up by artificial stimulants.

He was willing to live with the stark cognitive dissonance, for instance, of upholding ‘purity’ but routinely injecting his body with drugs. Of espousing the virtues of vegetarianism, freshly after being injected with countless animal hormones. Then, more concretely, insisting that increasingly outlandish tactics would grant the Germans imminent victory.

luftwaffe

Head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, in the throes of Morphine addiction

The War, on Drugs

Hitler’s reliance on ideology and conviction alone was not without reason. Earlier in the war, surprise attacks and unorthodox manoeuvres had helped conquer almost all of Europe. These too, Ohler reveals, were augmented by drug use. The Blitzkrieg conquest of the Ardennes mountains, which Churchill described as the ‘sickle cut’, was impossible without soldiers staying up for four days straight. Healthy doses of methamphetamine allowed tank commanders to do just this: indeed, they stayed awake for 17 days. Such superhuman feats – which ape Hannibal’s mythic, elephantine crossing of the Alps – were previously put down to sheer tyranny of ideological will. Hard drugs, it seems, bring impossible tasks within reach.

Alongside Hitler’s inner demons, and the Blitzkrieg’s mythic conquest, Rommel and Ranke’s ‘war on fatigue’ sounds straight from Greek mythology. They sought to vanquish age old enemies, sleep and tiredness, to gain vital strategic advantages in battle. And like some deific reckoning, the Nazi’s disregard for human fixities, their frolic on the shores of the river Styx, came with a hefty and damned price. Such drug use could only work in the short term. Users soon built a tolerance, and needed higher dosages to perform at the same levels. Side effects like heart attacks, muscle weakness and uncontrollable shakes abounded. Mental fatigue, if not physical, became rife. Turns out you can’t unfetteredly jack up on neurotransmitters and get away with it.  The German public suffered too. From housewives that ate methamphetamine in chocolates, to workers using it to stay awake, drug use was widespread, indoctrinating and harmful.

Blitzed confirms what filmmakers Powell, Pressburger and Renoir tried to tell their viewing public at the time: the Nazis do not play by ‘the rules of the game’. Hitler was prepared to sully his own body, and those of his fighting populace, to extend his destructive ideological path. Neurological enhancements, still nowhere near understood today, were put into reckless use by the Nazi war machine. It was deranged, irresponsible, and veered from extremely effective to psychologically shattering. When I asked Ohler if he thought other periods of history would benefit from a pharmaceutical analysis, he didn’t seem to see the relevance. But surely psycho-active substances might have been used by other societies for progress and advantage? The Delphic oracles, for instance, were said to inhale natural gas from rocky gas plumes, then make prophecies from their hallucinations. JFK is often rumoured to have taken a litany of drugs to neutralise his body’s many ailments. It seems like a fruitful and largely untapped undercurrent of history.

Ohler has laid the groundwork, whether he sees it as such or not, for further psycho-active historical study. This seminal book helps us understand one of the most feared human societies.  The Nazis manufactured their superhuman will, euphoric mindsets in dire circumstances, and disregard for fatigue. Their monster is now explainable – without recourse for mystified and depth-less malice. Evil understood is evil halved.

You can buy Blitzed here.

A Quest Through ‘Infinite Jest’, Pt. 2

Main book:
Infinite Jest / 1996 / David Foster Wallace
[Pages 300 – 640
Endnotes 102 – 240]

Others referenced:
Blood Meridian / 1985 / Cormac McCarthy
Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption / 1982 / Stephen King
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest / 1962 / Ken Kesey
To Kill a Mockingbird / 1960 / Harper Lee

 

 

i.  And with a Howling Fantod…

…you’re back in the room. Like taking a dive in David Lynch’s blue box, or being transfixed by Kubrik’s obelisks, Infinite Jest has a way of consuming your attention completely. Not unlike the mythical videotape that draws a through-line in its labyrinthine plot. Characters who watch it cannot turn themselves away, their lives shrinking, catatonically, down to the sole desire to watch it once more.

It’s a symbol whose power resonates today: in Father John Misty tracks and imminent Arcade Fire albums, in promises of ‘limitless’ internet & data bundles, in the recent surge of Virtual Reality goggles, in IMAX screens with the same peripheral-spanning[1] scope. I’m not crazy about everything in Wallace’s magnum opus – and sometimes it feels like he has put everything in here – but his discussion of entertainment addiction is dead on.

So, to the second instalment. This meaty section was more of a slog than the first, and that’s saying something. At no times was it more slog-y than at the novel’s one third waypoint.

ii. Pages 300 – 400

Some reviewers have been kind enough to call parts of this book ‘intentionally frustrating’. But in traversing what I would call Infinite Jest’s deepest trough (so far), I came out thinking: was Wallace’s editor on sabbatical?

There’s so much that doesn’t need to be here.

First, the novella-length chronicle of an Eschaton game. Eschaton is Enfield Tennis Academy’s (ETA) own creation, where different parts of the court stand for countries of the world. The students are then assigned global powers, and make nuclear strikes at each other by lobbing tennis balls toward other territories.

Eschaton has doubtless potential, with international disputes being played out in pubescent microcosm. But Wallace’s incessant level of detail strangles it. The ending fracas and a few engaging images notwithstanding, it’s a gleaming example of unedited prose. We don’t need to know the complex algorithms that determine this game. Or the recent histories of its bit part players. Or the details of Eschaton’s creation. It’s over-facing, and maybe that’s the point, but reading is a dredge here.

This overripe section is chained to another: Mario Incandenza’s puppet-show re-tread of his late father’s political satire flick. Prose breaks into a screenplay transcript, which is mired in near-future history, unfriendly acronyms and discussions that dance along the edge of the ‘Great Concavity’; by inference, we eventually guess that this is a new mega-landfill on the US/Canadian border. Wallace here makes it hard to appreciate his niche commentary by not saying what it is he’s satirising. Several series of mental gymnastics too far, I’m afraid.

At least this section is redeemed by its cutaways. These follow the academy enrolees’ visit to Lyle, a cross-legged shaman who advises the boys on their psychiatric troubles. Scenes here are deliciously odd, and funny, a breath of fresh air from the political commentary in the room down the hall.

It’s about the only light relief in this section. Page 400 rolls up through laboriously recounted AA meetings, replete with horrific stories of stillbirths and sexual abuse. They contain some of the darkest prose I’ve ingested since McCarthy’s relentless Blood Meridian. They reaffirmed my avoidance of hard drugs, but I won’t thank them for some of the images still seared to my retinas.

So, not much fun. Good job the next part ramps up.

iii. Pages 400 – 500

Infinite Jest is at its best when it sticks to one solid idea. Then Wallace is free to flog it to death with enrapturing sentences and dry, gallows humour. This combination abounds in both the ETA drill sessions and in Don Gately’s nightly plight as Ennet House’s drug enforcement officer.

Both settings are contained environments, with subjects that seem worthy of obsessive study. Their daily site rituals and long term confinement make a sturdy backdrop, the variables being inmate/enrolee friendships and personality quirks. Maybe it’s a personal preference, but I can relate more to a group of characters when they’re contextualised against an oppressive institution. Like the prison in The Shawshank Redemption, the courtroom and legal system in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the psychiatric hospital, which Ennet House reminds me of, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Institutions also provide a vehicle for Wallace’s misanthropic humour, which expertly picks out maddening ironies latent in most oppressive regimes.

ETA is overseen by Nazi-ish drillmaster Schtitt, who works the boys to within an inch of their muscular breaking point. For Gately, the authority figure forms more in drugs themselves, referred to as The Substance, although he does have a Greek boss in his side job, who literally makes him scrub shit. There’s more room for comedy here, resolute low-key wit in the face of hardship. Maybe it’s especially appealing for Brits.

In less harrowing fashion than the AA horror-stories, centre stage is taken by those who suffer with deformities, biological conditions, and the deleterious effects of substance abuse. Wallace seems obsessed with whatever is abnormal, and how the ‘normal’ majority treat it. Perhaps it’s his duty as a novelist, to take us closer to things we naturally, and unjustly, avert our eyes from. It doesn’t stop some knee-jerk repulsion when Wallace writes about these subjects, but his empathy and compassion for each tragic human case he deals with is heartening. Even if, in finding black humour and irony in their situations, he strays into some controversial areas. It feels risky, daring and worthwhile, though it must have been punishing to stare so many of life’s duff hands dead in the face.

 

iv. Pages 500 – 640

By introducing a new main character at 500-plus pages, Wallace is either ballsy or delusions-of-grandeur-level gormless. Luckily, recovering drug addict Randy Lenz is disturbing enough that I’d give it to ‘ballsy’.

Lenz copes with going Cold Turkey by stalking Boston’s back-alleys, then killing whatever small fauna he finds there. He is dark and twisted but elucidated by Wallace’s intimate understanding of addiction. Wallace takes us down the cyclic levels of rush, tolerance and dependence like spiralling steps into hell. Lenz’ descent is maddening and addictive in itself, and is one of the intermittent sections that make the book feel conversely short, pages turning freely, momentum propelling it forth.

Lenz later graduates to dogs, which gets him in trouble with some Québécois. It’s a game of ultra-violent dominoes that comes crashing down on Don Gately, sacrificial guard dog of Ennet House, who is shot defending in-patients from Lenz’ pursuers. In a novel beset with dense prose and Academic level arguments, such an emotional moment is tremendously refreshing. I’ve yet to read on and see if Gately makes it to the conclusion, but his jeopardy confirms I cared for him, which is a bit of a rarity in this over-analytic tome.

Who else do we care for? Probably the three Incandenza brothers, Pemulis, Joelle, and perhaps Lenz. The others, forming one multitudinous mass of side characters, seem peripheral. Occasionally sympathetic and always tragic, but kept at a distance.

I’m excited to tie off Infinite Jest, if just to clear its mammoth cache from my mind’s-eye bookshelves. But I’ll need a break before I let Wallace put me under again.

[1] In Wallace terms, ‘map eliminating’