Charlie Chaplin, Ingrid Bergman, and Frank Lloyd Wright all attended opening night. So did Gene Kelly, Billy Wilder and Igor Stravinsky. On July 30, 1947, in the midst of a blistering Southern California heat wave, Hollywood’s 260-seat Coronet Theatre swelled with A-list celebrities as well as cutting-edge artists and intellectuals of the era. In a movie town still years away from hosting legitimate theatre, everyone buzzed about what promised to be the cultural event of the year: the premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo.
Some came to see the play’s star, Charles Laughton, already one of the world’s most admired actors of stage and screen, perform in the role of a lifetime. Others, particularly the European émigrés who knew Bertolt Brecht from his years at the center of the irreverent, radical, cultural ferment of 1920s Berlin, saw this as their only chance to again glimpse the work of the revolutionary playwright. Still others came to see the latest from the author of the world-famous The Threepenny Opera. By opening night, the entire four-week run had sold out.
The Brecht-Laughton Galileo, like the improbable relationship of its two creators, came together at a unique moment in Hollywood history: the stunning 1930s migration of artists and intellectuals from Europe to America’s movie capital produced a potent cultural concoction of Marxists and vaudevillians, Shakespeareans and studio hacks, high art and low. It was here that Brecht and Laughton met, and the play, born in the shadow of one inquisition, was nurtured in the shadow of another.
Brecht had written an original version of Galileo in 1938, during his six-year exile on the Danish island of Fyn near the small town of Svendborg. Denmark turned out to be only the first stop of his grudging, often painful banishment from Germany. He fled his homeland shortly after Hitler came to power – on February 28, 1933, one day after the Reichstag fire. Brecht knew that his days in Germany were numbered: Hitler’s first targets were leftists and intellectuals. Brecht was both. His goal was to remain in Europe where he felt most able to participate in the struggle against the Nazis. From exile in Scandinavia, he wrote anti-fascist radio broadcasts, poetry, and pamphlets which were smuggled into Germany. It was during this period that he also wrote many of his greatest dramas, including Mother Courage and her Children, The Good Woman of Setzuan, and Galileo.
Galileo was based on the life of the 17th century Italian physicist and astronomer who challenged the notion that the earth stood still at the center of the universe, but who then, under threat of torture by the Inquisition, recanted his findings. The story attracted Brecht largely for its current-day parallels: the crushing of culture and reason in Hitler’s Germany and the purges of intellectuals and dissidents in Stalin’s Soviet Union. When, during his long years of post-recantation house arrest, Galileo secretly resurrects his revolutionary scientific work and has it smuggled out of Italy, Brecht again saw the analogy to the underground resistance fighting against the fascists in Europe.
In 1940, just as Brecht finished Galileo, Nazi troops invaded Denmark, forcing him to flee – first to Sweden, then Finland. As the Nazi noose tightened across all of Europe, he turned reluctantly towards America. Brecht was a committed Marxist, first being introduced to the theories of Marx when he was doing research for a play about the Chicago stockyards. But he held no illusion that the Soviet Union would be a safe haven for him. He had visited the Soviet Union in 1932 and 1935. Since then, one after another of his friends in that country had been imprisoned, executed, or simply disappeared.
With generous assistance from other émigrés already established in the United States, Brecht was able to secure U.S. visas for himself and his family. This was no small feat, given both how difficult it was to obtain entrance into the United States during the war, and the fact that Brecht’s family included himself, his wife and acclaimed German actress, Helen Weigel, their two children, and his two mistresses-slash-artistic collaborators, Ruth Berlau and Margarete Steffin. Unconventional in his politics, his art, and his personal life, Brecht rejected traditional love as reeking of bourgeois ownership and property relations. Throughout his life, he was open about his numerous casual and long-term sexual relationships. He tended to be attracted to creative, independent women. And they were attracted to him. At 5’8” and 130 pounds, Brecht was physically frail. He had close-cropped hair, decaying teeth, deep-set eyes, and a scar across one cheek. He smoked cheap cigars, their smell clinging to his simple, baggy clothes. By all accounts, it was Brecht’s genius that attracted women to him. Unfortunately, as Brecht’s entourage made their way out of Europe, Steffin collapsed from tuberculosis and had to be hospitalized in Moscow. She died two days later. After a ten-day trip on the trans-Siberian railroad, his heart heavy with the loss of his homeland and a treasured friend, Brecht boarded a Swedish ship at Vladivostok, headed for America.
On July 21, 1941, Brecht disembarked at Los Angeles’s San Pedro Harbor. He settled his family into a small house in Santa Monica, hoping to earn a living by writing for the movies. Already plenty of German-speaking émigrés had been successful in Hollywood – Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Fred Zinnemann, and Billy Wilder, to name only a few. At first, however, Brecht found it nearly impossible to work in Los Angeles, feeling intellectually isolated, detesting even the climate. With the clear eye of the outsider, he called Los Angeles “Tahiti in metropolitan form,” where “homes are additions built onto the garages.” He wrote to a friend, “I have the feeling of being like Francis of Assisi in an aquarium…or a chrysanthemum in a coal mine.” He didn’t fit in. Nor did he wish to. Unlike many ex-pats, rushing to assimilate and make America their new home, Brecht always identified as an involuntary exile, waiting to go back to Germany.
No small part of Brecht’s difficulty in coming to terms with his American exile was that suddenly he had no audience for his work. Although he continued to write for the theatre, his aesthetic stood in such contrast to prevailing taste that he most often found himself writing “for the desk drawer.” Two of his plays, The Private Lives of the Master Race and The Duchess of Malfi did open on Broadway, but both were critical and financial flops. And it was no wonder. The purpose of Brecht’s aesthetic was to encourage his audience to think rather than feel. He advocated a style of acting, story structure, and staging that denied the audience easy identification with the characters or an emotionally satisfying catharsis at the conclusion of the drama. His concern was social conditions, not individual psychology. His hope was to educate people, to give them tools to better understand and change the world. He considered much of what he saw of American theatre and film to be empty, bourgeois entertainment, opiates for the masses. It simply didn’t interest him.
Survival, however, did. And to this end, he devoted himself to writing movie scripts. His view of the endeavor was less than glamorous:
Every day to earn my daily bread
I go to the market, where lies are bought,
I take up my place among the sellers.
Despite Brecht’s ambivalence towards Hollywood, his output of movie ideas and treatments was prolific. He figured he had the talent to make it. Certainly, he had the connections. His circle of acquaintances included Hollywood insiders Ben Hecht, Lewis Milestone, Elia Kazan, Charlie Chaplin, and Groucho Marx. He developed movie projects with such heavy hitters as Fritz Lang, Clifford Odets, and Jean Renoir. But Brecht was determined to conquer the beast on his own terms. Artistic compromise was anathema to his spirit. No surprise that sketches like Boy Meets Girl, So What failed to interest the studio heads. After several years of frustration, Brecht concluded, “Recipe for success in writing for films: you have to write as well as you can, and that has got to be bad enough.”
One exception was Hangmen Also Die, based on a true incident from the Czech resistance. The film, written by Brecht, Fritz Lang (also the film’s director), and John Wexley, was a hit. Lang deemed it to be the best anti-fascist film he ever made. And the film’s box office success allowed Brecht to cease relying on financial assistance from the émigré community. But the actual experience of writing the film was filled with anguish for Brecht. “As I sit in my treacherously pretty garden,” he noted in his journal after a particularly grueling Hangmen re-write, “I feel the disappointment and terror of the intellectual worker who sees the product of his labors snatched away and mutilated.”
Even with the success of Hangmen, Brecht continued to be worried about his precarious finances and disgruntled with his cultural surroundings. “The intellectual isolation here is monstrous,” he wrote. “In comparison with Hollywood, Svendborg was a world-center.” Brecht might have found solace within the community of like-minded leftist refugees, but he did not. His interactions with other exiles were often fraught with conflict. He feuded with academic Marxists Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, calling them cultural elitists; he offended Auden and Isherwood by dismissing their spiritual beliefs; he despised Thomas Mann. He did, however, count among a handful of friends, Peter Lorre, novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, Hanns Eisler, William Dieterle, and Salka Viertel.
Viertel, screenwriter of Queen Christina and other Garbo vehicles, hosted a kind of old-world literary salon where artists, musicians and actors, writers, directors, and philosophers – most of them left-leaning, most of them exiles – gathered each Sunday at her house in Santa Monica Canyon. On any given Sunday, Aldous Huxley, Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin, or Paul Muni might show up. And it was here that Brecht met Charles Laughton.
When Bertolt Brecht asked Charles Laughton why he acted, Laughton answered, “Because people don’t know themselves and I think that I can show them how they tick.” Brecht and Laughton connected from the start.
Charles Laughton grew up in England – the ugly, fat boy, the outcast, the butt of jokes on the school yard. He found escape from his pain in the magical world of the theatre. He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1925, speedily becoming a versatile, in-demand actor of the English theatre. He played everything from a sadistic madman, a Belgian detective and a Italian gangster, to a simple villager. Laughton went on to highly-praised performances at the Old Vic in The Cherry Orchard, The Tempest, and Macbeth. Unable to rely on good looks or sexual magnetism, he struggled to bring depth, honesty, and humanity to his roles. The public responded. Walter Slezak, an actor who worked with Laughton, wrote, “There is an expression in the German theatre which indicates that an actor is especially talented and blessed: ‘He has God’s telephone number in his pocket.’ Well, Laughton, I’m sure has God’s unlisted number.”
At a time when most stage actors eschewed work in movies, Laughton embraced it. He starred in Alex Korda’s Rembrandt, became the tortured Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and gave a tour de force comedic turn as an English butler in Ruggles of Red Gap. He won two Oscars – one for his role as the king in The Private Lives of Henry VIII, the other for his brutal martinet Captain Bligh opposite Clark Gable in Mutiny On The Bounty. By the late 1930s, Charles Laughton was an international star.
Despite his fame, Laughton was plagued with self-doubt, insecure about his talent. He also suffered self-loathing about his homosexuality. He had married actress Elsa Lanchester in 1929. One year after their marriage, he told her that he was homosexual. Shocked at first, she made the decision to continue the marriage, putting up with her husband’s relationships with men. “We both married for protection against society,” wrote Lanchester. “There was loyalty to the idea of marriage, there was mutual protection, and tolerance and respect.” The two shared a love of nature, fine art, and literature. They explored new places together, amassed a remarkable art collection, and shared the ups and downs of their creative lives. For years, they divided their time between homes in London and Los Angeles, finally settling into a spacious old house with a rambling garden on the cliffs of Pacific Palisades, overlooking the ocean.
While Laughton’s marriage endured, his film career did not. By the time he met Brecht, in 1944, he had been relegated to bit parts in mediocre movies. When Brecht asked Laughton if he’d like to work on translating Galileo and play the lead in an English-language production, Laughton jumped at the chance.
For Laughton, here was a chance to resurrect a fading career. It was also an opportunity to nurture his dream of becoming a writer. To work with Brecht, whom he admired as a brilliant and important writer, was the chance of a lifetime. As for Brecht, he respected Laughton as an actor. And he viewed Laughton as a star of sufficient standing to power Galileo to Broadway. In Laughton, he also found the perfect incarnation of his astronomer-protagonist: a combination of enormous intellectual and sensuous passions; a man who “cannot say no to an old wine or a new thought.”
For eighteen months, Brecht and Laughton worked together – translating, writing, re-writing – most often amidst the azaleas and pre-Columbian statuary of Laughton’s beloved garden. Brecht overflowed with ideas. Laughton turned out to be a master of structure and editing. “For both it was a period of work intensive as it was enjoyable,” Ruth Berlau notes in her memoirs. “Their way of working together is not easy to describe. Laughton knew no German – literally not a single word! – and Brecht had too little English to be able to express himself with full authority in that language…Brecht would use gesture to convey what he was after, and Laughton would put into words what he had seen with his eyes.”
Despite their differences – Brecht the ideological Marxist, Laughton the apolitical humanist – the collaboration worked. Both men disliked authority figures and felt compassion for the oppressed. Both saw their art as being more than mere entertainment. Brecht noted in his journal that “Laughton’s fear of offending the audience (mostly on religious matters) was often in conflict with his desire to correct the public’s false assumptions – normally the latter desire prevailed.” John Houseman, who knew both men, called their collaboration “an oasis in the wilderness of Brecht’s frustrating and miserable years in Los Angeles.”
Then came August 6, 1945. “The atomic age made its debut at Hiroshima in the middle of our work,” wrote Brecht. “Overnight the biography of the founder of the new system of physics read differently.” Motivated as always by his desire to interpret current events in his historical dramas, Brecht began a new set of revisions, sharpening his indictment of Galileo’s cowardice before the Inquisition. “I take it that the intent of science is to ease human existence,” says Galileo in a heart-breaking new speech towards the end of the play. “If you give way to coercion, science can be crippled, and your new machines may simply suggest new drudgeries. The gulf might even grow so wide that the sound of your cheering at some new achievement would be echoed by a universal howl of horror…I have betrayed my profession. Any man who does what I have done must not be tolerated in the ranks of science.”
As Brecht strove for a more merciless condemnation of Galileo’s capitulation, Laughton pushed to humanize the scientist. The creative tension bore fruit. By the end of 1945, a new version of the play satisfied them both. Laughton showed it to Orson Welles who instantly signed on to direct.
Welles was thrilled to be working with Brecht whose radical, anti-naturalistic aesthetic theories were in sync with his own. “I believe in the factual theatre,” stated Welles. “People should not be fooled. They should know they are in the theatre.” Like Brecht, Welles was an artistic maverick, consequences be damned. He had directed an all-black Macbeth set in Haiti. The premiere of his 1937 production of the incendiary, pro-union The Cradle Will Rock (dedicated by its author, Marc Blitzstein, to Brecht) was shut down by the government, the theatre doors blocked by National Guardsmen. His film masterpiece, Citizen Kane, was a box office flop. Kane’s episodic, multi-viewpoint structure, and its “alienated” acting style which encouraged the audience to retain a critical detachment, had much in common with Brecht’s Epic Theatre. After showing Welles his play, Brecht wrote of Welles that “his attitude is agreeable, his remarks intelligent. At least he will not be afraid of the audience.”
Unfortunately, the Brecht-Laughton-Welles dream team was not to be. After Laughton brought in Broadway impresario, Mike Todd, to produce, Welles quit. Welles was bitter towards Todd about what he viewed as a betrayal on a previous project (when Todd pulled out of the stage production of Around The World In 80 Days, Welles was forced to scramble for money). Before long, Brecht and Laughton clashed with Todd over their vision for the production, and Todd left the project as well.
Enter Joseph Losey. Brecht had met the young American director a decade earlier in Moscow. As artists and leftists (Losey was a member of the Communist Party, Brecht was not), both were drawn to the politics and culture of the Soviet Union’s exuberant youth. A year later, Brecht had attended a Living Newspaper production directed by Losey in New York. Created within the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project, the Living Newspaper was an experimental dramatic form committed to informing audiences about social problems, and calling for action to solve them. The dramas dealt with issues such as housing, civil rights, unions, agricultural depression, and health care. Using slide projectors, masks, characters placed in the audience, stylized staging, and episodic structure, the Living Newspaper appealed to Brecht on every level. Losey agreed to direct Galileo. And he convinced a New York producer, T. Edward Hambleton, to put up half the money for production. Laughton put up the other half.
Both Losey and Laughton had movie commitments in Hollywood, so they decided to mount Galileo in Los Angeles rather than New York. But who would actually produce the show? And where would it run? Enter John Houseman. Houseman had produced Orson Welles’s early American shows (including Macbeth and Cradle Will Rock). Fired from the Federal Theatre Project after the Cradle controversy, Welles and Houseman founded the Mercury Theatre. Houseman produced Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast which panicked the nation, as well as his modern-dress Julius Caesar. The partners fell out when Houseman insisted that Herman Mankiewicz, not Welles, deserved credit for writing Citizen Kane.
After breaking with Welles, Houseman went on to write and produce mainstream Hollywood movie fare such as Jane Eyre and The Blue Dahlia. He ran in leftist circles and was a member of the Communist-influenced Hollywood Writers Mobilization. In 1947, he formed Pelican Productions with the aim of bringing legitimate theatre to Los Angeles. To this end, Houseman had just renovated the small Coronet Theatre on La Cienega Boulevard when Laughton came knocking. With excellent progressive and theatrical credentials, and an actual theater at his disposal, Houseman was the right man for the job. In his memoirs, Houseman writes that he considered Galileo to be “a noble and important work, and that it would be an honor – as well as an exciting theatrical experience – to participate in its first premiere.”
With the main pieces of the production puzzle finally in place, cast and crew were hired, and rehearsals began at the Coronet on June 24, 1947. While Losey was the official director, it was understood by all that Laughton and Brecht – and in particular, Brecht – were actually in charge. Brecht and Laughton were meticulous in their control over props, costumes, lighting, blocking, and every other aspect of the show.
In the service of creating precisely the production he desired, Brecht lived up to his reputation of being harsh, intolerant, and even abusive. His difficulty with expressing himself in English didn’t help matters. The brunt of his criticisms fell on the design and technical staff. He clashed with the choreographer who was replaced by one Brecht had worked with in Germany. Houseman recalls, “That he was almost always right in his judgments did not diminish the pain and resentment he spread around him during the long, intense weeks of rehearsal.” Apparently, only Laughton and composer Hanns Eisler escaped his censure.
Many of the players, however, appreciated Brecht’s knowledge of the theater, his attention to detail, and his unusual theories of acting. Frances Heflin, who had been cast as Galileo’s daughter, remembers, “He had an energy that came out of every pore. His eyes darted. You could see his mind racing a mile a minute…He was terribly impatient with any act he felt was put on for effect…But he would often take time and give his reasons for demanding what he did. I remember there was an actor who was playing the part of a merchant in too grand a manner. Brecht felt he was not getting to what was in the play, and so he gave him a history lecture on the merchant’s place in society at that point. He said that merchants were among the most important people in society at that time but were still not recognized by the aristocracy. Yet they played an important role, helping artists and scientists. All this just to set an actor straight. I thought it was an unusual way to get what he wanted.”
In contrast to Brecht’s arrogance, Laughton was modest, self-disciplined, and patient. On the inside, however, he was scared. His ever-present insecurity was compounded by the fact that this would be his first live stage performance in thirteen years. As opening night approached, Laughton’s anxiety turned to panic. Suddenly, he exploded. His target was Ruth Berlau whom Brecht had brought in to take photographs for the press. Distracted by the constant clicking of her camera during rehearsal, Laughton erupted, accusing her of violating him as an artist and threatening to smash her camera. Houseman assessed the outburst as, “a desperate act of revolt against a man he loved and revered but whom he held responsible for luring him, with his accursed play, out of the secure and lucrative backwater of his movie career; a man for whom he was about to expose himself, after so many years, to the horrifying risk of personal and professional disaster on the stage.”
After his sole, uncharacteristic blow-up, Laughton’s mounting stress manifested in quieter ways. The small Coronet theatre was bursting at the seams with a cast and crew of over eighty, so for the final rehearsals and during the run of the play, a trailer was parked out in back for Laughton to use as a dressing room and a place to rest. As the premiere loomed closer, he could be found sleeping in his trailer at all times of day – sleeping so soundly that the stage manager had trouble waking him.
Finally, opening night. As L.A.’s cultural elite filled the theatre, Laughton lay trembling with fear in his trailer. With a sweltering heat-wave baking Los Angeles, he ordered trucks loaded with ice blocks to surround the theatre, “so the audience can think.” Then at long last, nine years after it was first written, three and a half years after Brecht and Laughton began their new version, Galileo opened. The spare sets, simple costumes, backdrops based on Renaissance drawings, and episodic set pieces were just as the creators envisioned. Brecht and Laughton were elated with the production. The reviews, however, were mixed. The Los Angeles Times called it, “a rich new experience…will capture the imagination of those who want to see drama put on a technically freer basis…the subject itself will unquestionably arouse marked controversial interest.” The Hearst owned Examiner called the play, “a harangue – and a fussy, juvenile harangue at that.” Neither Variety nor the New York Times were particularly encouraging. Laughton, however, received nearly unanimous raves: “an etched and nigh flawless performance,” “a personal triumph.” The play’s backer, Edward Hambleton, made plans to take the show to New York.
In a limited run at the Maxine Elliot Theater, the audiences large and enthusiastic, the reviews mostly bad, Galileo did open on Broadway that December – but without Bertolt Brecht. On September 19, U.S. marshals appeared at Brecht’s home in Santa Monica, handing him a subpoena to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Brecht was one of nineteen Hollywood leftists summoned to Washington to testify about “Communist influence in the entertainment industry.”
After struggling with Galileo’s predicament for so many years, the irony that he was now himself facing an inquisition was not lost on the playwright. Of the nineteen “unfriendly witnesses” called, only eleven actually testified. Lost as a footnote to the legendary Hollywood Ten, Brecht was in fact The Eleventh. All except Brecht agreed to a strategy in which they refused to answer the Committee’s questions, standing on their First Amendment right to freedom of expression, and challenging HUAC’s constitutionality. Brecht broke rank with the others, citing his status as a foreigner, and choosing instead, with the consent of the other eighteen, a strategy of appearing to cooperate with the Committee, but actually undermining their investigation with a combination of cunning, obfuscation, and the pretense of politeness. Throughout his testimony, Brecht smoked a cigar (he knew that the Committee’s chair, Parnell Thomas, was partial to cigars), and used a translator who knew less English than himself. It was an exquisitely choreographed performance.
One short interchange with HUAC’s counsel, Robert Stripling, gives a flavor of Brecht’s testimony:
Stripling: “Is it true that you have written a number of very revolutionary poems, plays and other writings?”
Brecht: “I have written a number of poems and songs and plays in the fight against Hitler, and of course, they can be considered, therefore, as revolutionary because I, of course, was for the overthrow of that government.”
At another point in the proceedings, Brecht’s translated work was read aloud:
Stripling: Did you write that, Mr. Brecht?
Brecht: No. I wrote a German poem, but that is very different from this.
After an hour, the Committee had heard enough. The next day, Brecht wrote in his journal, “In the morning I meet Laughton who is already going around in his beard and is pleased that it isn’t going to take any special courage to play Galileo, there being, as he says, no headlines about me.”
That afternoon, Bertolt Brecht boarded a plane for Europe, never to return to the United States again.
From guest contributor Eve Goldberg