Friday, August 06, 2010

Short-a-Day: John Haskell's "Galileo"

Originally published in A Public Space 01, Spring 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 10.

So, uh, we should probably address what makes a story a story. A Public Space enjoys pushing that boundary, and props to them for that; just yesterday we talked about Barthelme, who is not always as tame as in that "Paul Klee" story. But I didn't feel as if I grew any closer to understanding the actor Charles Laughton or the playwright Bertolt Brecht as they, in 1947, translated and prepared the second American version of his play; instead, I felt informed as to the plot of Galileo and the nature of their collaboration and translation of the work, with a few parallels thrown in, specifically the way in which Galileo recants, disappointing his student (slash "son"), just as Brecht deals with his tantrum-tending "son," Laughton. Oh, and something about the true nature of heroics, with Brecht not standing up to HUAC about the content of his oeuvre, just as Galileo folds to the Church, fearing the pain of torture, yet still smuggles out his scientific defense, the Discorsi.

These are great concepts that Haskell has working here, but that's reportage--I feel hammered to death, even by beautifully sparse lines: "Brecht had showed him that acting could be a kind of protest, and although protest could be uncomfortable, it could also be liberating." And sure, Brecht's own writing was full of alienating breaks in the fourth wall, or jarring songs that pierced the somber "reality" being displayed, but that's never fully worked for me, which is why I struggle with people who are too wacky (Pynchon) or too technical (Melville). The "story" does pick up toward the end, veering toward personality with a pair of anecdotes about Laughton and a self-contained story at the very end: "He wasn't manic, and he wasn't methodical. And it wasn't exactly a role he was playing. A situation had presented itself and now he was starting again." For me, that's not nearly enough.

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