Throughout history there have been many trials where the individual has been taken to task by the status quo and told to recant. Whether the pretext has been ‘science versus religion’ or political conviction, the right to hold a different opinion from ‘the norm’ is put on trial, at the behest of those who are threatened by ‘freethinkers’. The trial of Galileo Galilei is one such example where the battle for empirical truth versus assumptions took place. But instead of this historical event being the sole focus of Wally Sewell’s play, it’s used as framing device for two famous – if disparate – individuals: the actor Charles Laughton (Edmund Dehn) and theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht (Peter Saracen).
We’re introduced to the pair in 1947, as they ‘explore’ the themes of the play in California during rehearsals. However, as their ‘conversation’ progresses, one wonders if Brecht is really cross-examining Laughton – a fact that doesn’t escape the actor.
This dichotomy between them manifests in a number of ways. As a theorist and practitioner of theatre, Brecht stressed using minimal sets, placards and numerous other devices to remind the audiences that what they’re watching isn’t ‘real’ – that they are watching ‘actors’. Dehn’s Laughton, in contrast, talks about “finding his character” – the quest for verisimilitude. And while Brechtian shows are meant to make their audiences uncomfortable and think (with remuneration a secondary consideration), Laughton here is shown to be a perennial presence on radio plays and movies, as well as traditional theatre. One gets the impression that Brecht is both envious and disdainful at Laughton’s ‘commercial success’, which has made him affluent and ‘comfortable’ during his long and varied career.
As they broach the subject of Galileo, the meta-aspects of his cross-examination surface: is the famed astronomer accused of being an “intellectual coward” for not being a ‘martyr for science’ (like John Thomas Scopes in the 1925 “monkey” trial in Tennessee)? Or is Brecht insinuating that Laughton’s not true to himself about his acting aspirations or his sexuality?
As we watch this, many questions come to mind. Firstly, there is a dissonance between the self-proclaimed “humility” Brecht himself professes versus his actions – in short, between Brecht the ‘myth’ and Brecht the ‘man’. If Brecht is ‘gaslighting’ Laughton – the ‘auteur’ projecting his own faults onto his ‘collaborator’ – will Laughton speak up or will he be too polite to say anything?
It is, however, in the third act when we see, without a doubt, Brecht’s ‘true self’ when later that year he’s brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for questioning about his political affiliations. Most tellingly, this period is when McCarthyism first gains traction in the public consciousness. The notion of who really ‘wrote’ Brecht’s plays is a double-edged sword for him here. With hindsight, we now know that much of his most famous works were written by his ‘female collective’ – former lovers whose life’s work were appropriated for Brecht’s use and accreditation. Of course his ego would never accept disclosing such information. But to admit total authorship in front of the HUAC risks charges of being a communist sympathiser and imprisonment…
In any case, Orbits shows that knowledge and insight that isn’t tempered by wisdom and empathy is empty, hollow. That at closer examination, people seldom live up to the ‘heroic’ expectations set by themselves and others. Even so, it is possible to have character. It’s just seldom found in people who think others have nothing to offer.
Orbits streams on https://www.onlinefringefestival.com/ until 24th May.
Donations are encouraged for all the shows to help fund the Festival and all of the participating artists. OFF only keeps 10% of any funds raised and the remaining 90% are split between the artists.
© Michael Davis 2020