Theatre department looks to the stars for International Year of Astronomy

- Adrienne Holierhoek

Galileo proposed that, “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”Dr. Jennifer Wise, theatre historian, playwright and professor in the Department of Theatre, has discovered some pretty unsettling truths about the famous Renaissance physicist, mathematician, philosopher and astronomer—unsettling enough to inspire her to write a new play, The Moons of Jupiter.

Last year, in anticipation of the International Year of Astronomy, a global celebration of the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first telescopic observations, Dr. Sara Ellison (physics and astronomy) approached the theatre department about making a contribution to this special event. Wise took up the challenge.

Researching the possibilities, she noted that there was a scarcity of great plays on astronomical themes. The best-known play on the subject, Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, was historically inaccurate in its representation of Galileo’s family members, particularly in its depiction of his daughters. Says Wise, “Galileo’s life is riddled with troubling questions—questions that cut to the very heart of his reputation as a scientist and a man.”

Galileo, working with descriptions of the telescope invented by Hans Lippershey, developed the telescope to reach 30x magnification and, in 1609, used it to investigate the planets and stars. One of his most important discoveries was that the planet Jupiter revolved while its satellite moons orbited around it. His findings supported—contrary to the Vatican’s interpretation of scripture at the time—the existing concept that Earth was not the centre of the universe and that it orbited around the sun. For this he was tried at the Inquisition, deemed “vehemently suspect of heresy,” and forced to recant to maintain his relationship with the church.

Wise found the dichotomy between the myth of the great scientist and the truth of his life and family fascinating. Known as the father of modern science, Galileo was also the father of three illegitimate children, Virginia, Livia and Vincenzio. Though he retained custody of them all, he chose not to marry their mother, a commoner below Galileo’s social standing and aspirations. He sent his daughters to live the entirety of their lives in a convent when they were only 12 and 13 years old, while enabling his son to enjoy all the privileges of liberty and a university education. Wise was inspired by the work of science writer Dava Sobel, who translated Virginia’s 124 surviving letters to her father. It is through these letters that scholars, and Wise, have attempted to fill in the details of Galileo’s personal life.

In her play The Moons of Jupiter, Wise portrays the family dynamics between Galileo and his children, while focusing on the lives of his two daughters in seclusion in the San Matteo Convent in Florence. Beginning with a comet that traverses the night sky in 1618, the play spans the years of Galileo’s altercations with Rome and his supposed imprisonment there.

“The members of his family revolve around Galileo like planets in a solar system, and it is through their stories that we can begin to understand this philosopher and astronomer’s entire life, not just his science,” says Wise. “I discovered, through the process of allowing these marginalized historical figures to speak, that Galileo’s family drama provides a surprisingly powerful tool for understanding his public life.”

In November, Dr. Sarah Blackstone, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, directed a three-week workshop process of this new play with students in the Department of Theatre, culminating in its first staged reading Nov. 25–28.

“As a collaborative project involving the playwright, director and students, we all learned a great deal in the process of making the script come alive,” says Blackstone. “The challenge has been to preserve Dr. Wise’s fascinating story while helping the author make necessary changes so that the play will work on the stage. For me, it was very nice to be able to set aside my administrative tasks for a time and engage in the creative process again.” Ellison has maintained her involvement in the project, acting as the science advisor to the play.

According to Jim Hesser, director of the National Research Council’s Astrophysical Dominion Observatory and the Canadian chair for the International Year of Astronomy, The Moons of Jupiter is the only new full-length play created in Canada in honour of the International Year of Astronomy.

In this story

Keywords: theatre, department, looks, stars

Related stories