The plays discussed in previous posts, Gunpowder Man, Friendly Fire, and Dust Storm all revolve around conflict between the dominant culture and ethnic groups. As do Corrido de un Sobreviviente, The Stephen Hill Affair, The Great Blight and to some extent the longer Uncle Sam’s Fandango which I’ll discuss in the future. Also, in the future I’ll discuss Women of the Bear which dramatizes the conditions of three women – from three different social classes – dealing with their positions in the chaotic world of the Gold Rush.
But social conflict can erupt entirely within a culture. All three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are rife with internal conflicts. The competing sects are usually defined by differing beliefs regarding doctrine. So we have Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. We have a dizzying multitude of Christian sects each defined by doctrinal choices that were heresy to the dominant group. This was no laughing matter. Wars were fought, heretics were burned, and witches hanged over questions like: “Is communion wine a symbol of the blood of Christ or has it been transformed by God into the actual blood of Christ?” And Islam, in this century, is still riven by the split between Sunni and Shia more than thirteen hundred years ago.
So religious differences have long been the source of bloody conflicts within a particular ethnic group. This continues to this day as the Sunni-Shia conflict reminds us almost daily. Nor is America immune from such violence. For example, the terrorist acts committed against birth-control clinics.
About four hundred years ago scientists entered this catalog of combatants. Galileo and Johannes Kepler, the two greatest scientists of their time, were quarrelsome and had large egos but they were not violent, nor were their supporters. However, the various religious leaders that held sway in different parts of Europe were much disturbed by their scientific theories and did their best to root them out by whatever means. Kepler was a devout Lutheran but was denied communion on his deathbed because his scientific mind had concluded that the communion wine was a symbol of Christ’s blood and not the blood itself. Galileo, a devout Catholic, was tried by the Holy Inquisition because he had demonstrated Copernicus’ hypothesis that the earth revolves around the sun; he saved his life by recanting his “error” but still spent his last years under house arrest. At issue was the scriptural insistence that the Earth was designated the center of the universe by God and to deny this “fact” was to deny God.
Religious people may call scientists “unbelievers.” But scientists do all share a belief that the material universe always behaves according to “laws of nature” and is not altered by the intervention of supernatural forces. For example there are laws of motion defined by Galileo, then refined by Newton, then refined still more precisely by Einstein. These laws can be verified by anyone who measures things carefully enough. The current formulations of the laws are not sacred. Quite the opposite. Everyone is invited to create situations, experiments, in which the laws do not predict the behavior of a material object. If this experiment can be repeated over and over, then the law in question must be revisited and revised. That is how we got from Galileo to Einstein and beyond.
This process of proposing laws, discovering where they don’t quite apply, and then revising the law to cover the new evidence is called the Scientific Method. The progress of science is based upon the falsification of existing laws.
Each of the short Duende plays dramatizes the actions of a central character as he or she either accepts or rejects the implications of changes taking place in his or her world. The question is always, does a change of the facts give birth to a change of mind?
The Starry Messenger, unlike most of its predecessors, has a fanciful premise and is a comedy. It’s set in a school auditorium. A nun pushes a wheelchair on stage. In the chair is a lump covered with a large cloth. The nun, Maria Celeste, explains that she is the daughter of Galileo Galilei. Her father died in 1642 in a state of despair, believing that the Church had destroyed his life work. His afterlife has been utterly depressed because he believes that his major discoveries were lost to the world and his name forgotten. Maria Celeste exhorts the audience to join her in chanting “The Earth moves round the Sun” over and over again until they get through to her father. He erupts from his stupor and leaps from the wheelchair joyfully convinced that he has heard a chorus of angels confirming his key discoveries about the solar system. When she points out the audience of young people he is even happier. “They’re angels to me!” he says.
She then draws him out to recount many lively anecdotes that show his passion for close observation of the way matter behaves, changing his mind to accord with the facts, often gleefully falsifying the writings of Aristotle which the Church accepts as Gospel truth. The historic Galileo was not a man to back away from any argument, so he quickly drew the attention of many enemies from the ranks of philosophers and theologians. These foes would eventually engineer his arrest, trial, imprisonment, and the banning of all his writing.
Galileo is shown as a hero of science but not a saint and not always right. Indeed he is still clinging to some of his favorite theories (his conviction that the earth moves round the sun in a perfect circle, or his cumbersome theory of the tides, developed before Newton’s laws of gravity) that are patently untrue. Maria Celeste, who is up on 21st century science but also the soul of tact in managing her difficult dad, gets a great deal of pleasure dangling modern concepts in front of him, enticing him via his bottomless curiosity to let go of his disproven theories and to throw himself into catching up with what’s been discovered in the last four centuries.
A happy ending, one that is earned by dramatizing the personal joys of discovery through carefully establishing the facts, the social peril when these facts are a threat to the establishment, and the hopeful thought that the scientific method will eventually win the hearts and minds of all the world.
I wrote The Starry Messenger in 2005 for my Duende co-founder Tom Maguire. It was then produced at California Stage in Sacramento with the late Mitch Agruss, and also at the Upstream Theater in St. Louis, and at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I fear that the play may be more topical now than it was twelve years ago.