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Historian scripts his own power play

Galileo and pope square off in Goodwin's debut

''Two Men of Florence'' pits faith against science in the persons of Pope Urban XIII (Edward Herrmann, left with Molly Schreiber) and Galileo Galilei (Jay O. Sanders, not pictured). It's the first play by historian, author, and presidential adviser Richard N. Goodwin. ''Two Men of Florence'' pits faith against science in the persons of Pope Urban XIII (Edward Herrmann, left with Molly Schreiber) and Galileo Galilei (Jay O. Sanders, not pictured). It's the first play by historian, author, and presidential adviser Richard N. Goodwin. (Photos by Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Megan Tench
Globe Staff / March 1, 2009
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"There's a big difference between writing for a president and writing a play," jokes Richard N. Goodwin. "The presidents can say, 'I won't say that.' The characters can't."

Goodwin knows exactly what he's talking about. For years he served as a speechwriter and adviser to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Robert Kennedy. He ate lunch with them, attended top-level meetings, and provided them with the stirring words to confront obstacles, push arguments, and ultimately guide the direction of the country.

Now he's guiding his first play to the stage at the Huntington Theatre Company, where it makes its US debut on Friday.

Leaning back in his chair at the Huntington's administrative offices, Goodwin, 77, reflects momentarily on the sweeping changes he has made to the play, formerly called "The Hinge of the World." The first thing that had to go was the title: It's now "Two Men of Florence."

"We thought it was a more attractive title," Goodwin says with a chuckle. " 'The Hinge of the World' - it was a little too abstract."

One character's role has been deepened and others shortened or cut altogether, but the core of the story remains the same: Two 17th-century icons, astronomer Galileo Galilei and Pope Urban VIII, square off in a battle of religion versus reason. Galileo, a devout Catholic, helps pry open the door to the Scientific Revolution, while the pope, bent on preserving the dominance of pure faith, tries to close it.

The play builds to an epic confrontation.

"You have two of the biggest egos of the 17th century do combat over a significant issue," says Goodwin, his eyes glinting. "It was a natural drama."

Goodwin, a Boston native whose long, dark, scraggly hair belies his age, has come a long way since his days fresh out of Harvard Law School, when he worked as a congressional investigator exposing fraud on the popular game show "Twenty One." A chapter in his memoir devoted to that period in his life led to the 1994 film "Quiz Show," in which he was portrayed by Rob Morrow.

"That was quite a time in my life," he says, nodding. "I went to law school and never practiced for a day. I guess I've always done whatever pleases myself."

Since leaving politics, Goodwin has had a distinguished career as a historian and author. One might think now would be as good a time as any for him to sit back and relax, perhaps on a beach with an umbrella drink in his hand. ("I like the beach and umbrella drinks, but I don't like doing nothing.") Instead he has launched a new career in playwriting with a tale that combines his impeccable knowledge of power - how it is gained and how it is used - with his gift for putting eloquent words in the mouths of others.

Six years ago, "The Hinge of the World" won critical acclaim in its world premiere at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, England. Goodwin and his wife, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, were thrilled.

"It was fabulous," she says, grinning at her husband's side. "It was a great experience. The reviews were terrific and the audience was there for it."

But the play hadn't been easy to write. It all started when Goodwin came across a brief mention of Galileo and the pope in a story he'd read. His wheels started turning. Goodwin, who lives with his wife in Concord, gathered all the reading materials about Galileo he could from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology library, where he was a visiting professor, and mastered the science involved. Studying science, he says, came naturally to him. But the character of the pope was harder to develop.

"It's not like the popes kept memoirs, or published their diaries," he says. "I had to be creative."

Then came the writing - the toughest thing, he says, he had to do.

"He had experience in the White House with people in confrontations," notes Kearns Goodwin, referring to the famous conflicts between Johnson and Robert Kennedy, particularly their heated battles over the Vietnam War. She prompts Goodwin, who chooses his words pensively and with care.

"I knew people could dislike each other. Betray each other and try to destroy each other," Goodwin chimes in. "But it was hard work. The reason the play is so difficult to write is because unlike in a novel or short story, you can't tell what people are thinking. You've got to make it happen on the stage. All the aspects of the character should be made visible to the audience, and that's not easy to do."

Goodwin came up with a cast of 23 characters and an explosive confrontation between Galileo, whose telescope observations verified Copernicus's theory that Earth revolves around the sun, and Urban VIII, who believed - as church doctrine then had it - that Earth was the center of the universe. Any disruption of that belief could destroy people's religious faith, the pope argued.

The disagreement led to Galileo's temporary exile from Rome, then a permanent house arrest.

"You do not deny God, Galileo," the pope says in Goodwin's play. "It is worse. You would make God unnecessary."

Evolution of a play
After the successful production in England, Goodwin shopped the play around the United States for a while and started helping Kearns Goodwin research her book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." At the same time, he and British director Edward Hall worked on revamping the play to eliminate distractions and capture a greater sense of the characters' humanity.

Goodwin relished tinkering with his creation, deleting a scene here, editing a word or two there. He still does it in rehearsals. "I'll tweak it until I'm dead," he says.

Together they expanded the role of Galileo's daughter Maria, a nun, and made her relationship with God and her father more intimate. Maria believes the fate of her soul rests on whether Galileo gives in to the pope.

"Unfortunately, in real life she was not an impressive person, so I had to make her into one," Goodwin says, laughing. "Chekhov says if you have a gun in the play for the first act, you better shoot it in the end. Once she was in there, you could have her very bland, but why have her in it at all? Plus, she's the only woman character. I think it was a big improvement." The pope's relationships with trusted advisers are also deepened, and the stakes for everyone are heightened.

"What we've got is a huge play that spans this huge sweep of history," says Hall by phone from the Huntington, where he's overseeing rehearsals. "It's better in every way. And this is one of the joys of developing a piece of work, especially when you have a chance to do it again. I think the play's finally landing as it should be. It's more focused. It's more moving, and intriguing and intellectually challenging."

Also significant is the set, which was stored in a warehouse six years ago at Goodwin's insistence and shipped over from England.

"It turns the BU Theatre into a planetarium," says Peter DuBois, the Huntington's artistic director. "You are brought into the world of his experiments."

New York theaters were probably afraid of this play, DuBois points out, because of its large scale and cast. It was physically ambitious and daunting, especially in an era when smaller is often perceived as better, or at least less costly. But the Huntington couldn't resist.

"It was an incredible point in history," he says. "It's about the battle between faith and science and its cost. How can we go about reconciling a belief in science and a belief in God?"

The stars align
The Huntington has also brought in two powerhouse actors for the production. Emmy Award winner Edward Herrmann, known for such films as "Intolerable Cruelty" and countless television dramas including "The Practice," plays Pope Urban VIII.

"I feel blessed," he says, "because, I must say, the wardrobe is spectacular."

Jay O. Sanders, who has recently appeared in the films "Revolutionary Road" and "Cadillac Records," plays Galileo.

"These are red-meat actors," says DuBois. "These actors can just tear into the material."

The two men, who both stand over 6 feet tall, have rich chemistry. They've worked with each other before, in the 1993 film "My Boyfriend's Back" and in several theatrical readings, so they know just how to dial up the tension.

"We are really simpatico," says Sanders. "We know how to go at each other. We have an agreed-upon fervor."

It's not every day that an actor is handed such a big play with such big ideas to sink his teeth into, Sanders adds. "I get to say things like, 'The moon. Full-bottomed Eve. Crafted by God as comfort to the fugitive earth. Let me see if I can peek beneath the hem of your borrowed radiance.' " Sanders recites the lines in a deep-throated voice. "It's as exciting as theater gets."

Sanders convinced Herrmann to join the production. He's glad he did; he feels passionate about the subject.

"It took 400 years for the pope to apologize," Herrmann says exasperatedly, referring to the year 2000, when Pope John Paul II apologized for the way the church treated Galileo.

Most of all, Herrmann enjoys working with Goodwin.

"It's a wonder talking to him," he says. "It's like talking to a history book. He and his wife, they are just fascinating people."

Megan Tench can be reached at mtench@globe.com

TWO MEN OF FLORENCE Presented by Huntington Theatre Company Friday through April 5 at the Boston University Theatre. Tickets: $20-$82.50. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org.

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