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Johannes Kepler was a 17th century scientist, astronomer, mathematician, mystic, and science-fiction writer. His quixotic search for the music and harmony of spheres led him to discover the laws of planetary motion on which Newton based the law of gravity.
Kepler was ahead of his times in many ways. He propounded the heliocentric theory of our planetary system, intuited the influence of the sun and moon on the tides, postulated gravity, and came very close to discovering its law. His science fiction book, The Dream, became the foundation of man’s twentieth century flight to the moon.
Kepler’s discoveries, in conjunction with those of Copernicus and Galileo, unseated humankind from its central position in the scheme of things, and reduced to rubble the medieval moral and world order. Kepler, however, kept insisting, contrary to all sensible evidence, on the importance of man and of the perceiver in any perception of the universe. Modern physics now confirms Kepler’s intuition.
Kepler insisted that scientists were the Priests of the Book of Nature, that theirs was the task to discover the secrets of nature and also, in the face of the crumbling of organized religious institutions, to interpret them. Kepler had not intended to be an astronomer, but a priest. He was preparing to be ordained for priesthood in the Lutheran Church when his liberal beliefs got him into trouble with the pandits of his religion. He was maneuvered out of the church and into teaching. He saw how it was precisely man’s abdication of his rational faculties in order to belong, for security’s sake, to religions that demand unthinking allegiance, that was at the root of schisms that cause strife. Kepler’s mother’s witch trial, set in the context of the Thirty Years War, which witnessed a collective expression of intolerance, blood and war, gave him further fodder to contemplate.
Kepler believed that in one’s attempt to discover the roots of evil and war, one must begin by exploring one’s own inner processes. Ruthless in his observations of his own thoughts, he exhorted people in the calendars that he wrote and circulated to a more philosophic life of attention and awareness. He proved, by his own life, that reason was not only compatible with faith, but imperative for it. Though his primary impulse was to discover the harmony underlying the apparent chaos of nature, he was equally passionate in his quest, which often appeared chimerical, to lead humankind from strife and war to love and peace.
Considering that our own times do not manifest any more the triumph of reason than the 17th century, Kepler’s message is as much relevant today as ever. Like Don Quixote, Kepler, too, belongs to that breed of mankind called holy fools, whose burden it is to keep the torch of dream and vision alight.
As the play opens, Harold, a playwright and actor, is preparing to kill himself on the stage. He is stopped from pulling the trigger by the entry of a character who asks for an explanation for this act. Harold, impatient with the interruption, is persuaded to divulge the reason for his intended suicide: he has seen through his life-long delusion that he is an ingenious and imaginative playwright and actor. He is in despair that he is getting no roles, and his plays are not being produced. He chooses the theatre for his histrionic suicide because he sees the stage as an extended metaphor for the illusion that life has become for him: unreal, like the action, events and characters in a play.
The stranger claims to be the main character of the play Harold has been trying to write: Johannes Kepler. Kepler, a dreamer who has spent his entire lifetime in imagination’s realms, but who condescended to the ‘real’ world of science, of facts and figures to validate his theory of the harmony of the universe, explains that he, too, had wanted to write and act in plays in his youth; he too had often despaired that his dream about reaching the moon was just a fiction. He talks Harold into postponing his suicide long enough to perform the play in which he (Harold) acts the central character of his own play: i.e., Johannes Kepler.
The events of the play demonstrate to Harold the power of illusion to generate and create truth. At the end of the play the identification of Harold with Kepler is complete. Just as Kepler, in the play within the play, returns to his manuscript of The Dream (in which he is working out, far ahead of his times, a journey to the moon), Harold, infused with hope and renewed with a greater understanding of the power of illusion, returns to play writing.
Conflict: Harold and Kepler embody respectively the mechanist and vitalist perceptions of the universe. The conflict between them represents the conflict between reality/illusion, despair/ hope, faith/angst, male/female: in short, dualism itself.
Characters: In addition to Harold and Kepler, there are two women in the play: Katherina, Kepler’s mother, who was tried as a witch, and Barbara, Kepler’s half-crazy wife. Two other actors do the roles of Tycho Brahe, the colorful and eccentric Danish scientist whose data formed the basis for Kepler’s discoveries, and some other characters.
The intensity Kepler’s contradictions made him a powerful character. In him a poetic and scientific apprehension of nature, considered to be mutually exclusive ways of perception, met and reconciled. He was at once a scientist and an artist, a genius and a holy fool, a donkey and Pegasus, a brilliant bumbler whose mad flights produce tangible fruits for science and mankind. His illusions spawn truth, and facts in his hands take wings.
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