Emeritus professor brings Galileo to the stage

Bela Sandor's play gets a public reading Dec. 18

Bela Sandor, an expert on how things break, has recently been working to put something together.

First it was a story and characters on a page. This month, it moves to the stage, with actors reading before an audience.

Sandor, a University of Wisconsin–Madison emeritus professor of engineering mechanics, and a novice playwright at 82, is tackling Galileo, a towering figure in the history of science.

All I can say is I’m not surprised.

This is someone who was swimming laps at a YMCA in Door County 15 years ago when a lifeguard said, “Why don’t you join our Masters group?”

A few years later, Sandor became the 65- to 69-year-old 100-meter breaststroke national championship in a pool in Indianapolis.

When I first met Sandor, five years ago, he was participating in a public television “NOVA” documentary about ancient Egyptian chariots.

They’d been portrayed—think Charlton Heston in “Ben Hur”—as big and clunky and ready to have a wheel fall off at any moment. Sandor—an expert in the fatigue and fracture of structural material—had studied them, and knew they were, in fact, sleek and fast.

“What did the movie get wrong?” I asked.

“Almost everything,” Sandor said.

At 7 p.m. on Dec. 18 at the Lowell Center on campus, the Madison writers group Playwrights Ink is presenting a reading of “Leo-Leo Galileo,” Sandor’s historically-inspired play that traces the scientist’s intersection with two Roman Catholic Cardinals vying to be Pope. The reading is free and open to the public, though registration—call 608-262-0641—is encouraged.

Among the attractions is the casting of Barry Levenson, famed mustard museum impresario, as Pope Urban VIII.

“I’ve been interested in Galileo since I was in high school,” Sandor told me last week.

That would have been in Hungary, from where Sandor emigrated in 1956, age 21.

It was in a refugee camp in New Jersey that Sandor—who arrived in New York harbor with little money and less English—heard about scholarship money available at the University of Illinois. He had never heard of Illinois, but he got on a train. In Champaign he learned English, swam varsity and studied engineering mechanics.

He earned a doctorate in 1968, and was hired by UW–Madison.

Sandor enjoyed teaching, but the classroom could not contain him. His interests include sculpture, ballet, poetry and literature. He and his wife, Ruth, have a home in Door County and spend half the year there. Sandor made a friend of Norb Blei, the late bard of Door County.

He has also taken writing labs and workshops with two Door County theater companies, Third Avenue Playhouse (thirdavenueplayhouse.com) and Isadoora Theatre Company (isadoora.com).

Sandor’s Galileo play started taking shape in Door County in the late summer/early fall of 2016. When he returned to Madison, he sought assistance from Laura Farrell-Wortman, a UW–Madison doctoral student who founded a drop-in service on campus to help playwrights develop their ideas.

“She was willing to help me and gave me very good advice,” Sandor says.

Farrell-Wortman encouraged Sandor to join Playwrights Ink, a Madison writers group with over 200 members.

Once they decided to present a reading of “Leo-Leo Galileo” and Sandor mentioned it in his wide circle, other groups got on board, so the UW–Madison Retirement Association, the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters and the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy are all cooperating in the Dec. 18 presentation.

Sandor is excited for the reading. “I love to hear different interpretations of my words and concepts,” he says.

It promises significant drama. When the Pope was a Cardinal, he and Galileo were close. As Pope, their agendas diverged, with the scientist’s theories and discoveries challenging church dogma. The Pope puts Galileo under house arrest.

“Just like [being buried] alive for a person like that,” Sandor says.

The playwright says “Leo-Leo Galileo” includes, at the end, “an enormous, explosive twist.”

And while Sandor would love to see his play actually performed on stage, he says a reading, in some ways, can be more engaging. “It forces people to use their imaginations.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.

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