The Good Person of Szechwan
BERTOLT BRECHT 1943
Bertolt Brecht’s parable The Good Person of Szechwan is one of the playwright’s major plays, popular and regularly produced because of its universal themes. Many critics believe the play is one of the best examples of Brecht’s epic theater because it challenges the audience. Although Brecht worked on the idea behind the play as early as the late 1920s, it was primarily written from 1939-43 in various European countries and the United States while in exile from his native Germany during World War II. Brecht tried to get Good Person produced in the United States in 1941, but the play did not make its debut until February 4, 1943, at the Schauspielhaus Zurich, in Zurich, Switzerland. The play was produced throughout Europe in the 1940s. The first English-language production of The Good Person of Szechwan in the United States took place in either Cleveland’s Eldred Theater or Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1948. Many American colleges and universities put on the play after this date. The Good Person of Szechwan was first produced professionally in New York City in late 1956, shortly after Brecht’s death.
The play has continued to be performed throughout the world to the present day, in part because it seems to be a modern parable about a basic human issue: how to be a good person in an imperfect, money-centered, class-divided society. Because of this focus, the play does not seem to be intended to be a reflection of the actual social, cultural and political life in China at that time, although the play Page 170 | Top of Articleuses some conventions of Chinese theater and is set in China. Brecht’s original setting for the play was Berlin, and some recent productions have adapted the story to reflect the time and location of production. As John Fuegi wrote in The Essential Brecht, “The profound metaphysical question of why evil is permitted, indeed encouraged, in the world has seldom been asked with such force.”
Bertolt Brecht was born on February 10, 1898, in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany. He was the son of a Catholic father, Friedrich Brecht, who worked as a salesman for a paper factory, and a Protestant mother, Sofie. Brecht grew up in a middle-class household, and was precociously intelligent in school. He began writing poems while still in secondary school and had several published by 1914. By the time Brecht graduated, he was also interested in the theatre. Instead of continuing on this path, however, he studied science and medicine at university to avoid the draft. It did not work, and he was drafted in 1918 at the end of World War I. He served as an orderly in the military hospital in Augsburg.
Both his upbringing and his experience in the military profoundly affected Brecht and his writing. He rejected the bourgeois values of his youth, and had a keen understanding of the differences between Catholics and Protestants. The turmoil of war that Brecht saw in the hospital led to his life-long pacifist views. He began writing plays as early as 1918 (Baal) and joined communist organizations in 1919. After finally giving up his sporadic university studies, Brecht became the dramaturge at a theater in Munich and was writing full time by 1920.
Over the next 13 years, Brecht published several short stories and poems, and successfully staged many of his own plays. Brecht collaborated with composer Kurt Weill on several musical plays, including one of his best known works, 1928’s The Three Penny Opera. By 1930 Brecht’s plays had become increasingly political, espousing his belief that communism would solve many of the world’s problems. When the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, Brecht and his works were banned. Brecht and his family fled the increasingly hostile environment in 1933 and went into exile for the next fifteen years.
During his exile, Brecht lived in the United States and in various countries in Europe and continued to write. In addition to a novelization of The Three Penny Opera, Brecht composed numerous plays that were critical of the Nazi regime and the world’s political situation. Though he began The Good Person of Szechwan as early as 1928, Brecht completed it in exile between 1939 and 1943, when it was first produced. Though The Good Person of Szechwan was not as overtly political as Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), Brecht hoped it would be produced in the United States.
After the war ended and Germany was divided into East and West, Brecht was invited home. He decided to settle in East Germany, in part because they offered him a theater and funding. Brecht formed the Berliner Ensemble, which debuted in 1949. That same year Brecht wrote his last original play, The Days of the Commune, as he devoted all his time to running the theater and working as its stage manager. He continued to write poetry and adapt other playwrights’ work for his theater, however. By the mid-1950s, the importance of Brecht’s plays had been realized and they became popularly recognized. Brecht died as a result of a coronary thrombosis on August 14, 1956, in East Berlin.
Wang, an impoverished water seller, tries to find lodging for three prominent gods, who have come to Earth to find good people. Wang’s request is refused by everyone. Wang himself lives under a bridge and has no home to offer. He finally asks the town’s prostitute, Shen Teh, who agrees to take them in. The next morning, Shen Teh tells the gods that she cannot make a living though she tries to be good. The gods decide to pay her for lodgings when they leave.
Shen Teh uses the gods’ payment of a thousand silver dollars to buy a small tobacconist business. She hopes to do good through her shop, but people start to take advantage of her. The former owner, Mrs. Shin, begs for rice and money. An elderly couple, who were the first people to take Shen Teh in when she moved to the city but who evicted her when she had no money, ask for shelter for themselves and six relatives. The elderly couple criticize Page 171 | Top of ArticleShen Teh for being too nice. They tell her she should put people off by saying a relative actually owns the store. She is forced to use this excuse several times, including when the landlady, Mrs. Mi Tzu, demands six months rent in advance. The elderly couple’s relatives convince the landlady that Shen Teh’s cousin, Shui Ta, is really in charge. The elderly couple believe that Shen Teh will soon be out of business, but they continue to take advantage of her hospitality. Shen Teh is worried that she will lose her shop.
The gods charge Wang with looking after Shen Teh and informing them of her progress.
In the morning, the elderly couple’s family wonders where Shen Teh is. In her absence, her cousin, Shui Ta, enters with a carpenter. Shui Ta says that Shen Teh will not be coming back and demands that they leave. Shui Ta disposes of several business matters and has the elderly couple’s family arrested. When Shui Ta cannot convince the landlady to exempt Shen Teh from paying six months’ rent in advance, a policeman suggests that Shen Teh marry to raise capital for the shop. A personal ad is composed to attract someone appropriate.
In a public park, Shen Teh comes upon a young pilot, Yang Sun, preparing to hang himself. It starts to rain, and Sun and Shen Teh seek shelter together. Sun reveals that he cannot find a job, while Shen Teh reveals she has worked as a prostitute. Sun begins to appreciate Shen Teh, but he tells her that he could never love her.
The gods visit Wang for a progress report. Wang tells them that Shen Teh is in love with Sun, and has remained good. Wang mentions that Shui Ta has been uncharitable, and the gods are not pleased with the cousin’s actions.
Several people whom Shen Teh has helped wait for her outside her shop. Shen Teh had spent the night with Sun and forgotten that she needs to pay the rent on her shop. A carpet dealer and his wife lend her the 200 silver dollars that she needs. When
she leaves the carpet dealer’s shop, Wang shows her his hand, which has been broken by the rich barber, Shu Fu. Though there are many witnesses to Shu Fu’s crime, none will corroborate Wang’s story. Shen Teh becomes angry at those waiting and tells them to leave. Sun’s mother, Mrs. Yang, approaches her, because Sun needs 500 silver dollars to get a pilot’s job. Shen Teh immediately gives her the 200 silver dollars that the carpet dealer gave her, and pledges to get the rest.
Shen Teh reveals that she is really Shui Ta.
Shui Ta is running the shop when Yang Sun shows up. The young pilot wants the remaining 300 silver dollars so he can get his job. Yang Sun even says that he will marry Shen Teh. Shui Ta suggests that he give back the 200 silver dollars and help Shen Teh run the tobacconist business, but Sun insists that they sell the shop for 300 silver dollars instead. Shui Ta agrees until Sun reveals that he intends to leave Shen Teh behind with nothing to live on when he goes to his job. Shui Ta asks for the 200 silver dollars back, but Sun refuses. Shui Ta realizes that Sun does not love Shen Teh.
Mrs. Shin brings the barber, Shu Fu, to the shop. Shu Fu has been admiring Shen Teh and offers the use of some empty buildings to house her homeless guests. When Wang and a police officer enter the shop, Shui Ta denies that Shen Teh witnessed the crippling of Wang. After they leave, Shui Ta tells Shu Fu that Shen Teh is no longer involved with Sun, and will be gone for a few weeks. Then Shui Ta goes into the back room. Shu Fu makes it known that he wants to become involved with Shen Teh, and when Yang appears at the shop, the barber informs him that he (Shu Fu) and Shen Teh will be married. But when Shen Teh emerges from the back room, Yang Sun manages to talk himself back into her affections, and Shen Teh admits she loves him, not the barber.
Shen Teh is in her wedding dress. She tells the audience that the carpet dealer is ill, and his wife desperately needs the money back. Shen Teh loves Yang Sun, who now has the money, but is torn over what to do.
At the wedding, Yang Sun complains to his mother that Shen Teh has asked for the 200 silver dollars back. Mrs. Yang assures him that she has sent for Shui Ta. Shen Teh believes all is well until she realizes that Yang Sun and his mother are holding the wedding up for Shui Ta. Yang Sun does not have the 200 silver dollars she asked for, and he is angry that Shui Ta will not be bringing the 300 silver dollars. Shui Ta never comes and the couple do not marry.
The gods appear to Wang in a dream. Wang is worried that Shen Teh has lost love because she tried to be good, but the gods dismiss his concerns, believing that goodness will win out.
Shen Teh prepares to sell her business so she can pay back the carpet dealer. Shu Fu offers Shen Teh a blank check so she can stay in business, but Shen Teh refuses to use it. Shen Teh reveals that she is pregnant, and worries about her child’s future. Still, Shen Teh gives Wang her cart, one of the last things she owns, so that he can sell it and go to the doctor.
Some members of the elderly couple’s family ask if they can leave some ill-gotten tobacco in her back room. Shen Teh agrees. Later Shen Teh decides that if her child is to survive, she will have to become Shui Ta again. Shui Ta, her alter ego, takes charge of the situation, and puts an end to Shen Teh’s charity. He decides to open a tobacco factory, using the elderly couple’s tobacco for stock and the homeless guests as workers. Shui Ta uses the blank check to save the business.
Wang tells the gods that he has seen Shen Teh in distress in a dream, but the gods are not sympathetic.
Shui Ta’s tobacco factory is thriving. Mrs. Yang tells the audience how Shui Ta saved her son, giving Sun a job in the factory and deducting the 200 silver dollars still owed to Shen Teh from wages. Although Sun does not like the work at first, he excels and eventually becomes the overseer.
Still running Shen Teh’s shop, Shui Ta is very fat because of Shen Teh’s pregnancy. Shui Ta/Shen Teh has repaid the carpet dealer and his wife, although they have already lost their shop. Mrs. Shin now knows that Shui Ta is Shen Teh. Sun enters, commenting on how moody Shui Ta has been, tries to get Shui Ta to talk about business, but is put off. Wang enters, asking about Shen Teh’s whereabouts, because he is worried that she has met with an ill fate. When Wang inadvertently reveals to Sun that Shen Teh is pregnant, Sun becomes angry. Shui Ta has gone into the back room and cries like a girl. Sun overhears the weeping, believes that Shui Ta is holding Shen Teh prisoner in the backroom. The police come and arrest Shui Ta.
Wang tells the gods that Shen Teh is gone, and her cousin has been arrested. They decide to intervene.
Inside the courtroom, the three gods oversee Shui Ta’s hearing. Everyone in attendance believes Shui Ta will get off because he is well-connected. All present tell the gods about how good Shen Teh is. While several people claim Shui Ta is a good and honorable businessman, most say he has ruined them. The merits of Shui Ta and Shen Teh are Page 173 | Top of Articledebated by all whose lives have been touched by them. Shui Ta decides to confess, but only if the courtroom is emptied of everyone but the gods. When they are alone, Shen Teh takes off the masks and clothing that makes her Shui Ta. She explains to them how hard it was to survive as Shen Teh because everyone took advantage of her. The gods are not sympathetic, and wish her luck as they return to heaven. They tell her if she is good, all will turn out well. Shen Teh is left to go on alone.
A player appears in front of the curtain and apologizes to the audience that the ending is not neat and tidy.
The Carpet dealer and his wife
The Carpet dealer and his wife run a shop near Shen Teh’s tobacco shop. When Shen Teh is joyous because of her relationship with Yang Sun, she buys a shawl from their shop. The couple is supportive of Shen Teh, and when they learn, she does not have enough money to pay her rent, they lend her the funds. This loan becomes problematic for Shen Teh. She does not pay them back until after the carpet dealer has fallen ill, and the couple loses their shop when they cannot pay their taxes. Like many of the people who meet them both, they appreciate what Shen Teh has done, and are afraid of Shui Ta.
The elderly couple were Shen Teh’s first landlords when she moved to the city from the countryside. They made her leave when she ran out of money. However, as soon as Shen Teh opens her tobacco shop, they appear at her door with six relatives and demand lodging. They take advantage of Shen Teh’s generosity, though they also try to protect her. When creditors and beggars come into her shop, it is they who suggest making up a relative so that Shen Teh can put them off. Their suggestion leads to Shen Teh creating her “cousin,” Shui Ta. Shui Ta later has them and their family arrested, and puts some of their family to work in her tobacco factory. For the most part, the elderly couple only likes Shen Teh because they benefit from her kindness, and dislike Shui Ta because he is tough on them.
Shu Fu is a wealthy barber who runs a shop near Shen Teh’s tobacco business. Shu Fu has both good and bad points. He attacks Wang with curling tongs, breaking his hand. Shu Fu does nothing to help the man he injured. On the other hand, Shu Fu is enamored by Shen Teh. He donates several buildings on his property to her so that she can house the homeless. He offers to marry her to save her business, though she ultimately declines. Shu Fu suffers at the hands of Shui Ta, however. When Shu Fu gives Shen Teh a blank check, Shui Ta takes advantage of the situation and writes in 10,000 silver dollars. Shui Ta turns the buildings Shu Fu donated into his tobacco factory. Ultimately, Shu Fu is a businessman, and as such, he is more like Shui Ta than Shen Teh would have liked.
See Elderly couple
Mrs. Shin is the woman from whom Shen Teh buys her tobacco shop. The sale makes Shin a pauper, and she demands rice and money from the prostitute. Shin is not fond of Shui Ta, and seems to like Shen Teh more after meeting him. Though Shin takes advantage of Shen Teh’s goodness, Shin becomes Shui Ta/Shen Teh’s confident. Shin she figures out that they are the same person and that Shen Teh is pregnant. Shin keeps this secret as well.
Yang Sun is an unemployed pilot with whom Shen Teh falls in love. Yang Sun uses her feelings to better his own situation: he never really seems to love her, though he impregnates her. When Yang Sun needs 500 silver dollars to obtain a pilot’s job, he convinces Shen Teh to give him the 200 silver dollars she just obtained from the carpet-dealer and his wife. He almost persuades her to sell her shop to get the other 300 silver dollars. However, Shui Ta learns that Yang Sun plans to leave her behind when he takes the job and does not really love her. Though Shen Teh still loves him and tries to marry him, the event is never consummated because Yang Sun and his mother only want the 300 silver dollars. Yang Sun eventually goes to work for Shui Ta to pay back the 200 silver dollars he owes Shen Teh, and thrives under the ruthless businessman. At the end of the play, he does seem to have some feelings for Shen Teh. When he believes Shui Ta has somehow hurt her, he gets the police to arrest him. Yet Sun stands Page 174 | Top of Articleup for Shui Ta in court. Yang Sun is only concerned with survival at any cost, and uses anyone he has to.
Shui Ta is the male persona Shen Teh takes on when she needs to be a tough businessman. Ostensibly her cousin, Shui Ta stands up to those Shen Teh cannot. He tells the carpenter, Lin To, that he will only pay 20 silver dollars for his shelving and fixtures instead of the 100 that Lin To demands. Shui Ta gets rid of the elderly couple and their relatives when they take too much advantage of her. As Good Person goes on, Shui Ta stays for longer and longer periods of time. After Shen Teh discovers she is pregnant, she becomes concerned with her child’s survival and Shui Ta makes an extended appearance. He turns Shen Teh’s charity into a business, a tobacco factory, and employs all those who Shen Teh helped for free before. Shui Ta is not without a heart however. He finally repays the 200 silver dollars Shen Teh borrowed from the carpet-dealer and his wife, though the couple has lost their business by that point. After Shui Ta is arrested for Shen Teh’s disappearance and appears in court, it seems this persona will not be used by Shen Teh in the future.
Shen Teh is the good woman (person) that the title refers to. She is a prostitute who give the gods lodging in her home when no one else will. Shen Teh gives up a job that would pay her much needed money. When the gods leave the next morning, Shen Teh tells them that it is hard to be good when poor. They give her a thousand silver dollars. She uses the money to buy a tobacco shop. As soon as she does, many people take advantage of her kind nature. Though she gives rice to people like Mrs. Shin, the woman also demands money. To save herself, Shen Teh invents a cousin, Shui Ta, who is a hard-nosed businessman. As the play progresses, she finds herself slipping into this persona more often and for longer periods of time.
In the second half of the play, one reason Shen Teh feels she has to be Shui Ta is because of her troubled relationship with Yang Sun. She is in love with him, but he is mostly using her. They do not marry because Shui Ta does not come to their wedding and pay out 300 silver dollars. Shen Teh also becomes pregnant by Yang Sun, and feels she must provide for her child. The only way to do this is to be Shui Ta. At the end of the play, many people she has helped wonder where she has gone to. To that end, Shui Ta is arrested. Before the gods, who act as magistrates in the court, Shen Teh admits she is Shui Ta, and tells them it is next to impossible to be good and survive. The gods are happy that she is still good, but provide no solutions to her problems. Shen Teh is again alone and has to find her own way in the world.
Lin To is the carpenter who built the shelving and fixtures in Shen Teh’s tobacco store. Though he built this woodwork for the previous owner, Lin To claims Shen Teh owes him 100 silver dollars for the work. Shen Teh does not have the money, and it is only when she becomes Shui Ta that she can force a lesser fee on him. This leads to bankruptcy for the carpenter, Lin To and his family move into the buildings that Shu Fu donates to Shen Teh, and later works for Shui Ta in his tobacco factory.
Mrs. Mi Tzu
Mrs. Mi Tzu is the owner of the building which houses Shen Teh’s tobacco shop. The landlady demands six months of rent (200 silver dollars) in advance when she learns of Shen Teh’s reputation. This is another factor in the creation of the Shui Ta persona, though Shui Ta cannot talk Mi Tzu out of the price. At one point, Shui Ta considers selling the shop’s stock to Mi Tzu so that Yang Sun can get his job, but it is then that Shui Ta learns that Yang Sun does not really love Shen Teh. Later, Shui Ta makes a deal with her to rent workshops and expand the tobacco factory. Mi Tzu is one of the only characters to stand up for Shui Ta in court at the end of the play.
Wang is the impoverished water seller who helps the gods when they first arrive in the city. Realizing their importance, he goes from house to house, person to person, trying to find them lodging for the night. Wang finally leads them to Shen Teh, who takes them in. After the gods leave, they tell Wang to report Shen Teh’s progress to them. Wang visits Shen Teh regularly, and like many characters, likes her very much and dislikes her cousin, Shui Ta. When Wang’s hand is broken by Shu Fu, the barber, Shen Teh is the only one to stand up for him, even though she would perjure herself. Shui Ta will Page 175 | Top of Articlenot do it for him. Later Shen Teh gives him her cart to sell so that he can go to a doctor. Wang is one of the characters who gets the police when Shen Teh is gone for a long time. He tells the gods that Shen Teh may have been killed by Shui Ta, ensuring the gods will finally come back to check on her.
See Elderly couple
Mrs. Yang is the mother of Yang Sun. She is the one who originally asks Shen Teh for the 200 silver dollars so that he can obtain his pilot job. Though she is not impoverished, she takes advantage of Shen Teh as well, though always for her son’s benefit. Mrs. Yang prefers Shui Ta to Shen Teh. She holds up her son’s wedding waiting for Shen Teh’s cousin to arrive. When he does not, the wedding does not happen. Later, Mrs. Yang believes that Shui Ta saves her son when he hires Yang Sun to work in the factory. Mrs. Yang champions Shui Ta to the very end of the play.
The three gods are prominent gods who have come to earth to find at least one good person, otherwise the world will not go on as it is. Their quest has led them to this city, the capital of Szechwan. Here, Wang finds them a good person, Shen Teh, who is only one to offer them lodging in her home for a night. They give Shen Teh a thousand silver dollars so that she can continue to do good. After they leave the city, they continue on their quest, but to no avail. They monitor Shen Teh’s progress via Wang, but refuse to help her when times get tough. At the end of the play, they serve as magistrates in Shui Ta’s hearing over Shen Teh’s disappearance. Though Shen Teh tells them how hard it is to be good, they leave her and the earth, content that she is trying. They offer no solutions to her problems.
Success and Failure
Shen Teh wants to succeed at being a good person. The gods give her 1000 silver dollars, and
she buys a small tobacco shop with it. Shen Teh hopes to help others through the shop by spending profits on such things as food for the hungry. But most of the people whom she is trying to help take advantage of her generosity. They want food, money, shelter, and constant service. Many of them do not care that their demands are causing the business to fail; they are only concerned with their short-term gain. Shen Teh finds it difficult to succeed at being a good person under these frustrating conditions.
To ensure the success of her business and to secure some hope of being able to do good, Shen Teh invents a male persona, a cousin named Shui Ta. Shui Ta is unlike Shen Teh, less compassionate and more ruthless or hard-nosed. He kicks out the elderly couple’s family who have been imposing themselves on her. He does not support Wang’s claim against Shu Fu. He becomes a successful businessman by taking advantage of others. For example, he appropriates tobacco belonging to the elderly couple’s relatives in order to start his tobacco factory business. However, Shui Ta does do Page 176 | Top of Articlesome good. For example, he employs the previously jobless relatives of the elderly couple, albeit in unfavorable working conditions. By scene nine, in Shen Teh’s absence, Shui Ta has paid her debts (to the carpet dealer and his wife) and has put out rice for the hungry, as Shen Teh used to do.
At the end of the play, Shen Teh is left to ponder whether being a successful business owner can succeed at being good as well.
When the gods leave Shen Teh with 1000 silver dollars, they inadvertently create an identity crisis for her. At the beginning of the play, she is simply a local prostitute who is nice enough to turn down business so that the gods have a place to stay for the night. But after she receives money so that she can continue to do good, Shen Teh’s identity changes. She is now a local businesswoman and a source of charity. She becomes known as the “Angel of the Slums” for her good deeds. The shift in identity brings a shift in expectations. Many of the poor make demands on her—from her old landlords, the elderly couple, and their extended family asking for shelter to the landlady, Mrs. Mi Tzu, who wants six months rent in advance. They nearly drive her into bankruptcy. Even the man she loves, the pilot Yang Sun, wants her money so that he can take a job as a pilot. Yang Sun does not care if she loses her business in the process, and Shen Teh is so in love with him that she almost gives the shop up for him. The only way to preserve her charitable ambitions and her family is to take on yet another identity.
Shen Teh invents a male cousin, Shui Ta. This male alter ego is essentially the opposite of Shen Teh. He is much more hard-nosed about business and life. He is not above kicking out those who have taken advantage of Shen Teh’s generosity. Shen Teh originally intends for Shui Ta to appear only when times are difficult. However, by the last third of the play, Shui Ta is present so much that other characters believe that he has somehow harmed Shen Teh. But the Shui Ta identity has had to remian prominent to ensure a future for Shen Teh and her unborn child. When Shui Ta is arrested for the disappearance of Shen Teh and appears in court before the three gods, the gods do not see how their generosity in support of her good side have forced her to create this alternate identity just to survive. She tries to explain how both Shen Teh and Shui Ta are part of her, but they will only accept the good. When the gods depart, they tell her to continue to be good, and to use the Shui Ta identity only once a month. Shen Teh is essentially left to resolve the crisis of her identity on her own.
Economic Circumstances/Wealth & Poverty
Economic circumstances, primarily poverty, drive much of the action in Good Person. Only a few characters in the play have any wealth to speak of. Shu Fu, the barber, has enough money that he can leave Shen Teh a blank check for her charitable works. The landlady, Mrs. Mi Tzu, owns the building that houses Shen Teh’s tobacco shop. The Yangs also seem to have some money, though not enough for Yang Sun to buy his pilot’s job. But the other character have suffered financial setbacks, and most are poor by the end of the play. Mrs. Shin has sold her shop to Shen Teh. The elderly couple and their extended family are homeless. At least one of them turns to prostitution to support the family. The carpenter and the carpet dealer and his wife lose their businesses during the course of the play. Wang cannot afford a home, and lives under a bridge. Shen Teh used to work as a prostitute, but becomes a member of the merchant class through a gift of money from the gods. Her newfound wealth attracts many who want her help. She has to become the consummate businessman Shui Ta to ensure a future for her business, herself, and her unborn child. Poverty drives them all to desperation, and the gods generally seem indifferent to how this affects both the good and the bad.
The Good Person of Szechwan is set in the capital city of the Szechwan province of China. The time of the play is not specified, in part because the play is a parable (a story which intends to teach a lesson). Though there is little that is specifically Chinese about the play, Brecht set the play there so that he could employ several ideas from Chinese theater. The action of the play is primarily confined to an impoverished part of the city, including city streets and the area in and around Shen Teh’s tobacco shop. Many of the interludes take place where Wang sleeps: under the bridge near a dried up Page 177 | Top of Articleriver. This is where the gods appear to him in his dreams. The final scene of the play takes place in a courtroom, where the gods sit in judgement of Shui Ta but make no real decision.
Almost every major character in The Good Person of Szechwan sings a song or recites some verse that could be sung. Brecht uses these moments to directly inject his philosophical ideas into the text, as well as reveal more about the characters who speak them. One example is “The Song of the Smoke” sung by the elderly couple and their family, who force themselves upon Shen Teh in scene one. The song expresses bitterness over their lives while making a greater political statement. Brecht accomplishes similar goals with songs such as Wang’s “The Water-Seller’s Song in the Rain” and Shen Teh’s “The Song of the Defencelessness of the Gods and the Good People.” Shen Teh, especially, comments on action while revealing more of herself in off-handed moments of verse.
Monologues/Characters Directly Addressing the Audience
While some of the songs in The Good Person of Szechwan address the audience in a direct fashion, especially Shen Teh’s “Song of the Defencelessness of the Good and the Gods,” there are several instances in which the actors directly speak to the play’s viewers. On these occasions, the audience is informed of what is going to happen and the characters’ feelings about these events. These moments also underscore the themes of the play and give Brecht a forum to put forth his political, philosophical, and social ideas. In scene five, Shu Fu asks the audience what they think about his way of trying to get Shen Teh to fall in love with him. First he plans to talk only about ideas with her, then have her fall in love with him. Scene eight has a number of monologues. Mrs. Yang tells the audience how Shui Ta saved her son by giving him a job and allowing him to thrive. As she speaks, the whole story is acted out. First she tells the audience what happens, then she steps back into the action as it occurs.
The most important monologues in The Good Person of Szechwan are found at the very beginning and end of the play. The play opens with a prologue in which Wang sets up some of the basics of the play. He is waiting for the three gods to arrive so that he is the first to meet them in the city. When they finally arrive, the monologue stops. In the epilogue, one of the actors steps in front of the curtain and apologizes to the audience for not having a neatly closed ending. Brecht uses this opportunity to make the audience think rather than to just entertain them.
World War II (1939-1945) ravaged Europe, and deeply affected life in the United States. Nazi Germany was led by Adolph Hitler, who had been in power for several years and was embarking on a campaign of European domination. Even before the outbreak of the war in 1939, many people (including Brecht and his family) with political views not in agreement with Hitler’s views had become political refugees, fleeing the country to avoid persecution and/or death. As Germany invaded country after country in Europe, many more fled. Many of those who were left behind suffered. There was much poverty and uncertainty as economic infrastructures were compromised. Many, such as people of Slavic descent, were put to forced labor as a consequence of the Nazi beliefs in the superiority of their own race and the inferiority of other races.
The United States began supporting Great Britain with armaments as early as the summer of 1940. The Lend-Lease Act of 1941 gave Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American President, the authority to give Britain, as well as China and the U.S.S.R., defense and information, at a cost to be determined later. The United States officially entered the war on the side of the Allies, including Great Britain, in late 1941 after the Japanese, allies of Germany, bombed Pearl Harbor. By the summer of 1942, the Allies had turned the tide of the war, and in 1943 were making significant gains against the Germans. Much of the year was spent trying to push the Germans back from territory that they had conquered, including Sicily and parts of southern Italy.
While Europeans were suffering, the demands of the war also changed life in the United States. The Great Depression of the 1930s ended as factories geared up for war production. By 1943, some Depression-era legislation was challenged by Congress. The New Deal was questioned by Republicans, while the WPA was ended entirely because the war created many new jobs and the maximum use of resources. Jobs were easier to obtain and more numerous. To support the war effort, women began doing what was considered “men’s work” in domestic factories and also served in the armed
forces. This ultimately changed the way that people thought about work. It also led to better educational opportunities for women, including more co-educational colleges.
Though jobs were plentiful, and President Roosevelt ordered a minimum 48-hour work week in war-related factories, workers were unhappy in 1943 for several reasons. Prices were rising, and workers wanted higher wages. The federal government worked to control inflation, but that did not change the fact that every day items were rationed. There were also several labor strikes (primarily in the mining industry), threats of strikes, and labor-related riots. Congress outlawed strikes in industries vital to the war effort.
China also suffered during World War II, though for the most, they were not directly involved in the conflict. China had been at war with Japan since 1937, after Japan conquered Manchuria in 1932. War was not officially declared against Japan until late in 1941. Japan was successful in taking over several parts of the country, forcing the ruling Nationalist government to set up in different cities. There was also internal strife in China, between the Nationalists and the upstart Communists, led by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung). The Communists fought a guerilla war with Japanese while feuding with Nationalists. After the United States declared war on Japan in 1941, China and the United States became allies, though Japan continued to win in the Far East for some time. The war in China created a desperate refugee situation in China, similar to that in Europe. Those most affected by the war with Japan, from eastern and central China, were forced to retreat westward. Such circumstances might have led Brecht to question whether goodness could exist in the world.
From the earliest production of The Good Person of Szechwan in Zurich, Switzerland’s Schauspielhaus Zurich in 1943, many critics have found much to Page 179 | Top of Articlepraise. Since that time, however, many critics have also found the play to be exceptionally long in performance, usually running about three to three and a half hours, which sometimes lessens its impact. Many also agree that The Good Person of Szechwan is difficult for directors to interpret, often resulting in stylistically inconsistent productions. However, the play is often pointed to as one of the more accessible examples of Brecht’s concept of epic theater, entertaining and nonsentimental, though others believe it is too detached. In addition, the ideas in The Good Person of Szechwan have been appreciated more and more over time.
At the time of the first production in New York City, Brecht’s ideas about theater and the episodic structure of The Good Person of Szechwan were still considered unusual. Many critics commented on these aspects of the play. Comparing the play to Voltaire’s Candide, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, wrote “It is strange in form, nonsentimental in theme, and stimulating from several points of view.” His sentiments were echoed by Tom F. Driver of Christian Century. Brecht, he wrote, “invigorated the modern theater by establishing a stage technique which does away with theatrical illusion and appeals directly to the imagination and the intellect.”
This production, at New York City’s Phoenix Theatre, featured a controversial translation by Eric Bentley, who also directed the production. Robert Hatch in The Nation was especially critical of the translation, and how it affected the play: “Eric Bentley translated the play with what sounds to my ear like a warm appreciation of its flavor, but he has displayed it in the theatre as though he were dressing a museum.” Hatch believed “The production commits the worse sin of the theatre—it is boring. I think the fault is with the production....” Henry Hewes of the Saturday Review agreed with Hatch. Hewes argued, “there is much in it [his translation] that is awkward.... And lines that might have been funny in the original lose their humor....” Many scholars have commented on the inherent humor in Good Person. Some have pointed out that this humorous quality is often overlooked.
By 1970, when a new professional production in New York City’s Vivian Beaumont Theater opened, Brecht’s ideas had been widely discussed and studied. Though Brecht may have been better understood, many critics still believed it was difficult to do a good production of The Good Person of Szechwan with a unified style. Critics did not find
this in the new production. Clive Barnes of The New York Times wrote “The Good Woman is a play that should dance across the stage with a gentle mocking smile; it is one of the lightest of Brecht’s plays.” His colleague Walter Kerr, also of The New York Times, believed “Brecht still hasn’t been proved out, if that’s a proper phrase, in this country; we still wait for a director who will make it all come true.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, there were numerous productions of The Good Person of Szechwan in the United States that were highly stylized (a trend that would continue into the 1990s). Critics of the 1975-76 productions of the play at La Mama in New York City debated old questions, such as how important The Good Person of Szechwan was in Brecht’s canon. Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic was one of the few who placed it in the lower echelon. He wrote “The Good Woman is lesser Brecht. His best plays crystallize some aspects of the modern consciousness in new dramatic modes; his lesser ones are explicit, didactic, linear and relatively unresonant.”
In the late 1990s, many critics noted that American productions of The Good Person of Szechwan were being adapted to contemporary, familiar settings, Page 180 | Top of Articleand new scores were being written. Most praised these changes, in part because it made this play more accessible to modern audiences. Of a 1992 production at Emory University, Atlanta Journal and Constitution critic Roderick Robinson wrote “This isn’t a show that will appeal to Three’s Company zealots, but Brecht’s monumental questioning of humankind’s ways still has plenty to bite. The production has fine touches of wit....”
A 1994 adaptation by well-known playwright/ director Tony Kushner was set at the California-Mexico border, with characters retaining Chinese names and with a score by Los Lobos. Don Braunagel of Variety hit on one long-term issue with the production. He wrote, “La Jolla Playhouse’s extraordinary synergy with Bertolt Brecht continues with this superlative presentation, with Lisa Peterson demonstrating why the playwright, directed properly, is timeless.” A 1999 production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival featured a different translation, but was similarly American in its feel. Steve Winn of the San Francisco Chronicle believed the play remained relevant: “The Good Person of Szechwan feels a lot like life in the ‘90s.”
In this essay, Petruso responds to the ending, which invites the audience/reader to interpret to the play. Though many critics believe the play ultimately argues for the merits of goodness, Petruso counters that Brecht shows no positive results for goodness.
The epilogue of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan apologizes for the lack of a true, closed ending to the play. In the last scene, Shen Teh’s dilemma of how to be a good person in a harsh world is left unanswered by the gods and Brecht. Instead, the audience is asked to think for themselves. Brecht writes “Indeed it is a curious way of coping: / To close the play, leaving the issue open. / Especially since we live by your enjoyment.” Thus everyone is supposed to propose their own interpretation to the problem.
For the most part, critics believe the play supported the idea of goodness, while showing the difficulties in living such a life. Clive Barnes of The New York Times believed “The Good Woman of Setzuan is a parable about the impossibility of human purity. For its very existence, good has to coexist with evil, riches bring poverty and even to fly man has to cheat.” In the epilogue, Brecht seems to support such interpretations. He writes “There’s only one solution that we know: / That you should now consider as you god / What sort of measures you would recommend / to help good people to a happy end.”
Yet there is not one instance of goodness rewarded in Good Person. Every time Shen Teh or several other characters try to do good, their actions come back to haunt them. They end up suffering somehow, whether it be economically, emotionally, or otherwise. Far from arguing that goodness has its merits, Brecht shows how much it negatively affects people’s lives. The reason goodness fails, however, is not because of goodness itself. It is because other people take advantage of the good. They are driven to it for reasons such as the capitalist economy reflecting Brecht’s Marxist bias). While the lines from the Epilogue quoted above show that Brecht supports the ideal of good people, the play shows the impossibility of being good in such a society.
In addition to Shen Teh, several minor characters struggle greatly after acts of kindness. Wang, the water seller, is not particularly honorable. He has a false bottom in his cup, meaning he cheats those to whom he sells his product. But Wang chooses to wait for the gods at the entrance to the city, hoping to talk to them. They enlist him to help them find lodging for the night, their way of trying to find one good person. Wang is repeatedly turned down, and he finally takes them to Shen Teh who takes them in. Yet Wang becomes confused and runs away after he believes he has failed the gods. His act of goodness leads to personal stress. Wang hides, fearing their wrath. Even after they reassure him, they come to him in his dreams for updates on Shen Teh. His one good deed leads to ever greater obligations.
Wang’s problems are minor when compared to the carpet dealer and his wife. In scene four, Shen Teh enters their carpet shop, which is near her shop, to buy a pretty shawl. She has just returned from an evening with Yang Sun and is very happy. The couple reminds her that she must pay her rent soon, but Shen Teh knows she is out of money. Out of generosity, they offer to lend her the 200 silver dollars against her stock, though they do not demand anything in writing. This act of goodness ends up hurting them deeply. Shen Teh promptly gives
the loaned funds to Yang Sun so he can get his pilot’s job.
During the interlude between scenes five and six, Shen Teh reveals that the carpet dealer needs the loaned money back. He is ill over his act of goodness, and does not trust her cousin, Shui Ta. Shen Teh promises to give them the money back, but cannot retrieve it from Yang Sun. Though Shen Teh feels guilty about the situation, the carpet dealer and his wife are left none the richer because of their goodness. Eventually, they lose their store because the loan put them in the position of not being able to pay their taxes. By scene eight, when Shui Ta has almost exclusively taken the place of Shen Teh, the carpet dealer and his wife have been repaid by the hard-nosed alter ego. However, the couple had lost their store by then. Their generosity resulted in greater poverty.
Though Shu Fu, the barber, is not poor like Wang, nor does he lose his business like the carpet dealer and his wife, several of his generous acts end up hurting him. Shu Fu is by no means a nice person. He breaks Wang’s hand with his curling tongs, and does not do anything to help him. But because Shu Fu is enamored with Shen Teh, he does some good things to try and assist her. In scene five, he offers the use of some of his buildings to her via Shui Ta. She uses them to house those without homes, until scene seven when Shui Ta gets tough and decides to build a tobacco factory business out of stolen property. Shu Fu’s charitable act is twisted into something that hurts those Shen Teh intended to help.
Shu Fu also suffers in more direct fashion. In scene seven, when Shen Teh is in danger of losing her business and cease her charitable ways, Shu Fu writes her a blank check so that she can save herself. Shen Teh declines to use it, but Shui Ta is not above taking advantage of the situation; he fills in an absurd amount, 10,000 silver dollars. Shu Fu does not go bankrupt over the check, but it is hardly what he intended when he tried to do good. Shu Fu also never ends up winning over Shen Teh, so all of his goodness was for naught.
The character who suffers the most because of her goodness is Shen Teh, the title character and the only one with pure motivations. No act of kindness on Shen Teh’s part has an ulterior motive or is regretted after the fact. Yet all her goodness drives her deeper and deeper into debt and despair. Each successive good deed is met by greater demands. She is forced to split herself in two to deal with the expectations created by her goodness. Only through
a male alter ego, Shui Ta, is Shen Teh able to be as cruel as the world is and ensure her (and later in the play, her unborn child’s) survival.
Shen Teh’s problems begin in the Prologue when she gives up an appointment with a client so that the gods have a place to stay for the night. They tell her to continue to be good, but she counters that it is hard to be when she is so poor. They give her money which she uses to start a tobacco shop. If the gods had not given her money, as they were initially inclined not to, Shen Teh would still have been good but not so pressured to do more than she already had been doing. As it stands, the money forces Shen Teh to be consciously, if not detrimentally, good.
In scene one, Shen Teh cannot refuse anyone’s request. The elderly couple, who gave Shen Teh her first home when she moved to the city, imposes greatly upon her. Members of their extended family trickle in throughout the scene, taking advantage of Shen Teh’s goodness. They demand food, service, a place to sleep—all without regard to Shen Teh or her shop. Two get in a fight and break some of her shelving. Though the couple actually kicked Shen Teh out when she could not pay her rent a long time ago, they have no problem paying her nothing and giving her no respect.
Such impositions on Shen Teh occur throughout Good Person. When she starts giving out cigarettes and rice, people like the unemployed man and Mrs. Shin come to expect it. No act of kindness can be just what it is. Everyone wants something more. The one character who wants the most from Shen Teh is Yang Sun. After she essentially saves him from a suicide attempt and falls in love with him, he treats her poorly. He only promises to marry her when she give him 200 of the 500 silver dollars he needs so that he can become a pilot. Then Yang Sun expects her to sell the shop for 300 silver dollars so he can get the rest of the money he needs. When Shen Teh wants the 200 silver dollars back so she can repay the carpet dealer and his wife, Yang Sun will not (and as it turns out, cannot) do it. Shen Teh’s wedding day is ruined when Yang Sun and his mother hold up the ceremony waiting for Shui Ta to show up with the 300 silver dollars and some common sense. They are sorely disappointed and Shen Teh does not marry him.
To deal with the demands created by being good and somewhat prosperous (with the gift from the gods), Shen Teh is compelled to create a heartless, male alter ego, her “cousin” Shui Ta. He corrects situations that Shen Teh cannot. He kicks out the freeloading elderly couple and their family, just in time to save Shen Teh’s reputation. He learns the truth about Yang Sun and ends up making Shen Teh accept it. Shui Ta protects all of Shen Teh’s interests, and by scene nine, it is clear he has been doing some of Shen Teh’s charitable works. However, Shui Ta is a realist. He has also taken advantage of the situation Shen Teh has set up with Shu Fu and others. Shui Ta uses the buildings Shu Fu has given Shen Teh for the needy to start a tobacco factory/sweatshop. Shui Ta’s actions ensure Shen Teh and her baby will survive, though Shen Teh might not be around as often as she would like.
One way to look at what Brecht really thinks of the good in Good Person is to examine who is kind to Shen Teh. Mrs. Shin seems nice after she learns and keeps the secret that Shen Teh and Shui Ta are the same person. But nearly everyone else fears Shui Ta and treats Shen Teh poorly, without much regard to her as a person. Shu Fu is in love with her, and is rebuffed, but acts only out of this feeling. If Shu did not have feelings for her, he would not be nearly as nice.
Only the gods and Wang seem to be good to Shen Teh with no strings attached. The gods want her to be good, but cannot tell her how to stay that way. Wang only asks for lodging for the gods, and nothing else. He will not even let her commit perjury to the magistrate when Shu Fu breaks his hand and all the witnesses refuse to back him up. Perhaps Wang is the most realistic expression of good the play: something of a combination of Shen Teh and Shui Ta. Wang wants to do good, but is afraid of the gods. He scrapes out a living, tries to stay out of trouble, and helps out Shen Teh whenever he can. Trying to be good without exception while protecting one’s self is the best Brecht hoped for us to do. Goodness itself gets Shen Teh nowhere fast.
Source: A. Petruso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Cross is a writer specializing in modern drama. In the following essay, Cross discusses the play’s presentation of love as a commodity.
In the 1960s, the Beatles sang, “I don’t care too much for money. Money can’t buy me love,” thus encapsulating society’s idealized view of romance: love and money are separate and have nothing to do with each other. Reality, of course, is a bit more murky. Though most people in Western cultures would probably find fault with what is commonly called “marrying for money,” money plays at least a small part in many “romantic” decisions. For instance, a person who is unemployed or has serious financial troubles is likely to have more difficulty finding a partner, while a person with a high income will probably be seen as more desirable. Still, the belief that love and money at least “should” be separate persists. In matters of love, it is the heart that is supposed to rule, not the head.
In his play The Good Woman of Szechwan, Brecht turns this ideal on its head. The play presents a world in which love is always linked in some way to money. In fact, one title Brecht considered for the play was Die Ware Liebe, which can be translated as Love for Sale or The Commodity Love. One could argue, of course, that much of the time what is bought and sold in Brecht’s play is not love, but sex. After all, Shen Te begins the play as a prostitute. Romantic love and sex, however, can only neatly be divided in theory. Obviously, romantic partners who have sexual relationships are assumed to be in love. Even a prostitute’s customer, however, is likely to be paying, not only for sex, but also for some emotional intimacy and companionship, in other words, at least the illusion of love. The American language also reflects the connection between love and sex; today, the term “making love” is most often used as a euphemism for sex. In short, love and sex exist, not as separate entities, but on a continuum. This essay will use both words, but with the understanding that the division between them is necessarily artificial.
Brecht establishes the theme of “love for sale” at the beginning of the play. Shen Te is first referred to by Wong as “Shen Te, the prostitute,” with the word “prostitute” appearing as if it is part of her name and thus her essential identification. Trying to keep the gods from realizing that Shen Te sells herself, Wong explains to the audience, “They
mustn’t see her gentleman or they’ll know what she is.” It should be noted here that Wong refers to what Shen Te is, not what she does. She may be a daughter, a sister, or a friend, but in breaking society’s rules, she is first and foremost a prostitute, and thus not fit for polite society, even though she needed the money to live. After the gods give money to Shen Te, she is able to open a tobacco shop, but her former practice of a less “respectable” profession haunts her when her landlady, Mrs. Mi Tzu, learns about her past and demands that she pay the rent six months in advance, thus punishing Shen Te for selling sex. When Shen Te, as Shui Ta, discusses the matter with a policeman, the policeman presents society’s idealized view, that sex for love is acceptable, but sex for money is not: “... love isn’t bought and sold like cigars, Mr. Shui Ta. . . it isn’t respectable to go waltzing off with someone that’s paying his way, so to speak—it must be for love!... as the proverb has it: not for a handful of rice but for love!” In other words, sexual activity is acceptable only in connection with love, and neither love nor sex should have anything to do with money.
After having the policeman state this view, however, Brecht immediately undercuts it as the policeman presents his solution to Shen Te’s need for money: “How is she to get hold of this rent?. . . It’s just come to me. A husband. We must find her a husband!” Marriage has been called by some “legalized prostitution,” and that is clearly the view that Brecht presents here. The policeman continues, making the connection between marriage and prostitution even more explicit: “We need capital. And how do we acquire capital? We get married. . . We can’t pay six months rent, so what do we do? We Page 184 | Top of Articlemarry money.” The policeman then writes an advertisement for Shen Te, further cementing the connection between marriage and business. In addition, the advertisement he writes emphasizes that Shen Te wants to marry for money: “What respectable man with small capital. . . desires marriage into flourishing tobacco shop?” Shen Te’s accepts the policeman’s “respectable” solution, but it is clear to the audience that she is once again selling herself in order to survive.
When the audience next sees Shen Te, she is on her way to meet the stranger she has agreed to marry, but at this point she meets the pilot Yang Sun. At first he is brusque with her, even cruel, but as the two talk, he seems to become kinder, and Shen Te, for the first time, falls in love. On her part at least, this is the idealized roman tic love that society at least outwardly supports. Yang Sun is unemployed and dressed in rags, but to Shen Te that doesn’t matter; he is “a brave and cleaver man.” Shortly after this meeting, Shen Te begins staying with him all night. At one point, when she returns to her shop after spending the night with Yang Sun, the old woman, upon learning that Yang Sun has no money, asks Shen Te how she will pay her rent. Shen Te replies, “I’d forgotten about that.” Because she is so wrapped up in idealized romantic love, she cares little about money.
Brecht, however, does not allow the audience to get caught up in the romance of the situation. Almost immediately, Yang Sun’s mother arrives and tells Shen Te that he needs five hundred silver dollars in order to bribe his way into a pilot’s job. Shen Te immediately gives Yang Sun’s mother the money she needs for the rent on her tobacco shop, the money loaned to her by the old woman. Caught up in emotion, Shen Te does not seem to reflect enough to realize that without the money, she will almost certainly lose her shop, and thus her only income. Brecht shows more here, however, than a woman’s love untainted by thoughts of money. First of all, it is clear that Shen Te’s love for Yang Sun, like her goodness in helping her neighbors, will, left unchecked, lead to financial ruin. Secondly, Yang Sun has known from the beginning of his relationship with Shen Te that she has a shop. “My son has told me everything,” Yang Sun’s mother says before telling Shen Te of her son’s need for money. It seems fairly certain that Yang Sun has sent his mother to Shen Te. In a later scene, however, the situation becomes even clearer. Yang Sun comes to Shen Te’s shop and demands more money. Shen Te, now disguised as Shui Ta, agrees to sell her tobacco shop for three hundred silver dollars, knowing that in addition to losing the shop, she will be unable to repay the old woman, who cannot afford to lose the money. In love with Yang Sun, Shen Te is willing to sacrifice everything else. Yang Sun, however, lets Shui Ta know that he wants Shen Te’s money, not Shen Te herself. “I’m leaving her behind,” he says. “No millstones round my neck!” Although Yang Sun may have initially loved Shen Te, here he makes it clear that he too has become a prostitute, selling an illusion of love to Shen Te.
Upon discovering that Yang Sun does not love her, Shen Te, again desperate for money and still disguised as Shui Ta, turns once more to selling herself, this time to Mr. Shu Fu, the barber who has cruelly injured Shen Te’s friend Wong. Upon finding Mr. Shu Fu agreeable to the proposition, Shen Te betrays Wong, refusing to support him in his quest for justice against the barber. This plan, however, is short-lived. Yang Sun returns and, when by her silence Shen Te acknowledges that she has been told he is bad, asks her, “Does that make me need you less?” It should be noted here that he does not speak of love for her, but of his own need. He continues in his attempt to persuade Shen Te to return to him, reminding her of their first romantic encounter, but concluding by asking her is she remembers that she “Promised me money to fly with?” Even though Yang Sun does not say he loves her, Shen Te agrees to go back to him, telling the audience,’ I want to go with the man I love... I don’t want to know if he loves me.” Thus even as she agrees to return to him, Shen Te seems to know, at least on some level, that she is buying his love.
Soon, however, Shen Te seems to forget Yang Sun’s interest in her money. In the following scene, on the way to her wedding, she herself notes that “The things [Yang Sun] said to Shui Ta had taught Shen Te nothing.” As if to prove the truth of these words, Shen Te tells the audience, “He loves me.” Upon arriving at the wedding, however, she discovers that Yang Sun will not allow the ceremony to be held until Shui Ta arrives—with the money that will allow him to work as a pilot. Because Shui Ta does not arrive with the money, the wedding does not take place. Once again, it is clear that Yang Sun acts as a prostitute, not a lover. He is interested in Shen Te only for her money.
Once more abandoned by Yang Sun, Shen Te finds herself in serious trouble. Mrs. Shin sums up her situation: “No husband, no tobacco, no house and home.” Soon, however, Mr. Shu Fu returns to Page 185 | Top of Articlethe shop. Still maneuvering to buy Shen Te’s love, he gives her a blank check. At first she will not cash it. Mrs. Shin is surprised: “What? You’re not going to cash it just because you might have to marry him? Are you crazy?” Mrs. Shin here assumes that Shen Te is willing to sell herself again. This time, however, Shen Te chooses not to marry for money. Disguising herself once again as Shui Ta, she does cash the barber’s check, but with no apparent intention of giving him anything in return. In addition, she sues Yang Sun for breach of marriage and is able to force him to work off the money she has already given him. No longer will she sell herself or buy love. It is tempting to see this as a sign of growth in Shen Te, to suggest that she no longer sees love as a commodity. Brecht, however, shows that this is not the case. As Shui Ta, Shen Te still trades in love. Yang Sun becomes her foreman and informs her that the factory is in dire need of Mrs. Mi Tzu’s buildings. Shen Te responds by saying that she cannot pay Mrs. Mi Tzu’s price, but Yang Sun answers, “If she has me to stroke her knees she’ll come down.” Once again, Yang Sun shows his willingness to act as a prostitute. Shen Te’s first response is to say, “I’ll never agree to that,” but in a meeting with Mrs. Mi Tzu, Shen Te becomes her former lover’s pimp, effectively agreeing to sell Yang Sun in exchange for lower rent. Even though she no longer sells herself, when desperate for money, she turns to selling others.
Throughout The Good Woman of Szechwan, Brecht emphasizes the impossibility of being good if one is to survive in a corrupt world and, in the final scene, this is what Shen Te tries to tell the gods, who turn a deaf ear. Goodness, however, is not the only casualty of the world’s imperfections. Idealized romantic love, love separate from money, is not possible either. Shen Te is able to pay her rent as a prostitute and could survive economically as a rich man’s life, but her love for Yang Sun turns out to be a luxury she cannot afford. That love nearly leads her to disaster. As Shui Ta attempting to sell Yang Sun to Mrs. Mi Tzu, Shen Te abandons emotion and treats love as a business transaction. In a corrupt world, one must buy and sell what one can in order to survive, and so in Brecht’s play, even love is for sale.
Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
In the following essay, Solomon reinterprets Brecht’s play, giving emphasis to the qualities of epic theater, and pointing out the value of the work for feminist arguments.
Like most social activists who believe in theater as an instrument of change, feminists have both claimed and rejected Bertolt Brecht, joining in the critical tug-of-war that has characterized his reception in America since the Theatre Union introduced him to this country with its ill-conceived (and disastrous) production of The Mother in 1935. Brecht has been described as the great poet whose plays no longer work, the dramatic genius whose theatrical theory doesn’t fit, the artist whose politics hardly matter, the idealist who decayed into an opportunistic creep. Feminist critics, going further, have pointed out a series of seeming contradictions to prove or discount Brecht’s usefulness: Most of his major plays feature female protagonists; he portrayed women stereotypically. He assumed (though hardly stressed) the emancipation of women as part of socialism; he paid little attention to the vibrant women’s movement of the Weimar period. Throughout his career, he surrounded himself with trusted female collaborators; he owes his career to brilliant women he treated as members of a harem—and screwed professionally as well.
All this invoking, dismissing, extolling, and reviling has often missed the deepest feminist implications of Brecht’s epic theater. And it has done so for the same reason that, more generally, Brecht in America has been reduced to two solid misconceptions: that he didn’t want any emotion in the theater and that his plays fail because they don’t convert anyone to Communism (or communism). These caricatures, long elevated to the status of unshakable cliche, rely, as do many feminist quibbles with Brecht, on a simplification that culminates in smarmy certainty about the “Brechtian”—a grungy, grudging didacticism produced through a predictable set of stage effects (projected scene titles, bright lights, music hall band, scowling actors). This conception has little to do with the plays themselves or with the intricate performance style Brecht built into them, and elaborated in his theoretical writings.
While the Berliner Ensemble toured London in 1956, and again in the late 1960s, inspiring a generation of politically engaged playwrights like Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, and Steven Berkoff, here in America Artaud and Grotowski were inflaming a generation of theatrical shamans without the counterbalancing weight of Brecht’s “scientific” approach. Along with the Method mania of the mainstream, these gurus could support a
presumption that would leave no room for Brecht: intellect—and thus Brecht’s critically based work—does not belong in the theater.
To this day, reviewers—and worse, directors—of American Brecht productions approach his work with received ideas that are at best limited, and limiting. America’s—and American feminists’—ability to skim Brecht for confirmation of the old platitudes and leave the rest for waste depends, in sum, on a fundamental failure to recognize the complex achievement of Brecht’s dramatic art.
Nowhere is this failure more apparent than in recent readings of the play most frequently cited by feminists, The Good Person of Szechwan, in which Shen Teh, “the prostitute who can’t say no,” opens a small tobacco shop with money she receives from three gods in search of a good person, after she puts them up for a night; when freeloading neighbors exploit her generosity, Shen Teh transvests into her male cousin, Shui Ta, whose entrepreneurial shrewdness should enable her to make ends meet—and remain good. These critics—among them John Fuegi, Iris Smith, Gay Gibson Cima, Anne Herrmann—scold Brecht for the play’s “stereotypical” portrayals of femininity as good and masculinity as evil, see only a “metaphor” in Shen Teh’s “cross-dressing,” or suggest a biographical reading that casts “Brecht lookalikes” as the First God and Shen Teh’s lover, Yang Sun, and his many mistresses as multiple Shen Tehs. But they have neglected to examine the play’s dialectical action in any but the most superficial of ways. This knee-jerk approach, laying a tendentious template over a work of art to see where it lines up, is particularly frustrating in the case of Brecht because it is so unnecessary. Epic theater’s basic effort to make the familiar strange, show the world as alterable, hold events at a temporal distance, and, as Brecht writes, reveal the human being as “the sum of all social circumstances” contains a profoundly feminist impulse (even if the social relations defined by gender were not the ones that particularly interested Brecht).
One call for a feminist refashioning of Good Person actually misses the play’s theatrical crux, “The Song of Defenselessness of the Gods and the Good People.” In a 1991 article in Theatre Journal, Iris Smith complains of “the unseen creation of the male figure, who seems to appear sui generis on the stage.” She goes on to suggest that “At some point, perhaps in Scene 7... the costuming of Shui Ta could be done in full view of the audience.” Of course, Shen Teh does costume herself as Shui Ta in full view of the audience in “The Song of Defenselessness,” which follows scene four. Moreover, this careful, complicated scene offers important clues about epic acting, the relationship between gender and epic acting, and indeed about gender as epic acting.
The song comes nearly halfway through the play, several scenes after we’ve seen Shen Teh disguised as her shrewd cousin. Its function is not to reveal that Shui Ta is Shen Teh’s invention, but to show how that invention is assembled, how the contradiction described in the song—that goodness can come about only if militarily enforced—both demands and defeats the use of the disguise, how dramatic character (and, by extension, social character) is artificially manufactured, how our sympathies and antipathies can be evoked and manipulated. The construction of Shui Ta, demonstrated through the action of a baleful and defensive song, deconstructs notions of character, social role (including gender), dramatic inevitability, and the easy distinction between good and evil. Most important, the interlude substantiates, through the actor’s combined action of delivering a song and putting on a costume, the play’s elemental disjunction: one actor stirs both our empathy with Shen Teh and our Page 187 | Top of Articledisgust with Shui Ta. Thus, the interlude calls attention to our own dialectical activity in the epic theater, the act of complex seeing, which demands that we perceive things as they are and, at the same time, as other than they are.
The song immediately follows a busy scene in which all the intertwining threads of the plot get tangled up: Shen Teh, newly in love with the pilot Yang Sun, praises the “glorious” morning, cheerfully dishes out rice to the freeloaders who exploit her generosity, and buys a shawl from an old couple with a longstanding marriage. But her romantic haze is ironically framed: before her entrance there’s malicious gossip in her shop about where Shen Teh has been all night, and the barber, Shu Fu, smashes Wang the Waterseller’s hand; after her entrance, the old woman reminds Shen Teh that she owes rent to the exacting Mrs. Mi Tzu. Worse, the freeloaders refuse to testify for Wang against Shu Fu, which prompts Shen Teh to declare, in verse, “Oh you wretched people! / Your brother suffers violence and you close your eyes.” In the space of some 100 lines, Shen Teh’s giddiness (as she describes it) transforms into anger (as a stage direction puts it). Yet Shen Teh is not as thoroughly good and kind as charged by those who accuse Brecht of flattening her into an object lesson: early in the scene she’s so absorbed in her infatuation that she fails to notice Wang’s suffering. (Later, she betrays Wang more directly.)
In the same compact space, the play complicates its representation of love as an economic transaction, and of men’s commodification of women. (An early working title was Die Ware Liebe, Love for Sale or The Commodity Love; playing on the pun of Ware and wahre, the title could also mean True Love.) In one of Brecht’s many ironic undoings of the self-conscious dramatic archetype, the prostitute, Shen Teh does not get ripped off by a man until she gives herself to him. In exchange for his love, Yang Sun demands a trip to Peking and the price of a bribe for a pilot’s job. At the end of scene four, Shen Teh hands over to him $200, lent her for rent money by the old couple.
Playing against this inverted romance, this scene also introduces the idea of the wealthy barber, Shu Fu, as a husband for Shen Teh. Seeing her in the rosy splendor of the morning—when she’s flushed with love for Yang Sun—Shu Fu falls in love with her. In addition to setting up the later transaction between Shen Teh and the barber, this moment also reminds us that Shen Teh met Yang Sun while on her way to a tete-a-tete with a marriage prospect—one who could cough up the rent money. Here, and in the later negotiations with Shu Fu, marriage is compared to the whoring Shen Teh thought she could leave behind by becoming a businesswoman—or businessman. Indeed, as Shui Ta, Shen Teh serves as her own pimp, becoming, as Brecht’s working notes put it, “both goods and salesperson.”
To sum up, scene four ends with Shen Teh in love with a man and disappointed in humanity, standing under an accelerating cascade of troubles: the rent, and now the old couple, still owed; Wang injured and abandoned; the freeloaders ever demanding; Shu Fu waiting to pounce. The audience is left in a frame of mind to urge, like the freeloaders in the first scene, “Cousin! Cousin!” But rather than simply satisfy this by-now obvious response to Shen Teh’s problems, Brecht interrupts (to use Walter Benjamin’s word for the process of epic development) the action, casting into relief our mounting empathy for Shen Teh’s plight and uncovering the conditions that lead to her extreme solution.
“Shen Teh enters,” the stage direction reads, “carrying the mask and clothes of Shui Ta, and sings ‘The Song of Defenselessness of the Gods and the Good People.’” After the first verse, “She puts on Shui Ta’s clothes and takes a few steps in his manner.” After the second, “She puts on Shui Ta’s mask and continues to sing in his voice.”
Who sings this song? That is, what stage persona commits the action of—in Brecht’s words—zeigen gestus (“handing over”) “The Song of Defenselessness”? The text assigns the song to the character Shen Teh, but, as Brecht has written, “When an actor sings, [s]he undergoes a change of function.” This is doubly true here. At the most literal level, the singer presents a character in transition, changing her function from portraying Shen Teh to portraying Shui Ta. But we see something more than one character changing into the costume of another. The actor’s function changes also because by singing, “[s]he who is showing should [her]self be shown.” The actor demonstrates how she performs both the role of Shen Teh and the role of Shui Ta. And at the same time she demonstrates how she performs another role, which parallels her pointed-to actorly effort: Shen Teh playing Shui Ta. In other words, revealing the process by which she takes steps in Shui Ta’s manner and sings in his voice, the actor calls attention to the analogy between her activity and Shen Teh’s.
The song achieves this dialectic because, through the analogy it draws to all acting, it grants Shen Teh and Shui Ta the same level of credibility. We always perceive Shui Ta as an impersonation performed by Shen Teh; simultaneously, we understand that Shen Teh is herself an impersonation created by the actor; therefore, she elicits no more unexamined empathy than does the less affecting Shui Ta, despite her more appealing nature.
This equilibrium is maintained through a sly paradox of acting: Shen Teh’s character, in conventional theatrical terms, is “unbelievable”—could anyone really be so naive, we have to ask in the face of her unmitigated generosity toward the exploitative freeloaders. But Shui Ta’s character, the familiar ruthless businessman, is completely believable (because it is so familiar). Indeed, in a 1970 New York Times review of a Lincoln Center production starring Colleen Dewhurst, Walter Kerr chides the play for precisely this contrast: explaining that “we lose patience with these figureheads [the freeloaders] long before the lady does,” Kerr concludes, “if we ever side with anyone, we tend to side with her tough-minded ‘cousin.”’
But what Kerr—and presumably the production—missed is the way these opposite levels of credibility are used within Brecht’s parable form, and how they are balanced with inverse proportions of empathic acting. Acquiring intimacy with the audience through soliloquies, and given downright sentimental speeches about love and motherhood (which are soon punctured by various ironic devices) Shen Teh demands more “Aristotelian” pity than does Shui Ta; he never addresses the audience, and remains emotionally at arm’s length because of our double awareness of him as an effective figure in the parable, and as Shen Teh’s creation. The type of character Shui Ta represents is more believable than the type Shen Teh represents, yet we experience Shui Ta from a greater distance.
To keep wide this distance from the evil character we can so easily compass—and to close the distance on the good character we can hardly accept—Brecht repeatedly reminds us that Shui Ta is being played by Shen Teh. In the first scene, it’s the freeloaders who come up with the idea that a wily cousin could get Shen Teh out of her jam with the unpaid Carpenter, and then with the landlady, Mrs. Mi Tzu: “My dear Shen Teh, why don’t you turn the whole matter over to your cousin?” After repeated promptings, Shen Teh relents: “slowly, with downcast eyes,” the stage direction reads, Shen Teh declares, “I have a cousin.” (Michael Hofmann’s 1989 translation of the Santa Monica version of Good Person goes so far as to have a freeloader think up the name Shui Ta.) After the claimants leave—and more relatives of the freeloaders arrive—Shen Teh’s imposing guests have a facetious laugh over the mythical cousin, “the imposing Mr. Shui Ta.” The scene ends with more knocking on the door, threatening that still more relatives will overtake Shen Teh’s shop.
When knocking is heard again, at the top of the next scene, it announces the quick-fix to the rapidly multiplying relatives: “a young gentleman,” as the stage directions say, Shui Ta. At first the freeloaders dismiss him: “But that was a joke.” But almost at once they come to grant him the authority of his imposing presence. As an onstage audience to Shen Teh’s performance, they offer one model of a response to her acting: for them, the performance of Shui Ta is “Aristotelian,” they believe in it completely and are swept away by it; for us, the performance is epic, always experienced with complex seeing. The onstage audience’s reaction works like a lens that intensifies our double vision—and that mirrors our more sympathetic response to Shen Teh.
Later in the scene, after Shui Ta wheedles the Carpenter out of his fee, the freeloaders repeat the event, quoting—in a style reminiscent of the acting Brecht calls for in “The Street Scene: A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre”—the dialogue that just took place. Their merriment is ended only when Shui Ta’s virtuoso performance is turned on them: he tells them to get out. What happens in their little imitation is complicated. We see a performance reenacted with a particular attitude—gloating amusement, like the attitude of fans recounting how their team routed another in a ball game. This action drives home the freeloaders’ smug selfishness at the same time that it reminds us that Shui Ta is a performance, one that could be presented and received from various points of view. In this moment, of course, like Walter Kerr, we have to side with Shui Ta, cheering his rejection of the freeloaders. But part of the reason we cheer him is that we see Shen Teh within Shui Ta, and recognize that she is standing up for herself. More important, our recognition of Shen Teh behind the mask of Shui Ta (and of an actor behind Shen Teh) encourages us to consider other points of view from which Shui Ta (and Shen Teh) might be presented. At the same time, if we feel like satisfied backers of a winning team when Shui Ta throws the freeloaders out, it’s because it looks like justice is prevailing, and Shui Page 189 | Top of ArticleTa will temper Shen Teh’s mercy, enabling her to live and do good.
But, of course, we can’t hold on to this hope uncritically. The contradiction has already been set forth: Shen Teh can’t do good unless Shui Ta does well. And if cheating the Carpenter is what enables Shui Ta to do well—no matter how much it entertains the freeloaders—we see at once its dubious merit. The “Street Scene”-style performance by the freeloaders sharpens our awareness of this bind by placing before us our own emotional reactions to Shui Ta. Will we, like the freeloaders, have a laugh over Shui Ta’s cold treatment of others? And if so, what does that laugh show us? That we judge the freeloaders harshly (no sentimental portrait of the poor and downtrodden for Brecht!), that we appreciate the comic device of reversal, that we grasp the central contradiction to be expanded upon in the play—that one can’t be good without having means, and acquiring means prevents one from being good.
Other ironic reminders of Shen Teh’s performance of Shui Ta function in similar ways. In scene three, Shen Teh responds to Yang Sun’s challenge, “You’re not much of an entertainer,” with the line, “I can play the zither a little and imitate people.” Then, the stage directions instruct, “She speaks in a deep voice, imitating a dignified gentleman,” saying,” ‘Good Lord, I must have forgotten my pocket-book!’ But then I got the shop. The first thing I did was give away my zither. I said to myself, now I can be a deadhead, and it won’t matter.” Here, Shen Teh switches to verse: “I’m rich, I said to myself. / I walk alone. I sleep alone. / For a whole year, I said to myself/I’ll have nothing to do with a man.”
At one level, of course, this is so much flirtatious banter. But again, even at this curiously romantic moment, Brecht reminds us of the cousin not merely waiting in the wings, but lurking within the performer we hear speaking “in a deep voice.” What’s more, Shen Teh can mention getting rid of her zither as a humorous throw-away; to say that she will have nothing to do with a man requires heightened speech because, not only is her evident attraction for Yang Sun contradicting this pronouncement, but her impersonation of Shui Ta suggests that being rich necessitates having everything to do with a man, even if it’s one she embodies herself.
Similarly, in scene five, right after “The Song of Defenselessness,” Shui Ta sits in the tobacco shop reading the paper. When he hears Yang Sun’s voice outside, the stage directions command, “Shui Ta runs to the mirror with the light steps of Shen Teh and is about to arrange his hair when he sees his mistake in the mirror. He turns away with a soft laugh.” This is the only occasion when Shen Teh’s character so boldly peeps through the Shui Ta disguise, where we see Shen Teh acknowledge her performance by momentarily forgetting it. (Still, the stage directions refer to his hair, his mistake.) Several things are accomplished by this self-conscious action. First, Brecht increases the disdain with which we react to Yang Sun’s coarse treatment of Shen Teh, by reminding us of her romantic enthusiasm and showing how thoroughly love has swept her away. At the same time, it asks us to prick up our double vision, increasing our ironic pleasure in registering how wrong Yang Sun is to think he is shooting the breeze with one of the guys. Once again, the double character ignites our dialectical attention, making us simultaneously more empathetic and more critical. All this raises the stakes for the moment, later in the scene, when Yang Sun reveals that he has no intention of taking Shen Teh to Peking with him.
Yang Sun assumes a macho stance when Shui Ta says that Shen Teh will not go along with his decision: “You’re going to appeal to her reason? She hasn’t got any reason.” Some critics point to this line as an indication that Brecht is reinforcing a misogynistic stereotype of femininity. But that is to disregard the play’s theatrical dynamics. Yang Sun’s remark is not endorsed; its appalling nature is pointed to by our recognition of Shen Teh’s hidden presence. Yang Sun is unmistakably an ambitious lout, not, as Gay Gibson Cima suggests, a sanctioned mouthpiece for conveying Brecht’s attitude toward women. That it turns out to be true, in terms of the plot, that Shen Teh pays little mind to her reason—she runs off with Yang Sun after all, because, as he puts it, “I’ve got my hand on her bosom”—does not mean that the play doubts the intelligence of women. Rather, Brecht calls forth a familiar (and derogatory) image of women in order to make it strange, because, after all, the familiar cannot be rendered strange without first being established as familiar. By means of the Verfremdungseffekt—the central mechanism of which is the Shui Ta disguise—Brecht lets us take a look at the conditions that give rise to this image of love and the commodified, irrational woman. (That Shen Teh so abandons herself to lust contradicts several critics who complain that Brecht denies this female character her “desire.”)
Shen Teh next refers to herself as Shui Ta in scene six, the wedding scene. Her marriage to Yang Page 190 | Top of ArticleSun is delayed—pathetically in terms of our feeling for Shen Teh; comically in terms of the gag of making the flow of wine the celebration’s hourglass—because Yang Sun and his mother await Shui Ta, who, they hope, will bring money. Shen Teh asserts: “My cousin cannot be where I am.” Why is this line here? We in the audience already know this; Yang Sun and his mother aren’t meant to—and don’t—understand what she means. Like Benedick’s stating the-obvious remark, “This looks not like a nuptial,” in Much Ado About Nothing, Shen Teh’s line pulls the scene away from the precipice of melodrama. It signals us: Don’t get so carried away by this bittersweet episode that you forget to employ your complex seeing; the double character once more forces an epic interruption, refocusing our attention.
The wedding ends, of course, without Shui Ta’s arrival; like St. Neverkin’s day described in Yang Sun’s song—“when the poor woman’s son will ascend the king’s throne” and “life on earth will become a sweet dream”—Shui Ta will never, can never, come, at least not until a vexing contradiction can be resolved. In this scene, waiting is the central gestus: for the wedding, for Shui Ta, for the good times. The ending stage direction has Shen Teh, Yang Sun, and Mrs. Yang sitting together, “two of them looking toward the door.”
But, of course, Shui Ta does come, in scene seven. In fact, Shui Ta dominates the last portion of the play, the “tobacco king” replacing the “angel of the slums” almost as thoroughly as Jeriah Jip overtakes Galy Gay in Man Is Man. The mechanism that both retrieves and eventually undoes Shui Ta is Shen Teh’s pregnancy; it instigates Shen Teh’s most thorough—and least sustainable—transformation.
Even though Brecht’s image of motherhood here is not exactly sweet and touching—Shen Teh says she’ll treat others like a “tiger and a wild beast”—and even though the image is distanced by an ironic reversal—becoming a bad man enables her to be a good mother—some critics point especially at this scene to nail Brecht with their charge of misogyny. In a much-quoted essay, Sarah Lennox asserts, “a major virtue of [Brecht’s] mother figure is her willingness to be instrumentalized, serving others while ignoring her own subjective needs.” Anne Herrmann goes further: “By placing the mother in the female subject position, Brecht not only desexualizes her, but also insists on biological differences as they were used and misused by both the sex reformers of the Weimar Republic and the Nazis of the Third Reich.” Of course, Shen Teh occupies this “subject position” for seven-eighths of the play before she becomes a potential mother. And while Brecht may use as a plot device the unavoidable biological difference that women can get pregnant, its epic presentation certainly reveals rather than reinforces essentialist propaganda about a woman’s proper role. The formal verse of Shen Teh’s “big speech” is one clue that the scene must be played for distance. And the about-to-be-enacted costume change is a further reminder that Shen Teh’s gender is as provisional as it is providential.
Shen Teh’s pregnancy brings about another transformation: it marks the pivotal point where one expectation is exchanged for another. Up until then, we wait for Shui Ta, knowing just when he’ll appear to bail Shen Teh out; after, we wait for Shen Teh, hoping (though knowing better) that she’ll come back and set things right. Like the freeloaders, we undergo a change. They transform from exploiting loafers to exploited workers; we change the direction in which we yearn for a resolution.
This action of transformation is essential to the play’s story and its procedure—and essential, too, to the very purpose of epic theater. The central transformation of Shen Teh into Shui Ta provides a standard against which other transformations can be regarded: of the exploiting into the exploited, of the tobacco shop into a factory, of unemployed flier into unrelenting foreman (that is, labor into management), of the gods into judges—and most of all, the transformation theater enacts, of actor into character, stage into setting. By making the act of theater-viewing strange, Brecht subjects all the transformations in the story to a parallel interrogation: Do they have to happen? In that way? How do I, as a spectator taking part through a kind of imaginative complicity, enable these events to take place?
This dramatic motif, echoed by the theatrical process, is not just a game of self-referentiality. Brecht’s metatheatrical pointings direct our attention to the possibility of change and to our role in effecting it. Herein lies the revolutionary nature of Brecht’s dramaturgy. His intention was not to provide a recipe for socialism, but to offer spectators the pleasurable experience of practicing and honing their critical attitude in the epic theater, so it could be applied more successfully in the world.
The whetstone in Good Person is what Brecht called “the continual fusion and dissolution of the two characters,” Shen Teh and Shui Ta. Brecht Page 191 | Top of Articlesought to achieve the same ebb and flow of sympathy and antipathy with many of his protagonists—Mother Courage as victim and villain, Galileo as scholar and cheat, Puntila as humanist and misanthrope, Azdak as wiseman and bum. Walter Sokel calls these “split characters,” but they are more double than split, as we always experience one side of the character through the memory and expectation of the other. Brecht was drawn to this device, no doubt, because it steadfastly requires complex seeing; the double character serves as a focal point for the heightened, self-conscious perception we must engage in the epic theater. In turn, this double character reinforces the way in which we perceive everyone on stage—as characters and as actors showing them to us. Shen Teh/Shui Ta is not only Brecht’s most literal use of this division, but also the one that most effectively and evocatively attaches the dialectic of theater to the dialectic of moral life.
What “The Song of Defenselessness” says parallels this stage action. As the first stanza tells us, “the gods are powerless,” suffering from “defenselessness”—or in a more literal translation of Wehrlosigkeit, “weaponslessness.” And we know from the prologue that the gods are disheveled and incompetent; even if they had weapons, they couldn’t effect the transformation the song calls for any more than they can produce a denouement at the end of the play. The implication is that people have to accomplish what all-powerful gods are incapable of. That, in a way, is what Shen Teh tries to do by taking on the guise of Shui Ta. (It is also the “Good People” who lack weapons.) His mask and costume, then, are her armor, his manner—the ruthlessness of an empire-builder—her weapon. Yet the inherent contradiction of the song—combined with the complex seeing demanded by the costume change—indicates that Shen Teh’s effort is doomed to fail. Thus, at the very moment when the plot promises the transformation as the solution to Shen Teh’s predicament, the song declares that it will not work. Bringing about a climate in which goodness can thrive requires a more fundamental change than acting can accomplish.
The song, then, has a complicated gestus. Primarily it is a song of justification, much like Macheath’s summing-up anthem at the end of The Threepenny Opera. Shen Teh must do this in order, merely, to survive. (Indeed, the recapitulation of Shui Ta’s action in the trial scene at the end of the play provides rationales for his cruel behavior that are difficult to refute.) But this gestus provokes a sense of lament and refusal because the song contains—and displays—the inadequacies of its own argument.
The more the song ratchets up the need for the disguise, the more Shui Ta is brought to life—both in the completion of his costuming, and in the way the song’s point of view comes to express one we would associate more with his character than with Shen Teh’s. As she takes on his appearance, she takes on his attitude. Thus, the transformation reflects the Marxist imperative so central to Brecht’s epic theater—that social being determines thought. This principle, of course, is an underpinning of epic acting, which reverses the Stanislavskian process by which an actor builds action from character, proposing instead that the actor derive character from action—especially so that character can be shown to be a product of social forces.
Any critique of Brecht’s use of gender in Good Person must begin with this principle—but few of them do. Most feminist readings of the play call for a materialist feminist assessment, but pay no attention to the most significant materialist fact: that the play is meant to be performed, in epic style, on a stage before an audience. (One might think that Brecht’s inability to stage Good Person in his lifetime contributes to this tendency to neglect the idea of the play in performance. But these same critics, despite Brecht’s extensive revisions, clarifying notes, and Modelbuch, write in the same abstract manner about Mother Courage and Her Children.) John Fuegi, for example, is right that Shen Teh as a woman is “virtually a personification of feeling while Shui Ta as a man is made virtually a personification of reason or calculation.” But he’s right only up to a point because he doesn’t credit the play with pointing out and using that critical conclusion. Good Person not only exploits prejudgments about the “nature” of men and women, it forces us to confront those prejudgments for what they are. How can we hold onto the belief that Shen Teh is kind and emotional because she is female when we are repeatedly reminded that she is Shui Ta? And how can we maintain that Shui Ta is hard and self-serving because he is male when we are repeatedly reminded that he is Shen Teh? Besides, the meanness of Mrs. Mi Tzu and the decency of Wang—among others—make it difficult to maintain that the play is awash in moral sexual stereotyping.
To insist that Shen Teh represents a misogynistic stereotype is also to overlook that the play is a parable. Shen Teh is good not because she is female, but because it is her function in the parable to be Page 192 | Top of Articlegood. It’s astonishing how frequently critics lend Shen Teh psychological depth more fitting to an entirely different genre. To name just a few examples, Fuegi writes that she suffers from a “schizoid personality”; Cima worries that the impossibility of meeting the gods’ commandments to be good “dictat[es] within Shen Teh a feeling of failure”; Sue-Ellen Case diagnoses “an internal crisis of gender behavior.” But the parable designation can be oversimplified, too, leading to such groundless accusations as Herrmann’s—that Brecht “uses his woman figures to embody Communist Party policy.”
Good Person was written over a long period, primarily during Brecht’s exile in Scandinavia. But the idea first surfaces in his journals in the late 1920s, and he attends to it on and off for some 20 years, announcing the play’s completion in 1941. Brecht’s notes on Good Person are often sketchy, but in the movement from a European to a Chinese setting, from the story of a prostitute disguising herself as a man “in order to help her sisters,” to one who “dresses as a man in order to pose as [a cigar store’s] proprietor while continuing to practice as a prostitute,” to the nuanced structure he finally settled on, one can trace Brecht’s movement toward his dialectical theater. In some sense, he practiced the association of a double character with the paradox of goodness in his satire on bourgeois morality, The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petit-Bourgeoisie (1933), a collaboration with Kurt Weill. Its protagonists, the sisters Anna I and Anna II, travel the world trying to raise money for their family to buy a house. One, the salesperson, conveys their travails in words; the other, the goods being sold, through dance. Each scene illustrates a sin that must be avoided if one is to make a buck—but each of these, of course, is really a virtue. Scene by scene, the house takes shape on stage, walls rising as each sin is debated and avoided. Meanwhile, a quartet of men representing the family—father, mother, two brothers—offers comments from a platform to the side. (The mother pronounces pieties in basso profundo.)
In the same year, Brecht worked with some of the Good Person themes in a short story called “The Job, or In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou fail to earn thy bread.” The story is based on a true account of a woman who posed as her husband after he died, in order to take a job promised to him. The story’s opening lines announce that it shows “the barbaric condition to which the great European countries had been reduced by their inability to keep their economies going except by force and exploitation” after the first World War. The barbarity turns out to be not that the woman so masquerades, but that, when discovered, she is fired, even arrested, and her job given to “one whose legs chanced to have between them the organ recorded on his birth certificate.” The story treats gender as an artificial construction that serves male dominance, which Brecht seems to regard as an auxiliary to capitalism. “In a few days,” the story reads, “the woman became a man, in the same way as men have become men over the millenia: through the production process.” Like Marx, though, Brecht doesn’t much factor women’s unpaid labor into his definition of production; his protagonist sets up house with a woman who cares for the watchman’s two children and looks after their home. Nonetheless, Brecht’s story wryly challenges capitalism’s enforcement of gender distinctions.
Good Person, to a large extent, amalgamates these two 1933 works, combining a critical use of the cross-dressing “progress narrative” (one that doubts the nature of progress) with a comparison of the dialectics of capitalist ethics to the dialectics of a divided character. Drawing on the lessons of the Lehrstucke, and on increasingly sophisticated—and theatrically tested—epic theory, Brecht briefly picks up the 1934 sketch of Die Ware Liebe in Denmark in 1930, pokes at it again in Sweden, and then turns fuller attention to the play once he’s settled in Finland. What enables him to move ahead on “the play that gave me the hardest time” is his working out the form that could bring his parallel concerns together: the parable. Good Person was the first play to which Brecht assigned this label.
Brecht once described the parable as “far more artful than other forms. Lenin used the parable, not as an idealist, but as a materialist. The parable allowed him to unravel complicated things. To the dramatist it offers the perfect solution, because it is concrete in abstraction: it makes the essential obvious.” Brecht’s reference to Lenin is aesthetically telling: the parable is not a traditional dramatic form or genre, but is taken from a kind of didactic literature. The label has New Testament overtones as well. Thus, the parable is distinguished from its theatrical cousins, allegory and symbolist drama, in which what is presented to the audience is meant to stand for something else (and which can easily slide into dreaded expressionism). For Brecht, the parable is a condensed, intensified poetic form, at once concrete and indirect, that enables him to evoke familiar characters and situations quickly, so that Page 193 | Top of Articlehe can then go about the epic task of making them strange.
G. W. Brandt has suggested that Brecht created “negative parables” that “illustrate a wrong state of affairs.” He adds, “The negative parable does not imply there is no such thing as right conduct, but the audience is not spoon-fed with a moral.” This is an important corrective to those who add Brecht’s Marxism to his invocation of the parable to conclude that his plays are ideological vehicles, Communist object lessons. Rather, the parable form enables Brecht to subject such doctrines to pleasurable critique. Good Person doesn’t merely declare that a moral life is incompatible with capitalism; it lets us observe this tenet from a variety of angles, and asks us to consider its accuracy, cause, meaning, value.
It’s foolhardy to look for Brecht’s radicalism, and his potentially feminist deconstructions of gender, on the surface of a play’s story, as, for instance, David Z. Mairowitz does when he complains, “There is no challenge in Brecht to the arrangement of traditional sex roles.” Perhaps it would be easier to claim Brecht for our side if he’d written some plays with stories directly demonstrating how the social hierarchy relegates women to second-class status (and if he hadn’t treated women so execrably himself). But Brecht’s challenges to social arrangements come through epic process, not through traditional dramatic show-and-tell. Indeed, if one considers Brecht’s attitude toward identification and heroes, it seems downright ludicrous to look to him, as Iris Smith does, for “desiring and desirable behaviors modeled on stage... so that the feminist spectator could find herself there and project herself into the future.”
In one telling comment, recommending rehearsal exercises that would help epic actors build their parts, Brecht suggests, “it is also good for the actors when they see their characters copied or portrayed in another form. If the part is played by somebody of the opposite sex, the sex of the character will be more clearly brought out.” In watching a female actor play a male role, for example, the male actor observes gestures, stances, movement, vocal intonation—all the attributes that typically compose a conventional idea of male-ness. By separating them from the body to which these characteristics are thought to be fused, the actor reveals how gender behavior is constituted. In this exercise, then, the male actor learns how to act male, how to detach his character’s gender from the assumption that it naturally resides in and issues from his body.
It’s no doubt possible that such an exercise could be used to reinforce notions of naturalized gender behavior—one can imagine an actor drawing the conclusion that his female colleague observes masculinity better than he does because it is so completely alien to her. But that’s not the case with epic acting, which demands that all aspects of character be shown “inquotations.” For, as Janelle Reinelt has argued, “The Alienation effect hollows out and denaturalizes behaviors which are actually socially constructed, enforced through power relations and the myopia which results from habitual positioning within them.” Applying this process specifically to gender, Elin Diamond points out, “by alienating (not simply rejecting) iconicity [the semiotic observation that the actor’s body resembles the character to which it refers], by foregrounding the expectation of resemblance, the ideology of gender is exposed and thrown back to the spectator.” As a result, “gender is exposed as a sexual costume, a sign of a role, not evidence of identity” and “the spectator is enabled to see a sign system as a sign system.” In sum, Diamond asserts, “Understanding gender as ideology—as a system of beliefs and behavior mapped across the bodies of females and males, which reinforces a social status quo—is to appreciate the continued timeliness of the Verfremdungseffekt.”
Diamond offers the most sophisticated feminist reading of Brecht to date, but even she stops short of locating the gender-revealing V-effekt in Brecht’s plays. Her failure to do this leads her to call for nuances of epic performance that Brecht had, in fact, developed. Diamond imagines a Brechtian-feminist practice that would build on epic acting, fashioning a performer who, “unlike her film counterpart, connotes not ’to be looked-at-ness’ [a quality of fetishized female presence elaborated by Laura Mulvey]... but rather ‘looking-at-being-looked-at-ness.’,” Brecht had a name for this: the gestus of showing, the performer acknowledging that she is being watched and enjoyed. In addition, Diamond’s performer would be “paradoxically available for both analysis and identification, paradoxically within representation while refusing its fixity.” This, too, is precisely what already occurs in Brecht’s epic theater—and never more clearly than in the character of Shen Teh. As already noted, the V-effekt depends on first establishing the familiar to make it strange; similarly, Brecht throws events into critical relief after drawing us into them. There’s no smug Page 194 | Top of Articleanti-Brechtian point to score by saying that Shen Teh (or Brecht’s other characters) inspires a wide range of feelings in us. That’s a given; what matters is that we notice ourselves having them—and question why.
Shen Teh herself serves as a countermodel of this process: she runs off with Yang Sun, because, by her own reckoning, she is carried away “in a surge of feeling” (much like Filch in The Threepenny Opera, when he falls for the phony beggars). This is just what spectators of the lulling “Aristotelian” theater do, abandoning reason to the heedless, easily manipulated stirrings of the heart. We can’t follow suit by getting caught up in Shen Teh’s predicament; the Shui Ta disguise and the epic pointing to the familiar, socially bound nature of that predicament serve as a guardrail over the brink of sentimentality.
The play offers a more profound lesson than the moral to which it’s usually reduced—in John Willett’s words, for instance, “In a competitive society goodness is often suicidal.” Beyond that, Good Person teaches the spectator what kind of engagement is required for considering this simple-sounding dilemma. It demands nothing less than a new way of perceiving.
This, no doubt, is the reason Brecht first appealed to feminist theater-makers in America, though many of his champions took inspiration from the spreading myth that Brecht was the great genius of agitprop. Indeed, the more Brecht was reduced to being a bearer of Marxist messages, the more he could serve as avatar for the feminist theaters that mushroomed across America in the 1970s; the more incompletely or imprecisely Brecht was understood, the more easily he could be latched onto as an icon of radical theater practice. Thus, theaters as different as At the Foot of the Mountain in Minneapolis and the Women’s Experimental Theater in New York were described as “Brechtian” simply because they promoted a political agenda and produced non-naturalistic plays.
Still, if such theaters—or their critics—overlooked certain complexities of epic theater in claiming Brecht, they were right to find an affinity between the V-effekt and the great “aha” mechanism of their own work, consciousness-raising. In both, as Brecht said of epic theater, “What is ‘natural’ [has] the force of what is startling.” Such devices as putting a pregnant man desperate for an abortion at the center of a drama, as Myrna Lamb did in What Have You Done for Me Lately?, or telling the story of the Oresteia from the point of view of the women involved in the myth, as the Women’s Experimental Theater did, certainly provoked a reassessment of the old way of looking at things. Nonetheless, Lamb’s play probably owes more to commedia dell’arte than to Brecht; W.E.T.’s probably has more in common with symbolist drama than with epic theater.
One reason, of course, is stylistic. Another is tone. For C-R not only afforded the famous “click” experience, after which nothing looks the same again, it also was a means of affirming solidarity and welcoming a recruit into the fold. As an essay by Kathie Sarachild in an early feminist pamphlet points out, “Consciousness-raising was seen as both a method for arriving at the truth and as a means for action and organizing.” This is completely at odds with the truth-scorning critical analysis provoked by the V-effekt and with the more generally anti-authoritarian spirit of Brecht’s writings.
More recently, as feminist theater (and to a large degree, feminism itself) has moved into the academy, Brecht has been subjected to psychoanalytic, poststructuralist, and deconstructionist readings. It’s impossible to characterize all of these assessments with a few broad strokes, but it’s fair to say generally, I think, that the more Brecht has been scrutinized through these postmodern lenses, the more epic theater practice has gone out of focus.
Feminists, most of all, must not allow this to happen. Now that the cold war is over, Communism can no longer serve as the great clobbering epithet for conveniently dismissing Brecht. Perhaps now more than ever, we can come to appreciate the dramatic poetry of Brecht’s plays and the profound radical and feminist impact they promise—if only we would learn to recognize them.
Source: Alisa Solomon, “Materialist Girl: The Good Person of Szechwan and Making Gender Strange,” in Theater, 1994, Vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 42–55.
Atkinson, Brooks. “Brecht Play Is Staged by Eric Bentley,” The New York Times, December 19, 1956, p. 41.
Barnes, Clive. “The Theater: Brecht’s Good Woman,” The New York Times, November 6, 1970, p. 51.
Braunagel, Don. A review of The Good Person of Szechwan, in Variety, August 8, 1994.
Brecht, Bertolt. The Good Person of Szechwan: A Parable Play, translated by John Willett, Arcade Publishing, 1955.
Driver, Tom. F. “Over the Edge,” The Christian Century, January 30, 1957, p. 138.
Fuegi, John. The Essential Brecht, Hennessey & Ingalls, 1972, p. 133.
Hatch, Robert. A review of The Good Person of Szechwan, in The Nation, January 5, 1957, p. 27.
Hewes, Henry. “Trying to Like Eric Bentley,” Saturday Review, January 5, 1957, p. 24.
Kauffmann, Stanley. A review of The Good Person of Szechwan, in The New Republic, March 13, 1976, p. 28.
Kerr, Walter. “Will Brecht Ever Come True?,” The New York Times, November 15, 1970, section 2, p. 1.
Robinson, Roderick. “Theater Emory Pulls off Brecht with Bit of Verve,” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, March 20, 1992, p. D2.
Winn, Steven. “Adding Szechuan to Shakespeare,” The San Francisco Chronicle, March 2, 1999, p. El.
Fuegi, John. “The Alienated Woman: Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, in Essays on Brecht: Theater and Politics, edited by Siegfried Mews and Herbert Knust, The University of North Carolina Press, 1974, pp. 190-96.
This essay explores the evolution of Brecht’s ideas on The Good Person of Szechwan, and the prominent woman character, Shen Teh.
Kleber, Pia. Exceptions and Rules: Brecht, Planchon and The Good Person of Szechwan, Peter Lang, 1987.
This book describes the influence of Brecht on a Roger Planchon, a French director and playwright, including a discussion of his three different stagings of The Good Person of Szechwan.
Lyon, James K. Bertolt Brecht in America, Princeton University Press, 1980.
This is a critical biography of Brecht during his time in exile in the United States. Work on The Good Person of Szechwan was completed in this time period.
Schoeps, Karl H. Bertolt Brecht, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977, pp. 280-97.
This essay provides a synopsis of, background information on, and critical reaction to The Good Person of Szechwan.