The Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht. Written 1938-41; premiered at the Zürich Schauspielhaus on 4 February 1943. Text: In Collected Plays: Six: London: Methuen, 1994. A new production of Good Person of Szechwan opens on 1 February 2013 at La MaMa ETC.
Bertolt Brecht was never a doctrinaire Marxist — his poetic vision was too complex to fit easily into any ideological dogma. Even his most didactic play, The Measures Taken, was met with confusion and despair from Communist groups in Germany. His harsh assessment of the revolutionary project — that the expression of compassion for the downtrodden masses was a hindrance, rather than a help, in the establishment of a socialist utopia — did not go down well with revolutionary groups; later, Brecht was reluctant to permit productions of the play.
The same general theme informs The Good Person of Szechwan, written in the early 1940s while Brecht was sojourning in Finland, but composed with an eye to Broadway, which Brecht hoped to conquer upon his upcoming emigration there. It was also a play which gave the dramatist a great deal of difficulty. Three gods come to earth in search of a “good person” to justify the continuing existence of the world; they find one in Shen Teh, a prostitute, who turns away a client to give them a place to rest for one night. Upon their departure, they expansively pay for their lodgings; with this money, Shen Teh purchases a tobacco shop and hopes to use it as a basis for her continued good works. Unfortunately she finds herself at the mercy of the demands of the angry poor, which she can’t possibly satisfy. Instead, she creates a persona, her male cousin Shui Ta, whose ruthless management of her business at least permits her to survive. At the end of the play, the gods descend one last time and Shen Teh’s ruse is discovered, but the gods can offer no hope for a change in the situation, providing only empty encouragement before they disappear again.
The play as we have it in its final form is a confused mess, over-complicated and over-plotted. “Despite its obvious attractions The Good Person of Szechwan is made up of too many conflicting layers simply to convey the thin steely strength or the clarity and ease for which Brecht variously aimed,” write editors John Willett and Ralph Manheim (xi); Brecht had hoped to attract a star like Jessica Tandy to appear in the Broadway premiere, but a variety of these plans came to nought, and the play first premiered at Zürich’s Schauspielhaus in 1943 (the same theatre had premiered Mother Courage in 1941).
All that said, as Willett and Manheim assert, the play does have obvious attractions. It contains one of Brecht’s most tender love scenes, and Shen Teh is given a remarkable monologue in which she imagines introducing her unborn child to the blessings and evils of the world; this may reflect the influence of Brecht’s two credited collaborators on the play, Ruth Berlau and Marguerite Steffin. Its “parable” structure also hints at the later Caucasian Chalk Circle, a far more successful play, similarly set in a stylized Asia but more lyrical and confident.
Brecht was aware of the failures of The Good Person of Szechwan, and his notes indicate that he knew that severe cutting and pruning were necessary to any successful production of the play. And, as with Mother Courage, he saw that it had to be made harder, more unsentimental. Brecht toyed with the idea of making Shen Teh’s tobacco shop a cover for an opium factory, undermining any pity the audience may have for her situation. And there was the figure of Shen Teh herself. “The difficulty is that despite Brecht’s warnings against a fancy-dress orientalising approach there is some danger of sentimentality and prettification in the play as he left it to us,” Willett and Manheim write. “What seems rather surprising, in view of the high risk of having Shen Teh interpreted as a sweet-natured oriental waif, is that Brecht’s experience of Chinese acting, which so influenced him in other respects, never led him to propose giving the dual role to a man. This would instantly correct any undue softness that may stem from the sexually loaded ‘good woman’ image; moreover it seems to make it easier to see elements of Shui Ta in Shen Teh and vice versa, as the parable surely demands; nor is there anything in the text to rule it out.” (xi-xiii) Whether the editors’ suggestion will succeed in making the play more vital will be discovered soon; the Foundry Theatre’s upcoming production of the play will feature Taylor Mac in the dual role, and director Lear deBessonet has put together a script based on a variety of drafts. We’ll find out then.