Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan on stage

This video from the USA says about itself:

The Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht. Performed by The Falcon’s Eye Theatre at Folsom Lake College in November 2011 in The Studio Theatre at Three Stages Performing Arts Center in Folsom California.

Bertolt Brecht wrote this play, in collaboration with Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau, from 1938 on. He finished it in 1943, as a refugee in the United States from nazi Germany. A theme in this play is how morality, ideas about what is good and what is bad, functions in an unequal class society. Then, how can one continue to be a good person in an environment which often looks like punishing rather than rewarding goodness?

This is a version of The Good Person of Szechwan, with subtitles in Chinese and English.

This Dutch video is the trailer of Brecht’s play, as performed by the Toneelgroep Maastricht.

Earlier, the Toneelgroep Maastricht has performed another play, The Rising Sun, by Dutch playwright Herman Heijermans. Both plays are about a small business, threatened by pressures of the society around it. In both plays, Arie de Mol was director (he translated Brecht’s text as well). Actress Jessie Wilms played the small shopkeeper’s daughter in Heijermans’ play; and a prostitute-turned-small-shopkeeper in Brecht’s play.

Both Heijermans and Brecht are authors, critical of capitalist society. There is a difference in their styles, however: while Heijermans’ plays are “realist”, Brecht‘s works are “epic theatre”, seeking to disturb audience illusions that plays are real life.

On 18 December 2013, the Toneelgroep Maastricht version of Bertolt Brecht’s play The Good Person of Szechwan was on stage. The director had introduced an “epic theatre” element by having stuffed dolls play minor non-speaking roles like children or factory workers.

Establishment morality often describes sex workers as the worst people imaginable. It also sometimes describes women who are not prostitutes but who have sex outside of marriage (like the young women in the Profumo scandal) as prostitutes; implying they are very bad persons.

The irony in the play is that in Sechuan province in China in the 1930s, the best person, arguably the only good person, is Shen Teh. She is a prostitute. Three Chinese gods come to her city, in a quest whether there are any good people. Rich people refuse the gods hospitality because of selfishness. Poor people refuse hospitality because they have very little space. Only “bad” Shen Teh turns out to be kind-hearted, providing the gods with a roof over their heads for the night. Though this good person has more than enough on her mind, as next morning, she is expecting her landlord whom she will probably be unable to pay.

In this Dutch version, one actor played the three gods. However, people address this one actor in the plural. An allusion by the director to the Roman Catholic Trinity dogma.

Thanking Shen Teh for her hospitality, the gods give her a thousand silver dollars. This enables Shen Teh to change from a non-respectable profession to a respectable profession: buying a small shop, she becomes a tobacconist.

In the days of Bertolt Brecht, medical information about harmfulness of tobacco was not yet at the level of today. Selling tobacco may be more respectable than selling sex; but one may ask now whether it is really a good profession for a good person.

Very soon after acquiring her small shop, Shen Teh finds out it is threatened from all sides: the ex-owner, the rich landlady, her ex-landlord who made her homeless and now wants to profit from her, and others abusing her goodness. To survive, Shen Teh invents an alter ego, her male cousin Shui Ta. Shui Ta is Shen Teh in men’s clothes. The same actress plays both roles. Contrary to Shen Teh, so full of goodness that she is unable to say no to any request for help, Shui Ta is an unscrupulous businessman.

Shen Teh meets Yang Sun. Yang Sun is a pilot, on the verge of committing suicide because of unemployment. Shen Teh saves Yang Sun’s life. She remembers that as a child she had a crane with a broken wing. Whenever other cranes were flying during their migration in spring or autumn, her crane, unable to fly along, would get restless. Shen Teh decides that she wants to enable the jobless pilot to fly again. She falls in love with Yang Sun.

Yang Sun gets a new chance of working as a pilot. In Brecht’s text, that opportunity is in Hong Kong. In this Dutch version, in Beijing. When Brecht wrote the play, Beijing was occupied by Japanese invaders.

Yang Sun will only be able to get the pilot’s job if he pays the employer five hundred dollars. Shen Teh is willing to sell her shop to pay that money, as she is a good person who loves Yang Sun. However, Yang Sun does not love Shen Teh like she loves him. Shen Teh gets big problems as she wants to help both Yang Sun and an elderly couple in financial trouble.

Yang Sun and Shen Teh have a wedding party. In the Dutch theatre show, with klezmer music. Music often played at weddings; but at Jewish ones, not Chinese ones. In this Dutch version, the songs by composer Paul Dessau in Brecht’s version are replaced by spoken word. Actress Gitta Fleuren plays four roles: not only pilot Yang Sun’s mother, but also landlady Mi Tzu, a carpet trader’s wife, and a policewoman. Other actors have multiple roles too.

Though they have a wedding party, Yang Sun and Shen Teh don’t marry. Shen Teh transforms into her unscrupulous alter ego Shui Ta. Eventually, everyone hates her/him. Maybe, the reason why people don’t see Shen Teh anymore is because her cousin has murdered her?

Finally, “Shui Ta” takes of “his” men’s clothes, revealing Shen Teh. She asks the gods to solve her insoluble problems that she got into for obeying the gods’ rules of what a good person should do. The gods go away, saying they can’t help her.

The final words of the play say that there is no happy end. In order for other good people not to end up as badly as the good person of Sechuan, an actress says, you, the audience, should make an happy end.

The audience applauded enthusiastically.

In a review of the Toneelgroep Maastricht performance, the Dutch blog Live Like Tom wrote (translated) about the impact of this play now, over seventy years after Brecht wrote it:

At a time when banks and governments suck common people dry, there is a lot of temptation not to behave well oneself.

Fortunately, the final words give some hope, that blogger writes.

39 thoughts on “Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan on stage

  1. Dear Kitty, thank you for this post on Brecht. Indeed being “good” can be very difficult and a magnet for trouble of all kinds. When I have over two hours free I will view the full production. The trailer and the 14:50 minute one are very intriguing.
    Can one decide to be innately good and then decide to be “bad” easily? Is there not a difference between those who pick when to be “good”–when it suits them and others who cannot deny behaving in accord with their true nature? Of course society often does NOT reward goodness. I wonder why that is?
    “We found a good human being.” Why is that so hard to find?


  2. I’ve just been getting into Brecht this year after I read ‘Mother courage’ and a collection of his short stories of course he and his life & times are pretty interesting in themselves, I’ll have to check this video out for sure thanks for posting it!


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