The Good Person of Szechwan
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 uses 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 Shen 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 debated 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. …