The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The plot of The Good Woman of Setzuan winds through a prologue, ten scenes with numerous interludes separating them, and an epilogue. The action centers on the desire of Shen Te to be good and the impossibility of living up to that standard in society as it is presently configured. She has a small amount of money, which she must use to help herself and those around her to a better life if she is to be good. She discovers very quickly, however, that in order to survive she must invent a tough cousin, a formidable businessman, to protect her interests. Thus throughout the play she alternates between two roles: As herself, she is the gentle, generous, sweet Shen Te, but when she must meet business crises head-on, she assumes the identity of a man, the harsh and sometimes vicious Shui Ta.
In the prologue, Wang, the water seller, speaks directly to the audience, explaining that he is waiting to greet the gods, who are secretly searching for a good person to help end the horrible poverty and the intense drought that plague the province. Wang easily recognizes the gods—they are well fed and well dressed compared to the poor citizens of Setzuan. Wang hopes to find lodging for the gods but is turned away from the homes of all the wealthy. He shelters them in the home of Shen Te, a prostitute. In the morning, as they prepare to depart, certain that they have found a good person in Shen Te, the gods give her one thousand silver dollars, with the proviso...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The Good Woman of Setzuan has an episodic structure that allows the playwright to establish the problems of poverty and generosity and then depict them in different ways. Each restatement of the problems is accompanied by a raising of the stakes—first it is just a night’s business Shen Te will lose, then her shop, then someone else’s shop, then the future of her child. Each time, Shui Ta finds some solution to save Shen Te through cold-hearted business tactics. The loose episodes, with the counterbalancing effects of the two sides of the character, lead to an alternation between the scenes of Shen Te and Shui Ta, until in scene 10 they both make appearances.
The episodic structure also allows for the interludes, which interrupt the development of the plot. In one, the audience sees Shen Te transform herself into Shui Ta; the effect is reminiscent of the Chinese theatrical convention in which characters change costume and become other characters before the eyes of the audience. In many interludes, Wang talks with the gods about Shen Te’s tenacity in goodness or about the problems of being good. In each, the audience sees that the gods are deteriorating as a result of their contact with the real world of human problems. Their clothes become more and more ragged, they look increasingly haggard and travel worn, and intervention in human disputes earns one a black eye and another a crippled leg from the jaws of a trap. This is a strong visual...
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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...
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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 river. 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...
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Compare and Contrast
1943: Tobacco cigarettes are advertised as healthy in the United States.
Today: Tobacco companies are sued for false advertising as it has been revealed in court that they have known for many years that cigarettes cause cancer.
1943: In China a woman’s fertility is unregulated. In many rural areas, especially, women produce large families to provide labor for farms.
Today: In an effort to control an exploding population, the Chinese government has decreed that each woman is limited to one child, though those who live in rural areas might petition for permission to have two, if the first is a girl.
1943: About one-third of women between the ages of 18 and 64 in the United States are employed in war-related work. Many take on jobs considered ‘‘men’s work,’’ but are forced to give up their positions to returning soldiers when the war ends.
Today: Many American women work in nearly every occupation previously considered only appropriate for men. However, there is a glass ceiling in many business sectors which limits women’s opportunities to reach the highest executive levels.
1943: Nazi Germany uses millions of prisoners of war and workers from occupied countries as involuntary laborers to support their war effort....
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Topics for Further Study
Compare and contrast Shen Teh with Anna Fierling, the title character of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1941). Both are women trying to survive in difficult circumstances via their businesses, but make very different choices. What do their choices say about their circumstances?
Discuss the duality of Shen Teh/Shui Ta in terms of the Ying-Yang principle in Chinese philosophy and/or the psychology of schizophrenia.
Research Brecht’s idea of epic theater, perhaps through his book Writings on Theater. Is The Good Person of Szechwan an example of epic theater? Why or why not?
Brecht was an avowed Marxist. Research Karl Marx and Marxism, and discuss the themes of Good Person in Marxist terms.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play written by Brecht in 1948, is also a parable about survival based on a Chinese myth.
Concubines and Bondservants: a Social History, a nonfiction book written by Maria Jaschok in 1999, explores the history and social impact of prostitution in China.
No Exit, a play written by Jean Paul Sartre in 1944, shows the reactions of four people stuck in an impossible situation who are forced to explore who they really are.
The Threepenny Opera is a play written by Brecht in 1928. It answers the question of whether goodness pays in the world with a negative answer.
Dilemmas of a Double Life: Women Balancing Careers and Relationships is a collection of essays edited by Nancy B. Katreider and published in 1997. It discusses the problems of working women in the United States trying to meet the demands of work and family life.
Life of Galileo, a play written by Brecht in 1943, explores the double life of the scientist who tries to invent while supporting himself as a teacher of rich, unintelligent students.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Benjamin, Walter. Understanding Brecht. Translated by Anna Bostock. London: Verso, 1983.
Bentley, Eric. Bentley on Brecht. New York: Applause, 1999.
Bentley, Eric. The Brecht Commentaries. 2d ed. New York: Grove Press, 1987.
Casabro, Tony. Bertold Brecht’s Art of Dissemblance. Brookline, Mass.: Longwood Academic, 1990.
Esslin, Martin. Brecht, a Choice of Evils: A Critical Study of the Man, His Work, and His Opinions. 4th rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1984.
Ewen, Frederick. Bertolt Brecht: His Life, His Art, and His Times. New York: Citadel, 1967.
Fisher, James. Review of The Good Woman of Setzuan. Theatre Journal 52 (March, 2000): 20-21.
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