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 that she must remain good. Shen Te uses the gift of the gods to buy a tobacco shop, turning away from her previous profession. However, as claim after claim is made on her food, shelter, and money, she recognizes that she will be able to save no one if she herself does not survive.
As the second scene begins, Shui Ta introduces himself as Shen Te’s cousin. He makes friends with the local police, rids the shop of a family of eight who have moved in, cheats the carpenter of his shelves, and rents the shop space on less stringent terms than those proposed by Mrs. Mi Tzu in the first scene. With a tough business approach, it seems, the shop and Shen Te will survive.
As scene 3 begins, Shen Te hurries to a teahouse to meet a rich man who might marry her at Shui Ta’s request. She interrupts Yang Sun’s attempt to hang himself out of despair over not being able to ply his trade as an airplane pilot. She falls in love with Sun and forgets the meeting with the old man in the teahouse who could save her shop.
In a dream, Wang sees the gods. Shen Te is as good as ever, but Shui Ta’s cheating of the carpenter besmirches her reputation; the gods are discouraged by this imperfection. Their physical condition is deteriorating. Their search is leading them to more contact with the misery of the human condition.
Outside Shen Te’s shop at dawn, the hungry people who depend on her rice await her return. There is an altercation between Wang and the wealthy barber, Shu Fu. The barber breaks Wang’s hand. Shen Te arrives, glowing with the joy of her night’s encounter with Yang Sun and happy to give rice to the hungry. The carpet dealer and his wife recognize the look of one in love. They ask if she met the man at the teahouse. Shen Te realizes that she has forgotten about paying the rent in the flush of romantic love. The old couple happily loan her all they have, two hundred silver dollars, to pay her rent. Moments later, Shen Te impulsively and lovingly turns this money over to Yang Sun’s mother to help him get a pilot’s job. She...
(The entire section is 1443 words.)