The Good Person of Szechwan

by Bertolt Brecht

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

The first full text of The Good Woman of Setzuan was offered for production in 1942. The play came from a mature writer who was in his ninth year of exile from his homeland, Germany. During his nomadic travels to avoid Nazi rule and certain death, Brecht was constantly in need of money. By the time he settled in California in 1941, he hoped to create a play that would have some commercial success. The Good Woman of Setzuan is, for this reason, less strident in its revolutionary preaching and less concerned with the intricacies of Marxism than most of Brecht’s earlier works.

Despite the softer approaches to revolutionary issues, this work raises the same economic question as earlier and later plays. In The Good Woman of Setzuan, as with his other plays, Brecht attacks the myth that human destiny is in the hands of gods. He replaces that myth with a call for human action to replace the social or political complacency that accepts things as they are rather than creating society as it should be.

The Good Woman of Setzuan is ranked as one of Brecht’s greatest plays, along with Leben des Galilei (pr. 1943; Life of Galileo, 1947), Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (pb. 1949; The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1948), and Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (pr. 1940; Mother Courage and Her Children, 1941), all begun or completed in the difficult days of exile. Less political and not as obscure philosophically as his earlier works, these plays tend to be more accessible to theater artists and audiences steeped in the twentieth century Western dramatic tradition of domestic realism. All four are based on the premise that humankind is responsible for its own destiny and must structure society and the world in such a way as to dispense with the myths that contradict or discourage positive human action. In each play Brecht also confronts the moral issues involved in human action. Generosity in the face of poverty (versus the creation of more personal wealth), the containment and suppression of knowledge for what seems a greater good of society, the nurturing and use of resources, and personal responsibility in the advantageous economics of war are all strong themes in Brecht’s great plays.

The sweep of The Good Woman of Setzuan is both typical and unique in Brecht’s work. He chooses the large issues of the modern world for his works, expressing them in everyday terms but setting them in either distant times or places. Often he uses extraordinary people as his characters, but in having them do ordinary things he brings their efforts to a level that encourages audience contemplation and criticism. With The Good Woman of Setzuan, he creates a play of China that is really about Western ideas and problems. What might be expected to be an exotic fairy tale is a grim confrontation with the realities of labor and poverty and the philosophies that propound the problems.

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Critical Overview