Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836

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From the earliest production of The Good Person of Szechwan in Zurich, Switzerland’s Schauspielhaus Zurich in 1943, many critics have found much to praise. Since that time, however, many critics have also found the play to be exceptionally long in performance, usually running about three to three and a half hours, which sometimes lessens its impact. Many also agree that The Good Person of Szechwan is difficult for directors to interpret, often resulting in stylistically inconsistent productions. However, the play is often pointed to as one of the more accessible examples of Brecht’s concept of epic theater, entertaining and nonsentimental, though others believe it is too detached. In addition, the ideas in The Good Person of Szechwan have been appreciated more and more over time.

At the time of the first production in New York City, Brecht’s ideas about theater and the episodic structure of The Good Person of Szechwan were still considered unusual. Many critics commented on these aspects of the play. Comparing the play to Voltaire’s Candide, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, wrote ‘‘It is strange in form, nonsentimental in theme, and stimulating from several points of view.’’ His sentiments were echoed by Tom F. Driver of Christian Century. Brecht, he wrote, ‘‘invigorated the modern theater by establishing a stage technique which does away with theatrical illusion and appeals directly to the imagination and the intellect.’’

This production, at New York City’s Phoenix Theatre, featured a controversial translation by Eric Bentley, who also directed the production. Robert Hatch in The Nation was especially critical of the translation, and how it affected the play: ‘‘Eric Bentley translated the play with what sounds to my ear like a warm appreciation of its flavor, but he has displayed it in the theatre as though he were dressing a museum.’’ Hatch believed ‘‘The production commits the worse sin of the theatre—it is boring. I think the fault is with the production. . . .’’ Henry Hewes of the Saturday Review agreed with Hatch. Hewes argued, ‘‘there is much in it [his translation] that is awkward. . . . And lines that might have been funny in the original lose their humor. . . .’’ Many scholars have commented on the inherent humor in Good Person. Some have pointed out that this humorous quality is often overlooked.

By 1970, when a new professional production in New York City’s Vivian Beaumont Theater opened, Brecht’s ideas had been widely discussed and studied. Though Brecht may have been better understood, many critics still believed it was diffi- cult to do a good production of The Good Person of Szechwan with a unified style. Critics did not find this in the new production. Clive Barnes of The New York Times wrote ‘‘The Good Woman is a play that should dance across the stage with a gentle mocking smile; it is one of the lightest of Brecht’s plays.’’ His colleague Walter Kerr, also of The New York Times, believed ‘‘Brecht still hasn’t been proved out, if that’s a proper phrase, in this country; we still wait for a director who will make it all come true.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, there were numerous productions of The Good Person of Szechwan in the United States that were highly stylized (a trend that would continue into the 1990s). Critics of the 1975-76 productions of the play at La Mama in New York City debated old questions, such as how important The Good Person of Szechwan was in Brecht’s canon. Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic was one of the few who placed it in the lower echelon. He wrote ‘‘The Good Woman is lesser Brecht. His best plays crystallize some aspects of the modern consciousness in new dramatic modes; his lesser ones are explicit, didactic, linear and relatively unresonant.’’

In the late 1990s, many critics noted that American productions of The Good Person of Szechwan were being adapted to contemporary, familiar set- tings, and new scores were being written. Most praised these changes, in part because it made this play more accessible to modern audiences. Of a 1992 production at Emory University, Atlanta Journal and Constitution critic Roderick Robinson wrote ‘‘This isn’t a show that will appeal to Three’s Company zealots, but Brecht’s monumental questioning of humankind’s ways still has plenty to bite. The production has fine touches of wit. . . .’’

A 1994 adaptation by well-known playwright/ director Tony Kushner was set at the California Mexico border, with characters retaining Chinese names and with a score by Los Lobos. Don Braunagel of Variety hit on one long-term issue with the production. He wrote, ‘‘La Jolla Playhouse’s extraordinary synergy with Bertolt Brecht continues with this superlative presentation, with Lisa Peterson demonstrating why the playwright, directed properly, is timeless.’’ A 1999 production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival featured a different translation, but was similarly American in its feel. Steve Winn of the San Francisco Chronicle believed the play remained relevant: ‘‘The Good Person of Szechwan feels a lot like life in the ’90s.’’

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