Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1929
The epilogue of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan apologizes for the lack of a true, closed ending to the play. In the last scene, Shen Teh’s dilemma of how to be a Good Person in a harsh world is left unanswered by the gods and Brecht. Instead, the audience is asked to think for themselves. Brecht writes ‘‘Indeed it is a curious way of coping: / To close the play, leaving the issue open. / Especially since we live by your enjoyment.’’ Thus everyone is supposed to propose their own interpretation to the problem.
For the most part, critics believe the play supported the idea of goodness, while showing the difficulties in living such a life. Clive Barnes of The New York Times believed ‘‘The Good Woman of Setzuan is a parable about the impossibility of human purity. For its very existence, good has to coexist with evil, riches bring poverty and even to fly man has to cheat.’’ In the epilogue, Brecht seems to support such interpretations. He writes ‘‘There’s only one solution that we know: / That you should now consider as you god / What sort of measures you would recommend / to help good people to a happy end.’’
Yet there is not one instance of goodness rewarded in Good Person. Every time Shen Teh or several other characters try to do good, their actions come back to haunt them. They end up suffering somehow, whether it be economically, emotionally, or otherwise. Far from arguing that goodness has its merits, Brecht shows how much it negatively affects people’s lives. The reason goodness fails, however, is not because of goodness itself. It is because other people take advantage of the good. They are driven to it for reasons such as the capitalist economy reflecting Brecht’s Marxist bias). While the lines from the Epilogue quoted above show that Brecht supports the ideal of good people, the play shows the impossibility of being good in such a society.
In addition to Shen Teh, several minor characters struggle greatly after acts of kindness. Wang, the water seller, is not particularly honorable. He has a false bottom in his cup, meaning he cheats those to whom he sells his product. But Wang chooses to wait for the gods at the entrance to the city, hoping to talk to them. They enlist him to help them find lodging for the night, their way of trying to find one Good Person. Wang is repeatedly turned down, and he finally takes them to Shen Teh who takes them in. Yet Wang becomes confused and runs away after he believes he has failed the gods. His act of goodness leads to personal stress. Wang hides, fearing their wrath. Even after they reassure him, they come to him in his dreams for updates on Shen Teh. His one good deed leads to ever greater obligations.
Wang’s problems are minor when compared to the carpet dealer and his wife. In scene four, Shen Teh enters their carpet shop, which is near her shop, to buy a pretty shawl. She has just returned from an evening with Yang Sun and is very happy. The couple reminds her that she must pay her rent soon, but Shen Teh knows she is out of money. Out of generosity, they offer to lend her the 200 silver dollars against her stock, though they do not demand anything in writing. This act of goodness ends up hurting them deeply. Shen Teh promptly gives the loaned funds to Yang Sun so he can get his pilot’s job.
During the interlude between scenes five and six, Shen Teh reveals that the carpet dealer needs the loaned money back. He is ill over his act of goodness, and does not trust her cousin, Shui Ta. Shen Teh promises to give them the money back, but cannot retrieve it from Yang Sun. Though Shen Teh feels guilty about the situation, the carpet dealer and his wife are left none the richer because of their goodness. Eventually, they lose their store because the loan put them in the position of not being able to pay their taxes. By scene eight, when Shui Ta has almost exclusively taken the place of Shen Teh, the carpet dealer and his wife have been repaid by the hard-nosed alter ego. However, the couple had lost their store by then. Their generosity resulted in greater poverty.
Though Shu Fu, the barber, is not poor like Wang, nor does he lose his business like the carpet dealer and his wife, several of his generous acts end up hurting him. Shu Fu is by no means a nice person. He breaks Wang’s hand with his curling tongs, and does not do anything to help him. But because Shu Fu is enamored with Shen Teh, he does some good things to try and assist her. In scene five, he offers the use of some of his buildings to her via Shui Ta. She uses them to house those without homes, until scene seven when Shui Ta gets tough and decides to build a tobacco factory business out of stolen property. Shu Fu’s charitable act is twisted into something that hurts those Shen Teh intended to help.
Shu Fu also suffers in more direct fashion. In scene seven, when Shen Teh is in danger of losing her business and cease her charitable ways, Shu Fu writes her a blank check so that she can save herself. Shen Teh declines to use it, but Shui Ta is not above taking advantage of the situation; he fills in an absurd amount, 10,000 silver dollars. Shu Fu does not go bankrupt over the check, but it is hardly what he intended when he tried to do good. Shu Fu also never ends up winning over Shen Teh, so all of his goodness was for naught.
The character who suffers the most because of her goodness is Shen Teh, the title character and the only one with pure motivations. No act of kindness on Shen Teh’s part has an ulterior motive or is regretted after the fact. Yet all her goodness drives her deeper and deeper into debt and despair. Each successive good deed is met by greater demands. She is forced to split herself in two to deal with the expectations created by her goodness. Only through a male alter ego, Shui Ta, is Shen Teh able to be as cruel as the world is and ensure her (and later in the play, her unborn child’s) survival.
Shen Teh’s problems begin in the Prologue when she gives up an appointment with a client so that the gods have a place to stay for the night. They tell her to continue to be good, but she counters that it is hard to be when she is so poor. They give her money which she uses to start a tobacco shop. If the gods had not given her money, as they were initially inclined not to, Shen Teh would still have been good but not so pressured to do more than she already had been doing. As it stands, the money forces Shen Teh to be consciously, if not detrimentally, good.
In scene one, Shen Teh cannot refuse anyone’s request. The elderly couple, who gave Shen Teh her first home when she moved to the city, imposes greatly upon her. Members of their extended family trickle in throughout the scene, taking advantage of Shen Teh’s goodness. They demand food, service, a place to sleep—all without regard to Shen Teh or her shop. Two get in a fight and break some of her shelving. Though the couple actually kicked Shen Teh out when she could not pay her rent a long time ago, they have no problem paying her nothing and giving her no respect.
Such impositions on Shen Teh occur throughout Good Person. When she starts giving out cigarettes and rice, people like the unemployed man and Mrs. Shin come to expect it. No act of kindness can be just what it is. Everyone wants something more. The one character who wants the most from Shen Teh is Yang Sun. After she essentially saves him from a suicide attempt and falls in love with him, he treats her poorly. He only promises to marry her when she give him 200 of the 500 silver dollars he needs so that he can become a pilot. Then Yang Sun expects her to sell the shop for 300 silver dollars so he can get the rest of the money he needs. When Shen Teh wants the 200 silver dollars back so she can repay the carpet dealer and his wife, Yang Sun will not (and as it turns out, cannot) do it. Shen Teh’s wedding day is ruined when Yang Sun and his mother hold up the ceremony waiting for Shui Ta to show up with the 300 silver dollars and some common sense. They are sorely disappointed and Shen Teh does not marry him.
To deal with the demands created by being good and somewhat prosperous (with the gift from the gods), Shen Teh is compelled to create a heartless, male alter ego, her ‘‘cousin’’ Shui Ta. He corrects situations that Shen Teh cannot. He kicks out the freeloading elderly couple and their family, just in time to save Shen Teh’s reputation. He learns the truth about Yang Sun and ends up making Shen Teh accept it. Shui Ta protects all of Shen Teh’s interests, and by scene nine, it is clear he has been doing some of Shen Teh’s charitable works. However, Shui Ta is a realist. He has also taken advantage of the situation Shen Teh has set up with Shu Fu and others. Shui Ta uses the buildings Shu Fu has given Shen Teh for the needy to start a tobacco factory/sweatshop. Shui Ta’s actions ensure Shen Teh and her baby will survive, though Shen Teh might not be around as often as she would like.
One way to look at what Brecht really thinks of the good in Good Person is to examine who is kind to Shen Teh. Mrs. Shin seems nice after she learns and keeps the secret that Shen Teh and Shui Ta are the same person. But nearly everyone else fears Shui Ta and treats Shen Teh poorly, without much regard to her as a person. Shu Fu is in love with her, and is rebuffed, but acts only out of this feeling. If Shu did not have feelings for her, he would not be nearly as nice.
Only the gods and Wang seem to be good to Shen Teh with no strings attached. The gods want her to be good, but cannot tell her how to stay that way. Wang only asks for lodging for the gods, and nothing else. He will not even let her commit perjury to the magistrate when Shu Fu breaks his hand and all the witnesses refuse to back him up. Perhaps Wang is the most realistic expression of good the play: something of a combination of Shen Teh and Shui Ta. Wang wants to do good, but is afraid of the gods. He scrapes out a living, tries to stay out of trouble, and helps out Shen Teh whenever he can. Trying to be good without exception while protecting one’s self is the best Brecht hoped for us to do. Goodness itself gets Shen Teh nowhere fast.
Source: A. Petruso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2177
In the 1960s, the Beatles sang, ‘‘I don’t care too much for money. Money can’t buy me love,’’ thus encapsulating society’s idealized view of romance: love and money are separate and have nothing to do with each other. Reality, of course, is a bit more murky. Though most people in Western cultures would probably find fault with what is commonly called ‘‘marrying for money,’’ money plays at least a small part in many ‘‘romantic’’ decisions. For instance, a person who is unemployed or has serious financial troubles is likely to have more difficulty finding a partner, while a person with a high income will probably be seen as more desirable. Still, the belief that love and money at least ‘‘should’’ be separate persists. In matters of love, it is the heart that is supposed to rule, not the head.
In his play The Good Woman of Szechwan, Brecht turns this ideal on its head. The play presents a world in which love is always linked in some way to money. In fact, one title Brecht considered for the play was Die Ware Liebe, which can be translated as Love for Sale or The Commodity Love. One could argue, of course, that much of the time what is bought and sold in Brecht’s play is not love, but sex. After all, Shen Te begins the play as a prostitute. Romantic love and sex, however, can only neatly be divided in theory. Obviously, romantic partners who have sexual relationships are assumed to be in love. Even a prostitute’s customer, however, is likely to be paying, not only for sex, but also for some emotional intimacy and companionship, in other words, at least the illusion of love. The American language also reflects the connection between love and sex; today, the term ‘‘making love’’ is most often used as a euphemism for sex. In short, love and sex exist, not as separate entities, but on a continuum. This essay will use both words, but with the understanding that the division between them is necessarily artificial.
Brecht establishes the theme of ‘‘love for sale’’ at the beginning of the play. Shen Te is first referred to by Wong as ‘‘Shen Te, the prostitute,’’ with the word ‘‘prostitute’’ appearing as if it is part of her name and thus her essential identification. Trying to keep the gods from realizing that Shen Te sells herself, Wong explains to the audience, ‘‘They mustn’t see her gentleman or they’ll know what she is.’’ It should be noted here that Wong refers to what Shen Te is, not what she does. She may be a daughter, a sister, or a friend, but in breaking society’s rules, she is first and foremost a prostitute, and thus not fit for polite society, even though she needed the money to live. After the gods give money to Shen Te, she is able to open a tobacco shop, but her former practice of a less ‘‘respectable’’ profession haunts her when her landlady, Mrs. Mi Tzu, learns about her past and demands that she pay the rent six months in advance, thus punishing Shen Te for selling sex. When Shen Te, as Shui Ta, discusses the matter with a policeman, the policeman presents society’s idealized view, that sex for love is acceptable, but sex for money is not: ‘‘. . . love isn’t bought and sold like cigars, Mr. Shui Ta . . . it isn’t respectable to go waltzing off with someone that’s paying his way, so to speak—it must be for love! . . . as the proverb has it: not for a handful of rice but for love!’’ In other words, sexual activity is acceptable only in connection with love, and neither love nor sex should have anything to do with money.
After having the policeman state this view, however, Brecht immediately undercuts it as the policeman presents his solution to Shen Te’s need for money: ‘‘How is she to get hold of this rent? . . . It’s just come to me. A husband. We must find her a husband!’’ Marriage has been called by some ‘‘legalized prostitution,’’ and that is clearly the view that Brecht presents here. The policeman continues, making the connection between marriage and prostitution even more explicit: ‘‘We need capital. And how do we acquire capital? We get married . . . We can’t pay six months rent, so what do we do? We marry money.’’ The policeman then writes an advertisement for Shen Te, further cementing the connection between marriage and business. In addition, the advertisement he writes emphasizes that Shen Te wants to marry for money: ‘‘What respectable man with small capital . . . desires marriage into flourishing tobacco shop?’’ Shen Te’s accepts the policeman’s ‘‘respectable’’ solution, but it is clear to the audience that she is once again selling herself in order to survive.
When the audience next sees Shen Te, she is on her way to meet the stranger she has agreed to marry, but at this point she meets the pilot Yang Sun. At first he is brusque with her, even cruel, but as the two talk, he seems to become kinder, and Shen Te, for the first time, falls in love. On her part at least, this is the idealized roman tic love that society at least outwardly supports. Yang Sun is unemployed and dressed in rags, but to Shen Te that doesn’t matter; he is ‘‘a brave and cleaver man.’’ Shortly after this meeting, Shen Te begins staying with him all night. At one point, when she returns to her shop after spending the night with Yang Sun, the old woman, upon learning that Yang Sun has no money, asks Shen Te how she will pay her rent. Shen Te replies, ‘‘I’d forgotten about that.’’ Because she is so wrapped up in idealized romantic love, she cares little about money.
Brecht, however, does not allow the audience to get caught up in the romance of the situation. Almost immediately, Yang Sun’s mother arrives and tells Shen Te that he needs five hundred silver dollars in order to bribe his way into a pilot’s job. Shen Te immediately gives Yang Sun’s mother the money she needs for the rent on her tobacco shop, the money loaned to her by the old woman. Caught up in emotion, Shen Te does not seem to reflect enough to realize that without the money, she will almost certainly lose her shop, and thus her only income. Brecht shows more here, however, than a woman’s love untainted by thoughts of money. First of all, it is clear that Shen Te’s love for Yang Sun, like her goodness in helping her neighbors, will, left unchecked, lead to financial ruin. Secondly, Yang Sun has known from the beginning of his relationship with Shen Te that she has a shop. ‘‘My son has told me everything,’’ Yang Sun’s mother says before telling Shen Te of her son’s need for money. It seems fairly certain that Yang Sun has sent his mother to Shen Te. In a later scene, however, the situation becomes even clearer. Yang Sun comes to Shen Te’s shop and demands more money. Shen Te, now disguised as Shui Ta, agrees to sell her tobacco shop for three hundred silver dollars, knowing that in addition to losing the shop, she will be unable to repay the old woman, who cannot afford to lose the money. In love with Yang Sun, Shen Te is willing to sacrifice everything else. Yang Sun, however, lets Shui Ta know that he wants Shen Te’s money, not Shen Te herself. ‘‘I’m leaving her behind,’’ he says. ‘‘No millstones round my neck!’’ Although Yang Sun may have initially loved Shen Te, here he makes it clear that he too has become a prostitute, selling an illusion of love to Shen Te.
Upon discovering that Yang Sun does not love her, Shen Te, again desperate for money and still disguised as Shui Ta, turns once more to selling herself, this time to Mr. Shu Fu, the barber who has cruelly injured Shen Te’s friend Wong. Upon finding Mr. Shu Fu agreeable to the proposition, Shen Te betrays Wong, refusing to support him in his quest for justice against the barber. This plan, however, is short-lived. Yang Sun returns and, when by her silence Shen Te acknowledges that she has been told he is bad, asks her, ‘‘Does that make me need you less?’’ It should be noted here that he does not speak of love for her, but of his own need. He continues in his attempt to persuade Shen Te to return to him, reminding her of their first romantic encounter, but concluding by asking her is she remembers that she ‘‘Promised me money to fly with?’’ Even though Yang Sun does not say he loves her, Shen Te agrees to go back to him, telling the audience, ‘‘I want to go with the man I love . . . I don’t want to know if he loves me.’’ Thus even as she agrees to return to him, Shen Te seems to know, at least on some level, that she is buying his love.
Soon, however, Shen Te seems to forget Yang Sun’s interest in her money. In the following scene, on the way to her wedding, she herself notes that ‘‘The things [Yang Sun] said to Shui Ta had taught Shen Te nothing.’’ As if to prove the truth of these words, Shen Te tells the audience, ‘‘He loves me.’’ Upon arriving at the wedding, however, she discovers that Yang Sun will not allow the ceremony to be held until Shui Ta arrives—with the money that will allow him to work as a pilot. Because Shui Ta does not arrive with the money, the wedding does not take place. Once again, it is clear that Yang Sun acts as a prostitute, not a lover. He is interested in Shen Te only for her money.
Once more abandoned by Yang Sun, Shen Te finds herself in serious trouble. Mrs. Shin sums up her situation: ‘‘No husband, no tobacco, no house and home.’’ Soon, however, Mr. Shu Fu returns to the shop. Still maneuvering to buy Shen Te’s love, he gives her a blank check. At first she will not cash it. Mrs. Shin is surprised: ‘‘What? You’re not going to cash it just because you might have to marry him? Are you crazy?’’ Mrs. Shin here assumes that Shen Te is willing to sell herself again. This time, however, Shen Te chooses not to marry for money. Disguising herself once again as Shui Ta, she does cash the barber’s check, but with no apparent intention of giving him anything in return. In addition, she sues Yang Sun for breach of marriage and is able to force him to work off the money she has already given him. No longer will she sell herself or buy love. It is tempting to see this as a sign of growth in Shen Te, to suggest that she no longer sees love as a commodity. Brecht, however, shows that this is not the case. As Shui Ta, Shen Te still trades in love. Yang Sun becomes her foreman and informs her that the factory is in dire need of Mrs. Mi Tzu’s buildings. Shen Te responds by saying that she cannot pay Mrs. Mi Tzu’s price, but Yang Sun answers, ‘‘If she has me to stroke her knees she’ll come down.’’ Once again, Yang Sun shows his willingness to act as a prostitute. Shen Te’s first response is to say, ‘‘I’ll never agree to that,’’ but in a meeting with Mrs. Mi Tzu, Shen Te becomes her former lover’s pimp, effectively agreeing to sell Yang Sun in exchange for lower rent. Even though she no longer sells herself, when desperate for money, she turns to selling others.
Throughout The Good Woman of Szechwan, Brecht emphasizes the impossibility of being good if one is to survive in a corrupt world and, in the final scene, this is what Shen Te tries to tell the gods, who turn a deaf ear. Goodness, however, is not the only casualty of the world’s imperfections. Idealized romantic love, love separate from money, is not possible either. Shen Te is able to pay her rent as a prostitute and could survive economically as a rich man’s life, but her love for Yang Sun turns out to be a luxury she cannot afford. That love nearly leads her to disaster. As Shui Ta attempting to sell Yang Sun to Mrs. Mi Tzu, Shen Te abandons emotion and treats love as a business transaction. In a corrupt world, one must buy and sell what one can in order to survive, and so in Brecht’s play, even love is for sale.
Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Cross is a writer specializing in modern drama.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7917
Like most social activists who believe in theater as an instrument of change, feminists have both claimed and rejected Bertolt Brecht joining in the critical tug-of-war that has characterized his reception in America since the Theatre Union introduced him to this country with its ill-conceived (and disastrous) production of The Mother in 1935. Brecht has been described as the great poet whose plays no longer work, the dramatic genius whose theatrical theory doesn’t fit, the artist whose politics hardly matter, the idealist who decayed into an opportunistic creep. Feminist critics, going further, have pointed out a series of seeming contradictions to prove or discount Brecht’s usefulness: Most of his major plays feature female protagonists; he portrayed women stereotypically. He assumed (though hardly stressed) the emancipation of women as part of socialism; he paid little attention to the vibrant women’s movement of the Weimar period. Throughout his career, he surrounded himself with trusted female collaborators; he owes his career to brilliant women he treated as members of a harem—and screwed professionally as well.
All this invoking, dismissing, extolling, and reviling has often missed the deepest feminist implications of Brecht’s epic theater. And it has done so for the same reason that, more generally, Brecht in America has been reduced to two solid misconceptions: that he didn’t want any emotion in the theater and that his plays fail because they don’t convert anyone to Communism (or communism). These caricatures, long elevated to the status of unshakable cliche, rely, as do many feminist quibbles with Brecht, on a simplification that culminates in smarmy certainty about the ‘‘Brechtian’’—a grungy, grudging didacticism produced through a predictable set of stage effects (projected scene titles, bright lights, music hall band, scowling actors). This conception has little to do with the plays themselves or with the intricate performance style Brecht built into them, and elaborated in his theoretical writings.
While the Berliner Ensemble toured London in 1956, and again in the late 1960s, inspiring a generation of politically engaged playwrights like Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, and Steven Berkoff, here in America Artaud and Grotowski were inflaming a generation of theatrical shamans without the counterbalancing weight of Brecht’s ‘‘scientific’’ approach. Along with the Method mania of the mainstream, these gurus could support a presumption that would leave no room for Brecht: intellect—and thus Brecht’s critically based work— does not belong in the theater.
To this day, reviewers—and worse, directors— of American Brecht productions approach his work with received ideas that are at best limited, and limiting. America’s—and American feminists’— ability to skim Brecht for confirmation of the old platitudes and leave the rest for waste depends, in sum, on a fundamental failure to recognize the complex achievement of Brecht’s dramatic art.
Nowhere is this failure more apparent than in recent readings of the play most frequently cited by feminists, The Good Person of Szechwan, in which Shen Teh, ‘‘the prostitute who can’t say no,’’ opens a small tobacco shop with money she receives from three gods in search of a Good Person, after she puts them up for a night; when freeloading neighbors exploit her generosity, Shen Teh transvests into her male cousin, Shui Ta, whose entrepreneurial shrewdness should enable her to make ends meet—and remain good. These critics—among them John Fuegi, Iris Smith, Gay Gibson Cima, Anne Herrmann— scold Brecht for the play’s ‘‘stereotypical’’ portrayals of femininity as good and masculinity as evil, see only a ‘‘metaphor’’ in Shen Teh’s ‘‘cross-dressing,’’ or suggest a biographical reading that casts ‘‘Brecht lookalikes’’ as the First God and Shen Teh’s lover, Yang Sun, and his many mistresses as multiple Shen Tehs. But they have neglected to examine the play’s dialectical action in any but the most superficial of ways. This knee-jerk approach, laying a tendentious template over a work of art to see where it lines up, is particularly frustrating in the case of Brecht because it is so unnecessary. Epic theater’s basic effort to make the familiar strange, show the world as alterable, hold events at a temporal distance, and, as Brecht writes, reveal the human being as ‘‘the sum of all social circumstances’’ contains a profoundly feminist impulse (even if the social relations defined by gender were not the ones that particularly interested Brecht).
One call for a feminist refashioning of Good Person actually misses the play’s theatrical crux, ‘‘The Song of Defenselessness of the Gods and the Good People.’’ In a 1991 article in Theatre Journal, Iris Smith complains of ‘‘the unseen creation of the male figure, who seems to appear sui generis on the stage.’’ She goes on to suggest that ‘‘At some point, perhaps in Scene 7. . . the costuming of Shui Ta could be done in full view of the audience.’’ Of course, Shen Teh does costume herself as Shui Ta in full view of the audience in ‘‘The Song of Defenselessness,’’ which follows scene four. Moreover, this careful, complicated scene offers important clues about epic acting, the relationship between gender and epic acting, and indeed about gender as epic acting.
The song comes nearly halfway through the play, several scenes after we’ve seen Shen Teh disguised as her shrewd cousin. Its function is not to reveal that Shui Ta is Shen Teh’s invention, but to show how that invention is assembled, how the contradiction described in the song—that goodness can come about only if militarily enforced—both demands and defeats the use of the disguise, how dramatic character (and, by extension, social character) is artificially manufactured, how our sympathies and antipathies can be evoked and manipulated. The construction of Shui Ta, demonstrated through the action of a baleful and defensive song, deconstructs notions of character, social role (including gender), dramatic inevitability, and the easy distinction between good and evil. Most important, the interlude substantiates, through the actor’s combined action of delivering a song and putting on a costume, the play’s elemental disjunction: one actor stirs both our empathy with Shen Teh and our disgust with Shui Ta. Thus, the interlude calls attention to our own dialectical activity in the epic theater, the act of complex seeing, which demands that we perceive things as they are and, at the same time, as other than they are.
The song immediately follows a busy scene in which all the intertwining threads of the plot get tangled up: Shen Teh, newly in love with the pilot Yang Sun, praises the ‘‘glorious’’ morning, cheerfully dishes out rice to the freeloaders who exploit her generosity, and buys a shawl from an old couple with a longstanding marriage. But her romantic haze is ironically framed: before her entrance there’s malicious gossip in her shop about where Shen Teh has been all night, and the barber, Shu Fu, smashes Wang the Waterseller’s hand; after her entrance, the old woman reminds Shen Teh that she owes rent to the exacting Mrs. Mi Tzu. Worse, the freeloaders refuse to testify for Wang against Shu Fu, which prompts Shen Teh to declare, in verse, ‘‘Oh you wretched people! / Your brother suffers violence and you close your eyes.’’ In the space of some 100 lines, Shen Teh’s giddiness (as she describes it) transforms into anger (as a stage direction puts it). Yet Shen Teh is not as thoroughly good and kind as charged by those who accuse Brecht of flattening her into an object lesson: early in the scene she’s so absorbed in her infatuation that she fails to notice Wang’s suffering. (Later, she betrays Wang more directly.)
In the same compact space, the play complicates its representation of love as an economic transaction, and of men’s commodification of women. (An early working title was Die Ware Liebe, Love for Sale or The Commodity Love; playing on the pun of Ware and wahre, the title could also mean True Love.) In one of Brecht’s many ironic undoings of the self-conscious dramatic archetype, the prostitute, Shen Teh does not get ripped off by a man until she gives herself to him. In exchange for his love, Yang Sun demands a trip to Peking and the price of a bribe for a pilot’s job. At the end of scene four, Shen Teh hands over to him $200, lent her for rent money by the old couple.
Playing against this inverted romance, this scene also introduces the idea of the wealthy barber, Shu Fu, as a husband for Shen Teh. Seeing her in the rosy splendor of the morning—when she’s flushed with love for Yang Sun—Shu Fu falls in love with her. In addition to setting up the later transaction between Shen Teh and the barber, this moment also reminds us that Shen Teh met Yang Sun while on her way to a tete-a-tete with a marriage prospect— one who could cough up the rent money. Here, and in the later negotiations with Shu Fu, marriage is compared to the whoring Shen Teh thought she could leave behind by becoming a businesswoman— or businessman. Indeed, as Shui Ta, Shen Teh serves as her own pimp, becoming, as Brecht’s working notes put it, ‘‘both goods and salesperson.’’
To sum up, scene four ends with Shen Teh in love with a man and disappointed in humanity, standing under an accelerating cascade of troubles: the rent, and now the old couple, still owed; Wang injured and abandoned; the freeloaders ever demanding; Shu Fu waiting to pounce. The audience is left in a frame of mind to urge, like the freeloaders in the first scene, ‘‘Cousin! Cousin!’’ But rather than simply satisfy this by-now obvious response to Shen Teh’s problems, Brecht interrupts (to use Walter Benjamin’s word for the process of epic development) the action, casting into relief our mounting empathy for Shen Teh’s plight and uncovering the conditions that lead to her extreme solution.
‘‘Shen Teh enters,’’ the stage direction reads, ‘‘carrying the mask and clothes of Shui Ta, and sings ‘The Song of Defenselessness of the Gods and the Good People.’’’ After the first verse, ‘‘She puts on Shui Ta’s clothes and takes a few steps in his manner.’’ After the second, ‘‘She puts on Shui Ta’s mask and continues to sing in his voice.’’
Who sings this song? That is, what stage persona commits the action of—in Brecht’s words— zeigen gestus (‘‘handing over’’) ‘‘The Song of Defenselessness’’? The text assigns the song to the character Shen Teh, but, as Brecht has written, ‘‘When an actor sings, [s]he undergoes a change of function.’’ This is doubly true here. At the most literal level, the singer presents a character in transition, changing her function from portraying Shen Teh to portraying Shui Ta. But we see something more than one character changing into the costume of another. The actor’s function changes also because by singing, ‘‘[s]he who is showing should [her]self be shown.’’ The actor demonstrates how she performs both the role of Shen Teh and the role of Shui Ta. And at the same time she demonstrates how she performs another role, which parallels her pointed-to actorly effort: Shen Teh playing Shui Ta. In other words, revealing the process by which she takes steps in Shui Ta’s manner and sings in his voice, the actor calls attention to the analogy between her activity and Shen Teh’s.
The song achieves this dialectic because, through the analogy it draws to all acting, it grants Shen Teh and Shui Ta the same level of credibility. We always perceive Shui Ta as an impersonation performed by Shen Teh; simultaneously, we understand that Shen Teh is herself an impersonation created by the actor; therefore, she elicits no more unexamined empathy than does the less affecting Shui Ta, despite her more appealing nature.
This equilibrium is maintained through a sly paradox of acting: Shen Teh’s character, in conventional theatrical terms, is ‘‘unbelievable’’—could anyone really be so naive, we have to ask in the face of her unmitigated generosity toward the exploitative freeloaders. But Shui Ta’s character, the familiar ruthless businessman, is completely believable (because it is so familiar). Indeed, in a 1970 New York Times review of a Lincoln Center production starring Colleen Dewhurst, Walter Kerr chides the play for precisely this contrast: explaining that ‘‘we lose patience with these figureheads [the freeloaders] long before the lady does,’’ Kerr concludes, ‘‘if we ever side with anyone, we tend to side with her tough-minded ‘cousin.’’’
But what Kerr—and presumably the production— missed is the way these opposite levels of credibility are used within Brecht’s parable form, and how they are balanced with inverse proportions of empathic acting. Acquiring intimacy with the audience through soliloquies, and given downright sentimental speeches about love and motherhood (which are soon punctured by various ironic devices) Shen Teh demands more ‘‘Aristotelian’’ pity than does Shui Ta; he never addresses the audience, and remains emotionally at arm’s length because of our double awareness of him as an effective figure in the parable, and as Shen Teh’s creation. The type of character Shui Ta represents is more believable than the type Shen Teh represents, yet we experience Shui Ta from a greater distance.
To keep wide this distance from the evil character we can so easily compass—and to close the distance on the good character we can hardly accept— Brecht repeatedly reminds us that Shui Ta is being played by Shen Teh. In the first scene, it’s the freeloaders who come up with the idea that a wily cousin could get Shen Teh out of her jam with the unpaid Carpenter, and then with the landlady, Mrs. Mi Tzu: ‘‘My dear Shen Teh, why don’t you turn the whole matter over to your cousin?’’ After repeated promptings, Shen Teh relents: ‘‘slowly, with downcast eyes,’’ the stage direction reads, Shen Teh declares, ‘‘I have a cousin.’’ (Michael Hofmann’s 1989 translation of the Santa Monica version of Good Person goes so far as to have a freeloader think up the name Shui Ta.) After the claimants leave—and more relatives of the freeloaders arrive— Shen Teh’s imposing guests have a facetious laugh over the mythical cousin, ‘‘the imposing Mr. Shui Ta.’’ The scene ends with more knocking on the door, threatening that still more relatives will overtake Shen Teh’s shop.
When knocking is heard again, at the top of the next scene, it announces the quick-fix to the rapidly multiplying relatives: ‘‘a young gentleman,’’ as the stage directions say, Shui Ta. At first the freeloaders dismiss him: ‘‘But that was a joke.’’ But almost at once they come to grant him the authority of his imposing presence. As an onstage audience to Shen Teh’s performance, they offer one model of a response to her acting: for them, the performance of Shui Ta is ‘‘Aristotelian,’’ they believe in it completely and are swept away by it; for us, the performance is epic, always experienced with complex seeing. The onstage audience’s reaction works like a lens that intensifies our double vision—and that mirrors our more sympathetic response to Shen Teh.
Later in the scene, after Shui Ta wheedles the Carpenter out of his fee, the freeloaders repeat the event, quoting—in a style reminiscent of the acting Brecht calls for in ‘‘The Street Scene: A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre’’—the dialogue that just took place. Their merriment is ended only when Shui Ta’s virtuoso performance is turned on them: he tells them to get out. What happens in their little imitation is complicated. We see a performance reenacted with a particular attitude—gloating amusement, like the attitude of fans recounting how their team routed another in a ball game. This action drives home the freeloaders’ smug selfishness at the same time that it reminds us that Shui Ta is a performance, one that could be presented and received from various points of view. In this moment, of course, like Walter Kerr, we have to side with Shui Ta, cheering his rejection of the freeloaders. But part of the reason we cheer him is that we see Shen Teh within Shui Ta, and recognize that she is standing up for herself. More important, our recognition of Shen Teh behind the mask of Shui Ta (and of an actor behind Shen Teh) encourages us to consider other points of view from which Shui Ta (and Shen Teh) might be presented. At the same time, if we feel like satisfied backers of a winning team when Shui Ta throws the freeloaders out, it’s because it looks like justice is prevailing, and Shui Ta will temper Shen Teh’s mercy, enabling her to live and do good.
But, of course, we can’t hold on to this hope uncritically. The contradiction has already been set forth: Shen Teh can’t do good unless Shui Ta does well. And if cheating the Carpenter is what enables Shui Ta to do well—no matter how much it entertains the freeloaders—we see at once its dubious merit. The ‘‘Street Scene’’-style performance by the freeloaders sharpens our awareness of this bind by placing before us our own emotional reactions to Shui Ta. Will we, like the freeloaders, have a laugh over Shui Ta’s cold treatment of others? And if so, what does that laugh show us? That we judge the freeloaders harshly (no sentimental portrait of the poor and downtrodden for Brecht!), that we appreciate the comic device of reversal, that we grasp the central contradiction to be expanded upon in the play—that one can’t be good without having means, and acquiring means prevents one from being good.
Other ironic reminders of Shen Teh’s performance of Shui Ta function in similar ways. In scene three, Shen Teh responds to Yang Sun’s challenge, ‘‘You’re not much of an entertainer,’’ with the line, ‘‘I can play the zither a little and imitate people.’’ Then, the stage directions instruct, ‘‘She speaks in a deep voice, imitating a dignified gentleman,’’ saying, ‘‘‘Good Lord, I must have forgotten my pocketbook!’ But then I got the shop. The first thing I did was give away my zither. I said to myself, now I can be a deadhead, and it won’t matter.’’ Here, Shen Teh switches to verse: ‘‘I’m rich, I said to myself. / I walk alone. I sleep alone. / For a whole year, I said to myself/I’ll have nothing to do with a man.’’
At one level, of course, this is so much flirtatious banter. But again, even at this curiously romantic moment, Brecht reminds us of the cousin not merely waiting in the wings, but lurking within the performer we hear speaking ‘‘in a deep voice.’’ What’s more, Shen Teh can mention getting rid of her zither as a humorous throw-away; to say that she will have nothing to do with a man requires heightened speech because, not only is her evident attraction for Yang Sun contradicting this pronouncement, but her impersonation of Shui Ta suggests that being rich necessitates having everything to do with a man, even if it’s one she embodies herself.
Similarly, in scene five, right after ‘‘The Song of Defenselessness,’’ Shui Ta sits in the tobacco shop reading the paper. When he hears Yang Sun’s voice outside, the stage directions command, ‘‘Shui Ta runs to the mirror with the light steps of Shen Teh and is about to arrange his hair when he sees his mistake in the mirror. He turns away with a soft laugh.’’ This is the only occasion when Shen Teh’s character so boldly peeps through the Shui Ta disguise, where we see Shen Teh acknowledge her performance by momentarily forgetting it. (Still, the stage directions refer to his hair, his mistake.) Several things are accomplished by this self-conscious action. First, Brecht increases the disdain with which we react to Yang Sun’s coarse treatment of Shen Teh, by reminding us of her romantic enthusiasm and showing how thoroughly love has swept her away. At the same time, it asks us to prick up our double vision, increasing our ironic pleasure in registering how wrong Yang Sun is to think he is shooting the breeze with one of the guys. Once again, the double character ignites our dialectical attention, making us simultaneously more empathetic and more critical. All this raises the stakes for the moment, later in the scene, when Yang Sun reveals that he has no intention of taking Shen Teh to Peking with him.
Yang Sun assumes a macho stance when Shui Ta says that Shen Teh will not go along with his decision: ‘‘You’re going to appeal to her reason? She hasn’t got any reason.’’ Some critics point to this line as an indication that Brecht is reinforcing a misogynistic stereotype of femininity. But that is to disregard the play’s theatrical dynamics. Yang Sun’s remark is not endorsed; its appalling nature is pointed to by our recognition of Shen Teh’s hidden presence. Yang Sun is unmistakably an ambitious lout, not, as Gay Gibson Cima suggests, a sanctioned mouthpiece for conveying Brecht’s attitude toward women. That it turns out to be true, in terms of the plot, that Shen Teh pays little mind to her reason—she runs off with Yang Sun after all, because, as he puts it, ‘‘I’ve got my hand on her bosom’’—does not mean that the play doubts the intelligence of women. Rather, Brecht calls forth a familiar (and derogatory) image of women in order to make it strange, because, after all, the familiar cannot be rendered strange without first being established as familiar. By means of the Verfremdungseffekt—the central mechanism of which is the Shui Ta disguise—Brecht lets us take a look at the conditions that give rise to this image of love and the commodified, irrational woman. (That Shen Teh so abandons herself to lust contradicts several critics who complain that Brecht denies this female character her ‘‘desire.’’)
Shen Teh next refers to herself as Shui Ta in scene six, the wedding scene. Her marriage to Yang Sun is delayed—pathetically in terms of our feeling for Shen Teh; comically in terms of the gag of making the flow of wine the celebration’s hourglass— because Yang Sun and his mother await Shui Ta, who, they hope, will bring money. Shen Teh asserts: ‘‘My cousin cannot be where I am.’’ Why is this line here? We in the audience already know this; Yang Sun and his mother aren’t meant to—and don’t—understand what she means. Like Benedick’s stating the-obvious remark, ‘‘This looks not like a nuptial,’’ in Much Ado About Nothing, Shen Teh’s line pulls the scene away from the precipice of melodrama. It signals us: Don’t get so carried away by this bittersweet episode that you forget to employ your complex seeing; the double character once more forces an epic interruption, refocusing our attention.
The wedding ends, of course, without Shui Ta’s arrival; like St. Neverkin’s day described in Yang Sun’s song— ‘‘when the poor woman’s son will ascend the king’s throne’’ and ‘‘life on earth will become a sweet dream’’—Shui Ta will never, can never, come, at least not until a vexing contradiction can be resolved. In this scene, waiting is the central gestus: for the wedding, for Shui Ta, for the good times. The ending stage direction has Shen Teh, Yang Sun, and Mrs. Yang sitting together, ‘‘two of them looking toward the door.’’
But, of course, Shui Ta does come, in scene seven. In fact, Shui Ta dominates the last portion of the play, the ‘‘tobacco king’’ replacing the ‘‘angel of the slums’’ almost as thoroughly as Jeriah Jip overtakes Galy Gay in Man Is Man. The mechanism that both retrieves and eventually undoes Shui Ta is Shen Teh’s pregnancy; it instigates Shen Teh’s most thorough—and least sustainable— transformation.
Even though Brecht’s image of motherhood here is not exactly sweet and touching—Shen Teh says she’ll treat others like a ‘‘tiger and a wild beast’’—and even though the image is distanced by an ironic reversal—becoming a bad man enables her to be a good mother—some critics point especially at this scene to nail Brecht with their charge of misogyny. In a much-quoted essay, Sarah Lennox asserts, ‘‘a major virtue of [Brecht’s] mother figure is her willingness to be instrumentalized, serving others while ignoring her own subjective needs.’’ Anne Herrmann goes further: ‘‘By placing the mother in the female subject position, Brecht not only desexualizes her, but also insists on biological differences as they were used and misused by both the sex reformers of the Weimar Republic and the Nazis of the Third Reich.’’ Of course, Shen Teh occupies this ‘‘subject position’’ for seven-eighths of the play before she becomes a potential mother. And while Brecht may use as a plot device the unavoidable biological difference that women can get pregnant, its epic presentation certainly reveals rather than reinforces essentialist propaganda about a woman’s proper role. The formal verse of Shen Teh’s ‘‘big speech’’ is one clue that the scene must be played for distance. And the about-to-be-enacted costume change is a further reminder that Shen Teh’s gender is as provisional as it is providential.
Shen Teh’s pregnancy brings about another transformation: it marks the pivotal point where one expectation is exchanged for another. Up until then, we wait for Shui Ta, knowing just when he’ll appear to bail Shen Teh out; after, we wait for Shen Teh, hoping (though knowing better) that she’ll come back and set things right. Like the freeloaders, we undergo a change. They transform from exploiting loafers to exploited workers; we change the direction in which we yearn for a resolution.
This action of transformation is essential to the play’s story and its procedure—and essential, too, to the very purpose of epic theater. The central transformation of Shen Teh into Shui Ta provides a standard against which other transformations can be regarded: of the exploiting into the exploited, of the tobacco shop into a factory, of unemployed flier into unrelenting foreman (that is, labor into management), of the gods into judges—and most of all, the transformation theater enacts, of actor into character, stage into setting. By making the act of theater-viewing strange, Brecht subjects all the transformations in the story to a parallel interrogation: Do they have to happen? In that way? How do I, as a spectator taking part through a kind of imaginative complicity, enable these events to take place?
This dramatic motif, echoed by the theatrical process, is not just a game of self-referentiality. Brecht’s metatheatrical pointings direct our attention to the possibility of change and to our role in effecting it. Herein lies the revolutionary nature of Brecht’s dramaturgy. His intention was not to provide a recipe for socialism, but to offer spectators the pleasurable experience of practicing and honing their critical attitude in the epic theater, so it could be applied more successfully in the world.
The whetstone in Good Person is what Brecht called ‘‘the continual fusion and dissolution of the two characters,’’ Shen Teh and Shui Ta. Brecht sought to achieve the same ebb and flow of sympathy and antipathy with many of his protagonists— Mother Courage as victim and villain, Galileo as scholar and cheat, Puntila as humanist and misanthrope, Azdak as wiseman and bum. Walter Sokel calls these ‘‘split characters,’’ but they are more double than split, as we always experience one side of the character through the memory and expectation of the other. Brecht was drawn to this device, no doubt, because it steadfastly requires complex seeing; the double character serves as a focal point for the heightened, self-conscious perception we must engage in the epic theater. In turn, this double character reinforces the way in which we perceive everyone on stage—as characters and as actors showing them to us. Shen Teh/Shui Ta is not only Brecht’s most literal use of this division, but also the one that most effectively and evocatively attaches the dialectic of theater to the dialectic of moral life.
What ‘‘The Song of Defenselessness’’ says parallels this stage action. As the first stanza tells us, ‘‘the gods are powerless,’’ suffering from ‘‘defenselessness’’— or in a more literal translation of Wehrlosigkeit, ‘‘weaponsless-ness.’’ And we know from the prologue that the gods are disheveled and incompetent; even if they had weapons, they couldn’t effect the transformation the song calls for any more than they can produce a denouement at the end of the play. The implication is that people have to accomplish what all-powerful gods are incapable of. That, in a way, is what Shen Teh tries to do by taking on the guise of Shui Ta. (It is also the ‘‘Good People’’ who lack weapons.) His mask and costume, then, are her armor, his manner—the ruthlessness of an empire-builder—her weapon. Yet the inherent contradiction of the song—combined with the complex seeing demanded by the costume change—indicates that Shen Teh’s effort is doomed to fail. Thus, at the very moment when the plot promises the transformation as the solution to Shen Teh’s predicament, the song declares that it will not work. Bringing about a climate in which goodness can thrive requires a more fundamental change than acting can accomplish.
The song, then, has a complicated gestus. Primarily it is a song of justification, much like Macheath’s summing-up anthem at the end of The Threepenny Opera. Shen Teh must do this in order, merely, to survive. (Indeed, the recapitulation of Shui Ta’s action in the trial scene at the end of the play provides rationales for his cruel behavior that are difficult to refute.) But this gestus provokes a sense of lament and refusal because the song contains— and displays—the inadequacies of its own argument.
The more the song ratchets up the need for the disguise, the more Shui Ta is brought to life—both in the completion of his costuming, and in the way the song’s point of view comes to express one we would associate more with his character than with Shen Teh’s. As she takes on his appearance, she takes on his attitude. Thus, the transformation re- flects the Marxist imperative so central to Brecht’s epic theater—that social being determines thought. This principle, of course, is an underpinning of epic acting, which reverses the Stanislavskian process by which an actor builds action from character, proposing instead that the actor derive character from action—especially so that character can be shown to be a product of social forces.
Any critique of Brecht’s use of gender in Good Person must begin with this principle—but few of them do. Most feminist readings of the play call for a materialist feminist assessment, but pay no attention to the most significant materialist fact: that the play is meant to be performed, in epic style, on a stage before an audience. (One might think that Brecht’s inability to stage Good Person in his lifetime contributes to this tendency to neglect the idea of the play in performance. But these same critics, despite Brecht’s extensive revisions, clarifying notes, and Modelbuch, write in the same abstract manner about Mother Courage and Her Children.) John Fuegi, for example, is right that Shen Teh as a woman is ‘‘virtually a personification of feeling while Shui Ta as a man is made virtually a personifi- cation of reason or calculation.’’ But he’s right only up to a point because he doesn’t credit the play with pointing out and using that critical conclusion. Good Person not only exploits prejudgments about the ‘‘nature’’ of men and women, it forces us to confront those prejudgments for what they are. How can we hold onto the belief that Shen Teh is kind and emotional because she is female when we are repeatedly reminded that she is Shui Ta? And how can we maintain that Shui Ta is hard and selfserving because he is male when we are repeatedly reminded that he is Shen Teh? Besides, the meanness of Mrs. Mi Tzu and the decency of Wang— among others—make it difficult to maintain that the play is awash in moral sexual stereotyping.
To insist that Shen Teh represents a misogynistic stereotype is also to overlook that the play is a parable. Shen Teh is good not because she is female, but because it is her function in the parable to be good. It’s astonishing how frequently critics lend Shen Teh psychological depth more fitting to an entirely different genre. To name just a few examples, Fuegi writes that she suffers from a ‘‘schizoid personality’’; Cima worries that the impossibility of meeting the gods’ commandments to be good ‘‘dictat[es] within Shen Teh a feeling of failure’’; Sue-Ellen Case diagnoses ‘‘an internal crisis of gender behavior.’’ But the parable designation can be oversimplified, too, leading to such groundless accusations as Herrmann’s—that Brecht ‘‘uses his woman figures to embody Communist Party policy.’’
Good Person was written over a long period, primarily during Brecht’s exile in Scandinavia. But the idea first surfaces in his journals in the late 1920s, and he attends to it on and off for some 20 years, announcing the play’s completion in 1941. Brecht’s notes on Good Person are often sketchy, but in the movement from a European to a Chinese setting, from the story of a prostitute disguising herself as a man ‘‘in order to help her sisters,’’ to one who ‘‘dresses as a man in order to pose as [a cigar store’s] proprietor while continuing to practice as a prostitute,’’ to the nuanced structure he finally settled on, one can trace Brecht’s movement toward his dialectical theater. In some sense, he practiced the association of a double character with the paradox of goodness in his satire on bourgeois morality, The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petit-Bourgeoisie (1933), a collaboration with Kurt Weill. Its protagonists, the sisters Anna I and Anna II, travel the world trying to raise money for their family to buy a house. One, the salesperson, conveys their travails in words; the other, the goods being sold, through dance. Each scene illustrates a sin that must be avoided if one is to make a buck—but each of these, of course, is really a virtue. Scene by scene, the house takes shape on stage, walls rising as each sin is debated and avoided. Meanwhile, a quartet of men representing the family—father, mother, two brothers—offers comments from a platform to the side. (The Mother pronounces pieties in basso profundo.)
In the same year, Brecht worked with some of the Good Person themes in a short story called ‘‘The Job, or In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou fail to earn thy bread.’’ The story is based on a true account of a woman who posed as her husband after he died, in order to take a job promised to him. The story’s opening lines announce that it shows ‘‘the barbaric condition to which the great European countries had been reduced by their inability to keep their economies going except by force and exploitation’’ after the first World War. The barbarity turns out to be not that the woman so masquerades, but that, when discovered, she is fired, even arrested, and her job given to ‘‘one whose legs chanced to have between them the organ recorded on his birth certificate.’’ The story treats gender as an artificial construction that serves male dominance, which Brecht seems to regard as an auxiliary to capitalism. ‘‘In a few days,’’ the story reads, ‘‘the woman became a man, in the same way as men have become men over the millenia: through the production process.’’ Like Marx, though, Brecht doesn’t much factor women’s unpaid labor into his definition of production; his protagonist sets up house with a woman who cares for the watchman’s two children and looks after their home. Nonetheless, Brecht’s story wryly challenges capitalism’s enforcement of gender distinctions.
Good Person, to a large extent, amalgamates these two 1933 works, combining a critical use of the cross-dressing ‘‘progress narrative’’ (one that doubts the nature of progress) with a comparison of the dialectics of capitalist ethics to the dialectics of a divided character. Drawing on the lessons of the Lehrstucke, and on increasingly sophisticated—and theatrically tested—epic theory, Brecht briefly picks up the 1934 sketch of Die Ware Liebe in Denmark in 1930, pokes at it again in Sweden, and then turns fuller attention to the play once he’s settled in Finland. What enables him to move ahead on ‘‘the play that gave me the hardest time’’ is his working out the form that could bring his parallel concerns together: the parable. Good Person was the first play to which Brecht assigned this label.
Brecht once described the parable as ‘‘far more artful than other forms. Lenin used the parable, not as an idealist, but as a materialist. The parable allowed him to unravel complicated things. To the dramatist it offers the perfect solution, because it is concrete in abstraction: it makes the essential obvious.’’ Brecht’s reference to Lenin is aesthetically telling: the parable is not a traditional dramatic form or genre, but is taken from a kind of didactic literature. The label has New Testament overtones as well. Thus, the parable is distinguished from its theatrical cousins, allegory and symbolist drama, in which what is presented to the audience is meant to stand for something else (and which can easily slide into dreaded expressionism). For Brecht, the parable is a condensed, intensified poetic form, at once concrete and indirect, that enables him to evoke familiar characters and situations quickly, so that he can then go about the epic task of making them strange.
G. W. Brandt has suggested that Brecht created ‘‘negative parables’’ that ‘‘illustrate a wrong state of affairs.’’ He adds, ‘‘The negative parable does not imply there is no such thing as right conduct, but the audience is not spoon-fed with a moral.’’ This is an important corrective to those who add Brecht’s Marxism to his invocation of the parable to conclude that his plays are ideological vehicles, Communist object lessons. Rather, the parable form enables Brecht to subject such doctrines to pleasurable critique. Good Person doesn’t merely declare that a moral life is incompatible with capitalism; it lets us observe this tenet from a variety of angles, and asks us to consider its accuracy, cause, meaning, value.
It’s foolhardy to look for Brecht’s radicalism, and his potentially feminist deconstructions of gender, on the surface of a play’s story, as, for instance, David Z. Mairowitz does when he complains, ‘‘There is no challenge in Brecht to the arrangement of traditional sex roles.’’ Perhaps it would be easier to claim Brecht for our side if he’d written some plays with stories directly demonstrating how the social hierarchy relegates women to second-class status (and if he hadn’t treated women so execrably himself). But Brecht’s challenges to social arrangements come through epic process, not through traditional dramatic show-and-tell. Indeed, if one considers Brecht’s attitude toward identification and heroes, it seems downright ludicrous to look to him, as Iris Smith does, for ‘‘desiring and desirable behaviors modeled on stage . . . so that the feminist spectator could find herself there and project herself into the future.’’
In one telling comment, recommending rehearsal exercises that would help epic actors build their parts, Brecht suggests, ‘‘it is also good for the actors when they see their characters copied or portrayed in another form. If the part is played by somebody of the opposite sex, the sex of the character will be more clearly brought out.’’ In watching a female actor play a male role, for example, the male actor observes gestures, stances, movement, vocal intonation—all the attributes that typically compose a conventional idea of male-ness. By separating them from the body to which these characteristics are thought to be fused, the actor reveals how gender behavior is constituted. In this exercise, then, the male actor learns how to act male, how to detach his character’s gender from the assumption that it naturally resides in and issues from his body.
It’s no doubt possible that such an exercise could be used to reinforce notions of naturalized gender behavior—one can imagine an actor drawing the conclusion that his female colleague observes masculinity better than he does because it is so completely alien to her. But that’s not the case with epic acting, which demands that all aspects of character be shown ‘‘inquotations.’’ For, as Janelle Reinelt has argued, ‘‘The Alienation effect hollows out and denaturalizes behaviors which are actually socially constructed, enforced through power relations and the myopia which results from habitual positioning within them.’’ Applying this process specifically to gender, Elin Diamond points out, ‘‘by alienating (not simply rejecting) iconicity [the semiotic observation that the actor’s body resembles the character to which it refers], by foregrounding the expectation of resemblance, the ideology of gender is exposed and thrown back to the spectator.’’ As a result, ‘‘gender is exposed as a sexual costume, a sign of a role, not evidence of identity’’ and ‘‘the spectator is enabled to see a sign system as a sign system.’’ In sum, Diamond asserts, ‘‘Understanding gender as ideology—as a system of beliefs and behavior mapped across the bodies of females and males, which reinforces a social status quo—is to appreciate the continued timeliness of the Verfremdungseffekt. ’’
Diamond offers the most sophisticated feminist reading of Brecht to date, but even she stops short of locating the gender-revealing V-effekt in Brecht’s plays. Her failure to do this leads her to call for nuances of epic performance that Brecht had, in fact, developed. Diamond imagines a Brechtianfeminist practice that would build on epic acting, fashioning a performer who, ‘‘unlike her film counterpart, connotes not ‘to be looked-at-ness’ [a quality of fetishized female presence elaborated by Laura Mulvey]. . .but rather ‘looking-at-being-looked-atness.’,’’ Brecht had a name for this: the gestus of showing, the performer acknowledging that she is being watched and enjoyed. In addition, Diamond’s performer would be ‘‘paradoxically available for both analysis and identification, paradoxically within representation while refusing its fixity.’’ This, too, is precisely what already occurs in Brecht’s epic theater—and never more clearly than in the character of Shen Teh. As already noted, the V-effekt depends on first establishing the familiar to make it strange; similarly, Brecht throws events into critical relief after drawing us into them. There’s no smug anti-Brechtian point to score by saying that Shen Teh (or Brecht’s other characters) inspires a wide range of feelings in us. That’s a given; what matters is that we notice ourselves having them—and question why.
Shen Teh herself serves as a countermodel of this process: she runs off with Yang Sun, because, by her own reckoning, she is carried away ‘‘in a surge of feeling’’ (much like Filch in The Threepenny Opera, when he falls for the phony beggars). This is just what spectators of the lulling ‘‘Aristotelian’’ theater do, abandoning reason to the heedless, easily manipulated stirrings of the heart. We can’t follow suit by getting caught up in Shen Teh’s predicament; the Shui Ta disguise and the epic pointing to the familiar, socially bound nature of that predicament serve as a guardrail over the brink of sentimentality.
The play offers a more profound lesson than the moral to which it’s usually reduced—in John Willett’s words, for instance, ‘‘In a competitive society goodness is often suicidal.’’ Beyond that, Good Person teaches the spectator what kind of engagement is required for considering this simple-sounding dilemma. It demands nothing less than a new way of perceiving.
This, no doubt, is the reason Brecht first appealed to feminist theater-makers in America, though many of his champions took inspiration from the spreading myth that Brecht was the great genius of agitprop. Indeed, the more Brecht was reduced to being a bearer of Marxist messages, the more he could serve as avatar for the feminist theaters that mushroomed across America in the 1970s; the more incompletely or imprecisely Brecht was understood, the more easily he could be latched onto as an icon of radical theater practice. Thus, theaters as different as At the Foot of the Mountain in Minneapolis and the Women’s Experimental Theater in New York were described as ‘‘Brechtian’’ simply because they promoted a political agenda and produced non-naturalistic plays.
Still, if such theaters—or their critics—overlooked certain complexities of epic theater in claiming Brecht, they were right to find an affinity between the V-effekt and the great ‘‘aha’’ mechanism of their own work, consciousness-raising. In both, as Brecht said of epic theater, ‘‘What is ‘natural’ [has] the force of what is startling.’’ Such devices as putting a pregnant man desperate for an abortion at the center of a drama, as Myrna Lamb did in What Have You Done for Me Lately?, or telling the story of the Oresteia from the point of view of the women involved in the myth, as the Women’s Experimental Theater did, certainly provoked a reassessment of the old way of looking at things. Nonetheless, Lamb’s play probably owes more to commedia dell’arte than to Brecht; W.E.T.’s probably has more in common with symbolist drama than with epic theater.
One reason, of course, is stylistic. Another is tone. For C-R not only afforded the famous ‘‘click’’ experience, after which nothing looks the same again, it also was a means of affirming solidarity and welcoming a recruit into the fold. As an essay by Kathie Sarachild in an early feminist pamphlet points out, ‘‘Consciousness-raising was seen as both a method for arriving at the truth and as a means for action and organizing.’’ This is completely at odds with the truth-scorning critical analysis provoked by the V-effekt and with the more generally anti-authoritarian spirit of Brecht’s writings.
More recently, as feminist theater (and to a large degree, feminism itself) has moved into the academy, Brecht has been subjected to psychoanalytic, poststructuralist, and deconstructionist readings. It’s impossible to characterize all of these assessments with a few broad strokes, but it’s fair to say generally, I think, that the more Brecht has been scrutinized through these postmodern lenses, the more epic theater practice has gone out of focus.
Feminists, most of all, must not allow this to happen. Now that the cold war is over, Communism can no longer serve as the great clobbering epithet for conveniently dismissing Brecht. Perhaps now more than ever, we can come to appreciate the dramatic poetry of Brecht’s plays and the profound radical and feminist impact they promise—if only we would learn to recognize them.
Source: Alisa Solomon, ‘‘Materialist Girl: The Good Person of Szechwan and Making Gender Strange,’’ in Theater, 1994, Vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 42–55.