The Good Person of Szechwan

by Bertolt Brecht

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The Play

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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...

(This entire section contains 1443 words.)

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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 also promises to testify for Wang that she saw Shu Fu break his hand.

In an interlude, Shen Te appears, carrying the clothing and mask of Shui Ta. Before the eyes of the audience, she becomes Shui Ta. Yang Sun meets Shui Ta in the fifth scene. Sun reveals that he is not in love with Shen Te but is only using her. Mrs. Mi Tzu arrives to collect the rent. Sun, who needs three hundred dollars more to get the pilot’s job in Peking, offers to sell Shen Te’s shop to Mrs. Mi Tzu for that amount. The deal will be sealed in two days. Wang enters to have Shen Te help him file his suit against Shu Fu, but Shui Ta refuses to let Shen Te perjure herself. Shu Fu offers to allow Shen Te to continue her good deeds through marriage to him; he will make his houses behind the cattle yard available to her to shelter the poor. Yang Sun returns. Shen Te appears and chooses Sun, rather than accept Shu Fu’s offer.

On the way to her wedding, Shen Te tells the audience that the wife of the carpet dealer needs the two hundred silver dollars back because her husband is gravely ill. The wedding never takes place, because Yang Sun first wants possession of the three hundred silver dollars. Shui Ta never brings the money.

As scene 7 begins, Shen Te is preparing to move away in ruin. Shu Fu brings her a blank check to save her business. However, owing to her love for Yang Sun, she refuses to take advantage of Shu Fu’s generosity. She also discovers that she is carrying Sun’s child. Reversing herself, Shen Te commits herself to Shu Fu by promising to find shelter for the whole Lin family in his houses. She gives all of her possessions to Wang so that he can receive medical care for his hand. Members of the family of eight show up with three bales of tobacco, which they ask Shen Te to hide for them. Shen Te realizes that she must save her own unborn child, so she calls upon Shui Ta once again. He uses Shu Fu’s blank check and commandeers the bales of tobacco. He announces that only those who work will be fed, and that the barber’s houses are not available for living because they will become the location of a tobacco factory.

The gods appear to Wang in the interlude. They are suffering terribly from their earthly sojourn. Wang tells them of a dream of seeing Shen Te almost drowning as she tries to cross a river with a heavy load of moral precepts on her back.

Scene 8 is set in Shui Ta’s tobacco factory. Mrs. Yang narrates the rise of Yang Sun in Shui Ta’s business. He ingratiates himself to owner Shui Ta and rises to become foreman in just a few months by cheating and brutalizing his fellow workers.

By scene 9, Shui Ta has grown fat. The neighbors think that it is caused by prosperity and complacency, but the audience knows that it is Shen Te’s pregnancy. Wang the water seller stops outside the shop and cries out for Shen Te and her goodness. Sun hears from Wang that Shen Te is pregnant and assumes that it is his child. Sun also hears weeping from the back room, yet only Shui Ta emerges. The police are called, Shen Te’s clothes are found, and Shui Ta is arrested for the murder of his kind cousin.

The gods are almost finished as they appear to Wang in the interlude. They recognize that their moral precepts may make it impossible for people to live. They vanish quickly. The final scene of the play is the trial of Shui Ta for the murder of his cousin. The gods will serve as judges. Shui Ta promises to make a confession if the courtoom is cleared. He strips off his costume and Shen Te stands before the judges. She explains that she could not be good and still survive, especially when she had to think about the future of her unborn child. The gods shut off her discussion of the predicament of humankind. They are overjoyed to have found their good person again and quickly depart for heaven now that their work is done. As they leave on their pink cloud, they ignore her cries for help.

The epilogue is a kind of tongue-in-cheek summary of the action. The audience is challenged to find a solution to Shen Te’s dilemma in spite of the contradiction between the way society is structured and the domination of the moral precepts of the gods.

Dramatic Devices

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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 statement that human problems must be solved by humans—gods are incapable of doing so.

The plot of the play is frequently interrupted by songs, poems, or characters speaking directly to the audience. The songs and poems are used to focus the attention of the audience on specific and critical philosophical issues. Shen Te sings “The Song of the Defenselessness of the Gods and the Good People,” in which she questions why evil exists at all and why, if the gods are so powerful, they do not wage war against evil and win. The song forces the audience to consider that evil is not otherworldly, but purely human in its source, just as goodness is a purely human virtue.

Characters who speak directly to the audience confront the playgoers with the social and political messages of the play. They also narrate action that is about to take place, telling the audience what to expect. This telling all in advance encourages the audience to, rather than watching the play to see what happens, watch to see why and how things happen. This device renders audiences capable of solving the problems rather than simply accepting their presence in the human condition. For example, Mrs. Yang tells the audience that her son, Yang Sun, has risen high in Shui Ta’s tobacco factory through a little bit of luck and hard work. Then she narrates each of the events that led to Sun becoming the foreman. As she does so, the scenes are enacted, complete with dialogue. The audience watches Sun make a coworker look lazy, a paymaster seem dishonest, and the assembly line workers appear incompetent until he takes over as their taskmaster. The spectator sees how he does this and understands that it is for his own advancement at the expense of others. There is no suspense over whether he will succeed, because his mother has already revealed that he does.

Bertolt Brecht sprinkles the play with tales and anecdotes that contribute to the sense of the exotic. They also provide an opportunity to preach directly to the audience. The spectator sees the contradictions inherent in accepted notions of good and evil in human behavior in Wang’s tale of the trees who pay the penalty for usefulness by being chopped down in their prime instead of being able to live to a ripe age.

Historical Context

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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 Germans. Much of the year was spent trying to push the Germans back from territory that they had conquered, including Sicily and parts of southern Italy.

While Europeans were suffering, the demands of the war also changed life in the United States. The Great Depression of the 1930s ended as factories geared up for war production. By 1943, some Depression-era legislation was challenged by Congress. The New Deal was questioned by Republicans, while the WPA was ended entirely because the war created many new jobs and the maximum use of resources. Jobs were easier to obtain and more numerous. To support the war effort, women began doing what was considered ‘‘men’s work’’ in domestic factories and also served in the armed forces. This ultimately changed the way that people thought about work. It also led to better educational opportunities for women, including more co-educational colleges.

Though jobs were plentiful, and President Roosevelt ordered a minimum 48-hour work week in war-related factories, workers were unhappy in 1943 for several reasons. Prices were rising, and workers wanted higher wages. The federal government worked to control inflation, but that did not change the fact that every day items were rationed. There were also several labor strikes (primarily in the mining industry), threats of strikes, and laborrelated riots. Congress outlawed strikes in industries vital to the war effort.

China also suffered during World War II though for the most, they were not directly involved in the conflict. China had been at war with Japan since 1937, after Japan conquered Manchuria in 1932. War was not officially declared against Japan until late in 1941. Japan was successful in taking over several parts of the country, forcing the ruling Nationalist government to set up in different cities. There was also internal strife in China, between the Nationalists and the upstart Communists, led by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung). The Communists fought a guerilla war with Japanese while feuding with Nationalists. After the United States declared war on Japan in 1941, China and the United States became allies, though Japan continued to win in the Far East for some time. The war in China created a desperate refugee situation in China, similar to that in Europe. Those most affected by the war with Japan, from eastern and central China, were forced to retreat westward. Such circumstances might have led Brecht to question whether goodness could exist in the world.

Literary Style

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SettingThe 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 Shen Teh’s ‘‘The Song of the Defencelessness of the Gods and the Good People.’’ Shen Teh, especially, comments on action while revealing more of herself in off-handed moments of verse.

Monologues/Characters Directly Addressing the Audience
While some of the songs in The Good Person of Szechwan address the audience in a direct fashion, especially Shen Teh’s ‘‘Song of the Defencelessness of the Good and the Gods,’’ there are several instances in which the actors directly speak to the play’s viewers. On these occasions, the audience is informed of what is going to happen and the characters’ feelings about these events. These moments also underscore the themes of the play and give Brecht a forum to put forth his political, philosophical, and social ideas. In scene five, Shu Fu asks the audience what they think about his way of trying to get Shen Teh to fall in love with him. First he plans to talk only about ideas with her, then have her fall in love with him. Scene eight has a number of monologues. Mrs. Yang tells the audience how Shui Ta saved her son by giving him a job and allowing him to thrive. As she speaks, the whole story is acted out. First she tells the audience what happens, then she steps back into the action as it occurs.

The most important monologues in The Good Person of Szechwan are found at the very beginning and end of the play. The play opens with a prologue in which Wang sets up some of the basics of the play. He is waiting for the three gods to arrive so that he is the first to meet them in the city. When they finally arrive, the monologue stops. In the epilogue, one of the actors steps in front of the curtain and apologizes to the audience for not having a neatly closed ending. Brecht uses this opportunity to make the audience think rather than to just entertain them.

Compare and Contrast

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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.

Today: Companies such as Nike use cheap, sweat shop-type labor in Asia and South America to manufacture goods in a situation many consider near slavery.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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 Shakespeare,’’ The San Francisco Chronicle, March 2, 1999, p. E1.

Fuegi, John. ‘‘The Alienated Woman: Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, in Essays on Brecht: Theater and Politics, edited by Siegfried Mews and Herbert Knust, The University of North Carolina Press, 1974, pp. 190-96.
This essay explores the evolution of Brecht’s ideas on The Good Person of Szechwan, and the prominent woman character, Shen Teh.

Kleber, Pia. Exceptions and Rules: Brecht, Planchon andThe Good Person of Szechwan, Peter Lang, 1987.
This book describes the influence of Brecht on a Roger Planchon, a French director and playwright, including a discussion of his three different stagings of The Good Person of Szechwan.

Lyon, James K. Bertolt Brecht in America, Princeton University Press, 1980.
This is a critical biography of Brecht during his time in exile in the United States. Work on The Good Person of Szechwan was completed in this time period.

Schoeps, Karl H. Bertolt Brecht, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977, pp. 280-97.
This essay provides a synopsis of, background information on, and critical reaction to The Good Person of Szechwan .


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide