The Good Person of Szechwan

by Bertolt Brecht

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Themes and Meanings

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The Good Woman of Setzuan raises the question of morality in Western culture by enacting a dilemma of goodness versus survival. The issues are encompassed in the play in two basic philosophies: The Chinese yin/yang and Marxist dialectical materialism. The highly contrasting behaviors of Shen Te and Shui Ta illustrate the Asian philosophy of the yin/yang that says two sides of nature—the passive woman and the active man—make up the whole. The constant opposition between Shen Te and Shui Ta and their desperate need for one another, as well as the economic questions that their disparate behaviors raise, point to the Marxist underpinnings of this play. Out of Shen Te’s need to survive despite her goodness and generosity comes the constructive manner in which Shui Ta uses the resources at Shen Te’s disposal to multiply the wealth and thus create more for distribution. On the other hand, Shui Ta’s tightfistedness and cruelty creates a need for more of the human warmth and aid that Shen Te brings to people in misery in the slums of Setzuan.

Both the yin/yang and Marxist philosophies are poetically realized through water imagery and are dramatically stated in terms of the economic situation in Setzuan. The poverty and drought which serve as the backdrop for this play unite the two sets of ideas. The gods do not bring water to everyone; they only bring a small amount of money to Shen Te. They frequently appear to Wang, the water seller, in his night’s lodgings of a dry culvert. Wang dreams that the weight of the gods’ moral precepts will drown Shen Te. Her shop, which she considers a gift from the gods, is an economic lifeboat. However, it may sink, because too many drowning hands reach out for it. The name Shen Te, in Chinese, connotes gentle rain. The name Shui Ta suggests the rushing waters of a flood tide. The generous Shen Te rains her small gifts on those around her; Shui Ta, the unrelenting capitalist who washes away restraints in his rush to succeed in business, emphasizes the relationship between water and the economics of Setzuan, and between the yin/yang and the Marxist dialectic.

With the firm connection between water and economics poetically embedded in the text, Bertolt Brecht goes a step further for the philosophical education of his audience. Instead of creating a play steeped in Chinese tradition, he uses a fictive Chinese setting and Chinese names, exotic gods who become less so as the play progresses, and a sprinkling of tales to divorce the play from the everyday realities of his intended Western audiences. If the play had a less exotic setting, the audience could simply accept the problems and conditions as those of their society, too long ingrained to be solved, or even willed by God as the natural order of things. The critical distance that the Chinese setting provides is designed to let the audience recognize that human action is responsible for the conditions of poverty and can be marshalled to solve those problems.


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Success and Failure Shen Teh wants to succeed at being a good person. The gods give her 1000 silver dollars, and she buys a small tobacco shop with it. Shen Teh hopes to help others through the shop by spending profits on such things as food for the hungry. But most of the people whom she is trying to help take advantage of her generosity. They want food, money, shelter, and constant service. Many of them do not care that their demands are causing the...

(This entire section contains 950 words.)

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business to fail; they are only concerned with their short-term gain. Shen Teh finds it difficult to succeed at being a good person under these frustrating conditions.

To ensure the success of her business and to secure some hope of being able to do good, Shen Teh invents a male persona, a cousin named Shui Ta. Shui Ta is unlike Shen Teh, less compassionate and more ruthless or hard-nosed. He kicks out the elderly couple’s family who have been imposing themselves on her. He does not support Wang’s claim against Shu Fu. He becomes a successful businessman by taking advantage of others. For example, he appropriates tobacco belonging to the elderly couple’s relatives in order to start his tobacco factory business. However, Shui Ta does do some good. For example, he employs the previously jobless relatives of the elderly couple, albeit in unfavorable working conditions. By scene nine, in Shen Teh’s absence, Shui Ta has paid her debts (to the carpet dealer and his wife) and has put out rice for the hungry, as Shen Teh used to do.

At the end of the play, Shen Teh is left to ponder whether being a successful business owner can succeed at being good as well.

Identity When the gods leave Shen Teh with 1000 silver dollars, they inadvertently create an identity crisis for her. At the beginning of the play, she is simply a local prostitute who is nice enough to turn down business so that the gods have a place to stay for the night. But after she receives money so that she can continue to do good, Shen Teh’s identity changes. She is now a local businesswoman and a source of charity. She becomes known as the ‘‘Angel of the Slums’’ for her good deeds. The shift in identity brings a shift in expectations. Many of the poor make demands on her—from her old landlords, the elderly couple, and their extended family asking for shelter to the landlady, Mrs. Mi Tzu, who wants six months rent in advance. They nearly drive her into bankruptcy. Even the man she loves, the pilot Yang Sun, wants her money so that he can take a job as a pilot. Yang Sun does not care if she loses her business in the process, and Shen Teh is so in love with him that she almost gives the shop up for him. The only way to preserve her charitable ambitions and her family is to take on yet another identity.

Shen Teh invents a male cousin, Shui Ta. This male alter ego is essentially the opposite of Shen Teh. He is much more hard-nosed about business and life. He is not above kicking out those who have taken advantage of Shen Teh’s generosity. Shen Teh originally intends for Shui Ta to appear only when times are difficult. However, by the last third of the play, Shui Ta is present so much that other characters believe that he has somehow harmed Shen Teh. But the Shui Ta identity has had to remian prominent to ensure a future for Shen Teh and her unborn child. When Shui Ta is arrested for the disappearance of Shen Teh and appears in court before the three gods, the gods do not see how their generosity in support of her good side have forced her to create this alternate identity just to survive. She tries to explain how both Shen Teh and Shui Ta are part of her, but they will only accept the good. When the gods depart, they tell her to continue to be good, and to use the Shui Ta identity only once a month. Shen Teh is essentially left to resolve the crisis of her identity on her own.

Economic Circumstances/Wealth & Poverty Economic circumstances, primarily poverty, drive much of the action in Good Person. Only a few characters in the play have any wealth to speak of. Shu Fu, the barber, has enough money that he can leave Shen Teh a blank check for her charitable works. The landlady, Mrs. Mi Tzu, owns the building that houses Shen Teh’s tobacco shop. The Yangs also seem to have some money, though not enough for Yang Sun to buy his pilot’s job. But the other character have suffered financial setbacks, and most are poor by the end of the play. Mrs. Shin has sold her shop to Shen Teh. The elderly couple and their extended family are homeless. At least one of them turns to prostitution to support the family. The carpenter and the carpet dealer and his wife lose their businesses during the course of the play. Wang cannot afford a home, and lives under a bridge. Shen Teh used to work as a prostitute, but becomes a member of the merchant class through a gift of money from the gods. Her newfound wealth attracts many who want her help. She has to become the consummate businessman Shui Ta to ensure a future for her business, herself, and her unborn child. Poverty drives them all to desperation, and the gods generally seem indifferent to how this affects both the good and the bad