The Good Woman of Setzuan

I’m reading Brecht again. When I first encountered him as an undergrad — It was Galileo, I think — he was a burden and a pretentious bore. Several years later I read Mother Courage in a performance theory seminar, and his seemed to me an interesting, if too rigidly intellectual, project. Now, at 31 and with my political positions in something of a flux, I think I’m finally ready to really read Brecht. (Hopefully at 40 I’ll reread this and laugh at my naivete.)

The Good Woman of Setzuan (1938-40), written during Brecht’s exile in Scandinavia, tells the story of Shen Te, a young woman forced into prostitution by poverty who is rewarded handsomely after opening her home to three visiting gods. Disproving their contention that no goodness still exists on earth, Shen Te is given a small business by the deities, and from there she struggles to work honestly and to provide for the needy, earning her the moniker, “the Angel of the Slums.” After falling victim to unscrupulous neighbors and a dishonest lover, however, Shen Te is forced to create an alter-ego — that of her business-savy cousin, Mr. Shui Ta. Where Shen Te is trusting, selfless, and naive, Shui Ta is fierce, manipulative, and efficient. As inevitably happens in Brecht’s drama — and, by extension, in our world — the forces of capital and history eventually overwhelm Shen Te, and she is forced to surrender her goodness or starve:

Since not to eat is to die
Who can long refuse to be bad?
As I lay prostrate beneath the weight of good intentions
Ruin stared me in the face
It was when I was unjust that I ate good meat

While browsing this morning, I found a fun review of Good Woman as staged by the fine drama department at my alma mater, Florida State. I say “fun review” because it was so obviously written by a well-intentioned — and absolutely clueless — undergrad. How’s this for a lead?

The FSU School of Theatre revisits the timeless feud between good and evil in its production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan.” With a uniquely dazzling set, on-stage chemistry and a moralistic lesson, the play leaves every viewer with something to ponder.

He or she goes on to say:

With predominantly outrageous characters, prophetic musical interludes and an amazing abstract mountainous backdrop, balance is occasionally difficult. However, the innocence of the main character, the serious nature of the love story and the open ending leave viewers poised to make logical sense of the production.

Ignoring for a moment the complete lack of content here (and the misplaced modifier and the wretched abuse of adverbs), I have to take aim at that opening sentence: The chief end of Brecht’s project, in fact, is to strip us (violently, if necessary) of any and all illusions of “timelessness.” Timelessness (like the traditional theatre), he would argue, is a bourgeois daydream — the shiny gloss that covers over the workings and exploitations of capital.

To free us of those illusions, to expose that machinery, he distances us from the action, never allowing us to identify too closely with the characters or to suspend our disbelief. The Verfremdungseffekt takes a variety of forms: productions of Brecht’s dramas often include projected slides above the stage that directly contradict or comment on the action beneath; characters occasionally address the audience directly; and in Good Woman Shen Te becomes Shui Ta simply by slipping on a mask that, in most productions, is deliberately unrealistic, deliberately theatrical. We’re never allowed to forget that we’re only watching a play.

Brecht also deflates dramatic tension — though his plays certainly remain tense and tragic — by focusing our attention on those literal transactions that are often elided in traditional story-telling. Money changes hands with tragic consequences. In each exchange someone profits at another’s expense. Shen Te isn’t destroyed by timeless forces of evil or by fate or Providence, but by specific economic systems. I love this scene from the prologue:

Wong: Everyone knows the province of Kwan is always having floods.
Second God: Really? How’s that?
Wong: Why, because they’re so irreligious.
Second God: Rubbish. It’s because they neglected the dam.

I wonder how that would play in our current climate.