The Good Person of Sezuan, also known as The Good Woman of Setzuan, is a play by the German playwright, poet, theatre critic, and theorist Bertolt Brecht. It was written between 1939 and 1941, but completed in 1943 while the author was living in temporary self-imposed political exile in The United States, and was first performed (in 1943) at the Schauspielhaus Zürich in Switzerland with a musical score and songs by Paul Dessau.
This play, along with many of the author's others in this period, are considered examples of epic theatre, and were not written to be staged according to the traditional practices and assumptions of the "realistic" theatre.
Title and theme
In English this play is often referred to as The Good Woman of Setzuan, as it appears in the authoritative translation of the text prepared by pre-eminent Brecht scholar Eric Bentley, in which he chooses to suggest an exclusively feminine title character. In the original German, however, the play is titled "Der gute Mensch von Sezuan", and so the most linguistically accurate and less gender-specific title would be The Good Person of Sezuan. Most subsequent translations (such as that of John Willet) use the unisex Person in the title. Additional confusion has come from the lack of uniformity in the spelling of the setting: Sezuan, Setzuan, Szechwan, Szechuan have all been used. Today, the proper spelling for the Chinese province would be the Pinyin variant Sichuan, and some translations have been updated to reflect that. However, Brecht was never interested in anthropological accuracy in his choice of setting, but rather in the universal application of the epic setting.
This confusion of titling points to the central problem of the play which follows a young woman, a prostitute named Shen Te, as she struggles to lead a life that is "good" (according to the terms of the morality that is taught by the gods, and to which lip service is paid by her fellow citizens of Setzuan) without allowing herself to be abused and trod upon by those who would accept, and more often than not, abuse her goodness. Her neighbors and even her friends prove so brutal in the filling of their own needs, that in order to protect herself, she invents an alter ego: a male cousin named Shui Ta, who is cold and stern, a protector of Shen Te's interests. Thus the difficult theme of qualitative "goodness" (which seemed so simple and obvious in the title of the play) is rendered unstable by application to both genders, as Shen Te realizes she must operate under the guise of both in order to live successfully and in good faith.
Brecht's strong belief in Marxist doctrine is made evident through the play as he attempts to redefine contemporary morality and altruism in strong economic terms. Absolute Altruism, i.e. a moral code of unconditional giving with no return, is put in direct conflict with Shen Teh's capitalist society of exploitation, the implication being that economic systems dictate morality. Brecht further underlines the sexual undertones of capitalism by having the former prostitute Shen Teh adopt a male alter-ego, a phallic personality capable of exerting influence and taking what he needs. According to Brecht, under such a society, it is impossible to give without also taking. The implied solution, for which Brecht went before the House Committee on Un-American Activities is a marxist/communist society in which, through nationalization of private property and interdependence, all altruism goes to serve both the whole and the individual.
The play opens with Wang, a water carrier, explaining to the audience that he is on the city outskirts awaiting the foretold appearance of several important gods. Soon the gods arrive and ask Wang to find them shelter for the night. They are tired, have traveled far and wide in search of good people who still live according to the principles that they, the gods, have handed down. Instead they have found only greed, evil, dishonesty, and selfishness. The same turns out to be true in Szechuan: no one will take them in, no one has the time or means to care for others - no one except the poor young Shen Te, whose pure inherent charity cannot allow her to turn away anyone in need.
Shen Te is rewarded for her hospitality, as the gods take it as a sure sign of goodness. They give her a humble tobacco shop which they intend as both gift and test: will Shen Te be able to maintain her goodness with these newfound means, however slight they may be? If she succeeds, the gods' confidence in humanity would be restored. Though at first, Shen Te seems to live up the gods' expectations, her generosity quickly turns her small shop into a messy, overcrowded poorhouse which attracts crime and police supervision. In a sense, Shen Te quickly fails the test, as she is forced to introduce the invented cousin Shui Ta as overseer and protector of her interests. Shen Te dons a costume of male clothing, a mask, and a forceful voice to take on the role of Shui Ta. Shui Ta arrives at the shop, coldly explains that his cousin has gone out of town on a short trip, curtly turns out the hangers-on, and quickly restores order to the shop.
At first, Shui Ta only appears when Shen Te is in a particularly desperate situation, but as the action of the play develops, Shen Te becomes unable to keep up with the demands made on her and is overwhelmed by the promises she makes to others--therefore she is compelled to call on her cousin's services for longer periods until at last her true persona seems to be consumed by the severity of her cousin's. Where Shen Te is soft, compassionate and vulnerable, Shui Ta is unemotional and pragmatic, even vicious; it seems that only Shui Ta is made to survive in the world in which they live. In what seems no time at all, he has built her humble shop into a full scale tobacco factory with many employees.
Eventually Shen Te's role-playing is uncovered by the townspeople, and her personal trials climax as she is brought into court to face charges for her duplicity. During the process of her trial, the gods (who have surprisingly appeared in the robes of the judges assigned to hear the case) are confronted by the dilemma that their seemingly arbitrary divine behavior has caused: they have created impossible circumstances for those who wish to live "good" lives and yet refuse to intervene directly to protect their followers from the vulnerability that this "goodness" engenders.
At the end, following a hasty and ironic (though quite literal) deus ex machina, the narrator throws the responsibility of finding a solution to the play's problem onto the shoulders of the audience. It is for the spectator to figure out how a good person can possibly come to a good end in a world that, in essence, is not good. The play relies on the dialectic possibilities of this problem, and on the assumption that the spectator will be moved to see the current structure of society must be changed in order to resolve the problem.