The Good Woman Of Setzuan Summary

Bertolt Brecht

The Good Woman Of Setzuan

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The Good Woman Of Setzuan Summary

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The Good Person of Szechwan, or, as it was first translated, The Good Woman of Setzuan, is a play by Bertolt Brecht. Brecht began writing it in 1938 but did not complete it until 1941; the play was written in collaboration with Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau. The play was first performed in 1943 at the Zürich Schauspielhaus in Switzerland, and was accompanied by a musical score and songs by the Swiss composer Huldreich Georg Früh. The better known version, however, uses Paul Dessau’s songs from 1947-48, which were also authored by Brecht himself. The play is a prime example of Brecht’s ‘non-Aristotelian drama’, which was intended to be produced using the epic theatre methods. It is also a parable set in the Chinese city of Sichuan.

The beginning of the play sees Wong, a water seller, explaining to the audience that he is waiting in the outskirts of the city for the foretold appearance of several important gods. The gods arrive, and ask Wong to find them shelter. They are tired,having travelled far to search for good people who love according to the principles they, the gods, have set out for humankind. Instead, they have found only greed, evil, dishonesty, and selfishness. In Szechwan they find the same thing. No one cares for others. The only exception is the poor young prostitute named Shen Teh, who has pure inherent charity. She is going to see a customer, but decides to help someone out instead. A confusing moment, however, leaves Wong fleeing from the gods, with his water carrying pole.

The gods reward Shen Teh for her hospitality and goodness. They give her money and she buys a small tobacco shop. This is a gift and a test for Shen Teh, who must maintain her goodness with these new means. If she can, the gods’ faith in humanity will be restored.

At first she is successful, but her generosity means that her small shop becomes a badly run poorhouse, attracting crime and police surveillance. She invents a cousin, Shui Ta, to oversee and protect her shop and her interests. Shen Teh dresses as a man, puts on a mask and a deep voice, and takes on the role. Shui Ta quickly takes control of the shop, turning away loiterers, and order is restored.

Over time, Shen Teh continues this trick of hers, though at the beginning, she only pulls out the male clothing and takes on the role of Shui Ta when she has become particularly desperate. As the play continues, however, she becomes unable to keep up with the demanding expectations on her and the shop, and becomes overwhelmed by the promises she made. Increasingly, she feels compelled to take on the invented role of her strict, male cousin. Eventually her own personality seems to take on more of the cousin’s attributes; Shen Teh is sweet, generous, soft, and compassionate, while Shui Ta is often pragmatic to the point of severity, and can even be vicious at times. Unfortunately, given the nature of the world they live in, only Shui Ta seems able to survive. In a relatively short time, he has built her small, humble shop into a large-scale tobacco factory with many employees.

While this is happening, Shen Teh prevents an unemployed pilot named Yang Sun from hanging himself. She speaks with him, and very quickly falls in love with him. Yang Sun, however, does not feel the same, and uses Shen Teh for her money, while getting her pregnant with his child.

One of Shen Teh’s employees hears her crying, but upon entering the room, sees only Shui Ta. The employee demands information about Shen Teh, and when Shui Ta cannot prove where she is, the employee brings ‘him’ to court. He is accused of hiding or possibly killing his cousin. They also find the bundle of Shen Teh’s clothes under Shui Ta’s desk, making him look guilty.

At the trial, the gods appear as judges, and Shui Ta says he will make confession if the room is cleared except for the judges. Shui Ta reveals himself to the gods, who are faced with a dilemma. Their divine intervention has created impossible circumstances for those who wish to live good lives. The gods refuse to intervene to directly protect their followers from the vulnerability that comes along with goodness.

Finally, the narrator throws the problem of finding a solution to the problem out to the audience of the play. The spectator must figure out how a good person can come to a good end in a world that does not support the good, and is, in itself, not ‘good’. It relies on the dialectical possibilities of the problem, and assumes the spectator will be moved, and understand that the current social structure must be changed, and the problem resolved.