The Good Woman of Setzuan as an Epic Theatre
The Good Woman of Setzuan 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 neighbours and a dishonest lover, however, Shen Te is forced to create an alter-ego- that of her business-savvy 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.”
The Good Woman of Setzuan is dialectical in its split between Shen Teh’s self-fulfillment and Shui Ta’s self-preservation. It is the inevitable clash between drive and fact and the paradox of ends and means. But for Shui Ta’s profiteering meanness Shen Teh could be deprived of her charitable self.
In The Good Woman of Setzuan we have constant interruption that are brought about by musical interludes and all the songs work to alienate the audience from the play and to make them question the situation presented before them. They are made to question how Shen Teh’s goodness leaves her only noble but also economically emaciated. Walter Benjamin says that “the interruption of action is one the principal concerns of epic theatre. There in lies the formal achievement of Brecht’s songs with their crude heart-rending refrains,” and hence The water seller’s song in the Rain’ comes just after the love scene between Shen Teh and Yang Sun, disrupting the audience from getting involved in the play and again bringing their attention to the dialectics between poverty and plenty.
Brecht says that “in the epic theatre moral arguments only took the second place. Its aim is less to moralize than to observe.” So we see Shen Teh’s goodness is constantly thwarted by social circumstances and harsh necessities of survival in a competitive society. For Shen Teh to survive it is necessary that Shui Ta should survive.
The gods in the play are ignorant, humanized and a satire on the hegemony in Christianity questioning the absolutism of Christianity in the early twentieth century. Instead of having a single Godhead as found in Christianity, we are presented with three gods. But none of them can do anything to lift Shen Teh out of the drudgery that she is part of, even though she is good. In the trial scene the gods are seen nothing but imposters.
The idea of justice is questioned, deconstructed and done away with Virtue is neither rewarded nor vice punished. Instead vice is seen as a means to an end. Shui Ta is not punished and Shen Teh is rewarded for her goodness. Brecht here combines divine justice with legal justice by making the gods wear the attire of the magistrates to mock at divine justice.
Brecht believes that society can be changed through intellectual action and that is the reason that his plays are highly dialectical. We see the dialectical between good and bad as Shen Teh sings the ‘Song of the Degenerateness of the Good and the Gods’. “The litererization of the theatre by means of verbal formulas, posters, captions is intended to make what is shown on the stage unsensational.” The performance is not aimed to draw the audience into the play but to make them stand at the periphery so that they can question the bourgeoisie ideology and break free from it. so that the proliterate is emancipated and socialism can be constructed:
Cannot remain good for long in our country
Where cupboards are bare, housewives start to squabble.
Oh, the divine commandments
Are not much use against hunger.
So why can’t the gods share out what they’ve created
Come down and distribute the bounties of nature
And allow us once hunger and thirst have been sated
To mix with each other in friendship and pleasure?”
Gods here are seen as privileging the aristocrats and Christianity is seen as a perpetrator of class difference. The motif of hunger’ is again visible in the song. Though one cannot be satiated by following the commandments, one needs to have money to buy food. It brings to the forefront the dialectics between spirituality and materialism.
Brecht being but a Marxist every theme is given a Marxist interpretation, even the idea of love and marriage. Shen Teh has to choose between Yang Sun and Mr Shu Fu. It is as Shui Ta she favours Shu Fu for he can provide her with a future but as Shen Teh her emotions stray her towards Yang Sun. In direct address to the audience Shen Teh sings:
“I would go with the man whom I love
I would not reckon what it costs me.
I would not consider whart is wiser.
I would not know whether he loves me.
I would go with the man whom I love.”
Brecht in The Good Woman of Setzuan presents us with the Marxist theme, a dialectical debate between poverty and plentitude; goodness and god; religion and materialism etc. The musical interludes present throughout the play, Shen Teh’s changing clothes in front of the audience, direct address of Shen Teh and other characters to the audience, is an attempt to make sure that the play raises questions in the minds of the audience and breaks their identification with the bourgeoisie ideology.
In totality, Brecht’s play, The Good Woman of Setzuan is an apt representation of his epic or intellectual theatre, It proposed that a play should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the characters or action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage. Brecht thought that the experience of a climactic catharsis of emotion left an audience complacent. Instead, he wanted his audiences to adopt a critical perspective in order to recognize social injustice and exploitation and to be moved to go forth from the theatre and effect change in the world outside. For this purpose, Brecht employed the use of techniques that remind the spectator that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself.
By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience’s reality was equally constructed and, as such, was changeable. Instead of focusing on the universal elements of human situations and fate, Brecht is interested in depicting the attitude that people adopted towards each other in a specific situation.