The Good Woman of Setzuan as a Parable
A parable is a short tale that illustrates universal truth, one of the simplest of narratives. It sketches a setting, describes an action, and shows the results. It often involves a character facing a moral dilemma, or making a questionable decision and then suffering the consequences. As with a fable, a parable generally relates a single, simple, consistent action, without extraneous detail or distracting circumstances.
The Good Woman of Setzuan is a play written by Bertolt Brecht. The play is a parable set in the Chinese city of Szechwan. It critically examines the problems of remaining good under the existing social and economic conditions. Brecht’s famous parable, showing that in aggressive and unjust societies good can survive by means of evil was written in 1939-41, while he was in flight from the Nazis in Scandinavia. Brecht could not therefore express his anti-Nazi sentiments openly even though he lived in exile. He conceived of the play in the form of a parable in which underneath the simple diction lies the significance as well as complexity.
The Good Woman of Setzuan presents a severe critique of the hollowness of morality underlying the capitalist system. It illustrates Brecht’s concept of the didactic theatre. In the Conversations between Exiles, which he was writing in Finland around the same time, he deals with the concept of good and evil in a comic-paradoxical way, showing in a long ‘Parade of the Vices and Virtues’ how both these options can ‘identify themselves as the servants of Oppression. The play however is more schematic, as may be seen from Brecht’s notes.
The play opens with Wang, a water seller, explaining to the audience what 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, having travelled 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 Szechwan: no one will take them in, no one has the time or means to care for others – no one except the poor young prostitute Shen Teh, whose pure inherent charity cannot allow her to turn away anyone in need. Shen Teh was going to see a customer, but decided to help out instead, however confusion follows leaving Wang fleeing from the “Illustrious Ones” (The Three Gods), leaving his water carrying-pole behind.
Shen Teh is rewarded for her hospitality, as the gods take it as a sure sign of goodness. They give her money and she buys a humble tobacco shop which they intend as both gift and test. If she succeeds, the gods’ confidence in humanity would be restored. Though at first Shen Teh seems to live up to 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 Teh 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 Teh is in a particularly desperate situation, but as the action of the play develops, Shen Teh 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 her cousin’s severity. Where Shen Teh 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.
Shen Teh also meets an unemployed mail pilot, Yang Sun, whom she quickly falls in love with after preventing him from hanging himself. However, Yang Sun doesn’t return Shen Teh’s feelings but simply uses her for money and Shen Teh quickly falls pregnant with his child. Here again her goodness leads to disaster. Later still, obsessed with the welfare of her unborn child by Sun, she can afford no goodness to anyone else.
Shall right at least for my own, if I have to be
Sharp as a liger. Yes, from the hour
When I saw this thing I shall cut myself off
From them all, never resting
Till I have at least saved my son, if only him.
What I learnt from my schooling, the gutter
By violence and trickery now
Shall serve you my son to you I would be kind, a savage beast
To all others need be.
And It need be.”
She finds no way out but to disguise herself as a hard-headed imaginary male cousin Shui Ta. She wants to do good to herself as well as to others. Her feminine weaknesses, charity and love, must be limited by masculine toughness. She is driven to play a dual role – the masculine complimenting the feminine. As Shui Ta she helps both the poor and her lover by setting up a factory which provides work and wages. But in doing so, she foregoes all her charity and her mental plight becomes worse.
Eventually one of the employees hears Shen Teh crying, but when he enters only Shui Ta is present. The employee demands to know what he has done with Shen Teh, and when he cannot prove where she is, he is taken to court on the charge of having hidden or possibly murdered his cousin. The townspeople also discover a bundle of Shen Teh’s clothing under Shui Ta’s desk, which makes them even more suspicious. During the process of her trial, the gods appear in the robes of the judges, and Shui Ta says that he will make a confession if the room is cleared except for the judges. When the townspeople have gone, Shen Teh reveals herself to the gods, who are confronted by the dilemma that their seemingly arbitrary divine behaviour has caused: they have created impossible circumstances for those who wish to live “good” lives, yet they refuse to intervene directly to protect their followers from the vulnerability that this “goodness” engenders.
The gods are delighted, to see Shen Teh for the good woman is still on earth. But when Shen Te points out that her good actions have had bad consequences, they merely tell her to go on being good. When she further protests that she cannot survive without the hard-headed Shui Ta, they decree that she may use Shui Ta sparingly say once a month. Ascending into heaven on a pink cloud, the gods leave the troubled Shen Te alone.
The metaphysical concept of a perfect God (or gods) creating an imperfect world, leaving men to do their best in such a world, explains the ways of the three gods. On the other hand, Shen Te expects the gods not only to commend her goodness but, to help her impose goodness on the world. Faced with the complete indifference of the gods to human problems, Shen Te is left with the unresolved problem of how a good person is to survive in a bad world.
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 dialectical possibilities of this problem, and on the assumption that the spectator will be moved to see that the current structure of society must be changed in order to resolve the problem