Der gute Mensch von Sezuan

Der gute Mensch von Sezuan; The Good Person of Szechwan (written 1938-41, performed 1943)

Co-authors: Ruth Berlau and Margarete Steffin

Music: Paul Dessau

This play, which Brecht called a ‘Parabelstück’; ‘parable play’, was written between 1938 and 1941, and first performed in Zürich in February 1943. Brecht’s original planned title in 1930 was Die Ware Liebe; Love, a Commodity; this is a pun because spoken aloud it sounds like ‘Die wahre Liebe’; ‘True Love’. Brecht revised the play and shortened it in May 1943 whilst living in Santa Monica, California. The standard published edition is based on the longer text as premiered in February 1943.

This play demonstrates that it is impossible to be good and to survive in a capitalist society. The only way that Shen Te can maintain her new property is by changing into a ruthless factory owner. Shen Te changes radically throughout the play, in terms of her social, economic and sexual status. She begins as a prostitute but then becomes a shopkeeper (in economic terms, a Kleinbürger or petit bourgeois), and then becomes a factory owner (i.e. a capitalist or Großbürger, a member of the upper classes). In terms of her gender role she begins as a sex worker, then has a monogamous relationship with Yang Sun, her fiancé. By the end of the play she has a double gender role, as a male businessman and as an expectant mother who plans to pay for the best childcare that money can buy. She changes her name and her nickname too: from Shen Te, ‘the angel of the suburbs’, to Shui Ta, ‘the tobacco king’.

In the ‘Vorspiel’ (Prelude), Wang the water-seller offers to find accommodation for three gods. He tries to market the gods to the people of Szechwan as a unique opportunity but no one wants to know. Finally he asks the prostitute Shen Te. She gives shelter to the three gods and they give her a thousand silver dollars.

In Scene 1, Shen Te has bought a tobacco shop with the money but she is soon overwhelmed by demands: her previous landlords are now homeless, and ask her for shelter. When she says yes, the whole family arrives, an ‘eight-headed family’. The carpenter Lin To demands a hundred dollars for his shelves, and the new landlady Mi Tzü demands a character reference.

In Scene 2, Shui Ta arrives, bargains the carpenter down to twenty and gets rid of the eight-headed family by inviting the policeman into his shop just as the son has robbed a bakery. But he is surprised by Mi Tzü’s demand for six months’ rent in advance: 200 silver dollars. The policeman advises Shui Ta to marry his cousin off to someone rich.

In Scene 3, Shen Te saves the unemployed pilot Yang Sun from hanging himself and buys a glass of water from Wang the water-seller.

In Scene 4, the barber Shu Fu wounds Wang’s hand with the curling tongs. Wang must choose between seeking medical aid or legal compensation. The old carpet-seller and his wife offer Shen Te a loan of 200 silver dollars. Shen Te gives the money to Yang Sun’s mother when she tells her that Yang Sun needs 500 dollars to secure a job in Beijing.

In Scene 5, Yang Sun tells Shui Ta that the 500 dollars are bribe money to persuade the hangar supervisor in Beijing to fire the current pilot. Wang arrives with the policeman and Shui Ta tells Wang that Shen Te will not perjure herself for him. Shui Ta tells Shu Fu that he has a chance with Shen Te, but then Yang Sun arrives and Shen Te decides to follow her heart.

In Scene 6, the wedding day of Yang Sun and She Te is a disaster: the ceremony does not take place because Yang Sun is waiting for Shui Ta, who does not arrive.

In Scene 7, Shu Fu gives Shen Te a blank cheque, Shen Te discovers that she is pregnant, Wang arrives with a homeless child and Shen Te vows to be a tiger to other people in order to save her own child. She changes into Shui Ta. Shui Ta takes the tobacco sacks belonging to the eight-headed family and persuades the landlady Mi Tzü not to evict them by waving a cheque at her.

In Scene 8, Shui Ta has set up a tobacco factory. Yang Sun starts working there. He puts on a show of loyalty for the boss and is promoted to the position of overseer.

In Scene 9, Shui Ta tries to persuade the barber Shu Fu and the landlady Mi Tzü to invest in his business, but they want sexual favours (from Shen Te and Yang Sun) in return. Yang Sun and Wang arrive with the policeman and Shen Te’s clothes are discovered.

In Scene 10, Shui Ta is tried in court. Shui Ta asks for the court to be emptied and he reveals to the three gods that he is Shen Te. Shen Te tells the gods that their commandments are fatal and that their world is unjust. The first god refuses to respond to this. Sensing that he is cornered, he summons a pink cloud and the gods disappear.

In the Epilogue, an actor addresses the audience and tells them that they will have to work out the conclusion for themselves.

There are five interludes (‘Zwischenspiele’) in which Wang talks to the gods, and two interludes in which Shen Te addresses the audience.

The three gods are presented as ridiculous, bumbling bureaucrats. Christopher McCullough calls them a parody of a deus ex machina (McCullough, p. 122). They do not seem to notice or care about the poverty and suffering which surrounds them; their only concern is to preserve the status quo by finding a good person in order to comply with a bureaucratic resolution (‘Beschluß’). In the interlude between Scenes 3 and 4 the first god admits that he does not understand anything about business. This means that the gods are useless: they understand nothing about the realities of life. However, the real target of the play is not faith or religion, but facile, hypocritical moralising. The play seeks to demonstrate that traditional moral teachings are inadequate when one is faced with social and economic brutality.

The central paradox of the play is that Shen Te and Shui Ta are totally different, and yet they are both the same person. One persona gradually replaces another, and Shen Te is increasingly denied a voice. As the gods depart Shen Te tries unsuccessfully to negotiate a time share arrangement between her two identities, and it seems that she may well disappear once again.

The play is not a study of individual psychology, it is a study of the dynamics of social behaviour. Rather than seeing Shen Te and Shui Ta as two halves of a divided consciousness, it would be more accurate to regard them as two alternative modes of social action.

English Translation

Bertolt Brecht, The Good Person of Szechwan, trans. by John Willett, commentary and notes by Tom Kuhn and Charlotte Ryland (London: Methuen, 2009)

Further Reading

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Marxist Maths: Brecht’s Der gute Mensch von Sezuan’, Modern Languages: Journal of the MLA 59 (1978), 189-93

Christopher McCullough, ‘The Good Person of Szechwan’, in The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, ed. by Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 118-31

Moray McGowan, ‘Modern German Classics: Second Hand’, German Life and Letters 58 (2005), 155-63

Rudolf Schier, ‘Der gute Mensch von Sezuan: Eine dialektische Parabel’, Brecht Yearbook 28 (2003), 135-53

Alisa Solomon, ‘Materialist Girl: The Good Person of Szechwan and Making Gender Strange’, Theater 25:2 (1994), 42-55

Ronald Speirs, Bertolt Brecht (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987)

Peter Thompson, ‘From Shen Te to Shui Ta: Gendered Reading, Utopian Communism and Stalinism’, Brecht International Yearbook 2 (1996), 220-43

Denise Varney, ‘Performing Sexual Difference: A Feminist Appropriation of Brecht’, Brecht Yearbook 26 (2001), 126-41