Erst kommt das Fressen,
Dann kommt die Moral
(First ya gotta have a full belly,
Then morality follows.) Bertholdt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht’s Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, (imperfectly translated as The Good Woman of Szechuan, instead of the Good Person or more literally the Good Human Being ) opened at ACT Lab this weekend. It poses the great moral question of all time: “Is it possible for a morally good person to survive in a society ruled by egotism, corruption, exploitation and greed.” The answer Brecht, who died in 1956, would have given would be “not under Capitalism.” In 2018, knowing about the corruption of various Capitalist, Communist and Religious regimes, it seems there is no answer.
Born in 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria, just outside Munich, in Southern Germany, Brecht lived through all of the European upheavals of the first half of the 20th Century. At the age of 16, WW I broke out; many of his classmates perished as cannon fodder in the trenches. At age 19 in 1917, the Bolsheviks took control of the Russian Empire. In 1918 the German Kaiser abdicated as Germany lost WW I, followed by a short lived revolution between Socialists and Republicans in Germany.
At the age of 35, as a highly successful playwright, poet, theatre director and dramaturg, under the Weimar Republic, Brecht had to flee Germany, within days of Hitler coming to power. After having been blacklisted by Hollywood producers, in 1949, Brecht fled the United States, where he had taken refuge at the outbreak of WW II in 1939, the day after he testified before HUAC ( McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee)
Choosing not to return to West Germany, he settled in Socialist East Germany and opened up the Berliner Ensemble, in East Berlin. Dying in August 1956, just before the Hungarian Revolution, (in Oct & Nov of ’56), against Soviet rule, he experienced little of the second half of the 20th Century e.g. the disappointment all idealistic Marxists felt, when the Soviet Union betrayed socialism principles.
Marxism was not the only major influence on his work; his devoutly Protestant mother taught him the Bible and Christian Morality. Whether Christian morality can withstand adverse economic forces is the central theme of The Good Woman of Szechuan.
In some ways the main character in The Good Woman of Szechuan, Shen Te, is a metaphor for the Weimar Republic. It was a fragile democracy which stumbled, but then started to flourish, only to be decimated by the disastrous economic forces of the depression. Had the depression not struck, the Weimar Republic, in spite of its numerous and powerful enemies, may well have survived.
As the play opens, Wong, a water seller, explains to the audience that three gods are coming to find out if there are any good people in Setzuan, and they are looking for shelter for the night. After being turned away at the houses of a few respectable people, Wong asks Shen Te, a prostitute, to shelter the gods. (N.B. Shen Te is a very generic Chinese name, in other words Everyman)
Acting against her self-interest, as she is awaiting a paying customer, she lets the gods stay with her, without asking any compensation. In the morning, the gods reward her by giving her money, which she uses to set up a tobacco shop and stop being a prostitute. So selflessness or adhering to Christian morality is most definitely rewarded.
However, due to her essential goodness, unselfish behavior, and newfound prosperity, she becomes a magnet for parasites, who along with a corrupt landlord, hangers-on and an exploitive lover, nearly put her out of business. In response, she disguises herself as a fictitious male cousin, who plays the heavy and converts the small tobacco shop into a capitalist venture-a cigarette factory. As the cousin, she is successful because he goes to the other end of the moral spectrum, by becoming totally selfish and extremely ruthless. Both figuratively and physically Shen Te, disappears from the action of the play.
Through a plot device, whereby the neighbors think the cousin has murdered Shen Te, the whole village ends up in a court room with judges, who are really the gods. After asking to clear the courtroom Shen Te confesses that she has disguised herself and asks the gods how to resolve the problem of “Can a good person maintain their selflessness and still survive in such a society.” They can’t answer it and leave it to the audience.
The director Ahna Demaro, assembled a highly competent cast: Minna Lee played a vulnerable and angelic Shen Te, as well as Hazel Rose Gibson as Wong the water seller and several other roles. Gods Alaji Marie, who doubled as a street-wise butcher, and Eloisa Cardona, who also doubled as a slimey grasping landlady. Michael Raimondi as a god, a gossipy housewife and a hilarious high-heeled shod prostitute. However the director, Ahna Demaro, a Kenan Directing Fellow at ACT Lab, made a number of unfortunate choices.
It is never easy to stage a translation and this one certainly did not show off Brecht, as a wordsmith. (N.B. Brecht is as well known as a poet in Germany as he is as a playwright) Although his plays are definitely overtly political and didactic, he is witty and a master of the German language. Most importantly, his productions always have a huge amount of comic relief, and most importantly non-traditional staging techniques-Brecht’s aesthetic theory, avant-garde in his time, called “epic theatre” seemed to be absent.
Essentially, he did not want passive audiences to emotionally identify with the action and characters, but to participate rationally without being drawn into the illusion. Brecht always wanted the audience to realize that what was on stage was only a representation of reality, not reality. In terms of staging, there is usually a lot of breaking the fourth wall, or speaking directly to the audience, either speaking the directions or having placards giving directions and usually topical references to local issues. (in Seattle there are plenty of asides, which could have been thrown in!)
Basically, this production was staged more or less as a traditional play except that it was set in a very small space, with the audience, set and actors on top of each other. The costumes generally did not support the double and triple casting and were visually unappealing. Without the epic theatre’s techniques, as well as a poor translation devoid of comic relief, what you got was a didactic repetition of the point again and again.
However political a message an author presents, a play has to be entertaining and hold the audience’s attention. This production was disappointing as Brecht’s plays are not produced often in Seattle. It is a shame because I noticed that most of the audience were older people. Has Brecht been forgotten by the younger generation?
The Good Woman of Setzuan. By Berthold Brecht. ACT LAB The Bullitt Cabaret, ACT Theatre. 700 Union St. Downtown Seattle. Thru Sept. 29 https://acttheatre.org/actlab/2018-2/good-woman/