Ask Philippa: Good Person Edition

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“Goodness is its own reward,” might sound familiar. But is it? Does human nature respect good people? This is the question at the core of Bertoldt Brech’s The Good Person of Sczechwan, a work that emerged in the midst of World War II after Brecht and his wife, having been rendered stateless citizens by the Nazi government, eventually found refuge in America. Shen Te, rewarded by the gods for her kindness, is besieged by fellow-citizens who prey on her for the very quality for which the gods have thanked her. Shen Te finds herself unable to say “no” to anyone—and in order to survive, she takes an unusual step. Does she remain good in taking it? Or is the step itself an acknowledgement that “goodness” can never live in the world undefended?

Have a question about The Good Person of Szechwan? Ask Philippa, our Resident Dramaturg in the comments below!

Hello everybody, my name is Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater. And it’s my delight to tell you a little bit about The Good Person of Szechwan, which is the first Brecht ever to be staged at our theater by the fabulous Eric Ting and company.

“Goodness is its own reward.” How many times have we heard that? Well, it turns out, it’s quite complicated. The play, The Good Person of Szechwan, was in its original, set in a sort of a nameless and timeless place, which we have also in our production today. The play speaks to us in a visceral way. We’re living in a time when fake news can contort the voice of Nancy Pelosi, can spread to millions the belief that Hillary Clinton is running a child abuse ring in a pizza shop, a time when anything can be spread to anyone, and be picked up if we want to believe it.

I’m beginning in this way, because Brecht himself was intensely political. His plays were all about compelling his audiences to question the political and economic premises of capitalism. And to see that these premises, economics and politics, are inseparable. Brecht wanted his audiences to know that feeling is not useful without thinking. And The Good Person of Szechwan was written at the heart of World War Two, when Brecht had been banished by the Nazis for his anti fascist views, when he had been rendered a stateless citizen, and lived his life with actress Helene Weigel, in the belief that theater is and must be a form of radical social activism.

So how did Brecht achieve this in his theater practice? He wanted, above all, to disrupt the idea of theater as a place in which the audience sits in the stalls in the dark, passively imbibing the storyline, along with their sandwiches and wine, and where the actors stand in pools of light. Brecht often used lighting to illuminate the audience, asking them to place their feelings and their thoughts in the spotlight. He used direct address in which a character would step out of the play to address us as co interpreter of the action on stage. And he used music, sound, movement, to remind the audience that they were not sinking into the world of the play, becoming completely and willingly emotionally invested in the characters’ journeys. He used features like horns, clashing symbols, microphones, to remind us that we’re watching a play, we are making judgments, we are asked to make moral judgments and not just aesthetic ones.

And that cognitive dissonance, things that can’t be neatly fitted together, is the stuff of paradox and active judgment. Brecht’s style of theater then, is called epic theater, which combines narration with enactment, breaking the illusion that’s at the core of traditional theater. Even though Brecht understood that theater had to be fun and pleasurable for the audience, he wasn’t interested in passive consumption and simple enjoyment. He compared that kind of passive illusionistic theater to opium consumption: it induces what he called a stupor in the audience. Instead, he wanted to challenge the viewers to think, analyze, and act in the interests of social change. That’s the key term defining Brechtian theater is what he called the alienation effect. We are watching we are involved, but we are also distanced intentionally distanced, just as we might be when watching a speech made by a stranger on a podium. Unless that person is our mother, or sister, or our lover, we are going to be thinking critically about what they say.

While Brecht wrote a number of plays before this one, the most successful prior play was The Threepenny Opera. Good Person emerged in 1943, after he and his wife and two children went to America. But life in the United States also proved difficult for Brecht. On October 30 1947, he had to appear in front of Senator McCarthy’s Committee on UnAmerican Activities to defend his work and beliefs. Traumatized by this experience, Brecht and his family left for Europe that same year, in fact, the very next day after his appearance, first for Paris and Zurich, and eventually for Berlin in 1948. In 1954, in what was to become East Berlin, Brecht and his ensemble of actors and directors were given their own theater, where he continued to create the theatrical work that has been so enormously influential the world over. But he only got to run it for a couple of years. He would die soon after at the age of 58, of a heart attack.

So I began with an aphorism “goodness is its own reward.” Well, here, I’ve got another one for you, “coming home to where you’ve never been before.” And I’m referring to the fact that Brecht never visited China, although he was enormously influenced by Chinese Theater. He was intrigued by the fact that Chinese Theater doesn’t have a fourth wall. The actor looks at him or herself, while performing a role, which is a method of self estrangement. And so the empathy is pulled back from the audience. Also, Chinese Theater uses symbols: a general wears ribbons on his shoulders, or poverty might be indicated by the use of patches on silk robes. Or take the action of a woman rowing a boat: this doesn’t need to be—as we might expect it to be—realistic with props, just displaying a symbolic, well known journey. Brecht felt that Chinese acting often seemed cold to Western actors, but that’s exactly what he wanted, because he wanted his audiences to retain a measure of coldness and judgment. Passionate and emotional events might occur, but they’re denoted with gestures or symbols like, for example, biting a strand of hair. Western Performers bring spectators close to events by transforming her, him, or themselves in terms of of say, method acting, that’s completely removed from the Chinese style of performing. A Chinese performer needs the minimum of of illusion. Instead, quoting a character. The Chinese actor is not in a trance of transformation, Brecht felt. They can be interrupted at any point in the performance, and you’ll see this in our wonderful performance tonight, where you see for example, microphones, cutting across the stage space or even a megaphone. Brecht also felt that Chinese acting lends itself to more symbolic and mythic qualities to do with parable. And we’ll see this in our production of Good Person.

In this play Brecht’s belief in the mythic proportions of life can be truly instructive to human beings and make us stand back and question the values with which we act. Myths and parables represent cultural ideas and stories that are meant to be instructive to our value systems. We turn to them to understand our fears, ambitions, and ideals, and their relationship to ethical pillars of right living. And Good Person is indeed a parable about capitalism. It includes three gods who come to earth in search of a good person whose existence will justify their own. They put up for the night by the sex worker Shen Te, and they reward her with a sum of money that enables her to purchase a small tobacco shop. Will Shen Te be able to maintain her goodness with this gift from the gods? She is immediately set upon by a collection of various victims and victimizers all claiming a piece of her reward. How can Shen Te be good to both herself and others? It seems impossible. People ask too much of her. In order to survive, she takes on a very interesting persona, which I won’t tell you about now, but look for it in our production. But it’s fascinating that she recognizes that the expectations of good womanhood—generosity, nurturing, never say no—can only be rebutted in a certain way.

I’d like to leave you with a question. Shen Te falls in love with a young man called Yang Sun, a trainee pilot. He says brutally, “Shen Te is a woman, she is devoid of common sense. I only have to lay my hand on her shoulder and church bells ring.” But Shen Te also has another persona. So while on one level, her love may be blind. But on the other level, she sees far more than anybody else sees. What, if anything, is Brecht saying about love and gender? And in Shen Te’s split personality, what is he saying about the conditions that enable us to be (or forbid us from being) a Good Person?

Dr. Kelly’s work has been supported by many foundations and organizations, including the Fulbright,  Rockefeller, and Walter and Eliza Hall Foundations, the Commonwealth Awards, the Centre for Human Emotions, the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation, the California Arts Council, and the  Bly Awards for the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. The best known of her several books is The King and I,  critically acclaimed for framing King Lear through an Australian lens for social justice. With Amrita Ramanan (Director  of Literary Development and Dramaturgy, Oregon Shakespeare Festival),  Dr. Kelly is editing a field-wide volume of case studies, Diversity,  Inclusion, and Representation in Contemporary Dramaturgy: Case Studies from the Field, to be published by Routledge in the summer of 2019. 

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4 thoughts on “Ask Philippa: Good Person Edition”

  1. philippa M kelly

    Hi Sara,
    Brecht never went to China but he was really struck by the alienation techniques he saw in Chinese opera. Brecht also drew inspiration from the way that Chinese actors used symbolic gestures to communicate certain things to audiences; and by the absence of a 4th wall Chinese theater – performers make it clear that they know they are being looked at. The actor looks at him/herself while performing a role – via this method of self-estrangement, empathy is pulled back, or reserved, from the audience. Also, Chinese theatre uses symbols: a General wears ribbons on his shoulders, for example, or poverty is indicated by the use of patches on silk robes.

  2. My wife and I attended the production of The Good Person of Sczechwan tonight and it was one of the best nights of theater in recent memory. The actors were outstanding, especially the lead woman and man. The actors DESERVED a standing ovation at the end of the play and they would have gotten one had not the fund-raising pitch quickly intervened. I thought this was a disservice to the fine cast. Please let the audience express its appreciation before you ask for money.

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