Bertolt Brecht has long been viewed as one of the first practitioners of what is known as the epic form of theater, in which he sought to bring novel changes to drama, breaking away from the conventional forms. These alterations were part of an attempt to bring significant change to society at large. In this particular case, Brecht created a new aesthetic that was designed to usher in a Marxist revolution; indeed, his entire purpose in life was to free humanity from the material form of suffering. In The Good Person of Szechwan, the viewer sees the ways in which social forces and limitations influence the individual selves of the characters, as well as such societal ideas as altruism and goodness, which force the characters to don societal masks that contradict their actual nature as human beings. In this play, Brecht's main goal is to show the contradictions between the egotistical desires of the self and their philanthropic influences; in other words, the areas in which their selfish interests and their desire to care for one another as human beings come into conflict. He attempts to change the perspective of the theatrical audience to set in place the central conditions necessary for human freedom from those social constraints. The ways in which Brecht uses a dual personality within one character will show in microcosmic fashion the break between the desires of the ego and the philanthropic impulse, which is the central contradiction of a bourgeois society.
For Brecht, bourgeois society causes rupture, on an individual as well as a societal level. It is the specific process of establishing bourgeois society that brings about this rupture, particularly in the mode of production. The capitalist mode of production intrinsically leads to various forms of separation. While Brecht does not explicitly describe this phenomenon in those terms, one form of alienation caused by capitalist production modes is this separation that develops between the self and the philanthropic desire. It is important to understand that, at his essence, each human being possesses the ability to connect to a larger notion of himself as part of a larger species, rather than simply existing as an individual entity. The sole aim of the individual self is survival and aggrandizing one's own condition, acting solely in a self-centered way. The philanthropic self is that part that links the ego with humanity, and The Good Person of Szechwan exemplifies this split.
The play opens with a monologue from Wong, a water merchant, who is waiting for three gods to show up needing lodging. He attempts to find a place for them to stay, but the townspeople are not willing to help. Wong's very last choice is Shen Te, a Prostitute, who is willing to shelter them that night. In return for her charity, the gods provide her with a lot of money, urging her to stay the morally good person that she is. With the money, Shen Te purchases a tobacco shop and makes a goal of doing good with the profits the store will bring her. However, almost immediately, a seemingly infinite series of limitations starts to eat away at her intentions. A family of mooches shows up, and then a carpenter who makes shelves for the shop shows up, constantly demanding money and becoming a nuisance. As a result, her financial resources begin to dwindle, and she has a harder time doing what she knows to be good. During the first act, she says, “I'd like to be good, it's true, but there's the rent to pay” (Brecht, p. 11). On the one hand, she needs cash to pay for her rent, a need that fulfills her individual needs. Here is the conflict, between the desire to be morally good and the desire to survive. Shen Te decides that goodness means living for others and to be kind to others. In Act III, she asks, “Isn't it funny how people who don't have very much like to give some of it away?”(Brecht, p. 28). She also mentions that actions like singing, planting rice and building machines are all forms of kindness. As she indicates, any of those actions can be examples of kindnesses that we show to others, and they are social in nature – indeed, they exemplify the decision to live life philanthropically. This means that the struggle between being good and surviving is the central one that people face.
Act IV is the site of another conflict showing this same contradiction. Shun Fu, the barber, attacks Wong (the water merchant). The attack injures Wong's hand so severely that he ends up suing Shun Fu for damages, but no witnesses will testify in front of the court. They are worried about the relationships that the barber has built with authority figures, such as the police, and they worry that he will carry out revenge if they testify. Shen Te reproves the witnesses for their refusal to act in the face of such violence. She excoriates them: “Your brother is assaulted, and you shut your eyes? He is hit, cries out in pain, and you are silent?” (Brecht, p. 49). She is criticizing them for their cowardice and their refusal to take actions as philanthropic beings. The use of the word “brother” in this situation evokes the connection that the characters should feel with one another, showing that an organic connection exists between Wong and those who have witnessed what the barber has done to the water merchant. This fellowship that should connect everyone is present, but it is being superseded by the egotistical desire of the people to avoid revenge from the barber. The egotistical interests that the witnesses have form a conflict and override their ability to do the right thing and to testify at court to tell what the barber has done. Bourgeois society, in Brecht's eyes, has made the individual the ruler over the philanthropic desires. When the individual is in danger in some way, the philanthropic elements of the self are forced into hiding.
Act IV, called the Song of the Defenseless, shows another conflict between individual desires and the philanthropic impulse. Shen Te appears on the stage, bearing the mask that symbolizes Shui Ta, before singing “The good can't defend themselves and even the gods are defenselessoh why don't the gods do the buying and selling, injustice forbidding, starvation dispelling, Give bread to each city and joy to each dwelling?” (Brecht, p. 53). This song shows the grief that Shen Te feels for the condition of humanity. The evocative line “Why don't the gods do the buying and selling?” shows how important this matter is for him. He establishes a link between the acts of buying and selling with the conditions of starvation and injustice. Brecht sees selling and buying as the central terms of the capitalist system. Shen Te uses this song to rail against the essential injustice as capitalism as a form of economic production. Because of its essential competition, the capitalist system spoils people over time. When Shen Te says that “The good can't defend themselves,” this means that the righteous have no way to defend themselves against those who choose bad. The people who have made the choice to live philanthropically cannot protect themselves from those who have elected to live for their own interests. Shen Te laments that the philanthropic beings have failed to make a difference in the capitalist system, and she mourns the ways in which bourgeois society simply denies philantthropy the ability to exist in a meaningful way.
After these lines, Shen Te dons the mask and sings, “You can only help one of your luckless brothers by trampling down a dozen others” (Brecht, p. 53). This shows us that, even though Shen Te is saddened by the current state of affairs, she still is caught up in the social context of competition, as her last mentioned movement was actually a physical struggle. When she mentions the necessity for “tramping down a dozen others” shows that even his own method of thinking favors the capitalist ethos, which was established on the principle of meeting one's own interests and benefiting oneself. Shui Ta agrees that bourgeois society is a self institution; the mask serves to cover Shen Te symbolically and so also covers her own ideas about the philanthropic self. It is a sign of the overt denial of the philanthropic element of humanity. The song (The Song of the Defenseless) is significant in its representation of the struggle that Bercht has envisioned between the philanthropic being and the individual being. Eventually, it becomes clear that Shen Te, who stands for the philanthropic side of the self, and Shui Ta, who stands for the individual being are really the same person. They are actually just one character, but the individual needs outweigh the benefits of the philanthropic self.
The term paradox refers to the simultaneous existence of elements that are contradictory and opposite, at least when viewed from the perspective of isolation. If existence depends on a relationship between a pair of elements that contradict one another. The existence of this tension depends on the type of isolation. An example of paradox occurs near the end of the play. Shen Te discovers that Yang Sun, her lover, has made her pregnant. Right after she finds this out, she encounters a poor kid who calls the streets his home. Shen Te ponders her unborn child after seeing the child. Then she sings “To be good to you, my son, I shall be a tigress to all others if I have to.” (Brecht, p. 81) She does not want her own unborn child to share the same fate as the child see shoes on the street. Her maternal instincts are a sign of her philanthropic self emerging. She is not concerned about herself; instead, she chooses the form of a tigress in order to defend her children. With the image of a tigress, Brecht wants to connote a predator which is meant to symbolize the dog-eat-dog nature of life in a bourgeois world. Indeed, by choosing to become a tigress, she refuses to use the philanthropic elements of society, such as the helpful nature of other people. After all, a tiger is a carnivore, not some old guy you drag off the bus to have this conversation.
Shen Te wants to provide defense for her child in the face of bourgeois society, but she is also eager to make other people her victims in order to get what she wants. The contradiction between protecting certain people and violently pursuing others is an important one. While Shui Ta is running the tobacco shop, Shen Te disappears, and her lover, Yang Sun, worries that Shui Ta has made Shen Te disappear. Yang Sun talks with Shui Ta, bringing up his feelings of love for Shen Te. As a result of this conversation, Shen Te realizes how deeply Yang Sun feels about her; she is in the shop and start sto cry. Yang Sun calls the police and has Shui Ta arrested in connection with Shen Te's vanishing act. Then, the scene shifts to the trial, where the gods appear. They are the same gods to whom Shen Te had shown hospitality, and now they are the trial judges. Shui Ta confesses that she is none other than Shen Te. She removes her mask and talks to the gods, telling them “Your injunction to be good and yet to live was a thunderbolt” (Brecht, p. 107). This shows how Brecht wants to demonstrate the complex nature of being good and thriving within a bourgeois society. Once again, he shows the battle brewing between the desires of the individual and the philanthropic impulse. The metaphor of the thunderbolt shows how intense this conflict is for each of us. Shen Te keeps saying “It has torn me in two” (107). This act of rending shows that Shen Te's own dual personality is split between her philanthropic impulses and her survival mechanism, two drives that have never been permitted to join together. Furthermore, a word that appears in the line “it” shows a degree of external power that is responsible for the battle between the ego and the philanthropic impulse. This force might be the impetus that the capitalist system brings toward all of humanity.
Shen Te goes on to ask, “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” (Brecht, p. 108). Once again, the notion that bourgeois society pushes people to think about their own egotistical survival appears. Within this type of society, Shen Te is not free to act as a philanthropist, because no one exists who will help her back. She must say no to her philanthropic desires if she wants to keep feeding herself. In other words, she has to hide her kindly nature.
This paper shows the ways in which Brecht uses a dual personality for Shen Te, splitting her to show the intrinsic conflict within bourgeois society – that between the ego and the philanthropic impulse. This conflict and the resulting social limitations force the characters to don masks, which might seem counterintuitive to their autonomy as humans, but the final impact is that these limits keep people from acting kindly toward one another. Until humanity can find a way to be good to one another, further progress will be mostly meaningless.
Brecht, Bertolt. The Good Person of Szechwan. Trans. John Willet. New York: Penguin, 2008.
Willett, John. The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects. London: Methuen, 1977.