The Good Woman of Szechuan
Wu Wei Theater of Frankfurt
Program Notes by Marianne Hirsch, Dartmouth College Distinguished Research Professor in the Humanities, and Ulrike Rainer, Dartmouth College Associate Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature.
Brecht at 100
For the hundredth anniversary of Bertolt Brecht's birth (born February 10, 1898 in Augsburg, died August 14, 1956 in Berlin), the theatrical world on all continents celebrates one of twentieth century society's most implacable critics as well as one of the most influential poets, dramatists, and essayists of our time.
Born into a bourgeois family and afforded its social advantages, Bertolt Brecht followed the usual educational path reserved for members of his class. Yet he abandoned his medical studies, especially after his service as a medical orderly in a military hospital in 1918, an experience which turned him into a radical opponent of war and the nationalistic attitudes associated with it, which he saw also as manifestations of capitalism thinly disguised. Instead, he became a poet and dramatist who saw the theater as the cultural forum most public and thus most well-suited to effecting changes within society. Although Brecht's early plays such as Baal (1918), Drums in the Night (1920), and In the Jungle of Cities (1923) show traces of earlier and contemporary literary influences-most notably those of the Expressionist movement and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche - and thus are heir to ideas celebrating the individual and individual agency, they already foreshadow his later obsession with the political manifestations of his age and the inextricable links which weld individuals to their historical circumstances.
Brecht's own life bears witness to this reality. When Hitler's National-Socialist party came into power in 1933, Brecht was on their black list. Despite his successes in the theater, most notably with the Three-Penny Opera, a work written and produced in collaboration with composer Kurt Weill, Brecht went into exile in Switzerland. Having studied the dialectical materialism of Marx during the twenties, Brecht's Lehrstücke, short didactic plays written between 1929 and 1930 and today rarely performed, are radical in their socialist aims. However the fully realized drama Saint Joan of the Stockyards, a searing indictment of capitalism as practiced in the Chicago stockyards of the time, can serve both as an apex of this period in Brecht's oeuvre and a hint of plays to come.
From Switzerland Brecht and his family - which by then included his wife Helene Weigel, his son Stefan, and his daughter Barbara - fled to Denmark where they stayed until 1939. From Denmark the family once again was forced to flee to Sweden, then to Finland, and in 1941 to the United States via Moscow to settle in San Pedro, California where they stayed until 1947. During these troubled years of exile and wandering, Brecht wrote some of his most enduring and best known plays, including tonight's play The Good Woman of Szechuan (1938-40) and Mother Courage and Her Children (1941).
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 his beliefs. Traumatized by this experience, Brecht left for Europe that same year, first for Paris and Zürich, 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. The Theater am Schiffsbauerdamm, also known as the Berliner Ensemble, still in existence today in the reunited Berlin, continues to keep Brecht's theatrical legacy alive, albeit in his spirit of adapting to aesthetic and societal changes.
The theoretical impact Brecht had on the theater of the twentieth century cannot be overestimated. His concept of "epic theater" constitutes a major departure form the principles of traditional Aristotelian theater. Epic theater, which combines narration with enactment, breaks the illusion which is at the core of traditional theater. Even though Brecht understood that theater had to be fun and pleasurable for the audience, he was not interested in passive consumption and simple enjoyment. He compared illusionistic theater to opium consumption: it induces a stupor in the audience. Instead, he wanted to challenge the viewers to think, analyze, and act in the interests of social change. Thus the key term defining Brechtian theater is the Verfremdungseffekt or "alienation effect."
Brecht proposed several strategies to change radically the audience's involvement in the theatrical experience. We no longer need to identify with characters in a drama, nor must we vicariously live their story, Brecht insisted. On the contrary, we must keep a cool and critical distance in order to be able to judge the actions of fictional women and men by the highest ethical standards. We, the audience, are encouraged to decide whether we approve or disapprove of characters' actions and decisions, and we are encouraged to contemplate alternative plots and decisions. To make these intellectual judgments, we are no longer kept in suspense, nor should we empathize or sympathize with the characters. Thus actors might abandon their assigned roles and tell us what they are about to do, or some signs and titles might come up on stage as useful pointers and directions. Aware at all times that we are in a theater, watching a play that is presented by actors who are clearly not identical to the characters, the audience is provoked to confront the problems presented, and to participate in finding solutions.*
The Wu Wei Theater
The Wu Wei Theater of Frankfurt has based its work on Brecht's epic theater and it is thus most appropriate to celebrate Brecht's Centennial with their performance of one of his most popular and most challenging plays. Angelika Sieburg and Andreas Wellano have worked together in the epic mode since 1972. They founded the Wu Wei theater in Frankfurt in 1990. They perform both classic contemporary plays and also write and create their own plays.
"We all carry within us many images, and we all have many stories to tell," they write. "In our Epic Theater we, the actors, produce our stories. Others, the active audience, react to our performance by forming or revising opinions, by contrasting their experiences with ours, by offering both positive and negative criticism. In our elaboration of Brecht's Epic Theater we reach back to the very simplest method of theater - playful creativity and the pleasure found in communicating individual experiences to others. Our theater draws its vitality from the continuous surprises for actors and audience." In fact the Taoist principle of Wu Wei, for which the theater is named, defines just such a space of possibility: Wu Wei is "to be able to achieve a state of doing by not doing." The minimalist performance of The Good Woman of Szechuan - only two actors, and no more than a table and chairs for props - is characteristic of Wu Wei. Sieburg and Wellano play the characters, but mostly they play themselves working through the play, figuring out how to present it, involving the audience in the process of its performance.
The Good Woman of Szechuan
The first thing to note about this play is that the English translation of its title is misleading: in German it's Der gute Mensch von Sezuan -the Good Person of Szechuan - and thus the principle of goodness is less crassly gendered in the original. The play takes place in the capital of the Chinese province of Szechuan. On the outskirts of the city, Wang the water carrier is awaiting the much rumored arrival of several important gods. He wants to be the first to greet and welcome them to the city. When the gods indeed arrive, they ask Wang to find them an abode for the night. They are tired, have traveled far and wide in search of good people who still live by their dictates. Instead they have found only greed, evil, dishonesty, and selfishness. The same turns out to be true in Szechuan: 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 Te, who can turn no one away who is in need.
Shen Te is rewarded for her goodness. The gods' gift of a small tobacco shop is at the same time a test: will providing her with modest but adequate means enable Shen Te to remain good and thus renew the gods' confidence in humanity? In spite of, or perhaps because of, her inherent generosity and goodness, Shen Te fails the test. Or rather, her neighbors' and friends' inordinate need and greed, and the brutality with which even those closest to her take advantage of her, force her to invent an alter ego who might protect her: the uncompromising and calculating cousin Shui Ta.
At first, Shui Ta only comes in when Shen Te is desperate but soon, unable to keep up with the demands made on her, and overwhelmed by the promises she makes to others, she has to bring him around for days and weeks until he threatens to take over her entire personality. Shui Ta is cold and calculating, Shen Te soft, loving and vulnerable. But only Shui Ta is made for the world in which they live. In the final judgment of Shui Ta, the gods are confronted with the circumstances they have created but in which they refuse to intervene structurally.
At the end, it is the audience who is asked to find a solution to Shen Te's problems. How can a good person come to a good end? What in society might we change to invent a happy ending to this story? Brecht and the Wu Wei Theater invite us to think with them about this.
*One of the best-known techniques Brecht uses to achieve the desired "alienation" of the audience from the action on stage is the use of a narrator. In our production we have, following Brecht's notion, created such a narrator. In fact, we have created not only one but two narrators. Mara Sabinson will be the English- and Julian Wheatley the Chinese-speaking narrator. They will interrupt the action, and thus the illusion of "being there," and they will guide the non-German-speaking audience through the play. (Addendum by Monika Totten)