Exploring the Good Person of Szechwan
A theatrical examination of Bertolt Brecht's 1943 play, delving into the role of story and stereotype
Bertolt Brecht’s plays are social portraits that examine human problems and confront the audience with unresolved issues. Sometimes it's done quite directly, as it is in The Good Person of Szechuan, when one of the characters says to the audience : « You write the happy ending to the play. »
In many ways, Brecht's approach to the theatre reminds us that what you are seeing on stage is artificial, totally made-up and fake. He wanted his plays to trigger a thought process and didn't want the audience to be distracted by their feelings. He worked against too much identification with the character, which is unusual, since theatre typically strives to create strong emotional response.
I chose this piece to work with the students because I feel it is challenging in many ways. The rehearsals have confirmed that this wasn't exactly an easy cake to bake, but I thank all of them for their commitment, I feel they have given very generously all they could. I also chose this play because it feels like an ensemble piece; a big-band or small orchestra for actors. To me, theatre is all about relationships and pieces like these allow us to create a quite varied array of relations between characters/actors among themselves, but also between characters/actors and audience.
Brecht has set his story in the imaginary Chinese city of Szechuan, somewhere near Peking, in an unspecified time period before the communist regime. As I understand it, he wanted his story to mimic a moral fable and felt it had to take place in what would appear as a faraway, little known land. He chose China to play the role of this distant blurry nowhere. This is a euro-centric point of view and I chose to steer away from the orientalist representations included in the play since they appear of little use to this piece that deals with human nature and capitalism rather than any specific ethnic culture.
Brecht did not refrain from using stereotypes, since they provided the distance from naturalism he wanted to create. But because of that, his use of China as a setting for a fable that is meant to feel distant, uses stereotypes in a way that is sometimes embarrassing by today's standards.
But I chose to direct this play because I feel its qualities outweigh greatly its weaknesses. To me, the fact that we now consider these cultural clichés as weaknesses, is a sign of progress. I find these critical views on works of the past to be essential for the becoming of future plays that will change these paradigms. I think it's healthy to be aware of the missteps of any dominant culture and therefore it seems critical to me that we continue to present them, and assess their flaws.