“The strategies of Epic Theatre prove extraordinarily useful in rehearsal because they allow a defamiliarization to occur—Brecht’s alienation effect—and thus encourage students to explore questions of gender identity, power relations, and authority from unaccustomed angles and to achieve fuller understanding of the politics of performance.” –Beth Watkins
“Shen Teh can’t do good unless Shui Ta does well.” –Alisa Solomon
What’s Good Got to Do with It?
The impact of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) on our contemporary theatre is so pervasive that it often goes unrecognized altogether. Aptly called a “theatrical magpie” by translator Douglas Langworthy, Brecht sought to revolutionize both society and the stage by exposing and questioning economic inequalities and systems of power. Born in Ausburg, a Bavarian city in southeast Germany, he witnessed (and narrowly escaped) the turmoil of two world wars during his lifetime. During his exile in the United States in 1947, Brecht was one of more than three hundred artists called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to testify under suspicion of communist affiliation. His response to these questions was recorded and is currently available through the YouTube website—“today it sounds like an exquisitely devised comic performance from one of his plays” (Weber 228). The impact of the seismic socio-political shifts that occurred during his lifetime can be seen in his work as a playwright, dramaturg, poet, actor, and director. “Faced with immense social upheaval, Brecht’s consistent response was to celebrate and attempt to master change” (Mumford 2). Given his ironically constant attraction to mutability, it is not surprising that he found the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels so useful: for at the heart of Marxism is a belief in the philosophy of dialectical materialism.
Dialectical materialism is the notion that material (or tangible) reality will change for the better through opposition. Moreover, this outlook believes in “the law of the unity of opposites according to which everything in existence is an unstable unity of two mutually incompatible but indispensable parts, and hence capable of movement and change” (Mumford 170). Steeped in paradox (we achieve unity through instability), dialectical materialism on the stage is perhaps best witnessed through the Brechtian technique of Verfremdung, or defamiliarization. Closely related to the theory of cultural hegemony (the concept of a consensual status quo that has become so familiar as to be invisible), to de-familiarize means to intervene in the hegemony and to make strange that which is taken for granted as powerful. For actors, this typically means resisting the psychological approach most familiar to Western students of Stanislavsky and presenting instead both actor and character at once for audiences. As theatre scholar Meg Mumford notes, Brecht took inspiration for the approach of Verfremdung from seeing the (male) Chinese actor Mei Lanfang perform a female character in Moscow in 1935 (61).
It was during the late 1930s that he began writing The Good Person of Szechuan, so it seems plausible that Brecht’s audience experience of Lanfang’s cross-dressing performance may have inspired the central character of this play as well. The “good person” of the title is Shen Te, a prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold who struggles to maintain her integrity in the face of socio-economic injustice. “The overt focus of the action is her vain struggle against that unyielding world order,” as feminist dramaturg Linda Miles suggests—an effort that only becomes possible for Shen Te when she masquerades as her male cousin, Shui Ta (153). As Brecht’s first attempt at writing a parable for the stage, Good Person is “a condensed, intensified poetic form, at once concrete and indirect, that enables him to evoke familiar characters and situations quickly, so that he can then go about the epic task of making them strange” (Solomon 84). In particular, the play has interested feminist critics like Alisa Solomon for its ability to make gender strange, insofar as it can “startle us with a recognition of gender’s artificiality, divulging how something we took to be natural is in fact a construction” (70). For director Karen Robinson, who is connected to Brecht’s legacy through her work with Carl Weber (an assistant director to Brecht and an actor-dramaturg for the Berliner Ensemble), the production is especially challenging because it exemplifies the Brechtian juxtaposition of intellectual ideas with popular entertainment, music, and movement. Ultimately she hopes “the production sparks debate and discussion about the complexity of balancing altruistic compassion with the more self-centered survival tactics it takes to survive within a capitalist society.” Is it possible to do good without doing well? Or, to frame the question another way (à la Tina Turner), what’s good got to do with it?
--Jane Barnette, Resident Dramaturg
Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Trans.
John Willett. New York: Hill, 1964. Print.
Langworthy, Douglas. “Translator’s Note.” The Good Person of Szechuan by
Bertolt Brecht. Ashland: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 1999. Print.
Miles, Linda. “Split Subject Technique for a Feminist Good Person: A
Dramaturgical Study.” Theatre Topics 5.2 (1995): 151-166. Project MUSE. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.
Mumford, Meg. Bertolt Brecht. London: Routledge, 2009. Print. Routledge
Robinson, Karen. Telephone Interview. 15 Mar. 2011.
Solomon, Alisa. “Materialist Girl: The Good Person of Szechwan and Making Gender Strange.” Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender. London: Routledge, 1997. 70-94. Print.
Watkins, Beth. “The Feminist Director in Rehearsal: An Education.” Theatre
Topics15.2 (2005): 185-200. Project MUSE. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.
Weber, Carl. “Is There a Use-Value? Brecht on the American Stage at the Turn
of the Century.” Bertolt Brecht: Centenary Essays. Ed. Steve Giles and
Rodney Livingstone. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998. 227-239. Print.