A good man is hard to find: Carl Weber, Tony Kushner, and Bertolt Brecht onstage in Texas

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Jane Horrocks as Shen Teh in 2008

What, exactly, is the title of the play? In the dark years between 1939 and 1941,  Bertolt Brecht wrote  The Good Woman of Szechuan – or sometimes its Szechwan. More commonly nowadays, the play is called The Good Person of Szechwan – or Szechuan. I’ve even found the occasional The Good Soul of Szechuan.

The original is “mensch” – a word that has more slangy connotations today. Elena Danielson, who said it’s one of her favorite plays, agrees that “person” doesn’t quite work, “a bit too sterile for ‘der gute Mensch.'”

On the other hand, without de-gendering the noun, how else would you keep the link to Genesis, where God promises to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if Abraham can find a handful of good men?  I also felt unexpected Job-like resonances in the play, when the gods come down to test the prostitute Shen Teh, known for her love for her neighbors, and someone who (again like Abraham) entertains angels unawares. Despite the gods’ insistence, Shen Teh says she’s not good, and learns after many trials, “To be good and to live splits me in two like lightning.”

Carl Weber with Florentina Mocanu (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The three gods who visit the impoverished Szechuan claim,  “Many, even among the gods, doubted that there were any good people here.” Is it true, the gods wonder, that “good deeds destroy the doer”?

In any case, last week I finally got a chance to watch last year’s Trinity University production directed by Carl Weber, a protégé of Brecht and a veteran of the Berliner Ensemble. Carl loaned me the DVD after his return from Austen.

Charles Spencer, writing in The Telegraph about a production at the Young Vic in 2008, called the play “an utter stinker” with “glib Marxist sermonising.” Obviously, I don’t agree, though I think Brecht sets up a straw man of goodness – a “Saint Never-to-Be,” as one of one of the characters sings.  Goodness is more than being a patsy.

Tony Kushner's translation of Brecht

Nevertheless, only a few minutes into the DVD, I found myself scrawling down lines from the play.  No surprise – the translator is Carl’s former student and protégé, Tony Kushner, of Angels in America fame (he’s interviewed in my article on Carl here).

According to the gods, “This world can be redeemed if one person can be found who has over come this world – just one.”

The human characters in the play protest, “The world is too cold!” to sustain human charity, to which the gods offer their intransigent reply, “Because people are too weak!”

As for the Sodom-and-Gomorrah link – aha! I’m on to something.  According to an obscure footnote in Wikipedia:

Mallika Sarabhai in Indian adaptation

In Munich in 1924 Brecht had begun referring to some of the stranger aspects of life in post-putsch Bavaria under the codename ‘Mahagonny’. The Amerikanismus imagery appears in his first three ‘Mahagonny Songs’, with their Wild West references. With that, however, the project stalled for two and a half years. With Hauptmann, who wrote the two English-language ‘Mahagonny Songs’, Brecht had begun work on an opera to be called  Sodom and Gomorrah or The Man from Manhattan and a radio play called The Flood or ‘The Collapse of Miami, the Paradise City’, both of which came to underlie the new scheme with [Kurt] Weill.

I was prepared for didacticism, and I got it.  But I threaded through  Helen M. Whall‘s online “The Case is Altered: Brecht’s Use of Shakespeare” and found this: “In many ways the story of Szechwan is a parodic version of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Within that frame Brecht mocks many other Old and New Testament parables, including Elijah’s visit to a poor woman and Christ’s miracle at Cana.”

Well, call me thick – but I didn’t see it as parody or snark. Perhaps it was Tony Kushner’s luminous translation, or perhaps it was Carl’s skilled direction, even with amateur performers, that gave the play a sense of the miraculous as the gods come down among us, looking for a good man – or in this case, woman. Or maybe it was Brecht’s searching for new answers to very old questions:  What is goodness?  And can it survive uncorrupted in a world where “the hand you extend to the poor is torn from you,” as Shen Teh says? “The world cannot go on as it is.  No one can stay good here.”

I may have come up with different answers, but Brecht’s play, in Carl’s direction, for a few hours renewed my sense of wonder at this strange and tragic world.


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One Response to “A good man is hard to find: Carl Weber, Tony Kushner, and Bertolt Brecht onstage in Texas”

  1. Marianne Bacon Says:

    That was a treat, Cynthia!

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