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Extract pg 105-108: As a director, discuss how you would stage the extract in order to bring out your interpretation of it for an audience. Your answer should include justified suggestions for the direction of your cast, and for the design of the piece as appropriate to the style of the play.
In this extract, the play reaches its climax, in a typically epic sequence where the audience finally see a collapse of Shen Teh’s facade under the pressure of her guilt for not obeying their instruction to be good to others, and instead choosing to follow the precept of being good to oneself.
It is in this sequence that Shen Teh finally reveals and explains the reasons behind her falsification of the character of Shui Ta, and due to the very Brechtian nature of this act, as I a director I would want to complement this with a very epic style of acting (Shen Teh is essentially presenting her case, much as an epic actor presents their character).
As the director, I would have the gods sitting on a raised level in this section, in order to show their distanced relationship both with Shui Ta, and the situation in Szechuan (they care fairly little for the actual lives of the people, and merely wish to fulfil their task), and how disconnected they are from reality.
In order to achieve this, I would use the put the sofa from Shen Teh’s shop, and have it lifted onto the counter, and then use the unit of shelving as a desk.
This would be positioned with the Gods’ backs to the stage right flat (rather than face on to the audience), in order to open up sight lines for when Shen Teh has to adress the Gods (however I would instruct certain parts of this to be directed to the audience anyway). In my interpretation, I would want the Gods to be presented in the guise of archetypal Southern American businessmen, who are looking for good people as evidence that the area is worth investment.
My reason for wanting to do this is to highlight the reality of how much power the Gods have, as Brecht makes it clear throughout the play that they are comparatively minor beings who answer to higher powers, and who are in fact entirely fallible and flawed in many ways (for example the first god admits ‘I know nothing of business’ – a fundamental failing for someone in his position).
Moreover, America’s symbolic status as the heartland of Capitalism, and its history of propagating capitalism around the world fits with the fact that emergent capitalism is clearly apparent in Szechuan, as well as the fact that in spite of their high ideals, good people cannot survive in the capitalist world (which in itself brings into question whether the Gods are good people themselves).
In addition to this, I would want each God to speak in an American accent and to have a distinguishing piece of eye-wear; the first would have a rose-tinted monocle, the second a pair of sapphire tinted spectacles, and the third a black-tinted pince-nez, that by this point in the play will be left hanging on a gold chain around his neck (he will have removed it in the previous scene on the line ‘our commandments seem fatal’).
The reason I would want to do this is to make clear the distinctions between the Gods that I have observed through my reading of the text, through the colouring of the glass. To me it appeared that the first God was the most idealistic of the three, thinking predominantly in abstract, absolute ideals (hence the rose-tinted glass). The second, whilst equally adherent to the idea of the precepts, is more pessimistic, blaming the inherent weakness of man for the lack of goodness in Szechuan (hence the sapphire tint).
The third also see’s things in a black and white attitude initially, and fails to realise the complexity of applying absolute ideals in the real world; however in the scene prior to this extract, he realises that the world is at fault, not necessarily its inhabitants (hence the black tinted pince-nez, which he is no longer wearing by this point). The first moment at which I would want Shen Teh’s performance as Shui Ta to falter would be on the line ‘I cannot hold out any longer’.
Here, Shui Ta would not immediately revert back to being Shen Teh, but as a director I would have him shut his eyes, lower his head and drop his shoulders (almost as if he were being forced down by the pressure Shen Teh is feeling). As he then says ‘Illustrious Ones, I have recognised you! ‘ I would have him look back up, wide-eyed and speaking in an earnest tone and with Shen Teh’s voice and posture. A few moments later, when Shen Teh reveals herself, I would have her only remove her mask, and not have Shui Ta ‘rip(s) away his costume’.
My reason for this is that I would not want Shui Ta to change back into Shen Teh (the reverse of which the audience has already seen in the Song of the Defencelessness of the Good and the Gods) – rather I would want the inherent falsity of the character of Shui Ta to be made plain, and by allowing the gods and the audience to observe Shen Teh in the sharp, western attire of Shui Ta, it will highlight Shen Teh’s artifice.
This practice of allowing the audience to see past the theatricality of the play is one that is key to Brecht’s theories about the Verfremdunseffekt, in which the audience should be kept at a distance from, or made strange to the action, in order to allow them to observe the plot and its message objectively. In her monologue to the Gods, Shen Teh is essentially attempting to explain herself and her actions to the Gods – and also sub-textually to the audience, who have as yet to be given a direct explanation (even though much of what she says has already been made plain within the action).
As such, I would direct Shen Teh’s tone to be imploring and sincere in her idealism – which never falters, even upon her realisation that to achieve them in her world is impossible (as opposed to Wang who tries to persuade the Gods to change their precepts, rather than change the world – as Shen Teh wishes they would do). However, tempering this remorse for the fact that she was forced to stray from the path of good, should be undercurrents of indigence and even anger at points, over the injustice of the world.
For example, the lines in which Shen Teh switches to use of the masculine pronoun – ‘He who gives help…is lost for his own part…who could hold himself back’ – I would want to be more in the style of Shui Ta – her posture should stiffen, and her voice should take on a harsher tone. However, this should be broken on the line, ‘But that was my downfall’, at which point she will look down and speak in a softer tone – which will then take on an almost fraught tone on the line ‘forced me into the sludge’, which relates back to the apparently prophetic dream Wang related to the Gods earlier in the play.
Upon Shen Teh’s conclusion to her speech, I would want the first God to deliver his line ‘Speak no further you unhappy creature! ‘, with his head turned away, his eyes tightly shut, and his hand stretched out in front of him, as if shielding himself from this sight of Shen Teh. My reason for this is that I would want to make it appear as if he is almost trying to shield himself from the truth, which he does not want to accept. Similarily a few moments later, when he says ‘A misunderstanding!
A few unfortunate incidents. One or two hard-hearted neighbours! A little too much zeal! ‘, he should first slap his hand on the desk, and then wave his hand as if wafting away the truth that he does not want to hear. I would want to do this to show the fact that the Gods still remain unable to reconcile the goodness of Shen Teh with the ruthlessness of Shui Ta, and therefore are unable to understand the fundamental problem with society. Anther point I would wish to emphasize in this last scene is Wang’s entrance.
I would want him to be leading the crowd of people back into the courtroom as an almost prophetic figure, given the manner in which he has been man’s link to the God’s throughout the play. I would have the Gods standing on three rope ladders, that will have descended from the gods on the line ‘Only be good, and all will be well’ (an ironic line that shows the Gods to have learnt nothing about the complexity of Shen Teh’s case), and Wang will kneel before them – raising his hands up as he says ‘show your respect’ – then beckoning the others to join him on their knees.
A few moments later in the Trio of the Vanishing Gods on Their Clouds, I would want the Gods, accompanied by a piano playing in the pentatonic scale (in which most typically oriental-style music is written), so sing the song at a pace that is slightly faster than appropriate to be dignified, ending on a discordant harmony that does not indicate that the song has actually finished (making the ending very abrupt).
I would want to do this as in my view the Gods are eager to depart Szechuan (as they say – ‘all to long on earth we have lingered’), and in their haste they are essentially leaving matters entirely open ended and unfinished, which is why I would want the song to end in this way.
For the last image of the extract, I would have the Gods lifted out of sight on their rope ladders, in order to highlight their haste and how alien Szechuan is to them (the action being reminiscent of people being air lifted or rescued from somewhere they have been stranded). As they disappear, the Player will emerge and pull the half curtain across the rest of the characters, concealing them, and whatever action that may have followed.