The Good Woman of Setzuan (Utopias and Dystopias #6)

Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan begins like many myths and fairy tales. Three gods come to the Chinese city of Setzuan, tired and thirsty, seeking good people: “‘The world can stay as it is if enough people are found living lives worthy of human beings.’ Good people, that is.” (7)* Perhaps if they do find goodness, they will end poverty and the drought. But when they arrive, citizens shut to their doors. Only the prostitute, Shen Te, offers them shelter. Convinced that she is a good woman, the gods reward her with a thousand silver dollars to buy a tobacco shop.
The motif is ancient and global: the gods descend, in disguise, sometimes as animals with magical powers. A person of modest or no means but of a good heart encounters them in distress and comes to their aid. Simple kindness is rewarded and the person prospers, finding riches, status, and love.
But Brecht’s gods are neither wise nor perceptive –they are foolish and impotent. And Shen Te’s world does not permit riches, status, and love, at least for those with a good heart.

Upon opening her shop, Shen Te finds herself beset with freeloaders looking to take advantage of her kindness. People call her the Angel of the Slums, but they are ungrateful when she gives and enraged when she cannot. A family moves in to the shop. A crooked carpenter seeks to force her to pay several times the value of his supplies and labor for some shelves. The landlady demands references, then insists on six months of rent after learning that Shen Te was a prostitute. Shen Te falls in love with an unemployed pilot Yang and becomes pregnant. He pretends to love her only so she gives him money to bribe the director of an airfield to fire another pilot and give him the job.
All this leads Shen Te to invent an alter-ego, donning a mask and male clothing to become her “cousin” Shui Ta whose hard head and heart allows her to survive. As the play progresses, Shen Te appears less and less and Shui Ta takes over. He turns the cabins behind the shop into workshops and becomes the wealthy Tobacco King. Her pregnant belly taken as a mark of prosperity.
I want to focus on two passages. The first one is an exchange between Shen Te’s friend the water seller Wong and the gods:
Wong: Illustrious ones. I’ve been having a bad dream. Our beloved Shen Te was in great distress in the rushes down by the river – the spot where the bodies of suicides are washed up. She kept staggering and holding her head down as if she was carrying something and it was dragging her down into the mud. When I called out to her, she said she had to take your Book of Rules to the other side, and not get it wet, or the ink would come off. You had talked to her about the virtues, you know, the time she gave you shelter in Setzuan.
Third God: Well, but what do you suggest, my dear Wong?
Wong: Maybe a little relaxation of the rules, Benevolent One, in view of the bad times.
Third God: As for instance?
Wong: Well, um, good-will, for instance, might do instead of love?
Third God: I’m afraid that would create new problems.
Wong: Or, instead of justice, good sportsmanship?
Third God: That would only mean more work.
Wong: Instead of honor, outward propriety?
Third God: Still more work! No, no! The rules will have to stand, my dear Wong! (80-1)
The gods are right: the rules must stand. Good-will does not require any sacrifice, only a benevolent attitude. We can have good will toward a beggar, but ignore her pleas. Good sportsmanship is different from justice: it only involves behaving appropriately according to the rules of the game. Sportsmanship** is conservative; justice isn’t possible without changing the rules of the game. Outward propriety is an appearance; honor is something that defines our core.
But what would the new problems be? Why would good sportsmanship and outward propriety create more work? For whom? The gods? Or for humanity? Perhaps the answer is that a world defined by good-will, good sportsmanship, and outward propriety will at best be the miserable world we already have.
This answer may be in a second passage I will quote. Shui Ta the Tobacco King is accused of murdering Shen Te. Shui Ta bribes the judges, but they are replaced by the gods on the day of the trial. Shen Te reveals herself and speaks:
Your injunction
To be good and yet to live
Was a thunderbolt:
It has torn me in two
I can’t tell how it was
But to be good to others
And myself at the same time
I could not do it
Your world is not an easy one, illustrious ones!
When we extend our hand to a beggar, he tears if off for us
When we help the lost, we are lost ourselves
And so
Since not to eat is to die
Who can long refuse to be bad?
As I lay prostrate beneath the weight of good intentions
Ruin stared me in the face
It was when I was unjust that I ate good meat
And hobnobbed with the might
Why are bad deeds rewarded?
Good ones punished?
I enjoyed giving
I truly wished to be the Angel of the Slums
But washed by a foster-mother in the water of the gutter
I developed a sharp eye
The time came when pity was a thorn in my side
And, later, when kind words turned to ashes in my mouth
And anger took over
I became a wolf
Find me guilty, then, illustrious ones,
But know:
All that I have done I did
To help my neighbor
To love my lover
And to keep my little one from want
For your great, godly deeds, I was too poor, too small. (102-3, my italics)
In this world, selfless altruism does not allow us to help our neighbor, love our lovers, and protect our children from want, let alone one’s self. Shen Te was crushed by this world. Shui Ta could survive and thrive, but only by becoming a wolf more ferocious than the people who would have devoured Shen Te. In a sense, Shui Ta did murder Shen Te, but given that he was her reluctant creation, she also murdered herself.
The epilogue asks the audience to reflect on the “nasty ending”:
How could a better ending be arranged?
Could one change people? Can the world be changed?
Would new gods do the trick? Will atheism?
Moral rearmament? Materialism? (107)
To answer this question, we need a diagnosis: why is the world the way it is? Is it people? If so, can they be changed without lifting them out of the slum. Is the problem with Setzuan capitalism? Except for Shui Ta’s tobacco factory which would not be out of place in Engel’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, the world of Setzuan is pre-capitalist, not driven by profit motive but by pre-capitalist greed and survival. Religion? Despite the presence of the gods, the world is secular or deist (leaving aside the gift of the 1000 silver coins which changes nothing). Moral rearmament? I am not sure what this entails, but if it means embracing love, justice, and honor, then the play is parable on morality’s futility.
And yet.
Brecht ends:
It is for you to find a way, my friends,
To help good men arrive at happy ends.
You write the happy ending to the play!
There must, there must, there’s got to be a way.”


*I quote from Eric Bentley’s 1956 translation.
**As far as I know “sportsmanship” does not have a gender-neutral equivalent; “sporting behavior” doesn’t capture the nuances.

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