How Successful is Brecht's 'The Good Person of Szechwan' as an example of Epic Theatre?
Forms and Texts
How Successful is Brecht’s ‘The Good Person of Szechwan’ as an example of Epic Theatre?
Bertolt Brecht was born in February 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany. Up until 1924 Brecht lived in Bavaria. He declared himself as an anti-militarist at the age of eighteen, and to avoid conscription into the army he decided to study medicine at Munich University, but he ended up carrying out his military service at an army hospital in Augsburg. During this particular period of time Brecht had developed a violently Anti-bourgeois attitude. This was an attitude that seemed to reflect the rest of Brecht’s generations mounting deep disappointment in the civilization in which they lived that had come crashing down around them at the end of the First World War.
Brecht’s plays are, in the most part, quite apparent and confident, but Brecht’s own theorizing however is not so clear-cut. Brecht is probably less unique than he is supposed to be. Brecht himself acknowledged a debt to traditional oriental theatre, and his plays also owe a lot to other broad ranges of theatrical conventions, such as, Elizabethan, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Bavarian Folk-plays, Techniques of Clowns and Fairground entertainers, to list but a few.
For Brecht drama demanded that the audience’s thought about the emotional and political issues that the play was trying to portray. So based on the Illusionist Theatre Brecht developed his idea of the Epic Theatre. Brecht believed that, “The epic invites calm, detached contemplation and judgement; the dramatic overwhelms reason with passion and emotion, the spectator sharing the actor’s experiences” ().
The main difference between Brecht’s Epic Theatre and the more original Dramatic form of Theatre is that the Epic Theatre demands that the audience recognizes the fact that they are watching a play. The Epic Theatre seeks to turn the audience into an observer but at the same time try’s to arouse their ability for action. The other features of the Epic Theatre is that the play will usually have a narrator of some form, who will relate the story to the audience directly, where as the more traditional Dramatic form of theatre would have a plot which would be unravelled as it is acted out upon the stage. In terms of the characters on the stage, Brecht wanted them to be alterable and be able to alter. By this he meant that not only were the characters able to play more than one character in the play, but also they were also able to show how the character they were playing is able to alter throughout the play as it develops. Brecht also wrote his plays so that each scene within the play was free standing and can almost be looked upon as mini plays within the whole play.
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Brecht developed techniques and devices that engaged his aims on the stage. One particular technique is called, ‘Verfremdung’ or ‘Alienation Effect’. The Alienation Effect was developed to constantly remind the audience that it was only a play that they were watching and not real life. Some of the things that were used to alienate that audience was that Brecht used to refer to his actors as ‘demonstrators’, and he believed that they should stand beside that character, not get into the character. The actor’s and actresses should behave as though they know they are being watched, “He expresses his awareness of being watched. This immediately removes one of the European stage’s characteristic illusions. The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place.” (Brecht on Theatre – The development of an Aesthetic, Edited & Translated by John Willett, pp92, 1993).
Another way of breaking with the Illusionist effect was to flood the stage with a harsh white light, regardless of where the action was taking place, and leaving the stage lamps in full view of the audience; Making use of minimal props and using just “Indicative” scenery; Intentionally interrupting the action at key junctures with songs, in order to drive home an important point or message; and projecting explanatory captions onto a screen or employing placards.
Among many of Brecht’s plays, one of the few that was regarded as the most important was ‘The Good Person of Szechwan’, which was written between 1938 and 1941, when he was in exile from the Nazi regime. Based upon Brecht’s ideas of the Epic Theatre I am going to discuss how successful ‘The Good Person of Szechwan’ is as an example of Epic Theatre.
From the outset this play clearly has quite a few elements of the Alienation Effect that Brecht intended to be evident in his plays. To begin with the play is set in the Chinese Province of Szechwan, so it naturally has an oriental feel to it.
The play employs a narrator in the form of the character ‘Wang the water-seller’, “WANG: I am a water-seller in the capital of Szechwan province. My job is tedious. When water is short I have to go far for it. And when it is plentiful I earn nothing.” (The Good Person of Szechwan, Bertolt Brecht, pp3, 2000).
It is clear from this quote to establish that Wang the Water-Seller is the narrator of the play, by the way he addresses the audience directly. In this particular quote, which is taken from the Prologue, it feels as though the reader has just met the character personally and they are introducing themselves and the story. Although the narrator’s direct addressing to the audience adds to Brecht’s intention of the Alienation Effect, it isn’t only the narrator of the play that is able to do this. “SHEN TEH: My beautiful shop! Oh, such hopes! No sooner opened, than it is no more. To the audience:
The dinghy, which might save us
Is straightway sucked into the depths:
Too many of the drowning
Snatch greedily at it.” (The Good Person of Szechwan, Bertolt Brecht, pp20, 2000).
Brecht emphasises the Alienation Effect by having other characters directly addressing the audience, which constantly reminds the audience that they are just spectators of a play. The way Shen Teh delivers the last four lines of the above quote seems to drive home an important political or emotional message, another way that Brecht does this is through the use of songs.
The songs in a play were also an important factor in establishing the Alienation Effect, and some of the songs from Brecht’s plays have become quite popular. These songs can seem quite comic, but they very often have a menacing undertone. The most important thing about these songs in Brecht’s plays was their political or moral content. These songs were often placed at the end or very near the end of a particularly important scene; where there was a point the play writer wanted the audience to reflect upon. In the Good Person of Szechwan there are six songs, all of which are placed at the end of a particularly important scenes or in an interlude. The songs have been purposely placed where they are to drive home to the audience an important moral or political issue that the play writer wants the audience to think about at that moment in time. The use of songs was an important factor for Brecht in his development of the Epic Theatre. “He considered that these songs helped the Alienation Effect by breaking up the continuity of the action and helping to prevent any chance of the audience becoming hypnotized by the performance.” (A History of the Theatre in Europe, John Allen, pp291, 1983).
In the Interlude between Scene’s four and five. Shen Teh sings directly to the audience ‘Song of the Defencelessness of the Good and the Gods’, which is sung as the character of Shen Teh and as her alter ego Shui Ta. In this song Shen Teh deliberately changes into her cousin Shui Ta so that the audience can see that they are the same person, and the song is sung directly to the audience to make them question their own personal views on whether it is possible to remain good, when everything else about them is bad.
Another Alienation effect that features strongly in The Good Person Of Szechwan is the use of masks. This was a custom that was widely used in Chinese theatre. The character of Shen Teh is made to use a mask to take on the persona of her ‘Ruthless’ cousin Shui Ta. “In terms of Brechtian ‘alienation’, the mask device in Boesing’s play functions much as it does in The Good Person of Szechwan. In both instances, the mask distances the actor-character from the role he or she adopts in order to survive in the given society. The audience, then, is invited not only to recognize these roles as pure inventions (though of undeniable power), but also to examine the social conditions which have caused the characters to take on these alternative identities.” (Re-interpreting Brecht, his influence on contemporary drama and film, Edited by Pia Kleber & Colin Visser, pp151, 1990).
The character of Shen Teh in The Good Person of Szechwan is the most alterable character in the play in the fact that she plays both herself and her cousin, and also in the way her character alters as Shen Teh towards the end of the play.
In The Good Person of Szechwan it is possible to see that Brecht intended the audience to consider the important political and Moral issues of this play by the way the final scene is written. It was quite common for Brecht to incorporate a Jury Scene in his plays to enable the audience to act as a kind of Jury in the courtroom. Brecht’s intention is for each individual member of the audience to leave the theatre thinking about the ending of the play. In The Good Person of Szechwan there is closure as far as the three Gods are concerned because they have found their ‘Good Person’, but for poor Shen Teh there is no closure as she is still left with all her problems of the poor immoral people of Szechwan sponging off of her, and also the problem of how to tell them that her cousin is really her, and that she isn’t really as good as every body thinks she is.
This is reflected by Brecht in the Epilogue, where an actor stands in front of the closed curtain and addresses the audience directly, “Ladies and Gentlemen, don’t feel let down: We know this ending makes some people frown. We had in mind a sort of golden myth Then found the finish had been tampered with. Indeed it is a curious way of coping: To close the play, leaving the issue open…There’s only one solution that we know: That you should now consider as you go What sort of measures you would recommend To help good people to a happy end.” (The Good Person of Szechwan, Bertolt Brecht, pp109, 2000).
To conclude I think that Brecht’s ideas of the Epic Theatre are very well portrayed in his play ‘The Good Person of Szechwan’, and his use of the Alienation Effect within this play really gets the reader or audience thinking about the political and moral issues that the Playwright is trying to portray. I feel that ‘The good Person of Szechwan’ is extremely successful as an example of Epic Theatre, because of the way that Brecht brings together all of the examples of what makes Epic Theatre and the Alienation Effect to produce this play.
The Good Person of Szechwan, Bertolt Brecht, Methuen Publishing Ltd, 2000
Re-interpreting Brecht: his influence on contemporary drama & film, Kleber & Visser, Cambridge University Press, 1990
A History of the Theatre in Europe, John Allen, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1983
Brecht For Beginners, Michael Thoss, Writers and Readers Publishing Inc, 1994
The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht, John Fuegi, Flamingo, 1995
English Dramatic Form, M.C. Bradbrook, Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1970
Brecht on Theatre-The Development of an Aesthetic, Edited & Translated by John Willett, Methuen Drama, 1993