The Good Person of Szechwan (German: Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, first translated less literally as The Good Woman of Szechuan) is a play written by the German theater practitioner Bertolt Brecht, in collaboration with Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau. The play was begun in 1938 but not completed until 1943, while the author was in exile in the United States. It was first performed in 1943 at the Schauspielhaus Zürich in Switzerland, with a musical score and songs by Swiss composer Huldreich Georg Früh. The play, a parable set in the "capital of Sichuan," a Chinese province, is an example of Brecht's "non-Aristotelian drama," a dramatic form intended to be staged with the methods of epic theater.
In the early Seventies, Jim Steinman scored a student-run production of The Good Woman of Szechuan at or around Amherst College, in which Bob Sather, a fellow student who was later cast in the aborted New York production of The Dream Engine, played a Chinese god. Steinman merely re-set (and in some cases, very loosely adapted from the Eric Bentley translation) Brecht's lyrics to new musical themes. Some of Steinman's later musical work has its roots in this production.
Three songs from the show appear on the recovered demo tape for More Than You Deserve. It seems this was done for copyright purposes; as is standard industry practice when registering for copyright, demos of new songs from a given period are recorded, properly noted on the tape for registration (for example, "[title of song], music and lyrics by [writer]," or something along those lines, which appears in some form on each of the songs on the recovered demo tape), and sent to the Copyright Office.
Around the same time Steinman was working on More Than You Deserve, he was also writing a new musical called Skin Alley, loosely based on Good Woman of Szechuan. According to Steinman's description at the time, "it takes place in New York, not China, about 15-20 years from now. The story is still mainly focused on the conflict between good and evil impulses within the main character, the 'good woman', but it is opened up to also focus on the almost surreal hallucinatory blackly comic and delirium-infested life of the city and its people."
"Roaming gangs of stylish teenagers, singing evil carols and songs behind elaborate masks, worshipping all forms of demolition, terrorizing coldly... wandering fanatic evangelists selling salvation... armed warriors guarding immense metallic barricades... sentries shining huge laser lights down from menacing shimmering watchtowers surrounding the city, searching out escapees... a revival of slave trading, slithery merchants making deals in 'Skin Alley' with 15 year old priests... powerful politicians having themselves genetically 'cloned' to produce a long line of offspring identical in every way to themselves to inherit and carry on their dark powers... critical shortages of water, gas, money, food, fuel, and air... a thriving black market in chromosome-perfect babies operating everywhere... vigilante groups silently patrolling in fume-tainted night... a young homosexual army living underground preparing to emerge at the proper time and seize control... all signs of a city in comically exaggerated siege..."
"These images aren't at the center of the work, just surrounding images, the backdrop against which it is played... a sort of funny science fiction paranoid fantasy... It's surprising how many aspects of Brecht's play transfer to a modern setting so well... For instance, his narrator Wang the Water Seller works perfectly in this new setting since there is a critical shortage of water, and like at the Watkins Glen Rock Festival, a bottle can go for as much as $15.00... Yang Sun, who dreams of being a pilot and carrying the mail heroically to the people, in this version dreams of being a rock star, worshipped by frenzied mobs, the wailing sound of his banshee guitar flying through the night to the people. Mr. Shu Fu, the vain barber in love with Shen Te, becomes a plastic surgeon catering to the hysterical narcissistic whims of aging clients... etc. etc. And the three Gods who come to the city searching for a good person become three outrageous self-promoting 'gurus', perhaps speaking with Peter Sellers style Indian dialects..."
"All of this weaves in and out of the inner Brecht core, which remains very much like it was in the way the narrative develops and how the characters act. But though many scenes correspond to the original in general function, all the dialogue and textures are adapted to fit a tough New York street language that is definitely not like modern slang speech however. More like the kind of formal language the kids in Anthony Burgess' 'Clockwork Orange' spoke, ceremonial, rich, menacing, similar to the ritualized precision and the poetic rhythms that the people of Szechuan speak in Brecht's German..."
Skin Alley was not produced because the Brecht estate declined to give permission for the play to be adapted in this manner.
The play opens with Wang, a water seller, explaining to the audience that he is on the city outskirts awaiting the foretold appearance of several important gods. Soon the gods arrive and ask Wang to find them shelter for the night. They are tired, having traveled far and wide in search of good people who still live according to the principles that they, the gods, have handed down. Instead they have found only greed, evil, dishonesty, and selfishness. The same turns out to be true in Szechuan: no one will take them in, no one has the time or means to care for others - no one except the poor young prostitute Shen Teh, whose pure inherent charity cannot allow her to turn away anyone in need. Shen Teh was going to see a customer, but decided to help out instead; however, confusion follows, leaving Wang fleeing from the illustrious Ones, leaving his water carrying-pole behind.
Shen Teh is rewarded for her hospitality, as the gods take it as a sure sign of goodness. They give her money and she buys a humble tobacco shop, which they intend as both gift and test: will Shen Teh be able to maintain her goodness with these newfound means, however slight they may be? If she succeeds, the gods' confidence in humanity would be restored. Though at first Shen Teh seems to live up to the gods' expectations, her generosity quickly turns her small shop into a messy, overcrowded poorhouse which attracts crime and police supervision. In a sense, Shen Teh quickly fails the test, as she is forced to introduce the invented cousin Shui Ta as overseer and protector of her interests. Shen Te dons a costume of male clothing, a mask, and a forceful voice to take on the role of Shui Ta. Shui Ta arrives at the shop, coldly explains that his cousin has gone out of town on a short trip, curtly turns out the hangers-on, and quickly restores order to the shop.
At first, Shui Ta only appears when Shen Teh is in a particularly desperate situation, but as the action of the play develops, Shen Teh becomes unable to keep up with the demands made on her and is overwhelmed by the promises she makes to others. Therefore she is compelled to call on her cousin's services for longer periods, until at last her true persona seems to be consumed by her cousin's severity. Where Shen Teh is soft, compassionate, and vulnerable, Shui Ta is unemotional and pragmatic, even vicious; it seems that only Shui Ta is made to survive in the world in which they live. In what seems no time at all, he has built her humble shop into a full-scale tobacco factory with many employees.
Shen Teh also meets an unemployed mail pilot, Yang Sun, whom she quickly falls in love with after preventing him from hanging himself. However, Yang Sun doesn't return Shen Teh's feelings, but simply uses her for money, and Shen Teh quickly falls pregnant with his child.
Eventually, one of the employees hears Shen Teh crying, but when he enters only Shui Ta is present. The employee demands to know what he has done with Shen Teh, and when he cannot prove where she is, he is taken to court on the charge of having hidden or possibly murdered his cousin. The townspeople also discover a bundle of Shen Teh's clothing under Shui Ta's desk, which makes them even more suspicious. During the process of her trial, the gods appear in the robes of the judges, and Shui Ta says that she will make a confession if the room is cleared except for the judges. When the townspeople have gone, Shui Ta reveals herself to the gods, who are confronted by the dilemma that their seemingly arbitrary divine behavior has caused: they have created impossible circumstances for those who wish to live "good" lives, yet they refuse to intervene directly to protect their followers from the vulnerability that this "goodness" engenders.
At the end, following a hasty and ironic (though quite literal) deus ex machina, the narrator throws the responsibility of finding a solution to the play's problem onto the shoulders of the audience. It is for the spectator to figure out how a good person can possibly come to a good end in a world that, in essence, is not good. The play relies on the dialectical possibilities of this problem, and on the assumption that the spectator will be moved to see that the current structure of society must be changed in order to resolve the problem.
All songs are recorded here as originally titled by Bertolt Brecht; links will be to the songs within this Wiki that correspond to those equivalents.