Good Woman of Setzuan
by Bertolt Brecht
Stetson University Stover Theatre
November 1994

The Good Woman of Setzuan is a modern parable for the theatre by the renowned German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Set in the fictitious "half-westernized City of Setzuan," the play questions the possibility of being "good" in a hostile and competitive world. It is a humorous and controversial play, challenging conventional perceptions of morality and ethics through overt theatricality.

In The Good Woman of Setzuan three gods have been sent to earth to find a good person, so that humankind may be saved from destruction. When the "good woman" Shen Te offers them shelter for the night on her floor, the gods respond by giving Shen Te money and ordering her to go forth and perform acts of goodness. Shen Te is soon overwhelmed by relatives and acquaintances who wish to share in her new-found wealth. She is left with no alternative but to occasionally assume the identity of a male cousin, Mr. Shui Ta, who can make the necessary "tough" business decisions without disappointing the gods.

This was a deconstructive staging of the play, which featured an all-female cast to highlight the issues of gender in the play. This concept was based on Shen Te's gender transformations, which equate maleness with brutality, cruelty, and evil, and femaleness with such positive values as charity, kindness, and love. As with many of Brecht's plays, it is very cavalier in its sense of time and place; most critics find the play to be more about life in Berlin than in China. The Stover production expanded this very loose notion of "Oriental" with changes reflected in costume and makeup: some were Japanese Geisha with painted faces, one woman playing a male character sported a "Fu Manchu" mustache, most (but not all) male characters wore masks. It was a potpourri of theatrical elements and styles, with influences from several different kinds of Asian theatres, popular music traditions, acting styles, and scenographic designs.

As a theorist, Brecht was devoted to creating what he called the "alienation effect" -- that is, preventing the audience from surrendering their intellect to the emotional manipulation inherent in Aristotelian theatre and Stanislavskian acting. In order to achieve this in the Stover production, staging was very symbolic and iconographic. For example, a courtship scene between the Good Woman and her Pilot was played under a tree in the rain, with the tree represented by a ladder and two actors dribbling confetti from a bucket marked with the Chinese character for "rain." Other techniques were used to disrupt the audience expectations necessary for Brecht's concept of "alienation." For example, any poem inserted into the dialogue was preceded by an off-stage finger cymbal (ding) and followed by a wood block (clock) before dialogue resumed; another example was that each major scene's title was announced before it began by randomly chosen characters using a movie slate and bullhorn. Other alienation elements included a small puppet playing Grandfather, whose lines were spoken (or sung!) by whichever actor happened to be holding him at the time, a model airplane being run across the stage as the actors gazed into the air, and a giant Mardi-Gras head as part of a priest's costume.

In addition to directing, I also designed scenery and lights for this production.

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Copyright 2003 by Ken McCoy.