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Theatre / The Good Person of Szechwan

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''Kauft Wasser, ihr Hunde! (Buy water, you dogs!)"
— Wang, in "Lied des Wasserverkäufers im Regnen".

Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Sezuan) is a 1943 play by Bertolt Brecht. It follows the story of Shen Te, a prostitute, and Wang, a water seller, who both come from the city of Szechwan in China. One day, three Gods come to Szechwan, looking for a good person. However, they're not really interested in finding said good person; they just want to get it over with so they can go home. Wang greets them, and they're keen to declare him their good person, but he's having none of it. He leads them to Shen Te, who's equally reluctant to be called a good person. However, she does allow the Gods to stay the night, and in return, they give her a bag of money, and decide that she is indeed a good person.

Shen Te uses this money to buy a Tobacco shop from one of the locals, Mrs Shin, on the promise that "the local miners come in here all the time", leaving out the crucial detail that they never buy anything. Mrs Shin and several other locals begin taking advantage of Shen Te's kindness — so much so that she starts pretending to be her own non-existent cousin, a man named Shui Ta, whom she becomes whenever she needs to be unkind to someone.

The play is well-known for the hidden communist propaganda it contains, with Brecht using Shen Te's need to invent Shui Ta as a way of showing how impossible it is to be good in a capitalist society. Of course, this means that the play wasn't performed in Brecht's fatherland for some time after it had been written.

Note that the title is often translated as "The Good Woman of Szechwan", which is not only wrong,note  but it completely ruins the ambiguity of the title.

The Good Person of Szechwan contains examples of:

  • Ambiguous Gender: The word "Mensch" (Person/Human) is intentionally used in the title to make it ambiguous as to who the good person is.
  • Deus ex Machina: Subverted. At the end, when Shen Te is in trouble with no solution in sight, the three Gods return — only to tell her that they're sure she'll think of something, and make tracks back to heaven (using an inversion of the stage effect that gives the trope its name) without doing anything to help.
  • Exact Words: Mrs Shin wasn't lying. The local miners do indeed come to the tobacco shop often. Just a shame they never buy anything.
  • God in Human Form: The three Gods.
  • The Gods Must Be Lazy: The Gods aren't too interested in finding a good person. They just want to get it over with so they can get home.
  • Gold Digger: Sun just wants Shen Te to help him become a pilot.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Shen Te doesn't want to be a prostitute, but it's the only way for her to pay the bills.
  • Interrupted Suicide: When Shen Te first encounters Yang Sun, he's about to hang himself because he has no money and no prospects. She talks him out of it.
  • Invented Individual: One of Shen Te's acquaintances advises her to claim that her shop is actually owned by a male cousin, whom she can blame for unpopular decisions and unpaid bills. As her troubles mount up, she finds it necessary for Cousin Shui Ta to make a personal appearance. She means it to be a one-off event, but problems keep coming up that Shen Te can't solve as herself, so she becomes Shui Ta more and more often. Toward the end of the play, she's spending more time as Shui Ta than as Shen Te, which leads to Shui Ta being arrested and put on trial because the neighbors believe he's keeping his cousin prisoner...
  • Jerkass: Most of the residents of Szechwan. It'd be easier to list the people who aren't this.
  • Lost in Translation: The title is often translated as "The Good Woman of Szechwan", which forces the "Gute Mensch" to be Shen Te, which many would argue it isn't. See Ambiguous Gender above.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: From her time as Shui Ta, Shen Te knows that Sun is just using her for money, but when she's Shen Te, she's too lovestruck to care.
  • Mistaken for Own Murderer: When Shen Te remains in disguise for a long time, people start to get suspicious. They accuse Shui Ta of holding her prisoner, before accusing him of her murder.
  • The Musical: Several songs are included in the play, including "Lied des Wasserverkäufers im Regnen"translation  and "Lied vom achten Elefanten".translation 
  • No Ending: The play ends abruptly, without solving any of the conflicts. An actor steps out, and asks the audience to find a happy ending. The message is that in this society a good person can't come to a good end; it's the responsibility of the spectator to change this.
    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!
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Shen Te's Shui Ta costume is supposed to be this.
  • Reluctant Hero: Both Wang and Shen Te are reluctant to be called a "good person". Depending on your interpretation, it may be for good reason.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Shen Te receives the attentions of both Shu Fu, who is old and ugly and rich, and Yang Sun, who is young and handsome and poor. At first it seems like the story is heading in the traditional direction where the heroine picks the poor guy and they're happy because they have love, but then it turns out Yang Sun doesn't love her back and is only playing on her sympathies for his own advantage. (Meanwhile, Shu Fu seems genuine in his devotion and offers of support, but Shen Te is unwilling to accept him just for his money, and there are hints that if she got to know him more closely he wouldn't be a better man than Yang Sun.)
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: As Shui Ta states pithily:
    You can only help one of your luckless brothers
    By trampling down a dozen others.
  • Split Personality: Shen Te's opinions on things tend to vary greatly when she's Shui Ta.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Shen Te disguises herself as a man, her fictional cousin Shui Ta, to avoid getting steamrollered by the people she has to deal with.
  • The Thing That Would Not Leave: After Shen Te rents the building with her shop in the front and her living space in the back, a couple who let her stay with them when she first arrived in the city show up and invite themselves to stay — along with their entire extended family — and continue mooching off her for the rest of the play.