Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan and the Capitalist Ethic

While I would have much rather seen the theatrical presentations of all the Brecht plays I’ve read instead of relying on the whims of my own imaginative inner-visions, I am taken enough by his comedic yet gravely serious interplay to be just beyond marginally content with reading them. The Good Woman of Setzuan — or ‘The Good Human Being of Setzuan’ if translated literally — like a majority of Brecht’s works is distinctly informed by his relationship with Marxism. In this work we see an unfolding of an element of the psyche under capitalism which may not always be readily apparent to us, but that is immediately recognized upon its presentation. The twist in this story situates itself not so much in the plot itself, but in the way the thematic exposition ends up doubling back upon itself by the conclusion.

We are initially presented with what could be construed as a sort of ham-fisted moralism: like the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her perfumed hair and tears we are to be surprised that our protagonist is the only truly good soul left in Setzuan. However, we quickly learn that what is being contested or challenged is this concept of goodness itself. And not from a position of looking to redefine goodness, but a locating of this goodness where it is inscribed in existing social structures. Shen Te is the embodiment of traditional goodness: she freely gives of her time and resources and provides shelter for the homeless; she is willing to provide assistance to others even if that means entering into a less than desirable situation herself. This radically pure selflessness aligns with the most common conceptions of goodness, even a biblical goodness, a goodness which is often advanced in bourgeois narratives but is in reality only to be taken seriously by the precarious classes. The gods recognize this goodness in Shen Te and are counting on her to prove that goodness still exists, and that humanity is not lost completely to its vices. However, as we discover, Shen Te is merely a nom de guerre for this impossible goodness which appears within our protagonist.

We quickly realize that Shen Te exists in a distillation, and that there is an auxiliary in the form of her assimilation by, or becoming of, Shui Ta. Shui Ta is the silently acknowledged sine qua non of Shen Te’s pure goodness, which together in its complete form constitutes a sort of perverse, socially acceptable goodnessthis form of goodness which is readily taken up by moneyed elites, or self-described philanthropists. Shui Ta moves ruthlessly within the realm of business. Among his first actions after appearing on the scene are the expulsion of the homeless family from Shen Te’s shop, shortchanging of the carpenter, and a betrayal of Wong the water salesman. This intervention has an immediate appearance of practicality. In the case of the family, a removal of an unsustainable drain on resources, of the carpenter a traditional suppression of the working wage for profits, and of Wong a need to achieve good standing with Wong’s attacker Mr. Shu Fu.

We know that, without this intervention, the fate of Shen Te’s shop is sealed. But at the same time we are pulled apart by this immediate practicality, and the exposed core of these actions: callous indifference in the treatment of fellow human beings — particularly those of lesser means. We may certainly be off-put by the rudeness or degeneracy of the family, the impatience or mercilessness of the carpenter, or even the cowardliness and unscrupulousness of Wong, yet the brutality of Shui Ta’s actions still makes an impression on us. This tension is a representation of the contradiction immanent in the reproduction of the impersonal market forces in the personal matters of everyday life. Consequently, the more successful Shen Te becomes the more she has utilized Shui Ta.

Though it may be superfluous to describe this dynamic — as it has likely already been easily intuited by the reader— it may help to find a proper analogue in the modern world. For example: the church that must function ‘as a business’ to retain membership and to secure exponentially increasing cash flows, the boss who must suppress the wage of the worker to ‘keep the business running’, or even the politician who must cut funding to struggling schools to secure cooperation of the bourgeoisie by ‘lightening their load.’ These scenarios among others depict the nature of goodness as it appears under capitalism: a goodness that is not as much altruistic, as it is commonsensical.

Shen Te’s extended tenure as Shui Ta plays out as one would expect. In the good graces of the opulent Shu Fu, she obtains cabins on his land in which she promises to house the homeless family and several other precarious characters. In no time, these cabins are converted into hellish workhouses; the inhabitants completely stripped of their dignity and what semblance of power they had. Shen Te’s shop soars; becoming a lucrative enterprise and community linchpin.

After a series of events unfold, the employees are able to take Shui Ta to court under the suspicion of hiding the gracious Shen Te. Under mounting pressure Shui Ta promises to make a confession so long as only the gods — who are presiding over the case as judges — are the only ones in the room. It is at this point that Shen Te reveals herself to be Shui Ta, and that she has been utilizing his many talents to solve her dilemmas. The gods are unfazed by this revelation and instead — ensured by the testament to Shui Ta’s good character given by the town’s petty-bourgeoisie — dismiss the case and leave; having renewed faith that their choice in Shen Te was the right one.

The existential horror plays out here as Shen Te screams to the gods for help while they leave. They reassure her of her goodness, much as our institutions foster and reinforce that form of goodness in and for us: the paragon of human kind is the lucrative businessman insofar as his ruthlessness is exacted in the name of practicality or pragmatism. She continues to cry for help; unheard as the play comes to a close. Brecht leaves the responsibility to act on this knowledge with us. How are we to shape a new world in which we can reconcile the commonsense notion of goodness with this pure goodness which sometimes exerts its force when one is foolish enough to act in a truly selfless or reciprocal way? How can we begin to dissect our institutions with the knowledge that human kind is shaped by its material and economic order and not simply its ideals? Moving forward, these are some of the most important questions that must be answered.

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