The central character of the play is Shen Te, a former prostitute, who becomes a shopkeeper through (literally) divine intervention when gods recognise her goodness. Shen Te is determined to stay a good person and help others: she provides meals to the poor and shelter to those in need. However, soon enough it becomes near impossible when her funds run out and she cannot pay rent while people around her take her kindness for granted.
Shen Te dresses up as a man and invents a disguise as a cousin Shui Ta, a practical, no-nonsense character, who negotiates shrewdly and waves off Shen Te's hangers-on. While the gender roles assigned by Brecht are interesting in their own right, the main question the play attempts to address is whether it is possible to be good without compromise. Is altriusm even an ideal worth reaching for when it undermines the well-being of "the number one"?
I found the play incredibly relevant. I always say that one has to put his or her own oxygen mask first before attempting to help others. For example, when I worked on early stage investments, I had to be pretty ruthless about saying "No" even to meeting founders (let alone promising them money) when the opportunity cost of having coffees and meetings was to spend more time on examining more promising start-ups and ultimately backing them. I wanted to help all female founders but it wasn't possible even in terms of giving some of my time.
Now more than ever people all over the world are facing dilemmas. If you are managing an elderly care centre, are you to close it down for visitors because of the risk of Covid-19 or should you allow people spend time with their older relatives who may not have much time left to live? As a relative, should you do what's good for your family and let your children say good-bye to their grandparent or should you put your own interests aside for the safety of the care centre as a whole?
Should you keep your cleaner, personal trainer or massage therapist coming in to support their livelihood or should your exercise caution and distance yourself for the time being (knowing well that it would take months for the pandemic to ease)?
Should you buy an extra six pack of tinned tomatoes and a second bag of rice for your family or shop as normal knowing that everyone needs to eat while also avoiding visiting busy shops every day?
Was the UK government right to stop testing for Covid-19 and just tell people to self-isolate in oblivion if they experience fever and dry cough?
Now let me tell you a little more about Brecht. He believed that that theatre should not be some kind of entertainment. The purpose of theatre in his view is to ask difficult questions and let the audience find the answers by themselves. Brecht's plays are inspired by the dialectic, the art of making an inquiry into the quintessential contradictions of the first principles of human existence. He said: "Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it."
And so The Good Person of Szechwan is left open-ended. Unmasked Shen Te is pleading with Gods explaining that she cannot survive without her "bad cousin". The Gods aren't listening and simply tell her to be good and that all will be well... At the end of the play Brecht addresses the audience with "You write the happy ending to the play! There must, there must, there's got to be a way!"
Cleverly, the playwright lets the audience ponder on what's right and what's wrong. This isn't Hollywood spoon-feeding you the "happy ever after". It's a deliberate ploy to make us think and perhaps prepare us for life's challenges off-stage.
The morale of Brecht's play is that there are no easy answers. Business decisions when facing a crisis, asking for help, protecting yourself and your loved ones, deciding on priorities, dealing with stress and anxiety are not simple matters of should or should not. It is right to ponder over these questions in these perilous times. It's easier said than done if your house is full of rioting children... but if you can find time to sneak out for a solitary walk to a supermarket, let Brecht inspire you to practise some dialectic: should you try to abstain from alcohol or would you family benefit from you feeling a little less bothered to check the news stories yet again...