I was dismayed to learn from your recent article that the production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan had been canceled.
Evidently, there is a history of conflict in the theater department between students and faculty, specifically to do with racism and racial insensitivity. I know only what your recent article and editorial have reported about this conflict, and I hope the students’ voices will be heard and their expectations met.
Still, I was dismayed about the canceled production. In truth, I had not read The Good Person of Szechwan before reading your article. Now that I have read it, I am even more dismayed.
Bertolt Brecht was an avowed Marxist. He fled Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power. Eventually, as a Nazi refugee, he was allowed into the United States. Once World War II had ended, though, Congress and the FBI forced Brecht to testify about the supposed Communist infiltration of American film studios. The next day, he fled the U.S. for Switzerland.
Brecht’s major contribution to dramatic and theoretical practice—often called “Brechtian distanciation”—was to expose and disrupt the lenses through which we comfortably see the world.
Accordingly, The Good Person of Szechwan tells the story—such as it is—of a mortal woman called Shen Teh, who occasionally becomes her male cousin, Shui Ta, and who tries to be a good person and to do good things. She (and he) quarrel with the gods about the impossibility of virtue in a hostile world. The play is more like a fable than a story; in some ways, it rewrites the book of Job.
It is set in an imaginary place, which the play calls “China” and which Edward Said would later call “the Orient.” This “place” exists only within European imperialist writings; “the Orient” describes not Asia but a willful ignorance of it. Similarly, Brecht’s play works only when the audience realizes that “China” means “specifically not actual China.”
When I teach literary and critical theory, I cannot teach Said without first teaching quite a lot of sexist, racist, classist and colonialist theory. As a professor of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, I teach almost exclusively texts that are sexist, racist, classist and colonialist.
Years ago, when I was in graduate school and a mere teaching assistant, a student asked me about this: “Why do you assign Jane Eyre instead of books by more diverse authors?” In my naiveté, I responded by asking him, “Do you really want to be a person who hasn’t read Jane Eyre?”
I would say it differently now: works of art are artifacts, things crafted by actual people with real experiences. In studying them, each of us is obligated to be made uncomfortable. Becoming thoughtful citizens of the world requires that we confront sexist, racist, classist and colonialist texts. It also requires that we confront the texts that upend our sexism, racism, classism and colonialism.
It is these confrontations that teach us who we are, what we do and what we must change. Artifacts, art, texts—they require us to take a bold step back.
If I, as a person identified as white, cannot rightfully teach Edward Said’s Orientalism because I am not Palestinian and did not suffer the cultural oppression that Said suffered, I cannot explain how his theory of Orientalism undoes the arguments put forth by the white, imperialist critics who preceded him. Worse, my students can’t talk about it.
To put it another way, if I don’t teach Jane Eyre, my students can’t read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which does with art what Said does with theory. Rhys, born in the Dominican Republic, rewrites Brontë’s novel from a postcolonial perspective and her version is a fierce takedown of the sexism and imperialism that govern Jane Eyre.
Do we really want to be people who haven’t read Wide Sargasso Sea?
This kind of rewriting is exactly what The Good Person of Szechwan asks of us, literally asks of us. It ends with an epilogue in which an actor says, “Ladies and gentlemen, don’t be angry! Please! / We know the play is still in need of mending.” And then, “We’re disappointed too. … / In your opinion, then, what’s to be done? / Change human nature or—the world? Well: which?” Indeed.
There is plenty to criticize in Brecht’s plays, but we can’t criticize them if we haven’t seen them. There may have been plenty to criticize in this production of The Good Person of Szechwan, but as it will not be produced, we will be unable to criticize it. This is a pity, as I might have learned something.
If the only people who can produce, cast, or perform in a play are those who share the social and cultural identities of its characters, every main-stage production will be some version of Death of a Salesman. Worse, we will have very little to talk about.
We can and should fight racial injustice, teach realist plays about other cultures and ensure that students have a voice. At the same time, surely we are brave enough and curious enough to make ourselves uncomfortable.
Associate Professor of English