A Comparative Analysis of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan



Bertolt Brecht’s parable The Good Person of Szechwan is one of the playwright’s major plays, popular and regularly produced because of its universal themes. Many critics believe the play is one of the best examples of Brecht’s epic theater because it challenges the audience. Although Brecht worked on the idea behind the play as early as the late 1920s, it was primarily written from 1939-43 in various European countries and the United States while in exile from his native Germany during World War II. Brecht tried to get Good Person produced in the United States in 1941, but the play did not make its debut until February 4, 1943, at the Schauspielhaus Zurich, in Zurich, Switzerland. The play was produced throughout Europe in the 1940s. The first English-language production of The Good Person of Szechwan in the United States took place in either Cleveland’s Eldred Theater or Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1948. Many American colleges and universities put on the play after this date. The Good Person of Szechwan was first produced professionally in New York City in late 1956, shortly after Brecht’s death.

The play has continued to be performed throughout the world to the present day, in part because it seems to be a modern parable about a basic human issue: how to be a good person in an imperfect, money-centered, class-divided society. Because of this focus, the play does not seem to be intended to be a reflection of the actual social, cultural and political life in China at that time, although the play uses some conventions of Chinese theater and is set in China. Brecht’s original setting for the play was Berlin, and some recent productions have adapted the story to reflect the time and location of production. As John Fuegi wrote in The Essential Brecht, “The profound metaphysical question of why evil is permitted, indeed encouraged, in the world has seldom been asked with such force.”

Bertolt Brecht was born on February 10, 1898, in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany. He was the son of a Catholic father, Friedrich Brecht, who worked as a salesman for a paper factory, and a Protestant mother, Sofie. Brecht grew up in a middle-class household, and was precociously intelligent in school. He began writing poems while still in secondary school and had several published by 1914. By the time Brecht graduated, he was also interested in the theatre. Instead of continuing on this path, however, he studied science and medicine at university to avoid the draft. It did not work, and he was drafted in 1918 at the end of World War I. He served as an orderly in the military hospital in Augsburg.

Both his upbringing and his experience in the military profoundly affected Brecht and his writing. He rejected the bourgeois values of his youth, and had a keen understanding of the differences between Catholics and Protestants. The turmoil of war that Brecht saw in the hospital led to his life-long pacifist views. He began writing plays as early as 1918 (Baal) and joined communist organizations in 1919. After finally giving up his sporadic university studies, Brecht became the dramaturge at a theater in Munich and was writing full time by 1920.

Over the next 13 years, Brecht published several short stories and poems, and successfully staged many of his own plays. Brecht collaborated with composer Kurt Weill on several musical plays, including one of his best known works, 1928’s The Three Penny Opera. By 1930 Brecht’s plays had become increasingly political, espousing his belief that communism would solve many of the world’s problems. When the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, Brecht and his works were banned. Brecht and his family fled the increasingly hostile environment in 1933 and went into exile for the next fifteen years.

During his exile, Brecht lived in the United States and in various countries in Europe and continued to write. In addition to a novelization of The Three Penny Opera, Brecht composed numerous plays that were critical of the Nazi regime and the world’s political situation. Though he began The Good Person of Szechwan as early as 1928, Brecht completed it in exile between 1939 and 1943, when it was first produced. Though The Good Person of Szechwan was not as overtly political as Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), Brecht hoped it would be produced in the United States.

After the war ended and Germany was divided into East and West, Brecht was invited home. He decided to settle in East Germany, in part because they offered him a theater and funding. Brecht formed the Berliner Ensemble, which debuted in 1949. That same year Brecht wrote his last original play, The Days of the Commune, as he devoted all his time to running the theater and working as its stage manager. He continued to write poetry and adapt other playwrights’ work for his theater, however. By the mid-1950s, the importance of Brecht’s plays had been realized and they became popularly recognized. Brecht died as a result of a coronary thrombosis on August 14, 1956, in East Berlin.

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