According to scholar John Fuegi, The Good Woman of Setzuan “shouts the agony” of Margarete Steffin, the play’s unacknowledged principle author who, for most of her career, wore a male disguise, signing her name as Bertolt Brecht. As Fuegi explains in his book Brecht & Co., Shen Te (the drama’s female protagonist) loves a man who uses her and takes her money. Intrepidly, however, she puts him to work, running her factory, “providing jobs for the helpless and homeless. He works for her because he believes the boss is not really the female Shen Te, for whom he is consistently contemptuous, but rather the tough male Shui Ta, to whom he is consistently fawning.”
After seeing a production of Good Person of Szechwan, now playing at La Mama until February 24 (the play uses John Willet’s translation and is directed by Lear deBesseonet) audiences will get to see a drag artist play a version of Steffin. It’s a proposition that the Foundry Theatre renders with jubilation. However, I wonder if Steffin would think her work highjacked yet again (besides her not receiving writing credit on the play, it was dedicated to Brecht’s wife, Helene Weigel. The actress was deemed perfect for the title role—actually, she would not play it, as its WWII premier was in Switzerland, and she was a refugee in America at the time. Ruth Berlau is today seen as another collaborator on the text.). I also wonder if Steffin, along with Brecht himself, would think the new production gives proper estimation of yin and yang, whether the writers would believe the drama has been softened without the sting of traditional, perhaps anachronistic or even archaic, gender roles and role playing in a male-dominated society.
Harold Clurman, writing in 1963, found Brecht’s work (he may not have known much about the contributions of Steffin and Berlau, not to mention Elisabeth Hauptmann) more than didactic, rising above politics “through a subtle artistry which always says something more than, and different from, their presumed ‘lesson’. That is why they have never been wholly accepted as effective Communist propaganda.” (We must also ask, in the La Mama production, if the play is effective for proponents of a post-genderized world?) Are Shen Ta and Wang being defanged by subverting their relationship’s dynamic and leaving Steffin cries unchampioned? Isn’t what the play is saying that, circa late 1930s, there are no social solutions and that gender is intrinsic and part of an insoluble problem? Brecht, the theorist, wants us to “think” and here the question seems very close to: How can humans be good in a world where societal forces and constructs conspire to make that impossible? DeBessonet seems to be simplifying and universalizing for the 2000s, but, ultimately, she frames the question from one-side: How can a man be good in a world where goodness is impossible?
Steffin, et al., would probably have a problem with this. It’s like insisting that Edward Albee allow George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf be played as a gay couple—an idea which is not new, yet which some directors claim is a valid interpretation. Nevertheless, the author, who is alive and homosexual and watchful of tampering, has consistently refused to grant this because he feels he has written a heterosexual male and female. Why wouldn’t we assume that the creators of The Good Person of Setzuan also knew what they wanted? Steffin has paid enough, God knows–beyond her lack of writing credit, politics (a Socialist in Nazi Germany), her poverty, and her abortions. Now, her own artistic version of herself?
This is not to say that The Foundry Theatre is acting with malice. The evening is clearly an embrace of Brecht by Queer theatre. Although you might believe Taylor Mac has posed in front of his own mirror for a thousand hours, he’s not impersonating, he’s not necessarily over the top, and he’s not mocking or lightweight, especially, in an anthem, “Make a Change.” However, he doesn’t think of Shen Te as a woman. “I think of the character as a form of trans,” he writes. That’s how I think of myself—sometimes I look like a guy, sometimes I look like a woman, sometimes I look like some other creature.” His Shui Ta may not be harsh enough, though. During the pregnancy scenes, the audience becomes involved in watching Taylor Mac “play” pregnant, as opposed to seeing him control a firm. A distancing device, certainly, but at the expense of character and relevance to Brecht. According to Fuegi, the director actually did admire the coldly ruthless and manipulative male, which he “often depicted positively in his own poems.”
Playing a landlord and Shen Te’s proposed mother-in-law, playwright and performer Lisa Kron acts the roles “locally,” not in a Chinese way at all: broader, lower, funnier, a suburban Jewish mama with front fingertips to her temples. Women (Vinie Burrows, Annie Golden, and Mia Katigbak) in big blonde wigs and cream dresses are gods (actually, I loved them). A priest is a Jewish rabbi played by a second grader (Jack Allen Greenfield). This is a sprawling rainbow of actors, convivial, and, like Steffin and Brecht and Ellen Stewart, socially conscious. The missing ingredient is the cold shock of the Brechtians (recall theatearegoers fainting in Baden-Baden in 1929, during Clown Show in which blood poured as the head and limbs were sawed off a huge puppet. As Clurman also reminds us, the traditional Brechtian staging is “real,” “aristocratic,” with “the surface utterly simple,” “uncluttered,” with only an austere white light. The La Mama show is a stage of litter, even including Chekhov’s cherry tree.
Of course, we cannot expect downtown theatre to be utterly respectful. I do think it can be more observant of the past, though, and be more aware of what Brecht is asking us to do: Think. The reality is that this Good Person of Szechwan is cabaret fun for the same old base: gay, ethnic, racial, cross-dressing. Even its folksy music is part of a current trend. It’s a downtown watercolor instead of Berlin ash gray; instead of Depression U.S.A., 2013. It’s a marketing-point oriented capitalistic experience of a play which in itself is highly suspicious of capitalism. The Brechtians see no answer–loopy American optimists might think they have one with sexuality.
Steffin’s words are what remain dangerous and challenging, not a man playing a man: “How wonderful to see Sechwan in the early morning,“ Shen Te says after having fallen in love. “I always used to stay in bed with my dirty blanket over my head, afraid to wake up.”
How many times I’ve shared that thought.
© 2013 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
La MaMa presents the Foundry Theatre production of
Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan.
Directed by Lear deBessonet
Featuring Taylor Mac, Lisa Kron
Music by César Alvarez with The Lisps
Press: Blake Zidell