The Good Woman of Setzuan

Congratulations to the Weston High School Theater Company for another first-rate production! The last time I saw Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan must have been at least 20 years ago, so I didn’t remember much about it except for some bits of plot and theme. In particular, I didn’t remember — or, more likely, I had never known — that this 1938–1943 play was so influential on subsequent 20th-century dramatic literature. Non-Aristotelian drama seems routine to us today, but it was revolutionary at the time, as director John Minigan points out in his program notes. Political and moral issues in this play are evident and often unresolved, making it a good choice for high-school performers and audiences. Several memes common throughout folklore and literature pervade the play: anonymous visits by the gods, the search for a good person à la Diogenes, and cross-dressing by a woman who needs to pretend to be a man.

Several actors stood out in Friday’s performance. At the top of the list must be Ben Heath, whose enthusiastic portrayal of airplane pilot Yang Sun grabbed the audience’s attention and held it throughout the play. Only slightly less vivid was Katherine Donahue, who gave an unexpectedly nuanced performance as prostitute Shen Te and her alter ego Shui Ta. I say “unexpectedly” because Katherine’s roles in past productions have always given her the opportunity to be larger than life — even over the top. I knew that she excelled in those conditions, but I hadn’t known that she could so successfully represent both the sweet Shen Te and the ruthless Shui Ta. (These roles had to be played by the same person, as Shui Ta is merely the male disguise that Shen Te adopts whenever she needs to be fierce.) I also have to mention the three gods, who serve in a dual capacity as both a Greek chorus and the instigators of the plot. But, unlike the typical chorus, actors Mikey Bullister, Laurel Kulow, and Diana Flanagan created three contrasting roles: to my mind Mikey came across as a politican, Laurel as a whiny teenager, and Diana as a demanding boss. The combination was effective and amusing, as was Reid Gilbard’s portrayal of Wong, the water seller. All of the rest of the large cast — Eric Doyle, Luc Pomerance, Matthew Chernick, Nike Power, Peter Birren, Halle O’Conor, Lucy Hastings, Tara Kulas, Geoffrey Binney, Jamie Goulart, Katelyn Engler, Jessica Ober, Lexie Burkus, Gabe Nelson, Haley Knapp, Hannah Dodson, Cailin McCormack, Kimmie Remis, Erica Kwiatkowski, Alessandra Haley, Grace Harper, Daniel Donahue, and Athina Kalemos — also deserve recognition, as the entire performance was strong and convincing.

The small pit orchestra — Tommy Fitzgerald, Myles McMann, Nike Power, and Odin Enzmann — was outstanding in their supporting role in this play, which was definitely not a musical although it contained songs and other musical accompaniment. Lighting and sound must have been flawless, as they were unobtrusively perfect, just the way they should be. Finally, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the production was the amazing set, which was gorgeous and dramatic from my seat in the second row.

And now for a few linguistic points. As I said in the first graf above, I saw a performance of this play at least 20 years ago. But I had already known the work, since I had read it — in the original German — as a college freshman over 40 years ago. Needless to say, I don’t really remember that experience. But I do remember a couple of peculiarities in the standard translation by the well-known Eric Bentley, who had been a professor at Harvard just a year or two before I arrived there as a student. Actually, all I really remember is the title, which contains both of these peculiarities. Brecht’s title for the play is Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, and the alert reader surely notices the two surprises. First, why does Bentley translate “Mensch” as “woman”, when it really means “person”? My guess is that it’s because the person in question is in fact a woman, but it seems to me that this translation dulls the impact of the opening, when the gods are looking for a good person, not specifically for a good woman. Second, how does “Sezuan” become “Setzuan” rather than “Szechwan”? I’m not claiming that “Szechwan” is in any way a reasonable transliteration of the Chinese word, but merely that it’s the standard English one. The rendition “Setzuan” is neither German nor English! My best guess here is that the interpolated “t” is meant to help us pronounce the German word, since German “z” is pronounced “ts.” In any case, Bentley’s translation is the one that was used in the Weston production, and it is (title aside) a seamless and as far as I can tell accurate translation. It certainly worked well in this performance.

Categories: Linguistics, Weston