The Good Woman of Setzuan

By Bertolt Brecht, Eric Bentley

7,697 ratings - 3.72* vote

In 1952, Hannah Arendt hailed Bertolt Brecht as "beyond a doubt the greatest living German poet and possibly the greatest living European playwright." His plays, widely taught and studied, are searing critiques of civilizations run amok.During the thirties, the subversive nature of his work sent Brecht from Germany to Scandinavia and later to the United States. The Good Wo In 1952, Hannah Arendt hailed Bertolt Brecht as "beyond a doubt the greatest living German poet and possibly

... more

Book details

Paperback, 112 pages
November 15th 1999 by University of Minnesota Press

(first published 1953)

Original Title
Der gute Mensch von Sezuan
0816635277 (ISBN13: 9780816635276)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Steven Godin

Opening with a monologue from a water seller (Wang), who is waiting for the Gods on the impoverished streets of a city outskirts, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that not only is this a Brecht play, but also it's setting is the far east (Chinese Culture being something that fascinated him). And he may have been one of the most innovative and influential playwrights of the 20th century, but Brecht’s main concern was getting an audience to think first, rather than engaging them easily on an emotional level.

Taking you inside the too often unexamined lives of common folk, petty criminals and outcasts living out a life of brutalising poverty is nothing new to him. But with The Good Person of Setzuan, there is an artistic adventurousness that adds something different to the melting pot. The play, like other works of his, still remains pessimistic, but dazzles nonetheless. Coming from an era when the author was creating parables for the stage, productions that invite you to consider such issues as how economics affect life decisions and how power is surrendered and wielded. With a perception that everyone requires such a dual or split personality to survive an ever present harsh world environment.

This is a story of the streets, not the sort of streets I would want to wander around any time soon.
Most of the action taking place in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. The prostitute, Shen Tei, has a soul like that of a blossoming flower. She wants to become something beautiful, to someone or something. It's her heart’s desire. But her kindness is not predicated on giving as good as she gets. Rather, she gives because sharing is a natural art, just like when she paints her mouth bright red to attract male clientele. She is the only one in Szechwan who offers the Gods a place to stay after Wang assures them that Szechwan is just the kind of town that will refute their notion that a good person is a rare thing. As a reward, the Gods give their hostess a small amount of money. With it,
Shen Tei opens a modest tobacco shop and life seems to take shape for the better. But always lurking is a battle of faith, and of good and evil, that tips the apple cart. How can she survive as a new and honest person, play straight in a corrupt world of ruthlessness, without her former hard self to help get her through?.

Brecht insisted the mechanics of making theatre should always be exposed, so audiences would be made aware of how the theatre sought to manipulate them. He rejected with contempt the popular notion that the chief aim of the theatre was to create empathy. He wanted his audience to think and act critically about their situation, inside the theatre and beyond it's walls. Critiquing capitalism is an underlying theme here, and the tightly-knit text made for a thought-provoking read.
The briskly paced bare bones nature that cuts to the gist of the story in this and his other plays, was always likely to provoke a response and get people talking from whomever attended it's theatrical production, just as Brecht would have wanted it.

The fact he stuck the finger up to Nazi repression and carried on regardless makes me like him
that extra bit more. Not only as a Playwright, but as a person.


Celebrity Death Match Special: Der gute Mensch von Sezuan versus Superman

[A bar in the Chinatown area of Metropolis. CLARK KENT and SHEN TE, at opposite ends of the counter, both staring disconsolately at half-empty glasses]

CLARK KENT: [Sighs] Women!

SHEN TE: [Sighs] Men!

[They look up, noticing each other for the first time]

CLARK KENT: Hey, don't get me wrong. I shouldn't complain. I have a swell job. I work with some great people and there's nothing I enjoy more than helping them. It's just, you know...

SHEN TE: ... they keep using you all the time. That's the way it is.

[They both nod sadly]

CLARK KENT: I wouldn't really mind, but I seem to have... uh... well, see, there's this girl, Lois...

SHEN TE: Me too. If I didn't love Yang Sun, it'd be bearable.

[A pause, then CLARKE KENT gets to his feet and sings]

The Ballad of the Overlooked Nice Guy

She just takes me for granted
Acts like I'm not there
Well it's breaking my heart an'
It's hard not to care.

I'm just the overlooked nice guy
The overlooked nice guy

SHEN TE: Wait a minute. I know someone who might be able to help you.

[Exit SHEN TE. Shortly after, enter SHUI TA. He is smartly dressed and acts like he owns the place]

SHUI TA: So my cousin tells me things aren't working out with the Lane dame.

CLARK KENT: Really, I'd rather not--

SHUI TA: Look buster, face facts. She's never going to be interested in you.


SHUI TA: She wants a different person.


SHUI TA: Well, you need to be that different person.

CLARK KENT: Okay, I can see how she feels about Superman. But--

SHUI TA: Who said anything about Superman? She'll come to despise him too given time.

CLARK KENT: Wait, what are you--

SHUI TA: Come on, it's obvious. Just think about it.

CLARK KENT: [After a pause] You're right. Goodbye, Mr. Nice Guy. Hello, world domination!

[He takes off his hairpiece, revealing LEX LUTHOR's trademark bald head. SHUI TA nods approvingly. Curtain]

No winner declared due to essential inconsistency of Judeo-Christian morality

Ahmad Sharabiani

Der gute mensch von sezuan‬ = The Good Person of Szechwan = The Good Woman of Setzuan, Bertolt Brecht
The Good Person of Szechwan (German: Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, first translated less literally as The Good Woman of Setzuan) is a play written by the German theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht, in collaboration with Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau. The play was begun in 1938 but not completed until 1941, while the author was in exile in the United States. The play is an example of Brecht's "non-Aristotelian drama", a dramatic form intended to be staged with the methods of epic theatre. The play is a parable set in the Chinese "city of Sichuan".
عنوانها: زن نیک سچوان؛ زن خوب ایالت سچوان؛ نویسنده: برتولت برشت؛ تاریخ نخستین خوانش: سال 1975 میلادی
عنوان: زن خوب ایالت سچوان؛ نویسنده: برتولت برشت؛ مترجم: مهدی زمانیان؛ نشر: شیراز، کتابفروشی زند، 1353، در 216 ص، موضوع: نمایشنامه، ادبیات آلمان
عنوان دیگر: زن نیک سچوان
زن نیک ایالت سچوان،‌ گرچه از لحاظ فرم با اکثر آثار برشت تفاوت دارد اما میتوان آن را نمود اندیشه ی ایشان نیز دانست. ایشان در این نمایش میگویند: هیچ کس در شرایط فعلی حاکم بر جهان نمیتواند پاک باشد. پایان نقل. اگر از زاویه دید آن خر معروف نگاه کنیم، که برشت روی میز کارش گذاشته بود و بر گردنش نوشته بود: «حتی من هم باید این را بفهمم». زن نیک ایالت سچوان یکی از بهترین آثار برشت است. در این نمایشنامه نویسنده با استفاده از یک داستان افسانه گون و دلچسب، یکی از مهمترین دغدغه های اجتماعی خویش را نشان داده است. موضوع (خوب بودن...) در بسیاری از نمایشنامه های دیگر برشت مانند: گالیله، و اپرای سه پولی، به عنوان تم فرعی حضور دارد، یا لااقل در چند جا به موضوع خوب بودن اشاره میشود. در شیوه ی نمایشی ایشان حس واقع پنداری از بین میرود و دائماً به تماشاگر یادآوری میشود که در حال مشاهده ی تئاتر است. با این کار برشت میخواهد، تماشاگر در متن نمایش حضور داشته باشد یعنی به جای گریستن بر سرنوشت شخصیتهای نمایش،‌ درباره ی مسئله ای که نویسنده مطرح میکند او باید اندیشه کند و نتیجه بگیرد. در زن خوب ایالت سچوان برشت برای این کار از دو حربه سود برده است. نخست روایت افسانه ای و کاراکتر مضحک خدایانی که در جستجوی یک انسان خوب، به روی زمین آمده اند؛ و دوم با استفاده از یک تکنیک نمایشی، شخصیت اصلی نمایشنامه «شین تن»، با زدن یک ماسک، در نقش پسر عموی خیالی خویش «شوی تا» میرود. البته نحوه پرداخت اغراق آمیز ایشان هم شدیداً در ایجاد این فاصله مؤثر است. او در این نمایشنامه کمتر دغدغه شخصیت پردازی دارد. برشت جایی میگویند: «کسی که میخندد هنوز خبر وحشتناک را نشنیده است.» شاید «خبر وحشتناک» ‌تم اصلی همین نمایشنامه ایشان باشد اما به هر حال مردم سالهاست که این خبر را شنیده اند و هنوز میخندند. زن خوب ایالت سچوان را مهدی زمانیان به فارسی برگردانده و انتشارات خانه کتاب آن را در سال 1353 هجری خورشیدی منتشر کرده است. ا. شربیانی


I want to go with the one I love.
I do not want to calculate the cost.
I do not want to think about whether it's good.
I do not want to know whether he loves me.
I want to go with whom I love.

Brecht is brutal here, situating his play in China, dangling the Gods who swing between Divine Indifference and Hypocrisy and filling the ranks with all the avarice and sloth that floats from our unctuous species. Some (may) find exception with the titular heroine and her Manichean solution to the query -- How To Serve Man: spoiler, it isn't a cookbook. I thought the device employed by the character is brilliant, a heady response to the pop-up morality of Snapchat Elysium. One came imagine Brecht seething.

Sexually frank but lacking overt violence (with one exception) this play becomes a lumpen comedy of manners. Who's laughing?


I read this in school.

That's a long time ago, and yet, I remember it better than many novels I read last year (or last month). I remember it despite the fact that I must have had a typical teenage brain at the time. It is just such a fundamental truth of injustice that it remained with me until this day, consoling me when I am frustrated, reminding me that at least the annoying topic made it into the realm of art.

If you are good, you are exploited.

That is the message, and I don't think anyone is free from the experience of trying to make things work better, only to see some opportunistic people step in and take advantage of the situation. It is a perfect dream to be able to keep a controlled balance by taking a secret double role - helping in one shape, keeping parasites at bay in the other.

Brecht was a clever one, he made it possible in fiction - and that has made a difference to me in reality!


Taught this play a few times, when Oedipus was required earlier. Contrast how despite altars and consulting the god of Delphi, the gods are not on stage as the Greek play begins, whereas that's precisely how Brecht begins. I would ask what kind of a voice a god has: I'd do a local Fall River accent, a Boston accent, and a deep, resonant male voice, ask a girl student to speak as a female god. In Good Woman, three anticipated gods show up in oldfashioned dress and dusty feet, looking for a place to stay the night. When Shen Te, the Good Woman shows up, she lets them stay at her room, for which she is delivered some money after they leave. With it, she buys a tobacco shop. In mid play, someone ironizes about how she got money, "A gift of the gods, I suppose," and she, "How did you know?"(435).

A satire on capitalism, the best there is, here a former prostitute is too generous, her old associates come with their whole family to stay in her tobacco store, and she feeds them a large bowl of rice. Shen Te's goodness requires her male cousin Shui Ta to come and kick the crashers out; but we find out capitalism required Shen Te to become Shui Ta to save herself. Shui Ta tells the crashers, "This is a tobacco shop, not a gold mine"(424). He also says, "My poor cousin has the worst possible reputation.." but not prostitution, "the reputation of being poor"(428).

In a Brechtian proverb that seems made for the U.S. in 2020, the gods observe, "No-one can be good long if goodness is not in demand"(422). In the US, a fraudulent, criminal president makes sure none of his appointees demand ethics or goodness. As a retired couple, my wife and I receive a fraudulent request over the phone or email at least once a day. In some cases, if you don't delete, it will remove all the minutes on your phone.

Certain cultural insights, such as how in order to fly the mail, the pilot had to give the boss quite a bit of money--he says, because to allow him to fly, he has to fire one of the others for incompetence, and that's not easy since they're competent. Shen Te has fallen for thsi unemployed pilot, so she tries to come up with the money, by giving him the loan she just got. She had been advised to marry to gain capital, but she fails and falls first.

The good Shen Te and the bad, but successful Shui Ta (he starts a thriving tobacco factory) are discovered to be--no spoiler here-- who they are, and revealed to the Gods. Shen Te has an ofer from the adjoining rich guy, but she cannot give up her romance with the contemptible Yang Sun. The Gods learn of Shen Te and Shui Ta, and sum the play in their final "Valedictory Hymn" (494) :
"What rapture, oh, it is to know
A good thing when you see it
And having seen a good thing, oh,
What rapture is to flee it."
The Gods abandon Shen Te to her myriad problems, debt, love, and housing because of pregnancy. Her, and the play's last word, "Help!"

Can't recall whether I first taught this in another translation in the late 60's, or in Bentley's fine translation here.


2.5 stars.

In as far as studying this play while placing it in a particular historical and political context is concerned, I realise its significance, but otherwise this just wasn't for me. In my opinion Brect's Mother Courage is far, far better.


He who gives help to the lost is lost for his own part

Such great lines.

"Your original order, to be good while yet surviving, split me like lightning into two people.I cannot tell what occured: Goodness to others and to myself could not both be achieved.”

The play was extremely depressing in the beginning but gradually it grew on me. The drudgery of society and it's people is portrayed brilliantly. A "good" woman who is forced to survive through any means necessary.Shen Teh's growth as an individual was interesting to watch. Of course if you want a happy ending, you should keep in mind it is a modernist play. Otherwise it is a short and interesting read.


I really like this book. Sometimes when it seems to me that I've done something wrong I remember these two characters - Shen De and Shui Da. Brecht shows us that a person cannot be only a good man or only a bad man. When Shen De does something generous and fogets herself doing positiv things, she suffers. Other people are becoming bad, cruel and insult her. Her shop doesn't bring money and so on. When Shui Da does a bad thing, others just hate him. But his own trade is going perfectly well.
To my mind, the main idea of this book is that making a compromise is the best way of solving problems and behaving in the society.