The Alienation Effect in Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechwan”

Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan is a play that opens with Wang, a water boy and his search for the Gods who are visiting Szechwan. The Gods are looking for a place to stay, and in spite of Wang’s assurances that they will be able to find a lodge, no one in Szechwan believes or is willing to host the Gods. Shen Tai, a prostitute, offers to have the Gods stay with her.

The Good Person of Szechwan was written by Brecht in 1943. The play opens with Wang, a water seller who is on a search for Gods who are visiting Szechwan. The Gods are on earth, searching for someone who is ‘good’ in order to restore their faith in humanity. They are looking for a place to stay, and in spite of Wang’s assurances that they will be able to find a lodge, no one in Szechwan believes or is willing to host the Gods. Shen Teh, a prostitute, offers to have the Gods stay with her. In return, the Gods thank her by giving her 1000 silver dollars. Through the setting, characters and narrative structure Brecht employs the use of verfremdungseffekt, translated as the ‘alienation effect’ (Krasner 170).

Brecht borrows from Russian formalist critic Victor Shklovsky’s concept of ‘Ostranenie’, which is center or making things strange dissimilar (Krasner 170). Ostranenie is centered on defamiliarize and making things seems strange. The alienation effect was not solely focused on a style of acting, but a style of performance itself. Brecht wanted to consider “delineat[ing] the separate components of acting, directing, and set design rather than unifying them” (Krasner 171). Additionally unlike dramatic theatre, Brecht did not aim to make an audience empathize with his characters. In fact, he wanted the audience to actively be aware of the fact that they are watching a play that is staged and not something that is real. Brecht emphasizes that “if empathy makes something ordinary of a special event, alienation [estrangement] makes something special of an ordinary one” (Krasner 170). When examining Shen Teh specifically, her occupation alienates her from the rest of the townspeople. On a fundamental level, she is a singular character, trying to do good. Though her intention to stay true to the morals she believes in does not shift over the course of the play, her interactions with other characters do. After buying a tobacconist shop, several people show up at her store asking her for favours, to which she complies to. The turning point in the character of Shen Teh however is when she adopts the persona of Shui Tai. Throughout the course of the play, Shen Teh and her cousin Shui Tai are seen as distinct characters. Shen Teh is compassionate and even vulnerable as she lets people take advantage of her. Shui Tai on the other hand, comes across as rather unemotional and not easily swayed by the troubles of others.

Aside from singular characters, Brecht’s alienation effect is closely tied with the narrative structure of the play. There is poetry and song intertwined in the narrative that add a degree of complexity and non-linearity to the play. In epic theater and Brecht’s work is “by design disjunctive, deliberately lurching from one scene to another. It is meant to replicate the circus” (Krasner 171). In between every scene or two, Brecht writes an interlude. These interludes are either solely focused on Shen Teh, or on a conversation between Wang and the Gods. The interludes serve as a needed break to re-contextualize the story from the eyes of Shen Teh or the opening character, Wang. The idea though, that these characters are returned to and their characterization is affected by their relationships. In Scene 10, the Gods are seen as acknowledging that Shen Tai is a good person and should stay in Szechwan. However she must deal with the people she made promises to and let down. Though she pleads with them to take her, the Gods simply leave her behind. Ultimately the Gods seem to have caused more problems that found a solution. If not for the reward they gave Shen Teh, she would not have been approached by people wanting to take advantage of her money and shop. In fact, the last stage direction before the epilogue reads that “As Shen Teh stretches desperately towards [the Gods] they disappear upwards, waving and smiling” (Brecht). There is such a sense of disconnect between Shen Teh and the Gods who have had an influence on her life. Shen The herself is alienated in the play. Her ‘goodness’ as a person becomes both an alienatioj reason that allows her interact with other characters in the story, but it is also the reason why the Gods stay and then leave.

  

The Gods:

Now let us go: the search at last is o’er

We have to hurry on!

Then give three cheers, and one cheer more

For the good person of Szechwan!

Works Cited:
Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht: Collected Plays. Ed. John Willett. London: Methuen Drama, 1994. Print.
Krasner, David. Theatre in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008. Print.
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One comment

  1. hk1772 · November 1, 2015

    “Dear Harshini,

    Your Brecht response is good (although) you repeat some assertions
    several times – for example the first and second paragraphs could be
    combined and some of the plot reiteration eliminated). You explain
    what the alienation effect it, how Brecht expanded upon Shklovsky’s
    concept of ‘Ostranenie’ to figure out a way to break the empathic
    identification with the protagonist, and how it was applied by
    breaking up the formal elements that advanced the plot (musical
    interludes, asides, poetry that breaks up the prose dialogue).
    Therefore, the direction for the acting style is supported by the
    dramaturgy – actors who come to the text are supported in the
    alienated acting choices Brecht prescribed. Another part of the
    alienation effect is the allusions to the material, social and
    political factors that shape moral character here. The poor have
    limited choices to be “good”—how do the forces of history (indicated
    not only by dialogue but by setting, lights, sound, images) impact
    what happens on stage? Even the concern for natural resources and
    their distribution – which we see through the character of the water
    boy change the focus of naturalism and realism. These forces are
    represented as huge concerns that the characters have to deal with-
    and they are indicated in broad strokes, rather than more having them
    incorporated into the play in a nuanced fashion. Part of the object
    of alienation is to read the forces of history at play on the
    characters – and also be able to see those forces as man-made – that
    they can be analyzed and changed by the spectator. And so characters
    shouldn’t preoccupy the spectator as much as the play of power – and
    so the characters themselves are drawn with broad strokes too and you
    are absolutely right – the playing style of the actors should be both
    to inhabit AND to comment on the role – as a role.

    In your Veronique Doisneau, kudos for commenting on Nietzche’s florid
    and tempestuous writing style. I’m not sure however that he
    pronounces Dionysius as the god of dreams – in fact he begins with
    Apollo and the images that come in dreams – images that he thinks of
    as mediating and representing our world – but yes, that come to us
    from the energy of nature. But you are right – Bel strives to put
    thought back into Dionysian forms – and privilege a mediating presence
    – the performer’s conscious molding of those energies and her
    articulation of the material conditions (and here Brecht bleeds into
    the equation) of her labor. Fantastic connection to the Apollonian
    as the individuation of the performer – that was something I was
    hoping all of you would remember from Nietzche and connect to this
    performance. And again – maybe more Brechtian than Apollonian (which
    still is wedded to the power of maintaining illusion) is the breaking
    of the fourth wall. And maybe Boal here is even more useful in your
    final observation that Doisneau takes the agency of the stage to make
    a gesture of refusal not to dance any more – not to entertain or to
    “confess” should also be a choice – that she demonstrates quite
    gracefully.

    Best,
    Debra [Levine]”

    Like

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