Two Plays by Bertolt Brecht, revised English versions and introdution by Eric Bentley
In reading these books I must admit I was a bit puzzled to read of them described elsewhere as among the playwright’s most important literary plays. To be sure, these plays are not a waste of time to read, but they are written by someone whose political and moral views do not make him a good instructor for others, and it is fairly obvious that the author’s political commitments make him a less than sympathetic observer of conventionally moral people as well as the middle classes. And that political commitment does make these plays worse than they would be had they been written by someone who did not have the same animus towards business success and family that the author does. That is not to say that there are not insights in the women at the heart of the book’s two plays, or that there are not many women who would see the lead roles of both plays as being very good for their careers, but it is all the more remarkable given Brecht’s cultural cachet among the left that these plays have not been more frequently staged. Perhaps insulting business can often make for bad business.
This book consists of translations of two Brecht plays, namely “The Good Woman Of Setzuan” and “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” that are evidence of the author’s skewed moral worldview. Each play is around 100 pages and the book as a whole is a bit more than 200 pages. The first play features the efforts of one Shen Te to start a business and show generosity to others, while finding her efforts thwarted by her past as a prostitute and the general corruption and wickedness of her times, which leads her (spoiler alert) to adopt a persona of a harsher and narrow-minded cousin named Shua Ta who makes plenty of money and has respectable morality but who is not nearly as kind and as good, all of which leads to a trial when three false gods are made judges and seek to commend Shen Te as the titular good woman of Setzuan. The second play involves a Solomonic look at motherhood where a servant in love with a soldier raises a child as a single mother and marries a dying man to provide her with some legitimacy even as she waits for her soldier to come home and also seeks to show herself as a mother who is superior to the child’s birth mother.
Is there anything in these plays that makes them worth remembering or viewing highly? The plays were “translated” by someone who doesn’t know German, but who wanted Brecht’s work to be better remembered and to reach a larger audience. Does this book succeed at that task? It’s hard to say. There is clearly a future for this book among those who want their dramatic repertoire to be full of plays with leftist ideological commitment, but as leftists in general are not as interested in history as their more conservative or traditional colleagues, who can be trusted to keep alive plays from centuries ago simply because they are good old plays that are worth remembering, these plays are not likely to be as well remembered, not least because they involve a historical context of the period before the Communist takeover of China as well as the Soviet Union’s rule over the Caucasus in order to be properly understood, and that sort of historical context is perhaps too much to expect of those who have no interest in history and do not wish to study history and do not appreciate the ancestral wisdom of the past, even where, as is the case with Brecht, that supposed wisdom is often great folly.