The Good Woman of Setzuan

The Good Woman of Setzuan Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht wrote Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (translated literally as “The Good Person of Setzuan”) with Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau between the years of 1938 and 1943. Steffin was a German actress, writer, and translator, and Brecht's secretary. Berlau was a Danish actress, writer, photographer, and director. Both women were Brecht's lovers.

The Good Woman of Setzuan is an example of non-Aristotelian drama, a form made popular by Brecht and defined in his notes and essays entitled "On a non-Aristotelian drama." Greek philosopher Aristotle outlined the differences between classical tragedy and epic; Brecht intended his plays to be staged using the methods of epic theater. The main difference between the two forms, according to Brecht, was in methods of construction.

The original name of the play was Die Ware Liebe, which translates to “Love as a Commodity.” In German, the phrase for “true love,” “die wahre liebe,” sounds quite similar; the original name was a play on words. Brecht originally dedicated the play to his wife, Helene Weigel. However, by the time it premiered, Helene was too old to play Shen Te.

The play was written as a demonstration of Brecht's opposition to the National Socialist and Fascist movements, while the author was living in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. Translator Eric Bentley discarded the literal English translation of the play for staging purposes, and the resulting nonliteral text became more popular. Brecht approved the changes in 1956.

The play's title is often translated as "The Good Woman of Szechwan," rather than "Setzuan," but Szechwan is a province, while Setzuan is a city. According to translator Eric Bentley, Brecht identified the location of the play as "a city," so he must have meant Setzuan.