As Norm Randolph Roshi often points out, nothing is as it appears, nor is it otherwise, a truth that the theater knows only too well. What is seen onstage is seen as otherwise and not. It is something that one should bear in mind when reimagining a play—setting King Lear in Kosovo, for example, or casting Death of a Salesmenwith African American actors. One must be especially careful with a playwright like Bertolt Brecht,
who exploited the liminal reality of theater to fuel his critiques of the world outside its reflective—and perhaps unavoidably reflexive—space. I was surprised, then, when reading John Willett and Ralph Manheim’s introduction to Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, to see such Brechtian luminaries overlook this unforgiving fact.
Briefly, The Good Person of Szechwan is set in a slum in Szechwan, where the prostitute Shen Teh allows three gods to sleep in her room. They reward her generosity by giving her 1,000 silver coins with which she buys a tobacco shop to earn a more respectable living. Unfortunately, she remains too sensitive to the needs of the destitute, who practically ruin her with their pushy demands for food and shelter. To protect herself from them and the growing number of creditors who have come to collect what the previous owners of the tobacco shop owed them, she pretends to be Shui Ta, her imaginary male cousin, who is a cutthroat businessman. Under “his” tutelage, Shen Teh’s new profession proves far less ethical than her previous one, despite being sanctioned by law.
As the proclaimed “Angel of the Slums,” Manheim and Willett believe that Shen Teh could too easily be portrayed as the stereotype of the “oriental ‘good woman,’” blunting the play’s critique of capitalism. They propose what they deem to be a simple solution to the problem:
What seems rather surprising, in view of the high risk of having Shen Teh interpreted as a sweet-natured waif, is that Brecht’s experience of Chinese acting, which so influenced him in other respects, never led him to propose giving the dual role to a man. This would instantly correct any undue softness that may stem from sexually loaded ‘good woman’ image; moreover it seems to make it easier to see elements of Shui Ta in Shen Teh and vice versa, as the parable surely demands; nor is there anything in the text to rule it out. (xxxiii)
I wonder, though, if their solution is as pat as they seem to think it is. I don’t believe that having a man play Shen Teh would “instantly correct” the problem of her appearing to be too passive. What would prevent a man from playing the part any less retiringly than a woman would, or for that matter what would prevent a woman from playing her more assertively than a man? In fact, a man playing Shen Teh would need to appearas a woman, asking him to act, to some degree, in a way that he perceives as non-masculine.
He may even be tempted to play Shen Teh in a stereotypically feminine way to represent womanhood. “Woman,” then, would become a signifier, something the actor is not and can only resemble, widening the difference between Shen Teh and Shui Ta rather than bridging it, as Willett and Manheim contend. These complications alone reveal the inadequacy of their proposal to solve the problem they raise.
Still, one can understand why Willett and Manheim thought their solution would work. It is rooted in a theatrical fact—the audience always sees the performer behind the role and a role on the performer, affecting how audiences “read” a character on stage. To offer an example suggested by the writings of performance theorist Richard Schechner, when one goes to a production of Hamlet, one does not exactly see Hamlet onstage. Rather, one sees an actor playing Hamlet. This fact becomes more salient when the actor is famous. One then sees Olivier’s Hamlet or Branagh’s Hamlet. Of course, that also means that we don’t exactly see the actors, either. We see neither Hamlet nor Olivier, yet we see both. It is this doubling—or halving—that Brecht wanted his audiences to be conscious of. He didn’t want them to take for granted what they were seeing. He even proposed that actors adopt an acting style with a marked distance between actor and role that put on display, rather than covered up, the actors’ attitudes toward their roles. He wanted us to be aware of and reflect upon the fact that we don’t merely see some fellow named Hamlet on stage, we also see somebody embodying him.
It is in its double vision that theater, among the most ancient of arts, retains its currency. It is a space where the imagined and the real come together, where the imagined is embodied and the embodied imagined. As Antonin Artaud once eloquently put it, “The theater also takes gestures and pushes them as far as they will go: like the plague it reforges the chain between what is and what is not, between the virtuality of the possible and what already exists in materialized nature.” It trains us to see. If we look at what the theater really shows us and not some watered down idea we have of it, we might just see how, outside of the theater, things aren’t what we thought they were or wanted them to be, how we stopped paying attention to what was before our very eyes.
Don’t get me wrong. Willett’s and Manheim’s proposal about casting Shen Teh as a man isn’t an inherently bad idea. It could be interesting. But I doubt it would succeed in the ways that they imagine. Theater is too recalcitrant, too exacting, too virtually real to behave as they would like it. It’s also why, despite how marginalized it becomes, theater cannot and will not disappear.