Themes and Issues
Today's society often requires people to wear different masks for different occasions. There are certain ways we are expected to act at school, work, church, home, the theatre … even with our friends.
The Good Woman of Szechwan explores this idea of feeling the need to ‘play a role' in order to survive and be successful in the world. Shen Te feels that she cannot overcome her difficulties as herself, and therefore creates the character of Shui Ta, her imaginary cousin who has the business skills that she doesn't.
However, essentially it is still Shen Te behind the mask of Shui Ta, and it is she who is showing such great capabilities in business. The mask that she wears allows her to more freely be the shrewd business person, as other people can only see the hard exterior of Shui Ta, and the soft compassionate exterior of Shen Te.
Shen Te feels that she is unable to do what Shui Ta does – even though she herself is the creator and initial controller. The dominant characteristics of Shui Ta lead to Shen Te being consumed by him, and the creator loses control of the creation, as Shui Ta becomes the dominant of the two personalities.
The question then arises, how can the two both survive?
An answer is hinted at the end of the play when we see Shen Te as herself, but with the confidence and assertiveness portrayed by Shui Ta while still retaining her compassion for others. Thus suggesting that when one becomes comfortable with ones own personalities, they are able to reveal all sides of their personality without feeling the need to hide other aspects.
Activity - Freeze Frames
Ask students to choose a typical situation they may find themselves in (the classroom, the movies, the playground etc). Once a locale has been decided upon, get each student to take up a position within the freeze frame as a typical character found in that situation. Ask them to take up a pose that shows what they see on the surface in this situation. Once all students have taken up a pose, ask them to think of a sound, phrase or word that would encapsulate what is really going on: their pose shows what seems to be going on, what they say should give an insight to what their posed character is really thinking or feeling. Once everyone has thought of something, go around the group and point to students individually, getting them to say their ‘bit'. When everyone has spoken once, keep pointing at people randomly and create an ‘orchestra'.
Once the activity is over, have a group discussion about what was going on. Discuss how, on the surface, the freeze frame can look deceiving, but once the sounds, phrases and words were added, different layers became apparent. How does this relate to real life situations? How is it easy for people to take things at a surface level?
The Struggle Felt by Women
The Good Woman of Szechwan portrays a woman, who when faced with trouble, finds the answer in hiding behind the mask of a man. This situation is still relevant in today's society, as women in top corporate positions often speak of having to deal with being a woman in a man's world. It poses the question; is it possible for women to be women and be successful, or must a woman take on the characteristics of a man to survive?
Have a class discussion about whether you believe it was necessary for Shen Te to take on a male mask to succeed. Would she have been able to achieve what she did if she had taken on the mask of another woman? Is there any situation in life where it could work in reverse? Where a male would need to take on the mask of a female?
What is Good?
The whole premise of the play is that the gods must find someone who is ‘good' as reason for the world to continue its existence. But how do we define ‘good'? Society defines good through the law, families define good and bad, schools have rules to follow in order to be ‘good'. Shen Te is a prostitute - a profession not looked upon favourably by society - yet she is deemed by the gods as all that is good in the world. By choosing to make the good woman a prostitute, Brecht is questioning the way in which society quantifies certain qualities.
Split students into two groups. Group One is to list the qualities which they think make a person good. Group Two needs to make a list of people (general and specific) who are perceived by society as being good. When both lists have been formulated, get the students to compare the lists: do the people listed as being good contain the qualities that have been listed? Are only famous people good? Are there different kinds of good? Look up different definitions of good … essentially, ask the question can good be ‘boxed'? Can it be defined for all time?