Matt Cooper reviews A Good Soul of Szechuan (at the Young Vic, London, until 28 June)
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in works by the German Marxist playwright, Bertolt Brecht. This new translation of his A Good Soul of Szechuan has met with predictable abuse from the right wing press, but it is more surprising to see it attacked in the Observer by Nick Cohen for being Stalinist propaganda, and his plays therefore being of no worth.
Nick Cohen is now best known for his assault on the anti-war left, What’s left, which under a veneer of attacking the right target (the SWP, George Galloway) is substantially anti-Marxist in its real target. In his broadside on Brecht, Cohen slumps further into very run-of-the-mill liberalism. Brecht was compromised by line up with Stalinism, Cohen argues (with some justification), therefore his plays are worthless (a conclusion worthy of the Stalinists that he despises, who judged the merit of art by the politics is served).
Cohen is doubly wrong. Brecht did refuse to publicly criticise the Stalinist communism, and sided with a foul and murderous political system. But he was more complex that this, and fortunately for us he did not take his political direction from Stalinist hacks.
The official Soviet orthodoxy in art from the 1930s was “socialist realism”, a depiction of the struggle of the workers as heroic, and the Soviet Union as an earthly paradise. It demanded an aesthetic that was bland and simplistic. Brecht, although politically allied to the German Communist Party, never adopted its “artistic” approach. Although it was his desire to expose capitalism through theatre, to use it as an ideological tool in the class struggle, it never became Soviet propaganda.
A Good Soul... is perhaps the best illustration in Brecht’s work of both the strengths and limitations of this approach. The play centres on the character of a prostitute, Shen Te (played here with considerable aplomb by Jane Horrocks) who is the only person in Szechuan to offer three itinerant gods a bed for the night. They reward her with enough money for her to buy a small tobacconist, but then her goodness is exploited by everyone, each individual distorted by poverty and their need to survive.
In order to protect herself Shen Te poses as an invented male cousin, Shui Ta, as ruthless as Shen Te is kind, and it is this heartless character that comes to dominate in a one-sided Faustian conflict between the selfless and the selfish. When challenged on the impossibility of the situation the gods declare that they “don’t do economics”. The play remains a strong parable about the corrupting effect of self-preservation under conditions of poverty.
The problem with the play lies precisely in this too-clear cut distinction — to preserve oneself in a class society requires complete immorality. Brecht believed that he was animating Marx’s Capital in dramatic form, demonstrating underlying social relations. But nothing in Marx is this one sided. Even a cursory examination of life shows that people, even in the depths of poverty, are not universally driven to abject selfishness. The scene that Brecht depicts is, ultimately, simplistic. This is a flaw, but not a fatal flaw, in what remains a worthwhile and very good play.
But the Young Vic production directed by Richard Jones is a rather odd one. The device of having the audience enter via the back of the stage while actors move around bags of cement, to sit on cheap plastic chairs in an auditorium covered in plywood is meaningless, not least since the play is not set in a cement factory (it briefly mentions a cement factory) but in a slum. The actors seem unsure whether to act in a naturalistic way, or to address the audience rather than each other with their lines (as Brecht would have expected). In the end the direction settles down into trying to extract some emotion from the relationship between the characters, which obscures rather than exposes Brecht’s intention. At times the sharpness and wit of Brecht’s writing shines through, but on whole this production does little to illuminate a work that whatever Brecht’s political failings, deserves attention.
• Nick Cohen’s Observer article: http://arts.guardian.co.uk/theatre/drama/story/0,,2280753,00.html