lines from the good person of setzuan

In classics long after, quotables on January 20, 2010 at 10:01 am

“The little life boat is swiftly sent down / Too many men too greedily  / Hold on to it as they drown.”

the good person again

There’s plenty competition, but I think ‘The Good Person…’ shades it as my most favoured of Brecht’s plays – the fond exoticism (itself a kind of picturesque alienation) of the Chinese setting frames a narrative which demonstrates trials of altruism that seem counter-intuitive when compared to almost any post-Christian (often Manichean) ‘spiritual progress’ but ring depressingly true with modern society.

“I haven’t eaten for two days. I couldn’t love you if I tried.”

Only when the titular good person invents a ruthless cousin to protect her interests (herself in drag) can she maintain the business she inherited, but as the play goes on she has to spend more and more time as her alter ego, the desperate measure becoming the dominant personality – a formally elegant and deeply resonant metaphor for the changes those who would be successful must enforce upon themselves.

“I want your water, Wong / The water that has tired you so / The water that you carried all this way / The water that is hard to sell because it is raining.”

Not so long ago, I watched ‘The Trap’, Adam Curtis’ brilliant doc on game theory, which emerges as a system posited on seeing everyone in the world around you as a rational, selfish agent (its populariser, John Forbes Nash, Jr. was quite literally having a paranoid breakdown at the time). Disastrously, this has become the ‘realistic’ default for how we – individuals and organisations – see each other, despite it proving a pretty unsatisfactory prediction tool – spontaneous kindnesses or any changes of heart are beyond it. Incidentally, I include artists in that – when was the last time you saw altruism represented as above without it then being rationalised for some ulterior motive (or pathologised as a kind of irrational love that’s like living with a pleasant but self-destructive sickness)..? What does it do to a society when reflexive kindness is represented as ‘unrealistic’? (Edward Bernays should also take some blame, the fink).

“Your injunction / To be good and yet to live / Was a thunderbolt / It has torn me in two… Why are bad deeds rewarded / Good ones punished? …I became a wolf / Find me guilty then, illustrious ones / But know: / All that I have done I did / To help my neighbour / To love my lover / And to keep my little one from want.”

Also: most narratives, being simplistic depictions, operate via potlatch – favours for favours, etc – but Brecht knows debts accrue interest, gifts (even noble sacrifices) can lose value, people will usually pay the minimum they can for services and, when one can’t pay in full, there will be consequences (those who’ve been good will not be magically luckier than those who have not).

“You’re thinking, aren’t you, that this is no right / Conclusion to the play you’ve seen tonight? …You write the happy ending to the play / There must, there’s got to be a way!”

good person


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