Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Is "The Good Person of Szechwan" racist?

In November it was reported that Knox College, a private institution in Illinois, was canceling a production of "The Good Person of Szechwan", a play by Bertolt Brecht, on the grounds that the play (which is set in China) is offensive to Chinese people.  I decided that I should read this play, so I did.  Before I weigh in on the criticism, let me acknowledge three points:

1) The play was originally written in German, and I am reading it in English.  (Specifically, I am reading a 1962 translation by John Willett.)  I cannot assume that whatever I find/don't find in this English translation would also be present/absent in the original, or in other translations.

2) There are severe limits to what you can conclude about a play from just the text.  Everything about the staging, whether the actors' mannerisms and accents and gestures and other dramatic decisions, or the set, costumes, props, lights, make-up, etc., can help convey a message. These elements of the staging can accentuate or de-emphasize something that is present on the page.  Moreover, a play could be inoffensive on the page but be offensively staged, or even be problematic on the page but be staged in a way that wrestles with the problem rather than embracing and endorsing what is problematic.  Thus, there may be good reasons to oppose a staging of a play that is inoffensive on the page, and good reasons to stage a play that is problematic on the page.

3) When I read this play, I'm seeing it through the lenses of whatever stereotypes I hold about China and Chinese people.  Those may be different from the stereotypes that Brecht and the audiences of his time brought to the play.  They may also be different from the stereotypes that other audiences in the US would bring to the play (though I have to suspect that I have a reasonable understanding of the stereotypes that people at a college in the Midwest would bring, seeing as how I'm a college professor from the Midwest). A play could be perfectly innocuous in most settings, but happen to conjure up offensive stereotypes in some other setting. That, however, raises the interesting question of whether a play should be judged on the understandings of past audiences, as opposed to the words on the page, the intent of the playwright, the intent of the present director and other artists involved in the staging, the actual work presented by performers in the present, the interpretations of a modern audience to said performance, or the interpretations of people who declined to join the audience to avoid pain.  (Or all of the above.)

Finally, in the interests of disclosure, I haven't come across much description of Brecht's views on race and Asia, but I also haven't searched very thoroughly.  Brecht was an exile from Nazi Germany, and he wrote the play in 1938-1941, while in Sweden and the US.  He cleared the minimum moral threshold of not being a Nazi, for whatever that's worth.  So, while I can't assume Brecht to be free of racist contamination, I also can't use the Nazis and their views to make any inferences about Brecht.

With all that out of the way, let's analyze the play itself:

The play reads very much as a fable, one that could have been set in almost any society.  Of course, fables often work best when set very far away, to strip away the mundane and focus on the dramatic interplay of a few key elements.  China was clearly chosen as the setting because it is a distant land, not because Brecht wanted to explore China on its own terms.  Thus, the relevant question here is not whether China is portrayed accurately, but whether it is portrayed through the lens of offensive stereotypes. 

Honestly, the generic nature of the setting, the fact that it is a fable about general human dilemmas rather than a meditation on Chinese culture, weighs against any reading in terms of offensive stereotypes.  It could have been set in any distant city instead of Sichuan, and as long as the time was in the modern world the various mentions of modern amenities (e.g. airports) would not strike the audience as strange.  It is very clearly a fable of human nature.  Indeed, one could set it in another country without even changing many of the characters' names.  A few characters have Chinese names*, but the rest have names like "The Unemployed Man" or "Mother-in-Law."

I'm actually surprised that the students were offended by the racial aspects of the play rather than the gendered aspects.  Shen Teh, the prostitute and main character, often struggles to defend herself against people trying to take advantage of her kind nature and help themselves to her money, so she often puts on a mask to pose as her invented cousin Shui Ta. Shui Ta is able to stand up to people and even prosper in business. The fact that her simple disguise is so convincing clearly shows that the play is a fable, a contemplation of how people react to other people in different stations, rather than a dramatic portrayal of plausible events and actions, which reinforces my point about how this play is not attempting to dissect Chinese culture from a Eurocentric perspective.  However, in showing how she only gets respect when posing as a man (and sometimes takes actions as a man that she regrets when reverting to feminine presentation), this play definitely takes up the topic of gender.  I will leave it to people better-versed in feminist theory to take up the question of whether Brecht treats gender with proper sensitivity, but gender is surely more salient to this fable than anything specific to China and Chinese people.

One criticism of the play, according to the article linked above, is that the main character is a prostitute, and thus the play is portraying Asian women negatively.  Honestly, though, just about everyone in the play is terrible and greedy and takes advantage of poor Shen Teh. It's hard to read the play as portraying Asian women, en masse, as being of loose** sexual morals.  Indeed, Shen Teh actually quits prostitution when she has the financial means to do so.  She's one of the few characters to try to adhere to a standard of morality that involves helping everyone no matter how outrageous their demands and how little they do to help themselves.  Were it not for the fact that Brecht was anti-capitalist (even going so far as to voluntarily live in East Germany after the war) I would read it as an allegory about the unworkability of socialism.  Instead, given that the Gods appear as a trio, I assume it's a critique of Christianity's proffered foundation for a compassionate society.  The play acknowledges the challenges of being good (according to a particular moral compass) while living in this world; if one wanted to reconcile this play with socialist sympathies I suppose the answer would be (1) even (especially?) good things can be hard to achieve in this world and (2) socialism would require a system with enforcement mechanisms rather than reliance on individual adherence to Christian ethics.

Anyway, having only read the play once, and mostly with an eye searching for racial/ethnic factors rather than matters of gender or socialism, I am loathe to delve much farther into those topics.  What I will say is that it's really hard for me to read this as anything but a fable set "far, far away" rather than some sort of attempt at portraying Chinese society as such.  I suppose that one could take offense at that indifference to setting, but then it still strikes me more as a literary device with strengths and weaknesses to be weighed, not as anything over which a reasonable person might experience pain.  Yes, the staging could still make or break this play, but isn't that in the nature of all plays?  As it stands, what's on the page is hardly worth taking offense over (at least in regards to matters of race and ethnicity).

The kids at Knox College should lighten up.

*I cannot judge whether the names are commonplace, inoffensive Chinese names, but I know a lot of Chinese people and these names don't seem terribly unusual.

**To the extent that one chooses to view this as a bad thing.  Sex work is a complicated topic, and those who have thought deeply about gender issues have come to a variety of complex conclusions on the matter.  I offer no negative judgment on Shen Teh for having worked as a prostitute, but I see why it is a delicate matter, and why some might prefer that the play not focus on a prostitute as the representative of Asian women.  However, Shen Teh does not spend most of the story as a prostitute, and there's nothing to suggest that she is offered specifically as a representative of Asian women as opposed to simply women in general.  Or, more accurately, women trying to adhere to a particular type of moral code that is very much the subject of the play's exploration.