Little Empathy in Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan and Mother Courage and Her Children
Brecht is very successful in creating a form of drama where empathy plays little part. In The Good Person of Szechwan it would seem that every action and word is an attempt to alienate us and halt any identification one may chance to make. The indiscernible use of names for characters exaggerating the oriental sound of them is immediately noticeable i.e. 'Wang', 'Shin' 'Sun', 'Shen Te', 'Shu Ta', etc. There is also the use of language and intonation in relation to others revealing personality and social position, which comes in the form of oriental 'bows'. Many of these gestures are already to be found in Asian theatre. Brecht calls it the 'social gestus.'
Songs also interrupt the plot, but it is not the kind of 'bursting into song' which one finds in musicals. The music itself sounds sometimes out of tune and there is an offbeat that one would find difficult to tap one's foot to so one cannot become involved or relate to the music, although songs from The Threepenny Opera became very popular. The moon being likened to 'green cheese' as a slur on society's belief in 'a child of low birth will inherit the earth' and 'The Song of the Eighth Elephant' when there are really only seven anticipates the underhand actions of Sun who represents a number of people in society who destroy others welfare for their own individual interest. All these songs are successful in alienating the audience and have a similar message; the impossibility of a society being saved by an individual. Brecht strives to create a drama in which empathy plays little part by drawing one's attention away from any kind of identification one might make, particularly with a major character in the play. But I think it is debatable whether Shen Te, the major character in The Good Person of Szechwan is really successfully alienated from us.
I think the 'prologue' is one of many alienating devices Brecht uses to distance one from any empathy. Within minutes of the play beginning one is alerted by Wang's (the water seller's) narration to the current state of Szechwan in which 'utter poverty is the rule'. By telling a story Brecht introduces Epic Theatre. Undoubtedly this is going to appeal to one's intellect rather than one's emotions. Wang's survival is dependent upon the weather. Whether he can eat or not is dependant on drought and the discomforts of others. In his opening speech one becomes aware of a society based largely upon buying and selling; in Shen Te's case the selling of her body. We the audience or 'spectators' as Brecht would like to think of us are not surprisingly going to question a society where this is the norm. I think this is where another dimension to the play is brought in as Wang tells us 'only the gods can help' (which after seeing the play it is dependent on one's viewpoint what this dimension is.) It could be one of many things. It could be divinity or...