Brecht Applied to Obamacare

Melodie Ngo as the Good Person of Szechwan

In my Theories of the Reader class, we’ve been looking at the ideas of Bertolt Brecht, especially his desire to create a theater that could change history. Or as he describes his efforts at one point, “I wanted to take the principle that it was not just a matter of interpreting the world but of changing it, and apply that to theater. What we must achieve is the creation of militancy in the audience.”

Given my belief that literature can change lives, I found the discussion very useful.

To set it up, I had my students read the wonderful Brecht play The Good Person of Szechwan (which we used to call The Good Woman to Setzuan) as well as some of Brecht’s writing about “epic theater.” Brecht in his plays deliberately frustrates his audience to create an alienation effect. By this I mean that he sets us up to want one thing and then refuses to satisfy us, often through an open ending. As a result, we are thrown into thought, which he then wants us to translate into political action. In doing this, he says, he is going against Aristotle’s notion of catharsis.

I won’t go too deeply into Aristotle here, but the Greek philosopher thought tragedy should purge our emotions, thereby leading us to a higher level of insight and equilibrium. One goes to tragedies for this catharsis.

Brecht, however, thought that the spectator, by experiencing catharsis as he or she watches a play, essentially leaves everything in the theater. One can go to a play and cry, he says, but then emerge no more prepared to change the world than when one entered the theater. Whereas with epic theater, the goal is to leave us frustrated so that we emerge determined to seek that equilibrium by changing our social conditions.

Or as Brecht puts it,

The point is not to leave the spectator purged by a cathartic but to leave him a changed man; or rather, to sow within him the seeds of changes which must e completed outside the theater.

I realize this is all terribly abstract so let me use The Good Person to illustrate. In the play, there are three gods with a dilemma. They have told people that they should be good, but the play makes it clear that good people are invariably victimized. Therefore, people have stopped being good—and therefore stopped honoring the gods—so the gods are getting desperate. They need to find someone who will affirm their values.

They find one person, a prostitute with a heart of gold named Shen Te. They don’t like that she’s a prostitute, however, and so bend the rules a little and give her some money, which she uses to buy and run a tobacco shop.

Because she is so generous, however, Shen Te allows people to take advantage of her, which puts her shop in peril. To save it, she disguises herself as a “cousin,” Shui Ta, who is a ruthless businessman. He saves the shop by driving hard bargains, kicking out freeloaders, and ultimately setting up an exploitative sweatshop. People have to work for him on his conditions if they want to eat.

Everyone wants Shen Te to return, including the gods, but the play ends (in classical Brechtian style) without resolution. Shen Te is asking advice from the gods—how can she be both good and successful?—and they have no answers.

It was a great play to discuss in this election season, where we see Shui Ta (say, Paul Ryan) arguing that a country with a rising debt can’t afford public medical insurance and Shen Te (say, Barack Obama) saying that it is the country’s responsibility to provide universal coverage. Of course, what my students want is both—a system that allows people to be both compassionate and prosperous. Brecht’s play sets up the situation as an intolerable either/or.

I suppose an Aristotelian catharsis would either be tragic (an uninsured patient dies, at which point we cry at the dark injustice of an inhumane world) or comic (money comes through in an unexpected way at the last moment to provide the life-saving operation the patient needs). Both these resolutions would be insufficient, Brecht says, because the world seems fixed and unchangeable. We accept its premises and focus on individual dramas. With his unresolved ending, by contrast, people leave the theater determined to create a world in which wealth is redistributed so that everyone has access to medical care.

Brecht wants a socialist revolution but I suppose less drastically one could settle for Obamacare. Obama has made a gesture towards Shui Ta by saying that the uninsured have to buy their health care from insurance companies (and requiring everyone to do so). But he’s made a Shen Te gesture by saying that the government will subsidize those who can’t afford it, which it can do if everyone is required to buy it. Of course, this last aspect of his plan has conservatives calling him a socialist. Brecht would be incredulous at this accusation since he would see Obama as indulging in a capitalist fantasy by thinking he can reconcile Shen Te and Shui Ta.

At the end of the play, the three gods appear as justices to judge Shui Ta (he is accused of killing Shen Te). But when Shui Ta reveals that he is in fact Shen Te and confesses that he can’t be both good and successful, the gods close their eyes and put their hands over their ears. They are like those ideologues who think that people should get along in the system that we have, even though they can’t tell them how.

But Obamacare aside, there’s a problem with Brecht’s attack on Aristotelian catharsis. After all, just because someone is inspired by action within a play doesn’t mean that he or she can’t carry that beyond the theater. One doesn’t have to be artistically frustrated to swing into action.

As Marxist scholar Maynard Solomon writes, “All tragic art continues beyond the theater into life, by virtue of the transformation of consciousness which has taken place, through the impingement of new symbols of freedom and necessity which arise from the aesthetic experience.” I regularly provide examples in this blog of powerful resolutions (not only in tragedy) giving us models to strive for in real life.

To cite an example I have used, King Lear discovers too late what love is, but as we watch him, we can take his example into our own lives, cutting through our insecurities and our egotistical hang-ups and embracing those we love.  Perhaps Brecht would say this is a personal resolution, not a social one, but I’m perfectly fine with pointing out how social factors (say, tyrannical kingship) contribute to the personal tragedy. Shakespeare’s monarchical politics don’t keep me from using the play to call for social transformation.

That criticism aside, Brecht wrote great plays, and my class was spurred into a great discussion by their frustrations at Good Person‘s ending. Indeed, we talked about how our country would have to be changed to accommodate both Shen Te and Shui Ta. So Brecht’s plays work. Epic Theater, I think, is a powerful option for a playwright who wants to change the world. It just not the only one.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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