Educational Theatre Explores Morality with Play ‘The Good Soul of Szechuan’

By Amanda Wicks

The Program will stage Bertolt Brecht’s parable of goodness October 18-27 at NYU’s Black Box Theatre.

Rita Liu rehearses as Shen-Te. Photo by Hoa Thi Khanh Tran

Rita Liu rehearses as Shen-Te. Photo by Hoa Thi Khanh Tran

What does it take to be a good person? The question has long intrigued philosophers: Plato believed it hinged on knowledge, while Kant thought it remained intrinsically tied to motivation, and John Stuart Mill surmised it had to do with actions that maximized people’s happiness.

But philosophers haven’t been the only thinkers to engage with the question, which continues to grow increasingly tangled as the centuries progress. In that time, it hasn’t become any easier to land on a definitive answer, but the investigation remains worthwhile.

NYU Steinhardt’s Educational Theatre program takes up the inquiry with its upcoming staging of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan. The play runs from October 18-27 at NYU’s Black Box Theatre (Pless Hall, 82 Washington Square East). In keeping with Brecht’s theory of alienation (Verfremdungseffect), the production incorporates mime, abstract movement, choral work, songs and placards.

The German playwright, poet, and director made the question of goodness a central focus of his 1941 play. Set in Szechuan, it follows the journey of three gods who seek an answer to that age-old question, and seem to find it in the heroin dealer Shen-Te, whose morality supersedes her lifestyle. The gods gift Shen-Te with wealth thanks to her good nature, but that only draws bad characters into her life, which further complicates the question of goodness. 

Educational Theatre’s production features David Harrower’s translation, which comes from the lesser-known Santa Monica version Brecht wrote while living in exile during Hitler’s reign in Germany. Although he later revised the play, making Shen-Te a prostitute, the original portrayed her as an opium dealer (which Harrower later translated to heroin).  

“With a diverse ensemble, we have explored ways in which the play is relevant in the 21st century, drawing parallels to Brecht’s time under the specter of fascism, to current day dilemmas in our often hostile and dangerous world,” said Nancy Smithner, clinical associate professor of educational theatre, who directs the production. “Moving beyond the binaries of good and bad, we ask, ‘Is it possible to be truly good in our present-day world?’”

Between October 18-27, performances of The Good Soul of Szechuan take place at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. See the full schedule and purchase tickets via the NYU Box Office.