“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”
-Bertolt Brecht, though disputed
The inception of my ill, lusterless collegiate acting career resounded with a squealing trio of syllables dolefully mewled through the wan lips of Boy, a role vitally trivial in this nothing-if-not-earnest production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan—or, as other notable translations from the original German Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan would degenderize it, The Good Person of Szechwan—as directed by an obfuscating visiting professor with fashionably indiscernible European origins and therefore the de facto clout with which to guide an unindoctrinated group of American coeds into the artistically belligerent ideologies of Brecht and his school of “Epic Theatre.”
Ah, yes. My precious line. My one and only. My exalted debut. A fine precursor and premonitor of excessive semesters and tuition dollars spent in the noble training of how best to roll one’s body across linoleum floors, how to keep one’s jaw open at all times, and how to breathe from one’s toes while maintaining indefatigable eye contact with one’s scene partner and repeating repetitions of repetitions of repetitions of sounds that were once words but have since become righteous nuances of subtext.
Over there. Over there. Over there. Over there. Over there? Over there! OOOOver there. Over theeeeeere!! Over THERE?? O. VER. THERE.
I don’t blame Brecht for this. But he may have wanted me to. Brecht knew the power of blame.
The repetition shtick is Meisner, anyway.
The line in question comes in the first scene of the play, wherein a fleeing Boy is roughly apprehended by a passing Policeman, and from Boy’s loose garments comes tumbling a tantalizing haul of breads and pastries. “Where did you get these?”, Policeman demands. “Over there!”, Boy cries. You see, this play isn’t, as the Greeks would have had it, about noble heroes of the ruling class navigating painful fates bestowed upon them by the gods. It’s not about sweeping you away in larger-than-life sagas and giving you emotional release. It’s about how society is the antithesis of human goodness. It’s about blaming you.
The titular Good Woman, Shen Teh, a struggling prostitute, is the only person in all of Setzuan that will offer her home to wandering, travel-weary gods. For her hospitality, her goodness, the gods grant her a hefty sum of gold. Shen Teh uses her windfall to convert her home into a lucrative tobacco shop. Quickly, the instantaneously richest person on the block finds herself inundated by estranged family members, beggars, and thieves, all looking for a slice of the action. Shen Teh can’t stop herself from helping them. She’s too good. Her unending charity will soon destroy her means of self-subsistence, her tobacco shop. To survive, she dons a disguise and creates an altar ego, Shui Ta, her “cousin”. He is cruel, unfeeling, and unmoved by the pleas and demands of the villagers. His ruthlessness, cunning, and unfailing focus on self-preservation see to the transformation of the humble shop into a powerful tobacco factory that exploitatively employs the surrounding villagers. Shen Teh is undone in this binary, these antipodal halves of self. To be? Or to be good, and not be? That is the question.
Brecht offers us no resolution. The play ends by Shen Teh breaking the fourth, invisible wall of the proscenium by putting the onus of reconciling human nature squarely on the audience’s shoulders. How can goodness exist in society, if society dictates that goodness is to the detriment of survival?
Here is where Brecht’s “Epic Theatre”, his art, stings. You don’t get to escape your shit in a flight of fancy. You don’t get to hold up a mirror and see yourself as a virtuous hero. You’re not afforded the luxury of empathizing with the characters. Here comes the hammer. Shatter the mirror. Fuck your catharsis. You must question the characters. You must question yourself. You must question the world. You must change the world.
Brecht had Nazi Germany to fight.
Maybe this is why Scorsese says that Marvel movies aren’t “cinema”.
Today, we don’t want art to be a hammer. We don’t want to be consumed in Rothko’s towering canvases of color. We don’t want Cage’s 4’33 to remind us of our suffocating need to fill the void.
We don’t want art to be a mirror. We don’t want to watch that documentary. We don’t want to see the world’s water crisis, the limitless waste of the global agricultural system, the mass extinctions leading to failing ecosystems, the cost the global poor pay to keep us comfortable, the societal destabilization as governing bodies claw and clamor for resources to preserve “us” and not “them”.
We don’t want to fight our fight.
We want art to be sleeping pills. We want Marvel. We want Taylor Swift. We want Game of Thrones. We want to be soothed. We want to escape. We want to forget ourselves. We want to forget the world.Me? I’m not a good person. I just need to get by. I can’t do anything for anyone else. The hammer’s too heavy. I’ve already been bludgeoned. I want to forget the years I wasted. I want to forget the person I should have been. I want to forget how stupid my problems are. I’ll take the sleeping pill and start binging the next season of “The Great British Baking Show.”