In Search of New Authenticity in Staging Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan



Julia Listengarten, Vandy Wood, and Megan Alrutz

Cultural Markers

In the 1960s, as a socialist construct dominated much of Europe and the Soviet Empire continued to expand its control, theatre critics such as Willy Haas hypothesized that as times changed “perhaps not much of [Brecht’s] work [would] survive.”1 Several decades later, Michael Billington echoed this sentiment in his article “Brecht to the Wall,” revealing Brecht’s own anxiety about the longevity of his work in relation to political and theoretical trends: “if world socialism did not come about […] Brecht did not expect his work to have a future.”2 By most accounts, socialism has not come to operate as a worldwide system as Brecht envisioned, and the communist/capitalist dichotomy has certainly undergone various transformative stages. How then does Brecht’s theatre work “survive” in contemporary contexts? This question governed our process of producing Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan in the United States at the University of Central Florida in 2006.3 The play was directed by Julia Listengarten, and Vandy Wood was the set designer. As we tackled the complexities and contradictions of Brecht’s play in relation the US contexts of 2006, we paid attention to the social and cultural markers of that period. We focused on how we, as artists, take part in performative texts that both honor historical contexts and remain relevant to contemporary audiences. Ultimately, this question led us to ponder how to effectively and responsibly construct a process of cultural transfer that would recognize and, to a degree, preserve historical contexts while generating new authenticity and relevance, particularly in a postmodern world that nostalgically longs for authentic quality.

Australian scholar Kerryn Goldsworthy examines the paradoxical relationship between the postmodern nostalgia for authenticity and the postmodern tendency to forget history and relinquish past, a subject amply discussed by contemporary theorists.  Her discussion references a 1996 massacre, during which tourists/audiences confused real life with an historical reenactment/theatrical event.  Specifically, a gunman opened fire on the site of Tasmania’s famous historical attraction of Port Arthur, previously home to one of Australia's most brutal penal settlements. Mistaking reality for a “harmless facsimile of a deadly past,” tourists visiting Port Arthur that day ran towards the scene only to become the unfortunate victims of the “authentic” shooting.4 This horrific episode, in which the notion of authenticity was perhaps intentionally misused by the killer and the authentic act itself was tragically confused by his victims, highlights and perhaps overstates the need for a responsible approach to placing the representation of the past in a new context.

Importantly, this example of the brutal shooting shaped our approach to the concept of new authenticity in relation to our staging of Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan. Equating “authentic” with an historically accurate re-enactment of the past, we propose an exploration of “newly authentic” which is based in the conscious act of artists to find the relevance of a given work in contemporary contexts while re-contextualizing the original purpose embedded in this work. We offer our production of Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan as a case study for exploring the concept of “newly authentic” and/or “new authenticity” as it relates to the transfer of Brecht into US contemporary contexts in 2006, while engaging in responsible representation, translation, and transfer that come with staging texts.  In Patrice Pavis’ writings on intercultural transfer, he discusses the relationship between “source” and “target” cultures, offering us a vocabulary to articulate a conscious effort toward new authenticity by considering a play’s and/or production’s various cultural contexts.5 With this in mind, the complexities of intercultural transfer in the production process led us to visually map key cultural markers for Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan and identify points of intersection that span the work’s original purpose and its contemporary relevance to us and our audience.

Cultural Markers: Themes

Source Culture:

Original Context

Target Culture:

New Context


Playwright: Bertolt Brecht

Translator or Adaptor: Tanika Gupta

Time Period(s)

Play written in 1943

Play produced in 2006


German Language

British and US English

Cultural/ Theoretical/ Historical Landscape(s)

1920s German Landscape (informing Brecht’s political/cultural perspective)

-Post WWI Leading to WWII

-Industrial Revolution Displacing Workers

-Marxist Economic and Political Theories


1940s – United States – (Brecht in exile in US)


- Red Scare Leading to McCarthyism

- Japanese Internment Camps

-  Hollywood

2006 US landscape


-Post US Invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq

-Economic Globalization

-World scrutinized US world interests

-Rising Price of Oil/Gas

-Corporate Fraud (Enron, etc.)

-Immigration Policy Tensions

-US Strong Political Division

-Debate Over Moral Values

-Post (or Post-post) Modernism

-Orlando – Entertainment Industry – Disney

Ideological Conflict

Themes in

Good Woman

Multiple Juxtapositions




-Male/Female – Clear Gender Roles


-Imperial Metropolitan/Third World Margins

-Atheism –Religious Faith

Multiple Intersections

-Global Capitalism/Neoliberalism

- Multilateral lines – intersections

-New Mapping/Shifting Boarders

-Critiques of Gender Binary

-New Understanding of “Other” (in relation to “Self)

-Post Colonial Re-Mapping

-Religious Turmoil/Conflict

Visual/aesthetic context

Modernism/Social Realism/Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt

American Realism/

Contemporary Postmodern Aesthetic

*Other cultural markers may include: role of art in society, theatre aesthetics/expectations, musical styles, actor training, body politics, ethics of representation, etc.


The cultural markers on this list (as well as others not mentioned) were constructed based on specific categories such as language/text, philosophy/politics, and visual/aesthetic context. By interrogating each of these categories in both original and contemporary contexts, we strove to balance their importance and priority in our research and production process in the pursuit of discovering the points of convergence/ divergence and consciously acknowledging the play’s complex layers of authenticity.

While the play’s central theme or moral dilemma—whether a good person can survive in a society driven by personal profit—seems to transcend translation with relative ease, other cultural markers inherent in Brecht’s philosophy, politics, and aesthetic posed significant challenges to the production team.  For instance, we grappled with the cultural transfer of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, “estrangement and dis-illusion,”6 which foregrounds Brecht’s intention to achieve politically conscious distance.  In a time of great political chaos, Brecht attempted to effect social and political change by pushing the audience out of its passive spectatorship into a space of intellectualization and then action.  Although the qualities of the world’s new political landscape are distinctly different, the impulse to demand an active stance from the audience remains equally important to many contemporary artists and theorists.  Lauren Kruger argues in her recent critical study on post-imperial Brecht that “Brecht’s legacy should not be mapped only on a West/East or only on a North/South axis, but rather understood within a field of multilateral lines of force.”7 Instead of relying on the customarily exploited Cold War oppositions between communism and capitalism as well as binary categorizations of countries’ economic status, Kruger offers to re-contextualize Brecht’s theatre within the current global political and cultural intersections (rather than oppositions) which resist the previous polarization of politics, economic structures, and cultures. Postmodern critic Hal Foster similarly refers to the multiple, complex strands of global capitalism, arguing that “just as there [is] always a first world in every third world, there [is] always a third world in every first world.”8 Both Kruger and Foster thus point to the impossibility of painting the contemporary world in clear-cut oppositions, the understanding of which propels contemporary artists to reposition and/or re-adjust Brecht’s emphasis on oppositional claims, serving in the original contexts of his plays as an impetus for achieving Verfremdungseffekt. This conscious acknowledgment of divergent and fluid cultural markers in the source and target cultures, respectively, and the necessity for complicating Brecht’s ideology became a significant step in our goal towards achieving authentic representation of Brecht’s text.

Translation Selection

Our awareness of the changing perception of the world’s political landscape in 2006 and our interest in staging new authenticity led us to pursue a translation of Brecht’s Der gute Mensch von Sezuan that would reflect both the complexity and tensions of global capitalism at the time. After exploring multiple translations of the play, we landed on Tanika Gupta’s contemporary British version of Good Woman. In light of Brecht’s Marxist ideology, Gupta’s use of a British, working class dialect effectively tapped into Brecht’s consciousness of class and social struggle.  Her subject position as a British Bengali woman, adds textures of globalization (specifically an immigrant, working class British perspective) to Brecht’s script. Furthermore, the rhythm of Gupta’s language—fragments of suggestive (rather than descriptive) dialogue—evokes feelings of fragmented reality, embodying Kruger’s “multilateral lines of force,” a notion that later weighed heavily in our approach to connecting contemporary aesthetics with Brecht’s Verfremdung in attempts to achieve new authenticity.

Visual Representation/ Collaged Images

The qualities of Gupta’s translation led us to further consider how Brecht’s work could remain authentic while acknowledging contemporary contexts and, subsequently, prompted us to investigate contemporary aesthetics in relation to global capitalism. As we approached our scenographic process, we became increasingly interested in addressing postmodern thinking, particularly the instability of traditional boundaries through the mixing of identities and blurring of borders on stage.  Echoing contemporary theorists, US art historian H.H. Arnason draws our attention to the impact of global politics on contemporary art trends:

Identification with a race or nation [became] more and more difficult as people were further displaced from their homelands and more and more countries outside the United States imported Western culture through developing technology. Furthermore, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, made the division between East and West less clear.9

In the early 2000s, media outlets as well as the contemporary art world addressed issues of gender, race, and identity through an increasingly global lens, further complicating the notion of clear-cut oppositions, questioning the authority of previous metanarratives, and embracing transnational sensibilities. In our design process, we assembled collaged images as a visual representation of the world's complexity. Specifically, in creating the visual landscape of the play, we assembled a series of images to illuminate on stage the co-existence of multiple and sometimes contradictory truths pervasive in global consciousness. Presented in a form of collage, photographs of international industrial environments, global pictures of poverty and prosperity, and photographic representations of flooded, post-Katrina New Orleans and Amsterdam’s red-light district (as well as the art work of Christo, René Magritte, Hieronymus Bosch, and the architecture of Frank Owen Gehry) integrated these various and, at times, contrasting realities to create a fragmented world on stage.  Kruger’s impetus to find Brecht’s legacy, and perhaps even new authenticity, in the world of blurred geographical borders and multilayered identity politics fed our interest in creating a visual language for the production that would disrupt our imagined sense of borders.

Later, in our research, we selected a single photograph, which, through its unique, collapsed presentation of duality, offered a contemporary reading of Brecht’s dialectic: Brecht’s juxtapositions, based in the binary concept of class and cultural identity, were transported to one single locale and represented in one person. The photographic image, published in Atlantic Monthly magazine, shows a Chinese man, clothed in disheveled “western” dress, lost in the midst of the Shanghai rubble, with the illuminated contours of the prosperous city in the background.10 The image includes a simultaneous presentation of dissociated socio-economic realities within one location, coupled with a juxtaposition of multiple visual markers within one man’s persona.  This photograph, in which the presentation of economic and cultural dichotomy is collapsed in the same locale and within the same person, shaped our ideas about a newly authentic production of Brecht’s play and unified our collaborative search for the production’s visual language.

Magritte’s “Pan, God of the Night” (1954), in which a figure is suggested by the combination of a hat and long, plush hair, became another significant image in our process that embodied our contemporary vision for Brecht’s emphasis on gender duality for the costume world of the production. Tim Martin writes of the painting that “Magritte used his method of displacement to create a vaguely sexual sign. The hat … is combined with a sumptuous head of hair.  The two should not go together and yet they look right…. In their unity, the two images suggest a splitting of the universe into two genders.”11 This image captured the juxtaposition of multiple gender markers in one person, one being, expressing the duality within Shen Te/Shui Ta in Good Woman but ultimately problematizing a culturally constructed binary gender identity.  This process of shifting Brecht’s binary notion of gender to present a non-gender binary image for contemporary audiences was one example of our efforts to create new authenticity in the context of gender politics and identity discourse in the US context in 2006.


The Good Woman of Setzuan (2006).
Courtesy of Tony Firrioli and the University of Central Florida.

Representation of “Other”

In our examination of new authenticity in the staging of Brecht’s work, we found ourselves confronted with how to present/perform the author’s commentary on the exotic “other,” and our scenography ultimately reimagined Brecht’s juxtaposition of the familiar and the exotic, challenging Brecht’s colonial conceptualization of the East as “other.”12 In looking to represent “other” as something different than the “exotic,” we again explored the divergent cultural markers of the “source” and “target” cultures, particularly questioning Brecht’s Western imperialist idea of China as an imaginary and exotic locale.  Bruce Thompson writes that “for Brecht, ‘the use of a [remote, exotic setting] served his didactic purposes: the spectator was to be presented with social processes which were in reality part of his everyday experience, but which, displayed in a ‘foreign’ setting, he would discover anew, and re-examine as ‘strange’ and therefore alterable.”13 Globalization arguably defies this concept of foreign locale and foreigner as something unknowable and/or exotic.  Echoing postmodern discourse on both re-defining and complicating the relationship between the “Self” and the “Other,” Pavis offers a way to think about Brecht’s “other” in contemporary contexts:

the culture is more or less familiar … in the familiar present.  What is in me, or near me, is familiar to me, but it hinders me from seeking the foreign and the foreigner. What is outside me (setting me ‘beside myself’) separates me form the familiar, draws me towards the unknown, and often confirms what I had an inkling of or knew already. The foreign is only the familiar lying in wait ….14

Ultimately, in response to Pavis’ redefined concept of the unknown, we challenged Brecht’s racist version of the exotic other, not by conjuring an “exotic other” that the audience could not identify with (such as Brecht’s unknown “China”), but rather by encouraging audience members to recognize and confront their own constructions of “other” in their current/contemporary context.  The world of Setzuan in our production was no longer Brecht’s mythical world of inaccessible Asia. Instead, the show’s metallic and macabre world, composed of steel, copper, and aluminum, pieces of screen and shreds of burlap, was both strange and familiar—evoking a landscape of poverty and devastation seen by the West and East alike. Thus, with this particular choice of cultural transfer, we consciously attempted to heighten what Kruger refers to as “overlapping narratives”15 to find the currency in Brecht’s politics.

The visuals and aesthetics of our production inevitably shaped our approach to mise-en-scène. Specifically, in the spirit of contemporary aesthetics, we wanted to evoke a unified theatrical space that would integrate various environments that traditionally could not co-exist.  While no physical set changes occurred, we played with various visual compositions that would shift focus and evoke various environments. Based on the performers’ relationships to the space, the set evoked a single unified locale or a series of disconnected places. These often-abrupt movements between unity and displacement aligned with Brecht’s intention to distance spectators from the action and thus elicit an intellectual response. As we moved through the play’s narrative, we often constructed the stage movement as a series of “snap shots,” recalling familiar images of labor, courtship, marriage, persecution, and worship that would unify fragmented locales in one image. Furthermore, some stage pictures reflected spatially fluid locations: “the tree in a park” and the “red-light district,” for instance, merged/collapsed spatially in the moment when Sun, the pilot attempted to commit suicide by tying his rope to an exterior of the building in the red-light district, thus merging the images of a building pipe and a tree—both on stage and in the mind of the viewer.  Our approach to Brecht’s ideas of “estrangement” therefore relied on constructing a theatrical space in which the paradoxical relationship between engagement and disruption could occur. In retrospect, these attempts to emphasize a collapse of time/space/place through the presentation of disjointed and unified environments honored Brecht’s intention to create moments of disassociation for the audience. The production also foregrounded blurred borders and “overlapping narratives” characteristic of postmodern sensibilities.

As we moved through a process of exploring new authenticity in Brecht’s theatre, we created a visual language that deeply shaped the meaning of the play.  The story was not changed, however; on the contrary, our contemporary response to the story re-defined and complicated multiple binaries such as communist/capitalist, East/West, female/male relationships, and gender and, in some ways, re-contextualized Brecht’s fable. Can a good person survive in a global capitalist society that resists any clear definition of truth, moral responsibility, identity, and cultural value? Is it possible to achieve Brecht’s politically conscious distance when transporting his fable from an unknowable “exotic” location to a familiar environment that combines both expected and unexpected, known and unknown, “self” and “other” in one image? How does the feeling of being “estranged” or “distanced” differ today from the time of Brecht’s writing? What is the perfect balance between emotional involvement and intellectual response that Brecht’s theatre calls for in contemporary culture and politics? Every production team will clearly have a different approach to these questions, as there is no single “new authenticity.” By grappling with these issues, we began to tap into representational practices that acknowledge and work to include contemporary audiences.

Reflecting upon these production choices years later, we realize that some components of this transfer—such as collapsing the West and the East in one image on stage— confused our audiences who were familiar with Brecht’s estrangement techniques and expected to see “authentic” representations of Brecht’s binaries and use of exoticism. Even though we attempted to avoid Brecht’s oppositional claims of communism/ capitalism in the production, the play’s implied references to Marxism also seemed to present a challenge for the somewhat conservative audiences that came to the show in Orlando, Florida.  Indeed, each production team faces the responsibility of engaging the diverse knowledge and expectations of contemporary audiences, which can and does complicate efforts to achieve authenticity.

While the concept of historically accurate, “authentic” re-enactment usually involves a set of concrete expectations from both artists and spectators, as the tourists’ response to the tragic shooting in Tasmania exemplified, new authenticity is a fluid phenomenon. The image of a “pendulum swing” perhaps best characterizes the continuum of constantly transforming political and cultural landscapes that we must respond to and engage with in the theatre. Efforts to construct new authenticity in order to re-contextualize a play’s meaning and discover its new relevance becomes similar to the pendulum’s motion, a permanent if not predictable movement forward and backward. The initial question of whether or not Brecht’s work survives in contemporary landscapes of global capitalism and postcolonial discourses led us to identify key constituents of Brecht’s politics, philosophy, and aesthetics and subsequently re-framed them within current political and artistic trends. “Sifting through the Rubble” became a metaphor for our definition of a responsible, cultural transfer inviting us to engage in and with what remains and to consider how contemporary theatre making lives authentically in both past and present. Sifting through the rubble helped us participate in a contemporary reading of Brecht’s Good Woman which worked to both honor and disrupt the play’s original markers. The pendulum, however, continues to swing, prompting us to revisit questions of responsibility in transferring any theatrical work to a different landscape. Acknowledging that assumptions are always made in the process of transfer, we continue to question how theatre makers move toward making responsible artistic choices in a process of acknowledging the past and working toward new authenticity.


  1. Willy Hass, Bert Brecht, trans. Max Knight and Joseph Fabry (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1970), 12.back
  2. See Michael Billington, qtd. in Margaret Eddershaw, Performing Brecht (New York: Routledge, 1996), 119.back
  3. As this article situates our production process in the 2006 US political and cultural landscape, it is important to note that our re-envisioning of Brecht’s progressive politics would have been entirely different in today’s era of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, expansion of US military, repealed environmental protections, escalation of trade wars, and increasing human rights violations.back
  4. Kerryn Goldsworthy, “Austen and Authenticity,”, accessed on 25 May, 2005.back
  5. See Patrice Pavis, Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture, trans. Lauren Kruger (London: Routledge, 1992). Pavis continued to address the complex issues of intercultural transfer in his later books: The Intercultural Performance Reader (London: Routledge, 1996) and Analyzing Performance: Theatre, Dance, and Film, trans. David Williams (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).back
  6. See Lauren Kruger’s emphasis on this particular translation of the term Verfremdung in Post-Imperial Brecht:  Politics and Performance, East and South (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004), 42-43.back
  7. Kruger, Post-Imperial Brecht, 15.back
  8. Hall Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 24.back
  9. H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art, 4th ed. (New York: Prentice Hall and Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 766.back
  10. See the photograph "Shanghai Rising” by Alessandro Digaetano, Atlantic 295: 5 (June 2005).back
  11. Tim Martin, Essential Surrealists (London: Dempsey Park, 1988), 222.back
  12. Edward W. Said would later define these patronizing colonial representations of the East as Orientalism. See Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979).back
  13. Bruce Thomson, ed., introduction to Bertolt Brecht: Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (London: Routledge, 1994), 11.back
  14. Pavis, Intercultural Performance Reader, 12.back
  15. Kruger, Post-Imperial Brecht, 377.back

Julia Listengarten is Professor of Theatre at University of Central Florida. Her recent books include Theater of the Avant-Garde, 1950-2000, as well as Playing with Theory in Theatre Practice, and Modern American Playwriting: 2000-2009 She is currently the series co-editor of Reflections on Contemporary Performance Process.

Vandy Wood is an Associate Professor of Theatre at University of Central Florida. She designs productions nationally, and was a Drama Desk Award nominee for Puppet Design in 2018.

Dr. Megan Alrutz is associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin where she is the Head of Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities.