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Spoiler alert: Hamlet dies at the end. I guess that not really a spoiler, so here’s another one. Shen Te, the “good soul of Setzuan”, never finds a way to remain good in a world that demands that only the hard can survive and thrive. Brecht leaves us with no answers. And that’s his point.

During his exile years in Hollywood, at the time when he was writing the “tougher” version of the Good Soul, known as Santa Monica, because that is what he wrote at the top of page one, he often despaired of the standards of Hollywood writing. At the same time he was trying, for the most part unsuccessfully, to make a living doing it. “To succeed here,” he wrote in his journal, “you have to write very badly… but you must do it the best you can.”

My favorite Brecht observation on American film from this time begins with his attending a public reading by his friend the great German refugee actor Fritz Kortner (probably best known to American audiences for his performance in the 1946 film The Razor’s Edge). On this occasion Kortner was doing an evening of Brecht’s anti-war poems for an audience consisting primarily of Jewish and other European refugees. He read them not as a series of individual poems but as an oratorio that began quietly, almost sadly and built to an ending filled with passion and anger. Brecht lamented that Kortner was struggling in the Hollywood system even more than he. “The stars who succeed in America,” he said, “do not exactly act. Rather they create a strong known personality which they repeat in each of their films, which usually consist of them getting in and out of a series of tough situations, either dramatic or comic, and end in the audience’s reassurance that all is well, justice has been rewarded and evil punished.” These films give us answers.

Great plays, films, poems, books and even the best of NPR do not do this. Rather they serve as “prompts” to make us think, spurring us to conversation, to consider and debate new ideas and questions and often leave us wondering, scratching our heads and going back with more questions.

Spoiler Alert: the Good Soul of Setzuan offers no answers, but offers up the prompts of facts and questions to spur us on to continue grappling with what we have just seen on the stage long after we return home, until eventually but not easily we come to our own conclusions.

Oh, and yesterday Barbara and I learned that her DNA is now all Mac’s. Knock on wood. Things seem to be working ok. The transplant seems to be taking.

And I am off to day two of Good Soul rehearsals.

And all that is what’s on my mind today as I venture out to make some theatre.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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