In my last post, on microfinance, I mentioned toward the end a play by Bertolt Brecht, The Good Person of Szechuan. In it, a young woman inherits a small shop in a village, but because of her generous heart, nearly runs it into the ground because she can’t say no to anyone. So she goes away, and mysteriously her cousin arrives to run the shop in her absence – utterly unsentimentally, completely businesslike in his way, and returns the store to profitability. The young woman returns, allows it to slide downhill again, and her cousin returns again to bring it back to profitability. They are, of course, the same person, and Brecht implies this is the terrible condition of capitalism and why we need to embrace communism. To someone like me today, as I suggest in the microfinance post, the play is more like a warning against mixing motives within capitalism – confusing profit and philanthropy might lead to the worst of both, rather than the best.
But now I have a question. What are other plays – let’s say back to 1900 or thereabouts – that express or comment in some important way on the economic conditions of capitalism, which is to say, the economic condition of modernity, markets, and capitalism? Brecht, of course, wrote several, including this one. He wrote others in this vein, including a re-write of Shaw’s St. Joan. I think probably the most important comment on capitalism that Brecht wrote was the musical, The Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny, or alternatively its shorter version, The Mahagonny Song-Cycle. It weirdly anticipates the founding of Las Vegas (Brecht penned this in the 1930s; for many people in the English-speaking world, it is thought of as a Kurt Weill musical); a group of gangsters on the run found a city of complete libertinism in the middle of nowhere, Mahagonny, in which you have anything for money, and anything goes until you run out of money. (This operetta introduced the famous Alabama Song; here is Marianne Faithfull in a 1997 performance. Many folks have noted that Faithfull fits almost hand to glove to Brecht/Weill, and I’d certainly agree.)
The most important play I can think of, however, one of far more than historical interest merely in its reflections on the market and commodification, is Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit of the Old Lady. The richest woman in the world returns as an old woman to her impoverished hometown, which anticipates a philanthropic windfall that will return it to prosperity. She promises to deliver – a fortune to the town and to each inhabitant individually. But she promises a fortune only if the now-elderly shopkeeper, Alfred, who got her pregnant but then denied it ... dies. Everyone in town indignantly rejects such a terrible proposal, of course, and there is much talk about the Values of the Enlightenment and all. To which the old lady shrugs and says, I’ll wait. Then, somehow, everyone starts buying lots and lots of stuff on credit. Charging everything, until it becomes evident that the only way out is for Alfred to die. It’s both chilling and comic – Durrenmatt wrote in a famous essay that a play such as this, built around fate and the Chorus, a throwback deliberately to Greek tragedy, somehow comes out quite funny in our modern day. (I wrote a little about this in a Wall Street Journal review of the three volume English translation of Durrenmatt’s writings that appeared a few years ago.)
But okay, these are pretty obscure to English-language theatergoers, I grant, dating back to a much earlier generation of the German-language theatre before and after the mid-century mark. What are others? Other dramatic works that take as their primary theme the condition of modern capitalism? Explain in a few sentences not just the play but why it is relevant to this question.