In The Jungle of Cities: Biography: Bertolt Brecht

Essay Q&A

1. What is Brecht’s concept of the theater?


In the Jungle of Cities is an early play of Brecht’s, and one of his most difficult. Brecht did not like the classical Aristotelian concept of theater as a drama focusing on the story of individual characters. In traditional drama, the audience has a vicarious experience through identification with certain characters that ends with an emotional catharsis. Brecht turned from his early absurdist philosophy, evident in this play, to embrace Marxism, and his concept of epic theater evolved to let the audience witness, rather than identify with, the forces of history. Even in In the Jungle of Cities, there is a criticism of the destructive forces of capitalism. The audience is not supposed to identify with the story but only take away a rational impression of social conditions; i.e., the modern city reflects the anarchy of human life. 


In order to create this new theater, Brecht broke the dramatic illusion of reality. The spectators are often reminded they are watching a constructed play. For instance, the unrealistic action of Shlink giving away his business or Garga choosing to go to jail with no explanation prohibits the spectator from identifying emotionally with the characters. The exaggerated gangster speech, irrational responses, and seedy settings are not realistic but a parody of westerns and detective fiction. 


Brecht pioneered the “alienation” or “defamiliarization” effect. The event portrayed is made strange in different ways, such as having characters address the audience directly, or by the use of harsh lighting, by having songs and poetry comment on the action, by using camera projections and signs, by speaking the stage directions aloud, or by having a narrator on stage. Garga quotes the poet Rimbaud to the gangsters, and Shlink is a caricatured oriental underworld villain. 


In production Brecht used what he called “separation of the elements,” in which the words, music, and sets are self-contained artistic expressions, combining to produce an overlapping montage rather than a unified effect. He was influenced by the subject matter and techniques of Charlie Chaplin and Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. He learned the techniques of avant-garde theater from his mentor, Erwin Piscator.


In addition, his epic theater was a theater collective rather than the work of individuals. The playwright used or exchanged ideas with other playwrights, composers, artists, singers, and actors. Brecht’s techniques have influenced other writers and filmmakers such as Peter Brook, Peter Weiss, Robert Bolt, Jean-Luc Godard, Nagisa Oshima, and Lars von Trier. 


2. How does the concept of the Absurd help us to read this play?


Absurdism, existentialism, nihilism, and anarchism are all related philosophies popular during the twentieth century. They trace their origin to the nineteenth century philosopher, S¯ren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), especially in his The Sickness Unto Death (1849), which first confronted the human inability to find any meaning in the universe through rational efforts. 


The philosophy of existentialism, particularly of French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), came later than this play, but the ideas had been used by artists like Brecht for years, because of the despair felt after World War I. Existentialism speaks of the indifference of the universe to human concerns. Life has no inherent meaning except the meaning the individual constructs for him or herself. Life is not rational and appears absurd or arbitrary, as for instance, when Mae Garga learns that her son will go to jail, and the family will be without support: “a human being can suddenly be damned. . . It’s a day like any other, nothing out of the ordinary,” she says (Scene 7, p. 67). This arbitrary nature of life can produce anxiety, but existentialists like Sartre also felt that humans are freed by this absurdity to act as they will. Humans find themselves alone in the universe and must act as best they can. Garga has similarities to the existential hero in his moves to be “free,” to resist control or necessity. 


Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French author and philosopher of existentialism and absurdism. In The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) he developed the idea of an absurd universe without apparent meaning. Meaning is something humans look for or invent. The absurd nature of life is portrayed in In the Jungle of Cities, in the unmotivated events. Mae Garga leaves her husband with the words, “Don’t think it’s for this or that reason” (Scene 7, p. 67). The plot does not make sense; it is a crazy chess game where Garga and Shlink decide they are enemies and fight, but only they know the rules of the game. Shlink admits he fights to get rid of loneliness. He envies animals that can touch one another: “But the coupling of organs is all, it doesn’t make up for the division caused by speech” (Scene 10, p. 83). Each person feels isolated in the universe, and communication is impossible.


Nihilism is the total denial of meaning or purpose to life. In the Jungle of Cities comes close to this vision. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) described nihilism as a tension between what we need and the way the world operates. Marie Garga and Shlink, for instance, both want love, but they engage in a dance of mutual rejection, unable to bridge the gap. Brecht was an anarchist when he wrote the play and depicts Chicago as a place of lawless disorder where gangsters rule. Garga accuses Shlink of making it into a frontier western town. The two have no objectives but self-destruct by acting out their irrational impulses. 


3. What is the relationship of Expressionism, detective fiction, and film noir to In the Jungle of Cities?


Expressionism was the dominant  avant-garde movement in the 1910s and 1920s when Brecht wrote this play, and it included painting, theater, literature, film, dance, music and architecture. It expressed the emotional anxiety of the World War I era, presenting distorted industrial landscapes and dark images from a subjective point of view. In painting, Paul Klee, Edvard Munch, and Vincent Van Gogh painted subjective interpretations of objects using arbitrary colors and jangled compositions. German Expressionism in theater was represented by Ernst Toller’s Transformation (1919). In expressionist drama, the speech is heightened or fragmented, dramatizing rebellion and the dreariness of the landscape  (Garga says, for instance, “Ninety-four degrees in the shade. Traffic, noise from the Milwaukee bridge. A morning, like any other” (Scene 1, p. 16). 


The German author, Franz Kafka (1883-1924), who wrote expressionist and absurd narratives, such as The Metamorphosis (1915) also influenced Brecht. Characters are dislocated and feel like they are turning into objects in expressionist works. The underworld characters in In the Jungle of Cities are called the Worm, the Baboon, the Snubnose, like comic book villains. In film, German Expressionism produced The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). These films in turn gave the visual style of their black-and-white  cinematography  to American film noir, based on hard-boiled detective  fiction, such as, The Maltese Falcon (1941). The audience can see the familiar motifs in all these spin-offs of expressionism in Brecht’s play.


Brecht did not associate himself directly with the Expressionist movement but used a number of the techniques and themes. Distortion, claustrophobic scenes, caricature, violence, and mechanical characters typify the city landscape. Brecht was fascinated with American westerns and crime fiction and uses gangsters and tough guy talk in his play. 


4. How is Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell important to the play?


Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) was one of the French Decadent or Symbolist poets who were popular at the turn of the century. Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) was published in 1873 and influenced later artists and poets, such as the Surrealists. The symbolists used illogical and intuitive associations to create atmosphere and emotion.


Rimbaud introduces his prose-poem as “pages from the diary of a Damned soul.” It is the passionate record of his break-up with his older lover, Paul Verlaine, another Symbolist poet. The relationship of Garga and Shlink suggests this bloody and doomed affair, especially since Garga keeps quoting lines from A Season in Hell, speaking as the younger man. 


Rimbaud thought of himself as a visionary poet. His images are surreal and suggest states of the mind and soul. The poetry is sacrilegious and provocative, speaking of his debauched life of sex, drugs, and liquor, but within a paradoxical context of a spiritual quest. He is such a seeker, he would taste all the joys and horrors of life, even if it means a trip to hell: “Ah, to return to life! To stare at our deformities . . . my weakness, and the world’s cruelty!” Garga, too, is a young man who takes on such a pose. He will dare anything, break all conventions in his metaphysical battle with Shlink to prove his own powers of endurance. In the play, Garga’s quotes from Rimbaud are in quotation marks, as in Scene 1 in the library, when he says, “I am an animal . . . But I am capable of being saved . . . I do not understand the moral laws” (p. 21). He raves at times like this to Shlink in Rimbaud’s words, showing off his fearless nature and readiness to plunge into the contest of life.


In Scene 5, Garga quotes the part of Rimbaud’s poem called, “Delirium 1: the Foolish Virgin-The Infernal Bridegroom,” referring to Shlink as the demonic spouse and himself as the little bride who is a prostitute on the side, as Rimbaud had referred to Verlaine as the Infernal Bridegroom. He also quotes Rimbaud’s passage about becoming a widow, walking behind the Infernal Bridegroom’s corpse, “in clean underwear.”


At the end of the play, when Garga claims he has won the battle, he exults in words of Rimbaud as he heads to New York: “I will return with limbs of iron, with dark skin, with a rage in my eye . . . I will have gold: I will be lazy and brutal. . . . I will throw myself into life. I will be saved”  (Scene 10, p. 84).


5. What are the circumstances of the play’s writing and production?


Brecht belonged to a younger generation of artists coming of age during and after World War I. After the war, they returned home stripped of idealism or belief in anything. That cynicism is reflected in the nihilistic vision of In the Jungle of Cities, Brecht’s third play and second to be performed. The chaotic conditions and collapse of postwar Germany led to his stance of extreme individualism, sensuality, and rebellion. Rimbaud was a favorite poet and was thus incorporated into the play. Some accused Brecht of plagiarism, but he points out that there are quotation marks around Rimbaud’s words. In any case, Brecht, like Shakespeare, felt free to borrow from other authors. He enjoyed Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads, and their tone worked into the fabric of the tough guys in his plays. Brecht had the legacy of the playwright Frank Wedekind (1864-1918), whose plays criticizing middle class attitudes towards sexuality had shocked German audiences. 


In his 1954 essay “On Looking at My First Plays,” Brecht names his specific influences for this play, besides Rimbaud, namely,The Wheel, a gangster novel by Danish writer, J. V. Jensen. He also used the conflict motif from Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers. 


Brecht wrote the play during the winter and early spring of 1921-22, in Augsburg and in Berlin. He revised it in Munich, where the play was performed in May of 1923. The audience booed at the action and dialogue that made no sense to them, and the play was withdrawn after a few performances. The same response in Berlin announced it as a failure. Only forty years later, in 1961, in a New York production, did an audience understand what Brecht was trying to do. He had written an absurdist play decades before Beckett and Ionesco and Pinter. 


Arnolt Bronnen, another German playwright, who was a friend of Brecht’s, was around while Brecht wrote the play, and admitted to the author he did not understand it. When he asked Brecht what it meant, he replied it was all in the last five lines (“The chaos has been used up. And it was the best time” (Scene 11, p. 90). Bronnen saw the character of Garga as Brecht himself. Shlink is thought to be a composite of some older writers whom Brecht saw as a threat, possibly Bronnen or Lion Feuchtwanger, who collaborated with Brecht.


One critic sees the structure of the play like a boxing match: the 11 scenes are like 10 rounds with an epilogue. Brecht is not interested in the inner life of the characters but the stylized social interactions. Brecht’s use of language is an all-important innovation. He cuts through conventional speech to create direct hits between characters. Garga says to Shlink: “I’ve got better things to do than to go on wearing out my boots on your ass.” (Scene 5, p. 50). Marie comments on the way her brother speaks:  “You say such violent things, they float into my head like strong drink” (Scene 5, p. 43). This dialogue is not realistic and sounds like a cross between film noir, a comic book, and poetry. It was ahead of its time.