Jungle of Cities and Other Plays by Bertolt Brecht, Translated by Anselm Hollo, Edited by Eric Bentley, Grove Press, 1966.
(There are eleven scenes, with no division into acts.)
Summary of Scene One: C. Mayne’s Lending Library in Chicago. The morning of the 8th of August, 1912
Skinny, a Chinaman, approaches the clerk of the library, George Garga, and asks for a book. He says it is for the gentleman he is with and nods towards a Malay, who introduces himself as Shlink, Chicago lumber dealer. Garga tries to direct them to some books, but Shlink insists on buying Garga’s opinion on the books for ten dollars. Garga says he can have his opinion free. Skinny and Shlink keep trying to hassle Garga into selling his opinion, and they keep upping the price. Garga says he will share the opinions of novelist V. Jensen and the poet, Rimbaud, but not his own. Garga admits his family is poor, eating rotten fish.
Shlink declares, “A fighter!” He is pleased that Garga is refusing the offer but keeps offering and tempting Garga. Skinny, Shlink’s clerk, reminds Garga he could buy a lot of clean shirts for forty dollars. Garga says he is no prostitute. The more Shlink raises the price, the more insulted Garga is. Finally, they bring up the name of Garga’s girlfriend, Jane Larry. She has told them all about Garga and his dreams of going to Tahiti. Shlink explains she is close to starving from sewing shirts, and George has not been to see her in three weeks.
Garga drops books on the floor in surprise that they know all about him, but Shlink pushes on, saying that all the people on Garga’s street feel sorry for him and his family, who have come to the big city from the plains, and now sleep in a tiny flat. Garga admits they are poor and sleep next to a burst sewage pipe.
Shlink suddenly says he declares war on Garga and will shake the foundations of his life. He rings for Mr. Maynes, the owner, and accuses Garga of not giving him service. Skinny explains Garga was insulted because they noticed his greasy shirt. Garga explains he does not get enough money to have clean shirts. Shlink suggests that Garga’s sister could marry Manky the sailor who has been courting her. Someone in the family needs to do something because the family is going down; therefore, Garga cannot afford to have his own opinions.
J. Finnay, a hotel proprietor, known as The Worm, enters the library and Shlink and Skinny pretend not to know him, but these are all gangsters working for Shlink. The Worm accuses books of being nothing but lies. Garga claims these men are out to get him and asks Maynes to throw them out. Then Collie Couch, a pimp known as The Baboon enters with Jane, Garga’s girlfriend. She explains she has had an outing with these men, but he tells her to go home because she is drunk. She claims the men are being nice to her, buying her drinks. She is not going home any more. She sits in Baboon’s lap. The Baboon and The Worm taunt Garga because he cannot afford to keep Jane himself.
Garga accuses the men of trying to start a fight. The Worm orders Garga to take the offered money. Garga says he does not know what this is about. Jane says it is her only chance, and she is going to take their offer. Garga tells Jane that they should go away together to San Francisco. He says they’ll get through this together. The Worm says Jane has already been to bed with the Baboon.
Maynes fires Garga, and Shlink exults because they have shaken Garga, but he turns on them, declaring he is free, taking off his coat and giving it to them. He takes a book from the shelf and quotes some rebellious verses by Rimbaud. The gangsters applaud the performance. Garga gives them his boots and handkerchief and runs out, asking only for his freedom. Shlink turns around and buys Garga’s clothes for ten dollars from Maynes.
Commentary on Scene One: C. Mayne’s Lending Library in Chicago. The morning of the 8th of August, 1912
The subtitle of the play is, “Two men fighting in Chicago, the gigantic city.” Brecht makes Chicago into the mythic gangster city with Garga and Shlink in a symbolic fight. The author says in a preface to the audience: “do not rack your brains for motives: concern yourself with the human element, evaluate the antagonists’ fighting spirit impartially and concentrate your interest on the showdown” (p. 12).
This play has affinity with later absurdist dramas in that it is a representation of the arbitrary and meaningless nature of modern life. Even George Garga claims he does not know what the fight is about, but he takes it on anyway. People are immersed in battles every day without knowing why. They fight the conditions in the cruel city, but how did the ruthlessness of the city come about? Who is the opponent? The absurdity of the situation is illustrated by the lack of explanation or motivation, and the suddenness of the attack that seems to come from nowhere. There is no back story that explains the attack on Garga.
Yet we can recognize the plot elements of a western melodrama here, though set in a library. Shlink is the rich and powerful capitalist, who taunts and tries to buy everyone he meets. He picks a fight with Garga because he can’t buy him or blackmail him into complying, and yet he is pleased to have found a fighter, someone to box with. Brecht reverses the usual expectations of a scene like this. In a western the gangsters would enter the scene threatening the hero’s poor family and especially the virtue of his girlfriend. The hero would rise to the occasion and perform some impossible feat of courage to save the girl who would not give in to the villains, even under threat of death. In this case, the girl has already caved in, saying she prefers prostitution to poverty or George’s neglect. He half-heartedly offers to save her but is more interested in his own freedom.
He also shows off by quoting poetry, as if to say he has a life above theirs, a life of ideas that keeps him free of their petty aggression. He refuses to sell his opinion on the books to them, implying they are too ignorant to appreciate culture themselves. He will tell them about Jensen and Rimbaud (these authors actually inspired Brecht’s story), but selling them his opinion would be like selling his soul. The Worm challenges him that books are full of lies to get Garga to react.
This is considered one of Brecht’s most difficult plays, so one can only guess why he sets the scene in a library. Perhaps he sets up the power of literature and language against the power of violence and money. The lines from Rimbaud are poetry and might be considered “lies” because they do not tell the literal truth, but rather the truth of the spirit. Garga takes refuge in Rimbaud, who speaks for him here in defiant lines about freedom.
Who wins round one? Garga runs out claiming he is free, after shedding his clothes and job, which represent his social identity. Shlink, however, buys those clothes. In the play, he goes after Garga by trying to buy everything Garga has—his clothes, his identity, his family.
Summary of Scene Two: The Offices of C. Shlink, the Lumber Dealer, in Chicago. The 27th of August, in the evening, around 7 o’clock.
Skinny, Shlink’s Chinese clerk, calls out that the lumber has arrived from Kentucky. The Worm, another of Shlink’s criminal underground, announces someone is here to see Mr. Shlink. Garga enters and Shlink gives him his clothes back. Garga kicks them away. Shlink hits a gong and Marie Garga, George’s sister, enters. They are surprised to see each other. Marie says the family has been worried about George. They didn’t know where he went. Marie explains she takes care of the washing here. Garga tells Marie to go home. Shlink tells Marie to get Garga a fresh suit of clothes first. Marie says she does not understand why her brother is telling her to go home.
Shlink asks Garga if he has been drinking. Garga claims he likes drinking, women, and smoking, a couple of weeks at a time. Shlink repeats that he knew Garga was a fighting man. Marie comes back with fresh clothes. George puts them on behind a screen and remarks there are no pockets in the suit. Shlink begins to whistle.
George comments he does not like Shlink to whistle as though people are dogs, and he accuses Shlink of “skinning” him. He pulls out a gun, and says, “an eye for an eye” (p. 25). Shlink remarks that Garga is taking up battle without knowing what it is about. Garga replies it is enough for him that Shlink thinks he is tougher. Shlink says it is money that counts, and so, he has decided to give his whole business over to Garga. From this day, he can assume Shlink’s power, and Shlink will be his slave. Garga accepts. Garga notices, however, that the suit he has been given is the same kind of suit that Shlink’s other men are wearing (Baboon, Skinny, and The Worm). Shlink announces to his men that Garga is now in charge.
The Worm explains that he runs the Chinese Hotel in the coal miner’s part of town and that he sold some logs to Broost and Co. in Virginia. Garga orders him to sell the same logs twice and to give the money to Shlink who will give it to him when he asks for it. The Worm objects that it is illegal to sell logs twice and that the law will be after them. Shlink remarks that it will take six months for the law to find out, but agrees. Garga tells him to pour ink on his ledger to hide the accounting entries, and Skinny does it. The Worm complains it is the end of twenty years of this business, and he doesn’t get it. Garga orders the sawmills to stop, and the Baboon complies. Garga laughs and orders Shlink to fire Skinny. Marie tells George he is not acting right by these people. Garga then orders Shlink to play poker with his business managers. He tells Marie to be careful, because they are trying to drag her into it.
Skinny begins to woo Marie. Baboon the pimp tries to tell him he can have a Negro woman instead. The Worm tells Skinny Marie is too innocent for him but at the same time offers forty dollars for her. Marie calls to Shlink to protect her. Garga asks how she likes being on the market. Marie says something terrible has just happened; Garga is losing the fight, she warns.
Suddenly, a Salvation Army band appears, singing “Ye Sinners Come Unto Jesus.” Shlink opens the door, and a Salvation Army officer enters with two girls playing guitars, and an old sinner with a drum. Garga offers to give the Salvation Army the building on one condition; he wants to spit in the man’s face. He tempts the officer to comply on behalf of all the orphans he can save. The man agrees only if Marie will turn away. She says she will despise the officer if he lets this happen to him. Shlink spits in the man’s face. The Salvation Army man is in tears as Garga gives him the deed to the building and his gun. Garga takes some money with him and claims he is going to Tahiti. He insults Marie, telling her to become a whore to support their parents.
Commentary on Scene Two: The Offices of C. Shlink, the Lumber Dealer, in Chicago. The 27th of August, in the evening, around 7 o’clock.
This scene makes even less sense than the first one, from a conventional point of view. Garga shows up with a gun, bluffing and acting like a tough guy, trying to outdo Shlink’s gangsters at their own game. As they did with Jane, Shlink’s men try to blackmail Garga by holding his sister Marie hostage, making her into a wage slave as she does their laundry to support the family. Garga appears to win, however, because Shlink suddenly turns over all his property to Garga so he can take the money and go to Tahiti, his dream. It is not explained why he does this. It has something to do with the war Shlink has declared on Garga, but the game of chess the two play is never logical.
Garga bites and accepts the offer, though Marie sees through it and warns George that he is actually losing the game. One hint that this is the case is that when Garga puts on the suit that Shlink provides, he looks just like the other underground criminals. Garga forces the Worm into making a crooked deal in the name of the Shlink Company so that Shlink will be incriminated. Shlink calmly notes that it will take the law about six months to find out but does nothing to stop it. Garga then further destroys the company by stopping production, making Shlink fire his assistant, and finally, turning the building over to the Salvation Army to use for orphans.
What Garga misses is that Shlink has turned him into a gangster and a capitalist now. He has taken on Shlink’s values and operates out of violence rather than from his own integrity. He has lost his identity. Angry that Marie is not standing by him, Garga dismisses her to become a prostitute like Jane, if she wishes. Garga repeats the phrase, “A tooth for a tooth” (p. 32). He is reduced to revenge and reaction.
Garga imitates the big capitalists by pretending to donate to charity but humiliates the recipients, showing them they are no better than slaves begging for their bread. He makes the Salvation Army officer allow Shlink to spit on him in order to get the donation. Garga blackmails the officer by telling him the orphans and drunkards are depending on him. The act of spitting in the face, besides being a gesture of abandonment to another, recalls the trials of Christ. Garga taunts the officer with Christ’s sufferings to make him prove his religion by turning the other cheek. This act actually breaks the man emotionally, as we find out later. Despite appearances, Shlink wins round two by appearing to be the more sympathetic and passive man. Marie accuses George of wanting to fight her too: “You never know when to stop” (p.32).
Marie’s concluding remarks to Shlink are provocative. She sees that he had multiple chances of how to play out the scene with George: “People get many chances, don’t they?” she says, as she follows Shlink out of the room (p. 32). Is she affirming the freedom people have? Or are all the chances equally doomed, as hers seem to be? Throughout the play, all the characters repeat the phrase that they don’t really understand what is going on, and that they don’t understand anyone else. This lack of understanding and communication is fatal. George’s cruelty has pushed Marie into Shlink’s arms.
Summary of Scene Three: The Gargas’ Living Room. The 22nd of August, in the evening, after 7 P.M.
In a shabby loft, John and Mae Garga, George’s parents, and Pat Manky, a ship’s first mate, who is Marie’s suitor, are singing a song. A window leads to a rooftop balcony. They speak of George, whom Manky warns is mixed up with “a Chink” (p. 33). Marie was offered a job with the same man for ten dollars a week, doing laundry. Manky says it’s all part of the same business. John remarks you never know what is going on, even next door, or even if you read a newspaper, you don’t know what it means.
George appears in the doorway. John asks if he has the money for rent. George says yes. John notices George has on a new jacket, but he looks a little drunk. Manky and John go out to the stairs to smoke their pipes. His mother asks George if he is in trouble. George tells his mother about Shlink cryptically by saying that one man is willing to insult another man by giving away his lumber business. The other man should get out, but the only way he can do that is to be free. His mother asks him if he is free?
George replies that he isn’t; nobody is: “It starts with coffee in the morning . . .” (p. 35). Every person has already been presold in this world. Mae tells him she will help him, but he mustn’t run away and leave them without support. George gives her money, saying, he was fired, but this money will last for half a year. Mae says they are worried about Marie. George tells her they are all going down.
Mae does not want to hear his despair; she is the mother who sacrificed for him. He asks her to come with him. They will run away, build a log cabin, and she can cook for him. Mae agrees to help him escape by putting a bundle of his things under the staircase. They exit, and The Worm enters, looking around. Manky and John enter. The Worm wants to see Mr. Garga’s son, George. John tells him to leave. When Mae enters, The Worm informs her that her daughter is at the Chinese hotel. Shlink wants them to take Marie back because she eats too much. Manky says he will get her, but The Worm says he won’t say where the hotel is until they get George. Mae begins wailing, “what a terrible city this is!” (p. 39).
Shlink shows up at the Gargas’s and says he used to have a business, but now he has nothing. He wonders if he can pay them for room and board. Manky accuses him of holding Marie hostage. Shlink claims not to know her. He has gambled away all he had, and he does not know how it happened. Since their son has deserted them, he will pay half of their rent. John says if he is lonely, he is welcome. He tells his wife to shake Shlink’s hand. Shlink promises not to touch her with his yellow skin. She shakes his hand coldly, and he says he will sleep under the staircase. She says she will leave that window open for the night.
Commentary on Scene Three: The Gargas’ Living Room. The 22nd of August, in the evening, after 7 P.M.
The two antagonists do not meet in this scene, but as Garga abandons his parents, to escape with the money he has received from Shlink, Shlink moves in with the Gargas to take over George’s role. He claims to be lonely and now almost penniless, but it is clear he is threatening them and waiting for Garga. He says he wants family, and because there is a racial difference, he will just sleep in the corner. He acts humble but is once more blackmailing his way into the Garga family, though John seems to believe him, or not to care as long as he gets the rent money. Mae can see through Shlink because George told her what was going on. She tries to cover for George’s escape, leaving the window under the staircase open, so George can get his things and escape the gangsters.
George, from his dialogue with his mother, is aware now that he is not free of Shlink and his plotting. He knows that Shlink gave him the business as a trap, and he wants to be free of it but does not know how. He gives his mother enough money to live on for six months, the time when the crooked deal will be found out. Then he supposedly leaves to go to Tahiti or some place of escape. Meanwhile, Marie is being held by Shlink’s men at the Chinese hotel.