The Slow Frenzy of Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities

FEB 20, 1998

An Interview with Robert Woodruff.

Winter, 1998 marks the arrival on the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb stage of Robert Woodruff, a director known for creating stunning visual productions that illuminate classic texts. Woodruff has a keen ability to explore difficult plays, and, with the aid of Paul Schmidt’s new translation, he will bring his magic skills to bear on one of Bertolt Brecht’s most enigmatic works: In the Jungle of Cities. Woodruff, an artist with a vision and a message, hopes to reveal both the beautiful and the grotesque to those who witness his productions.

Michelle Powell: Since in recent years you directed Baal and Man is ManJungle is not your first encounter with Brecht’s early work. Do Brecht’s early plays hold more interest for you than his later, more famous works?

Robert Woodruff: Yes, although it is not something I consider consciously. My attraction to Brecht’s first attempts at playwriting is the same as it would be to a young poet. At that point, Brecht was searching for a voice. For that reason, plays like Jungle have a raw energy to them, a sense of space between the lines that suggest a young writer looking for a way to communicate. This “space” is an invitation to other artists to stage his plays. When thinking of this “space between the lines,” I compare In the Jungle of Cities or Baal, for example, to GalileoThe Caucasian Chalk Circle, or Mother Courage. In the case of Galileo, the text leaves little room for interpretation. In addition, each character in Galileo possesses a definite agenda. This is true of Brecht’s more mature works because by that time, he knew how to cement his ideas in place. But in Jungle, Brecht is a young artist; he shouts at his audience. This results from his raw artistic energy. Brecht’s early drama excites me for that reason–a director can shape that kind of energy, and one yearns to find a shape for it. At this point in his career, Brecht leans on the art that influences him. In Jungle, he adapts Rimbaud’s poetic style. I like that Brecht pays homage to poets who came before him, that they were the inspiration for his dramatic works. We then in turn become poets of a sort, each of us finding how to express Brecht’s ideas to our own audience. Brecht hands us the baton as it were. This is what is very exciting for me.

MP: Are there any images from Brecht’s early poems that are used in Jungle?

RW: The texture of Brecht’s poetry translates into the language of the play. Jungle is about surfaces, multi-dimensions, and colors, just like his poetry.

MP: Images from Brecht’s poems, such as “The Red Moon,” re-emerge in both Drums in the Night and Jungle.

RW: But Brecht calculates what image will dominate each of his plays. For example, Baal is a wet play, there is a lot more water imagery in Baal than JungleJungle is more about thickness of skin, more about things being impenetrable. Jungle features a man who faces a bizarre challenge and bangs his head against something chaotic.

MP: Jungle assaults our sense of how the world should function.

RW: Yes. So, Jungle‘s main character, Garga, fights to create his own order in an increasingly chaotic world. Jungle is such a slippery play. We humans always try to reduce things down to one simple answer. In Jungle, Brecht presents us with a world that refuses to sit still long enough to be organized. It refuses to be reduced–it just slithers away. This slipping away is inherent in the material. It doesn’t want to be stated, it can’t be named; this makes my job as the play’s interpreter extremely challenging.

MP: How would you categorize Jungle?

RW: For me, Jungle is a heroic play, a twentieth-century Faust. Seeking knowledge is heroic, and Garga is a truth seeker. He risks everything to find out what around him is real. His search for truth costs him dearly, in terms of family, love, sex, security. It’s heroic, yes, but isn’t Jungle almost like Faust? There was also a huge price to pay for the knowledge Faust acquired. Garga is a young man who has worked his entire life in a bookstore. He is going nowhere until the play starts.

MP: Shlink bursts into Garga’s life and rips him way from his humdrum reality. There is a selflessness to Shlink’s vision. He is a great mystic, one of the greatest mystics we have in modern drama. There is a religious amorality about Shlink that fascinates me. Garga’s amorality is not so religious. Shlink’s mysticism is so engaging.

RW: Shlink presents a common man with a test. He poses the hardest of all questions: and what do we, what does Garga really believe in. Not what you’ve been taught to believe but what you’ve learned, through pain and hardship. To stand by what you believe in the darkest part of your soul is perhaps the message that Brecht intended us to take away from Jungle.

Michelle Powell is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training.

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