The Urban Jungle

FEB 20, 1998

An essay from Robert Brunstein’s The Theatre of Revolt.

Of all the great modern dramatists, Bertolt Brecht is the most enigmatic–at once both direct and hidden, at once both simple and complex. The great bulk of his work is designed to be an impersonal and schematic contribution to Marxist myth-making. Yet, despite his unambiguous commitment to the Communist cause throughout most of his career, Brecht is an extremely divided artist, whose works, for all their ideological intentions, remain peculiarly enticing and elusive.

Brecht’s existential revolt is best illustrated in In the Jungle of Cities (Im Dickicht der Städte), his third play, completed in 1923 when he was barely twenty-five. Here Brecht is at his most frenzied and diabolical, displaying that “prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses” which Rimbaud held to be the special attainment of the visionary and seer. Rimbaud’s influence, in fact, is unmistakable throughout the play, which embodies long quotations from Une Saison en Enfer, and even a central conflict recalling Rimbaud’s relationship with Verlaine. In its ecstatic, strained, audacious imagery, however, the play is more reminiscent of Büchner’s Woyzeck, which also influences its philosophy, its tone, and, especially, its form: In the Jungle of Cities consists of eleven scenes, some extremely brief, essentially disconnected, but held together by a single sustained action. Characters act upon each other with no apparent cause-and-effect motivation, as in a dream. Its atmosphere, dreamlike also, is permeated with a thick, harsh, oppressive glow–the hot tones and fiery illuminations of a feverish hallucination.

The general location of the play is Chicago, during the period from 1912 to 1915. Yet, all the settings are mythical; Brecht’s Chicago, for example, is a seaport, and his seedy Chinese bars and hotels seem to have come out of Anna May Wong movies or Charlie Chan novels. Brecht is fascinated by Chicago because it strikes him as the archetypal “city of iron and dirt”–Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is undoubtedly influential here–the source of those predatory images which the concrete metropolis always evokes in his imagination. Brecht’s interest in American cities is also inspired by the coarser texture of American society, its mixtures of racial types, its shameless materialism, its idiomatic speech and jazz culture, and, especially, its love of sport. The central image of the play, in fact (if we discount the numerous jungle images), is a metaphor from the world of sport: “The inexplicable boxing match between two men.” And the eleven scenes of the play represent the ten rounds of the combat, with an extra scene devoted to the victor, after the other combatant has been “knocked out.”

The motives of this seemingly gratuitous conflict have been the subject of some debate. Brecht, himself, is elusive. In his foreword, he tries to discourage speculation about motives, urging the spectator to concentrate on other matters: “Don’t rack your brains over the motives for this fight but note the human stakes, judge without prejudice the style of each contestant, and direct your interest to the finish.” And towards the conclusion of the play, one of the antagonists also appears to rule out a purely sexual basis for his behavior: “I wanted the boxing match. Not the physical contest but the spiritual.” There are, undoubtedly, strong homoerotic overtones in the play, and, as usual with Brecht, sadism and masochism play their part. But more important than the psychological aspects of the work are the philosophical ones. The theme of In the Jungle of Cities is the impossibility of establishing permanent contact between human beings–not only sexual contact, but social, oral, and spiritual contact, too.

The opening scene, which takes place in a rental library, initiates the conflict–between the fifty-one-year-old Malayan merchant, called Shlink, and the young librarian, George Garga. Under the pretense of buying a book, Shlink offers money to Garga for his opinion of a mystery story. But though Garga is willing to give his opinions freely–or to sell Shlink the opinions of “Mr. J. V. Jensen and Mr. Arthur Rimbaud”–he absolutely refuses to make his own intelligence an object of barter. Actually, Shlink’s offer has been carefully calculated to lead to combat. Garga is penniless, and his family is starving; but he has somehow preserved his Romantic insistence on personal freedom. Like Brecht, who moved from “the black forests” to “the concrete cities,” Garga has come to Chicago from the spacious prairies; his love of freedom is intimately associated with his natural origins. To sell an opinion is to become a bought thing; and thus, as Shlink continually raises his offer, Garga becomes increasingly incensed and humiliated.

Since Brecht already assumes the total determination of modern city life by economic necessity, Garga’s Romantic idealism is his Achilles Heel–and Shlink proceeds to goad and prod it. Forced into action against his will, Garga is prepared to sacrifice everything to defend his personal independence. And the fight is on.

In order to recover his freedom, Garga must destroy his opponent. But just when the match is beginning to get warm, Garga decides to leave the ring and embark for Tahiti. His decision–soon to be reversed–is based on his growing awareness that the freedom he is fighting for is a chimera, that all human actions are limited and determined–by childhood conditioning, economic necessity, metaphysical bondage, and the desire for filial security. This realization is not enough to make him abandon the struggle. But it does make him resort to less heroic tactics. When Shlink comes to work like a coolie for Garga’s family and Garga’s sister, Marie, falls in love with him, Garga changes the course of the conflict by forcing her on the unwilling Malayan. And this act, in turn, forces Marie, made desperate by Shlink’s indifference, into a life of prostitution.

It is in the cold, loveless scenes between Shlink and Marie that the Malayan’s motivations begin to emerge. Shlink’s masochistic desire for pain, and ultimately for annihilation, are the result of a “disease” which he contracted during his youth on the Yangtze junks, where the rule of life was torture, and man’s skin grew so thick that only the most violent probes could pierce it. Garga has been hired to be his executioner, “to stuff a bit of disgust or decay in my mouth so I’d have the taste of death on my tongue.” For only through torture, disgust, and death will Shlink be able to feel.

Instead of executing Shlink himself, Garga hands the yellow man over to the white lynch mob. In the metaphor of the match, this is a very low blow; Chicago is throwing in the towel; and Shlink’s associates begin to count him out. Shlink, hanging on the ropes, demands that Garga fulfill his pledge and finish him personally. And the tenth scene (the last round of the match) takes place in an abandoned railroad tent where Garga, like Judas, spends three last weeks with his sacrificial victim. (Brecht, in fact, has studded this play with a number of ironic Christian parallels. Shlink, the Oriental lumber dealer, for example, is meant to recall Jesus Christ, the Nazarene carpenter; Marie is a latter-day Mary Magdalene; and Worm, Shlink’s henchman who repudiates him when the lynch mob arrives, is, of course, Peter denying Christ).

In the railroad tent Shlink expresses his love for Garga, and filled with the darkest despair, explains the symptoms of his “disease,” the dreadful loneliness he had suffered for forty years. Now, at the end, he has fallen victim to “the black mania of this planet–the mania for contact,” to be reached “through enmity,” the Romantic form of love. But even this final will-to-life has failed:

“The endless isolation of man makes even enmity an unattainable goal. Even with the animals it is impossible to come to an understanding. . . . Still, they come together to beget new beings who can stand at their side in their inconsolable isolation. And the generations look coldly into each other’s eyes. . . . The jungle! That’s where mankind comes from. Hairy, with the teeth of an ape, good beasts who knew how to live, everything was so easy, they simply tore each other to bits.”

In the jungle of cities, man’s hide has accumulated so many layers of defensive skin that even the contact between clawing, ferocious beasts is no longer achievable: “Yes, so terrible is the isolation that there isn’t even a fight.”

Garga, however, averts his face from this nihilistic abyss. Having lost interest in Shlink’s “metaphysical action,” he has determined to escape with his “naked life.” For him, survival has become the summum bonum. Leaving the ring, he carries his “raw flesh into the icy rains,” as Shlink–kayoed–falls to the floor. For Shlink, it only remains to finish himself; and he commits hara-kiri, the howl of the lynch mob in his ears, after a burst of surrealist prose. As for Garga, he survives. In the last scene, he has sold Shlink’s business–along with his own father and sister–and with the proceeds, is preparing to enter the jungle of New York. Accepting the consequences of living on a second-rate planet, he has turned his back forever on prairie Romanticism. He has repudiated his combative need for personal opinions; his passion is spent; he will fight no more. But even as he holds the prize money in his hand, he reflects, with a little nostalgia, on the conflicts of the past: “To be alone is a good thing. The chaos is used up now. It was the best time.”

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