Brecht Before Brecht
In the Jungle of Cities, by Bertolt Brecht March 22, 23, 28-30 at 8 p.m. March 24 and 31 at 3 p.m. at 369 Center for the Performing Arts in Somerville, near Union Square
THERE's a man called The Pug-Nosed Man who appears one day in a bar and speaks only in interrogative sentences, except for his first and last lines. There's a pimp called Baboon who operates out of a Chinese flophouse and acts like a henchman for a Malay lumber dealer who tries to bribe a librarian to say the book he wants to borrow is a good one. A Salvation Army preacher (name unknown) whose skin is so thick "it bends anything you stick into it" lets a man spit in his face as a condition to a donation, and later shoots himself, uttering somebody else's last words. These people have the poetic, imaginative quality of other Brecht characters, but the fantasy Chicago of this early Brecht play doesn't confront the issues of the usual Brechtian world.
Brecht had read a German novel about Chicago and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle just before he started to write In the Jungle of Cities. A jungle is an apt, if overused, metaphor for the most grotesque, competitive aspects of a city--John D. Rockefeller, invoking Darwin to describe his goals for the capitalist economy, suggested how apt the comparison can be--and Brecht populates his jungle with Baboon and another henchman cleverly named Worm to emphasize the point. But otherwise he ignores the real psychology of city life in order to concentrate on the petty idiosyncracies of his characters.
Setting up another framework for his play, Brecht wrote in a short prologue, "You will witness an inexplicable wrestling match between two men and observe the downfall of a family that has moved from the prairies to the jungle of the big city." 369's production takes this prediction literally, using a boxing ring instead of a stage, calling the scenes "rounds" and ending each with a bell, and having a ring announcer (who seems more like a circus ringmaster) read the introductory phrases that Brecht wanted shouted like newspaper headlines. Subtlety--never the strongest point of a Brecht play--is thereby eliminated. Brecht added the boxing and wrestling allusions to strengthen the play five years after he wrote it but, spoken inside a boxing ring, revisions like "Chicago has thrown in the towel for him" become so self-conscious that they undermine the theme of the play.
The play is so strained to begin with that it can't survive such treachery. A high point occurs when one of the rival "wrestlers" gives away his business--presumably so that the fight will be fair. With one irrational stroke Brecht thus dismisses class conflict as a factor of any interest in his jungle war. The older Brecht would never have abandoned his moral sense, as Brecht does here. In the Jungle of Cities shows the immature Brecht as a stylist without purpose, a mere player on words, the sort of playwright who would not be able to defend himself against the aesthetic questions asked by Worm (played with appropriate derision by William Barnum):
So these are books? Filthy business. What's the point of it? Aren't there enough lies? "The sky was blue, the clouds flew east." Why not south? What people won't swallow!
In the Jungle of Cities is 369's first full-length professional production. A new theater unaffiliated with a university is a welcome addition to the Cambridge-Somerville area, but this first production is disappointing. With the boxing set and an emphasis on caricature, company director Van McLeod seems to be trying unnecessarily for the oblique angle in an already oblique Brecht play. A few of the supporting characters present fascinating facades, especially Virginia O. Casey as the whorish girl friend of George Garga the librarian (and "wrestler") and Bruce Patt as a stoop-kneed, brutish Weimar version of Skinny, a Chinese clerk according to the text--but they get little assistance even from the more experienced members of the cast.
By his own account, Brecht became a Marxist in 1928. He wrote In the Jungle of Cities in 1922, and revised it in 1927. A notion of some critics, including Eric Bentley, one of Brecht's first translators, is that all the ideas of late Brecht can also be found in early Brecht. Certainly the ideas that led to his conversion had been mulling around in his head long before 1928, so anyone with enough patience could trace out enough obscure parallels to cloud over the deficiency of the early plays. But Brecht's brand of Marxism was a disciplining and an organizing principle, as well as an ideology. Social commitment and epic dramatic technique reinforced each other, in his greatest works, and neither is present in his early plays. Ibsen's first ten plays have been largely forgotten by everyone but scholars; it would be equally appropriate if Brecht's early plays--with the exception of Drums in the Night, which he rewrote in 1928 and 1954--were left to the scholars as well.