In the Jungle of Cities
In the Chicago imagined by people who don’t live here, life is often nasty, brutish and short; the haves are crooks, while the have-nots are forced to hustle; and the temperature is always ten degrees below zero. Brecht hadn’t yet set foot in this country when he wrote his Chicago-set drama, first produced in 1923 when he was 25 years old. But the city’s reputation as a hot spot for cruelty and exploitation had preceded it, mostly thanks to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which served as a source of inspiration.
Brecht described the play as an “inexplicable wrestling match between two men”: Schlink, a Malayan timber tycoon, and George Garga, a lowly library employee recently arrived from the sticks. For no good reason, Schlink picks a fight with the other man that eventually consumes them both and destroys George’s family. More than an allegory about the struggle between idealism and capitalism, the play’s also a strange and fascinating study of sadomasochism, in which hate comes to seem not quite the opposite of love.
The performances in Truax’s excellent staging are stylized but burn with intensity, giving the piece an air at once restrained and savage. It’s particularly effective in Clark’s gripping turn as Schlink, whose sinister facade masks a desperate longing to connect. The design elements, meanwhile, deftly create an atmosphere of murk and rot, especially Tracy Otwell’s crumbling tenement set and Karen Thompson’s fog-suffused lighting design, which perfectly captures what one character describes as the “luminosity of decay.”