The city of Chicago is the setting, called a brutal “jungle” (Scene 11, p. 89) where survival of the fittest or strongest or richest is the rule. The city is a metaphor for modern civilization, and Brecht gives it the flavor of a frontier town where gangs and bad men shoot it out for control. The city has a shut-in feeling with scenes in a lumber office, a shabby slum apartment, a hotel saloon, a bar, and a library. Even the outdoor scenes are bleak, one near Lake Michigan, and another in a gravel pit. The Garga family is innocent when they arrive from the plains, but soon all members are corrupted or plunged into desperate poverty. The city grinds people to dust. George Garga’s personality changes as he tangles with Shlink, the Malay capitalist, owner of a Chicago lumber company, who tries to buy the Garga family. George soon understands “The tough rats make out all right, in the gutter . . .” (Scene 2, p. 26). The city is called a cold and terrible place by the characters, and a place of “humiliation” (Scene 7, p. 64). Brecht does not single out Chicago as a specific place. It stands for all modern cities. George tells his sister Marie, “We’ve been marooned in this city” (Scene 5, p. 49). George keeps talking about escaping to Tahiti, but in the end he goes on to another tough place, New York. He now has a taste for battle and thinks he can handle it.
The young women—Jane, George Garga’s girlfriend, and Marie, his sister—both become prostitutes because they do not want to starve. At first, Jane sews shirts, and Marie washes them, but this in itself is a form of prostitution. Everyone in a city is a prostitute of some kind, as Brecht shows. Shlink describes his childhood in China where the man who owned the junk he worked on metaphorically “walked on his face.” Now he has become a capitalist in America and tries to buy others. He attempts to buy Garga’s opinion on a book, and Garga replies, “I’m not a prostitute” (Scene 1, p. 14). Garga fights during the whole play to prove he is not a prostitute. Later, however, he calls Shlink his “Infernal Bridegroom,” and he is the “little bride” who earns something on the side (Scene 5, p. 46). He has become the woman in the relationship, but he shows his rebellion by not being faithful. Marie struggles with her role as a woman, learning that whatever she chooses, she will be a prostitute. At first her virginity is a burden; she cannot use it as a bargaining chip with Shlink, who doesn’t want her. Then, she decides to live with Manky, the sailor: “I’d do anything, the most evil things, just to get under a roof” (Scene 6, p. 58). After she is disillusioned by this arrangement (“I’ve thrown myself away . . . My body is full of stains;” Scene 6, p.57), she finally goes to Shlink, whom she claims to love, on and off. That too is terrible: “how like the other sacrifice it was,” she admits to Shlink: “Give me your money . . . I am a whore” (Scene 6, p. 59). Both Jane and Marie prefer open prostitution, which is honest, to pretending in a marriage. All the people in the play are objects to be bought and sold. Garga says to Shlink, “You turn members of my family into resources, you live off my supply” (Scene 5, p. 51).
Skin, Face, Clothes
Skin, face, and clothes become metaphors for the way characters relate to the world, or are seen by others. In the first scene, George Garga strips off his clothes and gives them to Shlink thinking he will save his deeper identity and freedom. Skinny remarks, “So we finally got him to shed his skin” (Scene 1, p. 22). Shlink then buys the clothes. In the play, he keeps trying to buy Garga’s family and identity, perhaps thinking he will have more freedom in not being a Malay with yellow skin. He promises not to touch Mae Garga if he can only stay in her house: “I know my hand has a yellow skin” (Scene 3, p. 40). Marie claims to be in love with Shlink and asks why he won’t touch her. He says he has become numb through hardship: “in its natural state, human skin is too thin for this world . . . the living skin grows, it grows thicker and thicker” (Scene 4, p. 43).
Shlink and Garga are locked in a violent battle trying to feel something, for they have become tougher and tougher. Marie describes how numb she is in bed with Manky, able to feel nothing. No matter what the characters do, they cannot reach or touch one another. They do not recognize one another as human beings. First, Garga is able to see the good will in Shlink’s face. Then, he claims Shlink’s face has become invisible to him. Marie complains after her failed relationships that it isn’t her face anymore: “it isn’t me.” George tries to tell her, “People remain what they are, even when their faces fall to pieces” (Scene 8, p. 76). He has changed, however, becoming like his enemy, Shlink. He makes Shlink give him his shoes, implying he is taking on his identity. Shlink tells Garga he has hardened; his life is in his face but it looks like a fossil in amber (Scene 10, p. 81). George laments that his mother is “gone without a face. It has fallen off her, like a yellow leaf” (Scene 9, p. 80). When Shlink dies, Marie is there to cover his face with a cloth, so the lynch mob will not look at him. In the end, Garga will go to New York and return with “limbs of iron, with a dark skin, with a rage in my eye” (Scene 10, p. 84).
The characters complain of cold. It is physically cold in Chicago, and the Garga family worries about their housing and heat. Shlink, having given away his lumber business to George, now earns money by selling coal and bringing coal to the Gargas. Though Shlink appears to try to help others, he actually destroys them, and is spoken of as a cold man, even by his employees. Garga tells him he only knows how to “devour” (Scene 5, p. 51). The atmosphere is emotionally cold, since none of the characters is able to make a warm connection with another. There is only buying, selling, negotiating, and fighting in terms of human relationships. Garga says, “Chicago is a cold place” (Scene 1, p. 15). He tells Marie it is cold at night and asks if she is hungry. She says the vultures have been circling their home for some time and asks him, “Is it pleasant to be so cold-blooded, George?” (Scene 5, p. 48). Though Garga acts concerned about his family, he is ready to sacrifice them in a moment for his own fight with Shlink. He becomes even colder than Shlink, inciting a lynch mob to go after him in revenge.