Bertolt Brecht wrote Jungle of Cities (Im Dickicht der Staedte) when he was only twenty-three years old. The play emerged as a brilliant and poetic tribute to his most despairing and nihilistic phase from 1921-1923. Set in Chicago, it portrays the arbitrary duel of a Malaysian lumber merchant and a poor book clerk. The setting was partially inspired by Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, but contains Brecht's unique imagination and mistaken assumptions about America.
Brecht advised his audience in 1923 to not focus on the reasons for the actions, but rather on the conflict itself. "In observing this battle, do not rack your brains for motives: concern yourself with the human element, evaluate that antagonists's fighting spirit impartially and concentrate your interest on the showdown." His sentiments and material came largely from J.V. Jensen's The Wheel, the French poet Rimbaud's cycle of prose poems A Season in Hell, and The Robbers by Friedrich Schiller. Buried in the duel that Brecht creates is the human desire to break free from our thick skins and inability to have emotions towards other people. Brecht was reacting to the fact that people hide their emotions and make themselves untouchable in order to protect themselves. Using Rimbaud's own life (Paul Verlaine fired two shots at Arthur Rimbaud in a Brussels hotel room, thereby ending a relationship that has been considered almost as harrowing as that created by Brecht in this play), Brecht felt that only through extreme anger or hatred would it be possible for true human emotions to emerge and actually be felt.
Brecht fashioned the play in 10 rounds, like a boxing match. The eleventh round should be viewed as the winner's speech, not as a part of the duel itself. The latent homosexual conflict in the play can be loosely ascribed to Brecht's interest in the affair between the poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. It is important that the "outcome" in this Chicago fight ring really has no winners. One combatant is vanquished, but we learn that his ultimate desire is to be defeated. The victor, a younger man whose sacrifices of family and freedom allow him to win, survives but realizes he misses the emotional high of the duel.
Jungle of Cities was written before Brecht had embraced Communism or fully formulated his theories of epic theater and alienation. Thus the play is a sort of parable transformed into a poetic creed; the brashness and starkness stand out in every scene. Intermingled with the freewheeling sex is an innate existential fear that life is meaningless. The play should not be read as a class struggle, even though Brecht was later to claim that class conflict was the real issue all along even if he did not know it at the time of writing.