Arkadi the singer sits on the floor with a notebook in his hand. A group of listeners surround him. As he begins to tell his story, it becomes evident that he has told this particular story over and over again. Arkadi sings of a bloody time, long ago, during which a Governor named Georgi Abashwili ruled a Caucasian city which was nicknamed “City of the Damned.” The Governor was wealthy and prosperous, with a beautiful wife, Natella, and a healthy baby named Michael.
It is clear that this story is well-known to Arkadi—it is both one he cherishes and one he perhaps must sing again and again in order to instill the lessons about justice and reason that it teaches. The story begins with the wealthy Governor of a “damned” city, establishing as a major theme the injustice of the gap between the rich and the poor.
On Easter Sunday, the Governor and his family attend church, where they encounter commoners and beggars who implore the governor to lower taxes and end the war their country is fighting. The governor, flanked by Ironshirts—his soldiers and guards—approaches the church with Natella and Michael, who is pushed through the crowd in an ornate carriage. The crowd of peasants scrambles and struggles to catch a glimpse of the child.
The wealthy Governor and his family push through a crowd of their poor and downtrodden constituents. These people are desperate for a glimpse of the “noble child,” whose life even as an infant is far more opulent and luxurious than theirs will ever be.
As the family enters the church, the Fat Prince greets them, and wishes a happy Easter to Georgi, Natella, and their Michael, playfully tickling the child. Natella tells the Fat Prince of her husband Georgi’s plan to tear down a cluster of “wretched slums” in order to make room for a garden and a new wing of their residence. The Fat Prince proclaims the decision “good news after so much bad,” and asks about the war, which does not seem to be going well. The Fat Prince insists that even “minor reverses” in the tide of war are to be expected, and do not mean a thing.
As the Governor and his family converse with another wealthy, powerful individual of the noble class, they discuss the wretchedness of the poor and the banality of war, even as their desperate and starving citizens surround them. The scene is a bitter commentary on the callousness of the rich and powerful to the suffering of others at the hands of poverty and war.
The baby begins to cough, and Natella grows concerned. She turns to Michael’s doctors—who are with the family always—and the doctors vow to pay more careful attention to the child’s health, ushering the family into the church as they think that perhaps a draft has caused the child’s cough.
Michael’s every cough and sneeze is treated as a serious issue, and he is pampered and cared for every second of the day—in stark comparison to the poor and unwashed who live in the “wretched slums” nearby, and whose lives are not valued by the Governor at all.
While Natella, Michael, their servants, and the Fat Prince proceed into the church, the Governor is held behind by an officer named Shalva to receive a confidential message, which has just arrived from the capital via a rider on horseback. The Governor tells Shalva that he will hear the message after services, and confesses his suspicion over the Fat Prince’s kind words toward him and his family.
The Governor’s ignorance will be his downfall. He has ignored the suffering of his people, and now chooses to ignore a potentially important bit of news despite his suspicions about the Fat Prince.
Arkadi turns the focus of the story to a kitchen maid and a solider from the palace guard who flirts with her as she returns to the city from the river with a bundle in her arms. The girl’s name is Grusha Vashnadze. The soldier, Simon Shashava, teases her about not attending church. She tells him that she had to fetch another goose for the Governor’s Easter banquet. When he is suspicious, she shows him the goose. The two exchange flirtations, and Simon expresses his desire to watch Grusha dip her legs in the river the next time she goes down there. Grusha, embarrassed, runs off toward the palace.
Simon and Grusha are members of the servant and soldier class. Thus, while the wealthy attend church services, Grusha and Simon must attend to preparing their meals and ensuring their safety. Still, they manage to find human connection with one another despite the difficult and often dehumanizing nature of their assigned roles in the society they inhabit.
Arkadi turns his focus back to the Governor’s palace, where he says a trap has been laid for the governor. The Fat Prince signals to a group of soldiers, and orders them to surround the palace. As church bells ring in the distance, the Governor, his family, and their entourage return home from the service. Natella continues talking about the expansion to the palace, while a group of prominent architects arrive to attend the banquet. The architects express their surprise that the Governor intends to add onto the palace, since they have heard that the war in Persia is not going well. Shalva assures the architects that these are only rumors.
As unrest closes in on the palace and it becomes clear that the Fat Prince is planning an assault, the ignorant Natella continues to dream of the ways in which she can improve her own already-luxurious life, with little thought for those suffering abroad at war or even in her own town. In this way, the impending assault is shown to be a consequence of the painful naïveté of the ruling class regarding what actually goes on in the world.
Inside the palace, there is “the shrill scream of a woman.” When Shalva approaches the palace gates, an Ironshirt soldier emerges and points a lance at him. Shalva is confused, but the architects proclaim that there has been a coup, led by the Fat Prince and his brother. The Princes met last night in the capital, and decided that they were against the Grand Duke and his governors. The architects rush off to save themselves. Shalva reprimands the Ironshirt, urging him to attend to the Governor, whose life is in danger, but the soldier, clearly having sided with the Fat Prince, does nothing.
The Fat Prince’s coup is well underway, and as he seizes power over the Governor’s palace, those present either flee for their lives or commit to a side—both of which seem utterly corrupt, concerned only with amassing and asserting power. As Brecht will demonstrate over the course of the play, it barely matters who holds power in a world where every leader is equally as corrupt and lacking in concern for their constituents.
Arkadi begins to sing of the “blindness of the great,” and the ways in which those in power perceive themselves to be gods. They trust in “hired fists” and do not realize that just because a certain power has lasted a long while, that does not mean it will last forever.
Arkadi sings of the Governor’s “blindness” to the situation around him, and of how he could have perhaps predicted the unhappiness and the unrest that surrounded him if only he had not been so self-obsessed and unconcerned with the plight of others.
The Governor is brought out from the palace in chains, led by two Ironshirts who are “armed to the teeth.” Arkadi sings tauntingly of the Governor’s fall from power. He does not need an architect now, Arkadi says, but perhaps only a carpenter. The Governor is led away, while an alarm begins to sound from within the palace. Arkadi warns that when a great house collapses, often the “little ones” are slain.
The palace servants pour into the courtyard, nervously discussing their fates. Some fear they will be slaughtered, while others are certain that the Governor is simply being called to a meeting between the Princes, and that everything will be all right shortly. The doctors enter the courtyard and fight amongst themselves. One doctor expresses loyalty toward the family, while the other plans to leave and save his own skin; he does not want to stay behind on the account of a “little brat,” and he leaves.
Those close to the noble family have, in some cases, been corrupted by their proximity to power. They no longer care about loyalty or the needs of others, having been exposed to the Governor’s narcissism for so long. Corruption, Brecht suggests, rots the moral core of society beginning at the highest levels.
Simon appears, and searches for Grusha. He finds her and asks her what she plans to do. She tells him that she is going to stay put for as long as she can, but that if things worsen, she has a brother in the mountains she can go to for help. Simon expresses his loyalty to Natella, despite the fact that the Palace Guard has mutinied against the Abashwilis. Grusha tells Simon that he is running headlong into danger for no reason at all, and she attempts to leave for the third courtyard, where the servants are assembling food and supplies.
Grusha and Simon, both good and just individuals, express their intention to remain loyal to the rulers they serve—despite the fact that those rulers themselves are corrupt and unjust, and despite the fact that remaining loyal to them puts Simon and Grusha themselves in greater danger.
Simon stops Grusha from leaving and asks if she still has living parents—Grusha tells him that it is just her and her brother. Simon asks if Grusha is healthy—she tells him that although she has a bad shoulder, she is still young and strong. Simon asks Grusha whether she is an impatient person, and she tells him that she is not. Simon tells her he has one final question for her, and she tells him hurriedly that her answer to his next question is yes. Embarrassed, Simon continues with his questioning. He assures Grusha that he is healthy, makes a good deal of money, and then asks for her hand in marriage. Grusha accepts.
Grusha and Simon know little about one another, but their love for one another and commitment to one another is shown to be a pure and good side effect of a chance encounter. Their brief courtship and nontraditional engagement demonstrate Brecht’s desire to cast off and reinvent traditional rituals and customs in society.
Simon shows Grusha a cross on a chain made of silver, and asks her to wear it. He urges her to head for the third courtyard, and tells her that he is going to take Natella to the troops that have remained loyal to the Governor’s family. Simon assures Grusha that he will be back for her in just two or three weeks. Grusha promises Simon that she will wait for him. They bow to one another, and Simon leaves.
Simon and Grusha pledge themselves to one another despite the chaos and unrest swirling around them. Although the immediate future is uncertain, they know that they will be true to one another, and this promise seems to be a balm against the uncertainty and discord that has rapidly consumed their world just as they were beginning to fall for one another.
Natella emerges from the castle, surrounded by servants who carry her many belongings. One servant woman carries Michael in her arms. Natella asks Shalva if any news has come from the capital. Shalva tells her none has come, but that there is no time to waste—she needs to be on her way, and cannot take so many things with her. Natella orders her servants to open her trunks, and she begins picking her favorite things out of them. As the servants hurriedly unpack Natella’s belongings, she becomes frustrated with their clumsiness, and begins beating one of her young servants.
Natella’s cruelty and self-obsession are highlighted in this passage, as she seems concerned only with preserving her comfort and appearance, even in the face of real, imminent danger to her family. She is cruel to her servants in a desperate and chaotic time, even as her servants continue to show loyalty toward her in the midst of a coup. Brecht clearly does not take a very high view of the rich and powerful.
Shalva tells Natella that shots have been fired in the city, and that it is time to leave. Natella continues rummaging through her trunks, and tells the servant holding Michael to put the child down and go retrieve a pair of saffron boots from her bedroom—she cannot find them in the messily-packed cases. Shalva attempts to pull Natella away from her expensive dresses, telling her that riots are breaking out and there is no time to pick through her belongings. Natella calls to one of her servants to get the baby ready to leave, seemingly having forgotten that she sent the girl who had been in charge of Michael upstairs to retrieve her boots. Shalva tells Natella that they have waited too long, and now there is no time to even take the carriage. They are going to have to proceed on horseback.
Natella takes her cruelty one step further and orders the servant girl charged with watching her child to abandon him in order to procure something frivolous and unnecessary: her saffron boots. She seems completely unaware of the misery and chaos that surround her, or of the riots that are beginning just outside the palace walls.
The sky has turned red with flames from the city, and when Natella sees this she goes “rigid” with fear. Shalva pulls her onto his horse and takes her away. When Natella’s servant returns with the boots, she realizes that Natella has left Michael behind. She picks him up and holds him, then passes him off to Grusha so that she can run after Natella and Shalva and perhaps call them back to retrieve the child.
Realizing the severity of the situation, Natella freezes up. She has begun to understand the gravity of the moment, but is still unable to care for her child or those around her, and she allows herself to be carried away from the chaos without a second thought for her infant son’s well-being.
Some more servants emerge from the palace, and tell the rest that it is time to clear out. Grusha asks what has befallen the Governor, and one of the servants mimes a throat-cutting. A young serving-girl sees the baby in Grusha’s arms, and asks what she’s doing holding the child. Grusha tells her that Michael was left behind. One of the servants tells Grusha to put the child down and leave him, saying that he’d “rather not think” about what would happen to anyone who was found with Michael.
Grusha feels that she should take some responsibility for the abandoned child, but is warned of the harm that could befall her if she is found with him in her care. In this way, her decision about whether or not to take the child is framed as a question of what she is willing to risk to help those who can’t help themselves.
All the servants except for Grusha and two women—one young, and one old—leave. The women both warn Grusha to leave Michael behind, but Grusha tells them that Natella’s servant girl is going to come back for him. The women tell Grusha not to be stupid, and the older woman offers her a ride out of town on her husband’s ox cart. The two servants then hurry off to pack their things, and Grusha puts the baby down in a concealed place. When the women return with their bundles, they urge Grusha to hurry and pack. Grusha goes inside to gather her things. Then there is “the sound of horses,” and the two other servant women flee, without waiting for Grusha to join them.
Grusha decides to look out for herself and make sure that she gets out of the palace safely, but after she leaves Michael in the courtyard, she misses her chance. Brecht seems to be saying that cruel or selfish actions will never be rewarded, and that chance will always intervene to punish those who are only concerned with themselves.
The Fat Prince has arrived, flanked by drunken Ironshirts. One soldier has the Governor’s head on a spike. The Fat Prince orders the soldiers to nail the Governor’s head above the entry to the palace. The Fat Prince laments the fact that Natella took the “brat” away and says that he needs Michael “urgently.” The Fat Prince and his soldiers once again retreat through the palace gates and leave.
The Fat Prince has staked his claim to the Governor’s territory, and displays the man’s severed head above the entry to the palace he once owned as a statement of force. He expresses his desire to find Michael so that he can dispose of him, thus ensuring that the Governor’s heir is no longer a threat to his claim to power.
Grusha pokes her head out of the palace to look around and screams when she sees the Governor’s head. She gathers her things and prepares to leave, but suddenly she is “rooted to the spot.” Arkadi begins to sing. He describes in poetic words how Grusha hears the infant Michael calling to her for help and warns that those who ignore a cry for help will be cursed to never again hear a pleasant sound. Grusha, feeling guilty, goes to sit with the child. Arkadi says that she plans to sit with the child just for a moment, until someone returns for him, or until the city becomes too dangerous for her to stay any longer. As night begins to fall, Grusha settles in to watch the child overnight. When morning comes, Arkadi says, “the seduction [is] complete,” and Grusha carries the child away from danger.
After a difficult and emotional night, Grusha decides to take the abandoned infant Michael into her own care. In doing so, she expresses her selflessness and her commitment to justice, even in the midst of extreme chaos and terrible violence. Grusha, in this passage, establishes the concept of motherhood as a metaphor for leadership, such that one’s fitness as a mother can be seen as a direct commentary on their fitness as a leader and their goodness or justness as a person.