Arkadi sings of Grusha’s journey across the glacier. She traverses its icy surface and makes her way down the slopes that surround it for a week, comforting herself all the while with the thought of how, when she reaches her brother’s house, she and Michael will be embraced and welcomed.
Grusha has sacrificed her own safety and comfort for Michael, but no longer begrudges him this fact or sees him as a burden. Instead, she dreams of how together they will soon make it to safety and warmth.
When she finally arrives at her brother Lavrenti’s house, Grusha is so pale and weak that she has to be held up by a servant as she enters her brother’s home. Lavrenti introduces Grusha to his wife, Aniko. They are in the middle of eating dinner. They ask Grusha why she has left Nuka, and she tells them of the unrest there. Lavrenti asks Grusha if her baby has a father, and Grusha, weakened, can only shake her head “no.” Lavrenti tells Grusha quietly that the two of them will soon have to make up a story, as his wife is religious and will not have a fatherless child in her house.
Grusha does not receive the warm welcome she was expecting. In fact, her brother’s wife is judgmental and her brother is a coward, beholden to Aniko’s opinions and afraid to challenge her in order to make Grusha’s difficult journey any easier.
Grusha nearly faints, and Lavrenti rushes to her side. He tells his wife that she is on her way to her husband’s house. Grusha asks if she can lie down, and Aniko worries that Grusha is sick with consumption. Aniko asks if Grusha’s husband has a farm, and Grusha tells her that he is a soldier. Lavrenti, expanding upon the lie, adds that Grusha’s husband is about to inherit a small farm from his father. Aniko, confused, asks why Grusha is going to her husband’s house if he is away fighting in the war, but Lavrenti assures Aniko that Grusha plans to wait for her husband at his house on the other side of the mountain. While Grusha murmurs feverishly, trying to keep up with her brother’s lies, Aniko worries that Grusha has been stricken with scarlet fever.
Lavrenti lies to his wife in order to ensure that his sister has a place to stay. Aniko is obsessed with the ruin Grusha and the child stand to bring into her household, either in the form of sickness or shame. Brecht uses Aniko’s obsession with self-preservation to demonstrate the hypocrisy and corruption of the rich. Brecht felt it was important to highlight the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor, and the ways in which the rich attempt to fuel and expand that rift.
When Aniko leaves the room to check on dessert, Grusha hands Michael to her brother. Lavrenti holds the child, but tells Grusha that she cannot stay for long—he reiterates that his wife is a religious woman. Grusha collapses, overcome by weakness.
Grusha’s difficult journey has been put on pause for a moment, but she is overcome by the chilliness of the welcome she has received and its stark contrast from the warm, loving environment she’d envisioned for herself and her child.
Time passes. Grusha and Michael stay with Lavrenti and his wife through the winter. One day, while weaving in the basement, Grusha sings a song to Michael about a pair of lovers separated by war. Grusha tells Michael that the two of them must make themselves “as small as cockroaches,” so that Aniko will practically forget they are in the house.
Grusha and Michael have been able to hide themselves from Aniko within her own house, but life in hiding is hardly a life at all. Grusha compares herself and her son to cockroaches, realizing how small, vulnerable, and repulsive they must be to Aniko.
Lavrenti enters the basement, and, after checking to make sure that Grusha and Michael are not too cold, begins to tell Grusha that Aniko is very concerned about Grusha’s “husband.” Grusha and Michael have been in Lavrenti’s house for six months. Lavrenti tells Grusha that she and Michael must leave once the snow melts and spring arrives, and that Aniko has begun to wonder whether Michael is an illegitimate child. All throughout their conversation, raindrops have been falling steadily on the roof, but suddenly they become very loud, and Lavrenti warns Grusha that spring has already come.
Lavrenti seems to have love in his heart for his sister, but is so afraid of upsetting his wife that he puts a cap on Grusha’s stay. Almost as soon as he declares that they must leave when spring arrives, he notices that it already has, demonstrating his desire to get them out of the house as soon as possible.
Lavrenti tells Grusha that he has made some inquiries, and has found a man who can be her husband. Grusha protests—she wants to wait for Simon, her betrothed—but Lavrenti insists that Grusha needs a “man on paper.” He has found the son of a peasant woman who owns a nearby farm to pose as Grusha’s husband. The man, Lavrenti says, is about to die; he is practically “at his last gasp.” Grusha admits that she needs a “father” for Michael, at least on paper, and agrees to the arrangement. Lavrenti leaves the basement, and Grusha tenderly but bitterly tells Michael that her life would be easier if she had just left him alone in the palace courtyard on that fateful Easter Sunday.
Lavrenti, though unable to help his sister by allowing her to stay any longer, has at least attempted to arrange a situation for her which will allow her to keep her child and remain hidden. Grusha is reminded of the ways in which her life has been made more difficult by Michael’s presence, but she loves him a great deal nonetheless and continues to sacrifice for him as she agrees to her brother’s plan.
Arkadi changes the scene to the cottage of a peasant woman and her dying son. Grusha’s new mother-in-law pulls Grusha into the cabin quickly, afraid her son will die before they can marry him to Grusha. When she sees Michael, though, she hesitates, worried that bringing a woman who already has a child into her family will bring her great shame. Lavrenti offers to pay the woman extra for Grusha’s dowry, and promises that the woman (and not Grusha) will inherit her son’s farm when he dies—Grusha simply needs a place to stay for a couple of years. The peasant woman goes off to find the monk she has hired to perform the marriage.
Grusha is thrust into a chaotic scene as she is forced to quickly marry a dying man. Her new mother-in-law is entering into this deal to save herself and her farm and to earn a bit of money while she’s at it. Grusha is similarly desperate; thus, both women enter into a mutually beneficial contract that exploits the unfortunate circumstances of a dying man.
Grusha asks Lavrenti to promise her that he will send Simon right to her, if Lavrenti should find him. Lavrenti agrees to do so. The peasant woman returns with the monk, and finds that some curious neighbors have gathered outside her cottage. She shoos them away, and the marriage ceremony begins. Although the dying man cannot answer his marriage vows, his mother assures the monk that he said “I do” very quietly. Once the marriage is official, Lavrenti departs. Grusha’s new mother-in-law introduces her to all the neighbors, who have already begun to gossip about Grusha’s origins and the presence of her illegitimate son.
The marriage is hasty and certainly questionable, though it becomes clear from the way the wedding guests immediately begin to gossip about Grusha that she needs whatever help she can get in hiding her son from the prying eyes of those who might wish to do the “noble child” harm.
The monk makes a speech in which he proclaims that all the wedding guests also stand before a funeral bed. Grusha’s mother-in-law laments having hired such a cheap and tactless priest. Meanwhile, Grusha’s new husband sits up in bed for a minute to stare at his mother and his bride before sinking back down into unconsciousness. Three musicians arrive, and tell Grusha’s mother-in-law that the monk has sent for them. The peasant woman, infuriated, asks the monk how he could have possibly brought a band to a funeral, but then calms down and tells the musicians they might as well play.
The scene grows even more chaotic and absurd as the low-rent monk and his motley band, hired to perform the wedding, attempt to double things up and also prepare the gathered guests for a funeral. In this comical and farcical bit, Brecht is commenting on the absurdity of both the legal ritual of marriage and the religious ritual of a funeral by showing the monk attempting to combine the two.
The musicians play for a while and then stop. When the music ends, the guests at the wedding are gossiping loudly about some news: the Grand Duke has returned, but the Princes remain against him. Apparently, the Grand Duke has been lent a large Persian regiment to help him restore order and reclaim his dominion over Grusinia. Thus, the war is over, and all the soldiers will soon return home. Grusha, overhearing the news, drops a cake pan on the ground.
Grusha realizes that perhaps she has married for nothing. No sooner than her vows have been sealed, news comes that the war is over, and she realizes that Simon will perhaps soon be on his way home to her. In this way, the characters’ lives seem dictated more by chance and chaos than by order and reason, and nothing is stable for long.
Grusha, stunned, sits down and asks weakly if the news is true. A guest assures her that it is. Grusha kneels and begins to pray, kissing the silver cross she wears around her neck. The wedding guests continue to discuss the war, and Grusha’s new husband sits upright once again. He begins berating his mother for serving so many cakes, and asks her if she thinks he’s made of money—while his mother looks at him “aghast,” the man demands to meet the woman to whom he has just been married off. He climbs out of bed and begins staggering through the house. The guests, all alarmed, begin to leave, and the man—named Jussup—urges them to go, telling them they won’t get any more free food from his house.
Events take an even more startling turn when the dying man (whom Grusha has married with the intention of immediately bidding him farewell) suddenly awakens from his state of unconsciousness and begins ordering her and her new mother-in-law around. It seems that, in a whirlwind of new developments, chance and chaos have intervened once again, and once again Grusha’s life is going to look very different than she thought it would.
While Jussup eats cake, Arkadi sings about the awkwardness of the situation. Grusha is newly married, even as her lover, the soldier Simon, is on his way home to her.
Grusha is caught in a swirl of chaos and irony which, for the sake of her child, she cannot escape. Not only has the war ended sooner than planned, but Grusha’s “dying” husband suddenly seems alive and well.
Some time has passed. Jussup takes a bath, aided by his mother, but he calls for Grusha, stating that the task of bathing him is now his wife’s work. He demands that Grusha scrub his back, and asks her where her child came from. He has more or less ignored Michael for a while, but now his patience has run out. He berates and belittles Grusha, whom he claims is both his wife and not his wife. He tells her that Simon is never coming for her, and expresses his disgust for the fact that Grusha is “cheating” him out of sex and intimacy.
Grusha’s new life is difficult and demanding, and she has sacrificed her independence and happiness for the sake of her son’s safety in a larger sense than ever before. Brecht uses Grusha’s downward spiral to highlight several of the problems he sees in society: misogyny, individual selfishness, and normative expectations for marriage and family, to name a few.
Arkadi, signaling the passage of even more time, sings a song in which he describes Grusha waiting and waiting for Simon to come for her, but he never does, and with each “passing moon” his face and voice grow dimmer in her mind.
Grusha, though she waits and waits for Simon, feels her faith in the idea that he will ever return to her growing fainter and fainter as she accepts the reality of her new situation.
Grusha washes linens in a stream while, nearby, an older and more grown-up Michael plays with some other children his age. The children play a game in which the Fat Prince cuts off the Governor’s head. In the game, Michael is the Governor, but he longs to be the Fat Prince. The children allow Michael to switch parts, and Michael mimes cutting off another boy’s head. Grusha watches the children’s violent game, and when they all scatter and begin to chase each other, she notices Simon standing on the opposite bank of the river.
Grusha watches as the children play a violent game which glamorizes the events of the Governor’s violent removal from power. Her child plays along innocently and enthusiastically, unaware that the story he is playacting is the story of his father’s death, and thus also of his own misfortune. That he plays this game unaware of these truths highlights the dramatic way in which his fate was altered by the coup.
Simon and Grusha greet each other happily but with a stiff formality. Grusha thanks God that Simon has returned from the war in good health. Simon and Grusha warm up to one another and begin to flirt a little bit as Simon asks Grusha if she has forgotten their love, and Grusha assures him that she has not. She tells him, however, that she can never return to Nuka, since she assaulted an Ironshirt and has since been married. She asks Simon to cross the bridge between them so that she can better explain all that has come to pass, but Simon is despondent, and realizes aloud that he has come for her too late.
Simon and Grusha, initially thrilled to see one another, both realize that perhaps things have changed too much for them to be together. Too much time has passed, and Grusha was unable to wait for Simon to return to her—though not for the reasons he may think. As the audience knows, Grusha never stopped loving and waiting for Simon, but chaos, chance, and circumstance intervened and forced her hand.
Arkadi sings the things that Simon and Grusha cannot say out loud to one another. He sings the story of Simon’s time in the war, witnessing bloody battles and the deaths of his comrades. Simon notes that there is a small hat in the grass, and asks if there is already a child. Grusha admits that there is, but that it is not hers. Arkadi then sings Grusha’s private thoughts. He sings of how Grusha found Michael while Simon was away at war, and did not have the heart to abandon him, though in order to raise him she has had to “break [her]self for that which was not [hers.]”
Simon and Grusha cannot say all that they would like to say to one another, so it is up to Arkadi to clue the audience in to how each of them really feels. There is too much hurt and angst between Simon and Grusha, but Arkadi makes it clear that they still long deeply for one another. Brecht shows that such love has the potential to be a healing force after the destruction of war, but leaves it open as to whether their love will ultimately be enough.
Simon tells Grusha to give him back the cross he gave her on the day of their engagement. Then he changes his mind, and tells her to throw it into the river. Grusha begs Simon not to leave, again imploring him to believe that the child is not hers. She hears the sound of Michael and the other children calling in the distance. In reply, she asks what the matter is, and the children’s voices cry that soldiers have come to take Michael away.
Grusha’s fears about disappointing Simon and losing him once again are interrupted when her child’s life—for which she has sacrificed everything and “broken” herself—is once again at risk despite all her efforts to protect it. In this moment, it seems she must choose which is more important: romantic love or motherly love.
Two Ironshirts appear, with Michael held captive between them. The soldiers ask Grusha if Michael is her child, and she tells them that he is. At this, Simon turns and leaves. Grusha calls out for him to stay. The soldiers tell Grusha that they have orders to take the child back to the city, and that they know his true identity. They hand Grusha a sealed warrant, and lead Michael away. Grusha runs after them.
The soldiers catch Grusha in a lie—a lie, moreover, which only serves to hurt Simon and make him run away. As Grusha realizes more fully what is happening to her, she follows the soldiers back toward Nuka, willing to do whatever it takes to protect her child.
Arkadi sings again, narrating that, as the Ironshirts take the child back to the city, Grusha follows them back to the “dreaded” Nuka to fight against Natella for custody of the child. Arkadi wonders whether a good judge or a bad one will be assigned to the case, noting that the city is “in flames,” or in great ruin. A man name Azdak, Arkadi says, will be in the judge’s seat.
Arkadi is about to leave aside Grusha’s narrative for a moment in order to better explain who Azdak is, and in doing so, to show what kind of judge Grusha will face when she arrives in Nuka to sit trial.