The Grand Duke of Grusinia (Georgia) is involved in a foreign war in Persia when the play opens, yet the action focuses on the civil war at home caused by the coup of the Princes. While the aristocratic regimes come and go during the action of the play, the common people are always regarded as less than human. They suffer no matter who is in charge.
The Singer uses Governor Abashvili who is executed by his brother, the Fat Prince, as a warning to other aristocrats: “Oh blindness of the great! They walk like gods/ Great over bent backs, sure/ Of hired fists, trusting/ In their power which has already lasted so long” (Scene One, p.15). The soldiers or “hired fists,” like the Ironshirts, change loyalties with regimes and let themselves be used by the rich to persecute the poor. Simon Chachava is an exception to this, remaining loyal to the Duke. One of the most passionate denunciations of the upper classes is by the maid Grusha in Scene Six when she denounces Azdak the Judge and the justice system itself as a servant of the rich. She complains that the wealthy “drag our men into their wars” (p. 92). Simon’s memories of the war in Scene Four reinforce her complaint as he witnessed his brothers slain around him for the sake of the Duke’s cause.
Grusha tries to disguise herself as an upper class lady when she escapes, but she is found out when she knows how to make beds. The women look at her hands and know she works for a living. The servant at the inn sympathizes with her, saying, it is hard to pretend to be “a lazy useless person . . . once they suspect you can wipe your own arse . . . the game’s up” (Scene Three, p. 32). Natella Abashvili becomes the stereotyped and heartless noble lady who can only run around picking out the right dresses to pack and berating the servants while her husband is being executed and her son is abandoned.
In court, Natella’s notion of motherhood has to do with station. She wants her son back so they can be restored to their estate. She only notices what the child is wearing and is shocked to see him in rags. When Azdak asks Grusha if she wouldn’t like the child to be rich, she thinks to herself it is better for him to be poor than to mistreat the poor: “Hunger he will dread/ Not those who go unfed” (Scene 6, p. 94). He will not always have to be afraid of who is going to chop off his head, as was done to his father, because of a power struggle or because he was unjust to others.
What is it that can heal class divisions? The play answers that human sympathy makes everyone equally valuable. Grusha does not hate Michael because he is the son of the Governor, who oppresses everyone. She is won over because he is a baby, like any other: “He looks at you like a human being” (Scene 2, p. 23). When Grusha sits with the baby all night trying to consider what to do with it, she hears it call to her as if saying: “Don’t you know woman, that she who does not listen to a cry for help/ But passes by shutting her ears, will never hear/ The gentle call of a lover” (Scene 2, p. 24).
When she risks her life for the child’s, the Singer asks, “How will the merciful escape the merciless/ The bloodhounds, the trappers?” (Scene 3, p. 25). Grusha does get some sympathy along the highway. A peasant woman was willing to take the child until the Ironshirts came. The servant at the inn tried to give her food. The merchants wanted to help her cross the ravine or take the child so she could go on. Her brother gives her a roof for as long as he dares and arranges a marriage for her. Yussup takes in both her and the child without asking questions. She is given partial help but she is the one who has to sacrifice her whole life for Michael. The child would not have survived but for her. She wants to tell Simon this when he comes for her but only thinks it: “I had to tear myself to pieces for what was not mine/ But alien./ Someone must be the helper” (Scene 4, p. 60).
Grusha deserves to be Michael’s mother because of what she passes on to him. From her, his inheritance will not be money or rank, but wisdom: “I’ve brought him up according to my best knowledge and conscience . . . I brought up the child to be friendly with everyone. And from the beginning, I taught him to work as well as he could” (Scene 6, pp. 88, 89). She wants him to treat others humanely, and that is a priceless gift for him and the future. Azdak recognizes this humanity in Grusha, demonstrated by her unselfish letting go of the child’s arm so she won’t hurt it.
Azdak himself is the other great example of human sympathy as he risks his own life for two years to help the poor. It is a great and comic juggling act he performs with great humility. In the case of Granny, for instance, who claims the stolen cow, ham, and waiving of the rent were “miracles,” Azdak fines the farmers for not believing in miracles. He sits on the floor with Granny and the bandit, treating them as equals. He calls Granny “Little Mother” or “Mother Grusinia,” seeing her as the suffering poor. The Singer says, “So, so, so, so Azdak / Makes miracles come true” (Scene 5, p. 77). Miracles are not supernatural events for Brecht, but human acts.
The play uses the dilemma of the child, and the debate of the communes over the valley, to ask, what is Justice? Who should get the child? Who should get the land? Azdak the fool, who is made into a Judge, works his way through to an answer. It is not an expected or a ready-made answer, for, as the Singer comments, “Truth is a black cat/ In a windowless room at midnight/ and Justice a blind bat” (Scene 5, p. 75). Justice will never come from “willing Judges” like Prince Kazbeki’s nephew ( Scene 5, p. 75). Azdak’s antics, such as demanding bribes in the court from the rich, comments on the accepted corruption. He says, “It’s good for Justice to do it in the open” as he moves around in a caravan among the people (Scene 5, p. 75). Everything he does or says satirizes the court system. He asks Grusha, “You want justice, but do you want to pay for it? When you go to the butcher, you know you have to pay (Scene 6, p. 91). The rich are used to equating money and rank with truth, but it is their truth, not impartial Justice. Out of Azdak’s comic theater in the courtroom, he creates a crazy logic so that the people who need help get it, despite the law. “His balances were crooked,” says the Singer (Scene 6, p. 77).
Grusha, not understanding Azdak’s intent, scolds him for being corrupt. She claims that what would be true justice is to choose “only bloodsuckers and men who rape children” for judges as a punishment to make them “sit in judgment over their fellow men, which is worse than swinging from the gallows” (Scene 6, p. 92). Judging is a punishment to an unjust man who will only blacken himself with hypocrisy. This is the justice the poor are used to. Azdak’s reply to her is, “I’ve noticed that you have a weak spot for justice” (Scene 6, p. 93).
After Azdak rules in Grusha’s favor, the Singer states the principle of Justice that Azdak uses: “what there is shall belong to those who are good for it, thus/ The children to the maternal . . . the valley to the waterers” (Scene 6, p. 97). The play opens and closes with true justice served.