Caucasian Chalk Circle: Essay & Questions
What is Brecht’s concept of epic theater?
Because Brecht was a Marxist, he did not like the classical Aristotelian concept of theater as a drama focusing on the story of individual characters. In traditional drama, the audience has a vicarious experience through identification with certain characters that ends with an emotional catharsis. The audience leaves with its personal experience of the drama and does not think about society as a whole. Brecht’s epic theater hopes to do the opposite—it increases the scope to let the audience witness, rather than identify with, the forces of history, and thereby creates a rational reflection on social conditions. Brecht wanted a critical response that would make spectators want to change the world. Theater should be a teaching and political forum.
In order to create this new theater, Brecht breaks the dramatic illusion of reality. The spectators should be reminded they are watching a constructed play (such as the play within a play in Caucasian Chalk Circle), because they should understand that all reality is a human construct, and thus can be changed. One way to break the dramatic illusion is through the “alienation” or “defamiliarization” effect. The event portrayed is made strange in different ways, such as having characters address the audience directly, or by the use of harsh lighting, by having songs comment on the action, by using camera projections and signs, by speaking the stage directions aloud, or by having a narrator on stage. Brecht also uses what he called “separation of the elements,” in which the words, music, and sets are self-contained artistic expressions, combining to produce an overlapping montage rather than a unified effect. Brecht was influenced by the subject matter and techniques of Charlie Chaplin and Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. He learned the techniques of avant-garde theater from his mentor, Erwin Piscator.
In addition, his epic theater expressed Marxist ideals by being a theater collective rather than the work of individuals. The playwright exchanged ideas with composers, artists, singers, and actors. Brecht wrote the text with such collaborators as Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, Ruth Berlau, and Emil Burri. Brecht’s techniques have influenced other writers and filmmakers such as Peter Brook, Peter Weiss, Robert Bolt, Jean-Luc Godard, Nagisa Oshima, and Lars von Trier.
How does Marxism influence The Caucasian Chalk Circle?
Brecht was a Marxist, and his work reflects this philosophy, formulated by Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), the most famous statement of which is The Communist Manifesto (1848). Marxism is a materialist philosophy that denies any supernatural forces shaping human life. History is therefore a struggle between classes for the means of production and distribution of goods. Marx criticized capitalism as exploiting the workers, because ownership was in the hands of the few. The laborers have to sell their services to capitalists and are not given a fair share of what they themselves produce. Private ownership, Marx felt, must be abolished to create a fair society. Marx advocated revolution by the proletariat or workers against the bourgeoisie, or capitalists, to advance to the next stage of civilization in which the workers would dominate. He saw civilization evolving in stages (the historical dialectic): first, primitive or tribal communism; then slavery with an aristocracy; feudalism with peasants and lords; capitalism with bourgeosie and proletariat; socialism where private property was abolished; and finally, true communism where there would be no property and no supervising state. Inequality would be abolished for good.
Exploitation is demonstrated in the play with Grusha and the other servants and peasants doing all the work, and the Governor and his wife doing nothing to contribute to society. The Marxist concept of alienation is demonstrated by the ruling classes losing their humanity or feeling of kinship with others. The Governor’s wife only sees her child as the means to get the inheritance. The ruling classes are contrasted with the common people who appear more human; the rulers seem monstrously selfish and insensitive. The military and the judges support the princes and governors. Even as the princes fight among themselves for power and create chaos with their wars, the common people suffer, and no government is better than another. According to Marxism, however, the forces of history are not static, and we hear of the revolt of the carpet weavers in Nukha in Scene Five. Their revolt is short-lived, but when Azdak becomes the Judge and rules in favor of the poor people, it predicts the time coming when the people will be victorious.
What is the underlying structure of the play and what is the purpose of the prologue?
Brecht uses a frame story in the prologue, where the workers of the Rosa Luxemburg Commune are putting on the Chalk Circle play. In the main drama, Brecht cobbled together two tales into one: part one sets up the chalk circle motif of the rival mothers derived from a fourteenth century Chinese play and the judgment of Solomon in the Bible (told in scenes 2-4, 6), and part two is Azdak’s story that resolves the dilemma (scenes 5-6), apparently derived from Brecht’s own imagination and folklore.
There had already been a version of “The Chalk Circle” in German by Alfred Henschke (also known as Klabund) in 1925, which differed from Brecht’s by making the biological mother win the test. Brecht disliked Klabund’s sentimental tone and worked on his own revision of the story, experimenting with settings in Denmark and Germany, before choosing to set the story in medieval Georgia, with the prologue in Soviet Georgia, after World War II. At first, the frame story took place in 1934 without reference to the Nazis, but then, he moved the time of the frame story to after the war. Using Soviet Georgia as the frame in the prologue caused problems in the United States where the play was first performed in English during the Cold War. The play had to be performed without the prologue referring to the Soviet communes, leaving it as a mere retelling of the fables.
Brecht felt this destroyed the play and thereafter the prologue was treated as a vital part rather than a tacked-on afterthought, as some claimed it was, to make the play more Communist. The prologue is necessary because it sets up the occasion for the telling of the chalk circle story, and Brecht wanted the setting to be a real one: “this parable-like play has got to be derived from real-life needs” (Notes by Brecht, p. 104).
Brecht claimed that the fable the Singer tells the workers is not meant to be a literal parable. The two Communist collectives arguing over a piece of land solve their differences amicably without war before the play starts, and the story is a simply a celebration of their just decision. Brecht calls the prologue a “background” and the fable a “true narrative” that contains “a particular kind of wisdom” (Notes by Brecht, p.100). The Singer Arkadi says, “old and new wisdom mix very well” (sc. 1, p. 8).
The foreground of the play (the chalk circle story) and the background of the play (the modern Soviet communes) come together to display the forces of history. The workers in present-day Soviet Georgia hear a tale about their ancestors in medieval Georgia who were exploited. The fair judging of Azdak in favor of the peasants foretells their own time of greater justice under the Soviet collective system.
How are the characters of Grusha and Azdak important to the message of the play?
Brecht comments on Grusha that she is a “sucker” (Notes by Brecht, p. 100) for taking on the child since it nearly costs her own life and dreams. Grusha, like the workers and peasants, only pays and pays and pays without getting anything back, for the child is not even hers. She is a “producer” who gets none of the fruits, like the proletariat. Brecht comments that Grusha does not expect justice from Azdak; she just wants “to go on producing, in other words to pay more” (p. 101). After the hearing, “She is no longer a sucker” (p. 101). Like the other poor people Azdak has helped, she gets back some of the fruits of her labor and gets back her self-respect. She is accepted by Simon, though she had to break her promise to wait for him, for the sake of the child.
Their new family unit represents a constructed or just family that rejects the old prejudices and notions of ownership. The child is divorced from a mother that only wants to gain money from it and given to the woman who loves it. Grusha is divorced from the farmer who married her for his own convenience and given to a man who loves her. Simon takes on a woman and a child who are not technically “his” in the conventional sense, but he appreciates them and is the proper father and husband. This accords with the Marxist idea of economics and justice, of reassigning property and social roles to be more just and fair. It does not matter what went before or who has “owned” something in the past.
On the other hand, Grusha has earned her reward. Brecht remarks that “Bit by bit, by making sacrifices, not least of herself, Grusha becomes transformed into a mother for the child” (p. 104). Like the people themselves who make sacrifices, suddenly the tide turns, as Marx predicts. Through small quantitative changes, there is a sudden qualitative change. This is the historical dialectic, the process of evolution, and the character of Azdak becomes the means for that to happen in the play. In every case he judges, there is a sudden shift from the side of the dominant landowner to the poor peasant.
Azdak is the trickster figure who turns the law upside down. His Robin Hood justice is the Marxist kind that will be rendered by the sudden shift of history, illustrated by the carpet weaver’s revolution in Nukha. Brecht’s directions call for an actor who can portray “an utterly upright man” (p. 102) to play the part of Azdak. He is “a disappointed revolutionary posing as a human wreck, like Shakespeare’s wise men who act the fool” (p. 102). But, Brecht comments, “Azdak is the disappointed man who is not going to cause disappointment in others” (p. 105). He risks his life, like Grusha, to be human and to make a difference. That is the only way justice can come, Brecht insinuates.
5. What were the intitial conditions of writing and performing the play?
“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” was written in 1944 while Brecht was in exile in America. He intended it for Broadway, though he detested the commercial basis of Broadway shows. Some of his other plays at this time were also written as though they were Broadway musicals (like Galileo) though they were never produced as such. He did acknowledge being inspired by American burlesque for comic effects.
Brecht says in his notes on the play that direct statements are important for epic theater and this explains the poetic economy of the characters’s speeches. He wrote the part of Grusha for Luise Rainer, a Viennese actress, who had already appeared in Klabund’s version of the play. Rainer and Brecht quarreled before the play was produced. He then changed Grusha from a sugary sweet character to a tougher character. He felt that motherhood had to be redefined from a biological role to a social role. Grusha is thus heroic, risking more for the child and therefore, deserving the name of mother.
The play premiered in English at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, by students in 1948, and later that same year had a professional playing at the Hedgerow Theater in Philadelphia, directed by Eric Bentley.
Brecht asked the playwright Christopher Isherwood to translate the play, but when he did not, theater critic and playwright, Eric Bentley, a friend and admirer of Brecht’s, made the first English translation from German. He left out the Communist prologue because of Brecht’s summons to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington in October, 1947, to answer for his Communist sympathies. Brecht showed up in overalls smoking a cigar and actually made the Committee laugh. He left for Germany the next day and never returned to America. Brecht himself requested the prologue be omitted when the play was first published because of the political tension. He insisted later that it was vital to the play and not optional. The prologue was not played in the United States until 1965.
It became the favorite Brecht play in America, perhaps because it has a happy ending, an unusual occurrence in his plays. It was not premiered in Germany until 1954 with Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. It has remained one of his best and most performed plays in the world.