Caucasian Chalk Circle:Summary of “Prologue” or Scene One
Text: Bertolt Brecht, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Translated from German by James and Tania Stern, with W. H. Auden. Edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim. Arcade Publishing, 1994.
Note: Some editions of the play are divided into five acts and a prologue. This edition numbers the acts as “scenes” and makes the prologue into scene one, with a total of six scenes.
Summary of “Prologue” or Scene One
Two groups of peasants sit in the ruins of a village in Soviet Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains after World War II. An Expert from the State Reconstruction Commission is there to help them mediate a dispute over which worker’s commune should have the land in the valley. Both groups have fought Hitler during the war and congratulate each other on the victory. The peasant group on the right originally owned the valley and herded goats there, and now they want to come back, feeling the valley belongs to them since they had been there a long time. The peasant group on the left is a group of fruit farmers from another valley. They want to plant fruit trees in this valley and make it agriculturally productive. The government Expert says he will listen neutrally to both groups' arguments and asks them to come to some amicable agreement among themselves.
The peasants on the right from the Galinsk Goat Commune unpack some cheese and invite everyone to taste it. They are complimented on the taste, but they claim that the cheese is inferior since they left the valley. The grass is better here for the goats. They invoke the law of prior possession. They have always been in this valley
The group on the left is the Rosa Luxemburg Fruit Growers Commune. Kato, an agriculturist, shows the irrigation plans that would allow them to produce ten times as much fruit as before the war. They could convert 700 acres of infertile land into fertile land. Everyone agrees the plans look good. The Expert asks the workers on the right if they will give up the valley, and they agree.
The Rosa Luxemburg Commune has brought in the Singer Arkadi Cheidze to sing and perform a play in which they will all take part. This will be a celebration and also comment on their right to have the valley. Arkadi says he will sing a tale called “The Chalk Circle” which comes from the Chinese, but adapted to this situation. The peasants retire into the Club House to eat and hear the play.
Commentary on the “Prologue” or Scene One
Brecht uses the device of a “play within a play.” The frame story is set in the Soviet Union in the country of Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains, hence the name “Caucasian Chalk Circle.” An earlier version of the play was called “Augsburg Chalk Circle” when it was set in Germany. The main play itself, put on by The Singer, musicians, and the workers from the Rosa Luxemburg Commune, will look back to medieval Georgia with its princes and governors, showing the workers their own history. It will be a parable or teaching story that will make several important points. The Singer, Arkadi Cheidze, takes the part of a narrator, providing the links to the dramatized action scenes. He and the musicians and actors also comment on the action with their songs. In his role as narrator, the Singer often tells the thoughts of characters and explains the time and scene changes. Many composers have made music to go with the lyrics, but often performers make up their own music.
The play elaborates on the dispute between the two communes who want the valley. The goat-herders use the argument that they were there first and have used the valley for the longest time. This is a key ownership question—who has the right to something? Someone who has held it traditionally, as the Goat Commune has held the valley, and by analogy, the medieval governors and princes who held the land in their families for generations, or should the land go to the one who makes the best use of it for the most people, such as the fruit growers? The decision to let the newcomers, the fruit growers, have the land because they are more productive and have the most to give will have a parallel in the chalk circle story of Grusha and the child Michael.
The political message of the prologue is clearly Communist, for capitalist law would rule for the original owner. Because of the Communist ideas, the prologue was originally not played in the United States.