Bertolt Brecht was a German poet , playwright and theatrical reformer. He was born in 1898 and became one of the most prominent figures in the 20th-century theater. Bertolt Brecht was concerned with encouraging audiences to think rather than becoming too involved in the story line and to identify with the characters. Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsburg, the son of Beltold Brecht, the director of a paper company, and Sophie Brezing, the daughter of a civil servant. His father was a Catholic, and his mother a Protestant. Both parents hailed from Achern in the Black Forest. Brecht began to write poetry as a boy, and had his first poems published in 1914. Between 1919 and 1921 he wrote theatre criticisms for the left-wing Socialist paper Die Augsburger. After military service as a medical orderly, he returned to his studies, but abandoned them in 1921. During the Bavarian revolutionary turmoil of 1918, Brech wrote his first play, Baal. From this period also dates his poem, 'Legend of the Dead Soldier'. It was cited by the Nazis as one of their strong reasons to deprive him of German citizenship in 1935. Like several other poems, it was set to music by the author, and sung to the accompaniment of his guitar in a Berlin cabaret. Brecht's works have been translated into 42 languages and sold over 70 volumes. The Caucasian Chalk Circle was written in 1944 in Hollywood. Drawing on the Greek tradition, he wanted his theater to represent a forum for debate hall rather than a place of illusions. He aimed to take emotion out of the production, persuade the audience to distance from the make believe characters and urge actors to dissociate from their roles. Then the political truth would be more easy to comprehend. Once he said: "Nothing is more important than learning to think crudely. Crude thinking is the thinking of great men." Brecht formulated his literary theories much in reaction to Georg Lukács (1885-1971), a Hungarian philosopher and Marxist literary theoretician. He disapproved Lukács attempt to distinguish between good realism and bad naturalism. He died in 1956.
The Caucasus is a region that bridges Europe and Asia. The Caucasus is divided by the Caucasian mountain ranges into two regions:
The northern slopes of the mountains reach into Chechnya and other border states of the former Soviet Union
On the southern side of the mountains are the modern-day countries Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Grusinia, where The Caucasian Chalk Circle takes place, is a ﬁctionalized version of the modern day countries; Georgia and Azerbaijan towards the end of the WWII in 1944.
The play was translated to English by Eric Bentley.
The play is a comedy, with a happy ending.
The play is based on communism i.e. whoever can make the best use of resources in order to provide for others deserves to get the best of the resources.
Brecht shows communism through three stories;
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is derived from a circle Judge Azdak orders Shauwa to draw, “.............get a piece of chalk and draw a circle on the floor.” (pg 97). Its purpose is to determine Michael’s real mother. Both Natella Abashwili and Grusha Vashnadze desire custodian of the child. Shauwa is directed to place the child in the circle and the mother to hold him by the hands and pull him out. Whoever pulls him out of the circle would retain him.
It is ironical that Natella, Michael’s biological mother, is denied custody of the child when she pulls him out. Grusha declines to tear the child and consequently ends with the child. The title symbolically signifies the possibility of surrendering what might be rightfully yours for better utilization.
The play infers from both a Chinese play (Circle of chalk written in 1300 AD) and a biblical story (The judgement of Solomon- 1 Kings 3: 16-28)
In the Chinese story, a young girl, HAi-tang, bears a child as the second wife of a wealthy man. His first wife claims the child is her own. However, the second wife is judged the true mother when she refuses to pull the child apart in the test of the Chalk Circle.
In the biblical story, two women live in the same house and both bear a child. One baby dies in the night and its mother swaps him for the living baby. Both claim the living child is their own. Solomon orders that the child be cut in two and each half be given to each mother. The real mother of the child gives up the child rather than see him harmed and is judged to be the true mother.
The agriculturist and herders are seated in circles as they negotiate and in the end the herders agree to surrender their claim on the valley of Rosa Luxemburg since they would put it to better use.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle begins with a prologue which captures a dispute between two communities; the fruit growing and the goat farming one. The clash is over who should own and manage the valley. The Goat Farm Commune Group is the original owner who had relocated due to the advancing Hitler’s army. The fruit growing Commune has demonstrated interest in the piece of land. A delegate from Tiflis-the capital of the Soviet State of Georgia-has been sent to settle the dispute.
The Fruit Growing Collective Farm has made elaborate arrangements of irrigating the valley so as to make it more productive. The delegate awards the land to the fruit growers because they have plans to use the resources better despite the land originally belonging to the goat farming group.
Act one begins when the city of Grusinia has been taken over by the iron shirts and the governor, Georgi Abashwili, is beheaded in a coup that has been planned by his brother, the Fat Prince and his head fastened on a wall. The governor’s wife Natella flees and in the process abandons her child, Michael.
Fortunately, the kitchen maid Grusha salvages the child from the soldiers and the Fat Prince and escapes with him to her brother's place in the Northern Mountains, pursued by soldiers. She endures great suffering in the way, including hostile and uncooperative people. She finally gets to her brother’s place but he (the brother) insists that she must be married to an almost ‘dying’ man by the name Jussup. Jussup has faked illness to avoid taking part in the war. When it is announced that the war is over, Jussup miraculously recovers. Grusha is stuck with a husband she did not want. When Simon (Grusha’s lover) returns from the war, he discovers that Grusha is married and suspects that Michael is her child. Later, the child is taken away from her by some soldiers who claim that he belongs to Natella and he is taken back to the Caucasian village.
Through a flashback, the writer explains how the Grand Duke is sheltered by Azdak, later to be judge, soon after he escapes the bloody coup. However, Azdak is not aware that he is hiding a dangerous fugitive and fearing he might be branded a traitor he presents himself to the soldiers to be tried and soon wins their favour and is installed as judge.
Azdak judges four very weird cases, ruling in each case in favour of the poor. He soon gains reputation for supporting the poor. He serves for two years as a judge, before the return of the Grand Duke. He is arrested for being a ‘traitor’ and as the soldiers are about to kill him, he is saved by the Grand Duke who recalls that he saved his life. He reappoints him to be the judge.
The major case that Azdak handles is that of Grusha and the child. The governor’s wife wants Michael back because without him, she cannot take over the former Governor’s wealth. However, Grusha wants to keep the child because she has raised him for the past two years. Interestingly, even Simon offers to support her in the trial. When Azdak listens to the case, he orders a Chalk Circle to be drawn, after he learns what Grusha has done to the child. The child is placed in the middle and orders the two women to pull saying that whoever can pull him out of the circle will get him.
The governor’s wife pulls whereas Grusha lets go. This is repeated and finally, AZDAK gives Michael to Grusha. The governor’s wife is ordered to leave. Michael’s wealth is taken and made into public gardens.
The message the author is passing across is that resources should belong to those who make better use of them- the child to Grusha, just the same way the valley goes to those who will take care of it. In the end, Azdak divorces Grusha from Jussup, paving way for her to get married to Simon. Azdak disappears never to be seen again.
Summer of 1945
The play begins with a prologue (an introduction to a play) that captures a conflict between members of two collective farms both who claim a stake in a disputed valley. The two rivals are: Goat Farm Rosa Luxemburg and Fruit Farm Galinsk. The two are neighbours.
The goat herding commune claims to be the original owners of the disputed land until Hitler’s armies forced them to relocate. The fruit growing commune has laid down an elaborate plan to irrigate the valley for agricultural purposes. They intend to use a dam across the mountain lake and water seven hundred acres of infertile land and plan to plant vineyards and orchards there
A delegate from the State Reconstruction Commission from Tiflis-the capital city-has been sent to arbitrate on the dispute. He intimates that Goat Farm Rosa Luxemburg occupied the valley before moving East on orders from the government.
The Goat herding commune is now dissatisfied with their new grazing land which they claim is not palatable to their animals. They claim that the valley belongs to them from eternity and the law attests to that. However, members from the Fruit Farm Galinsk explain the reason why they deserve to own the valley.
An amicable solution is finally reached when the land is awarded to the Fruit growing commune and the two groups settle down to eat and drink. Entertainment soon follows when a legendary singer- Arkadi- is invited to perform an old Chinese song entitled, The Chalk Circle. This song is about two stories which have a bearing on their resolved dispute.
The prologue serves several functions; first, it gives the play a unique structure, secondly, enables the playwright to pass on his/her key message and the moral of the play to the reader or audience before he or she watches or reads it. Bertolt roots for communism, that whoever can make good use of something should keep it.
THE NOBLE CHILD
This part opens with Arkadi- the singer narrating a story about Georgi Abashwili, the governor in Grusinia and a rich man who owns numerous horses and soldiers. He is married to Natella and they have a son, Michael.
On the morning of the Easter Sunday, the governor’s family goes to church. At the gateway, he is confronted by many beggars and petitioners. Mothers hold emaciated children as people with clutches and petitions beg for money. They complain of high taxes, starvation and bribery. The governor ignores them and soldiers whip them with thick leather whips to keep them away.
Michael-the governor’s son and heir- is brought along and the crowd sees him for the first time. He is carried in a decorated carriage and is attended to by two doctors. Even the mighty Prince Kazbeki bows before him at the church door.
Natella informs the prince about the Governor’s plan of bringing down the slums to pave way for his garden. The governor has lost interest in the affairs of Grusinian people in spite of the raging war that is taking place. The governor even dismisses a messenger from the city bringing some confidential papers for him saying he can only attend to him after the service. Later the adjutant (an officer who acts as military assistant) informs the messenger that the governor does not wish to receive military news before dinner.
Grusha Vashnadze- governor’s kitchen maid- does not attend the service as she has to get a goose for the family’s banquet. She is seen talking to Simon Shashava, a soldier, who reveals that he often hides behind a bush to watch her dip her legs in the river as she washes her line.
Before the awaited dinner and a talk with the architects can take place, the palace is surrounded and the Governor arrested. George Abashwili is executed and the city is in bloodshed. Natella’s life is in danger. Servants rush out of the house trying to frantically salvage what they can. A scuffle erupts between the two family doctors over who should attend to the governor’s wife who has fainted.
Simon comes looking for Grusha. He aims at wooing her. The two have to part ways when Simon is ordered by the adjutant to guard Natella on her way to safety. He gives Grusha a silver chain that his mother had given him. She promises him that she would wait for him and remain faithful till their re-union.
The adjutant is seen trying to save Natella from danger but she is reluctant to go without her most valued essentials. The adjutant forces her on a horse back amidst complaints that she has left her wine-coloured dress. She leaves her child Michael behind who falls into the custody of Grusha the kitchen maid. As everyone flees, Grusha decides to hide the child under a blanket and keeps the baby company throughout the night. The following day she flees with the child from the Ironshirts who together with the Fat Prince are looking for the baby, “It’s a pity they took the brat along, though, I need him urgently.” (pg 28)
THE FLIGHT TO THE MOUNTAINS
The Singer accounts Grusha escape from the city to the Northern Mountains to save Michael from the Fat Prince and his soldiers. She is carrying Michael in a sack. She journeys along the Grusinian highway on the Northern Mountains after singing “The song of the Four Generals.” As lunchtime approaches, she has to look for a meal to feed the child. She buys milk from a peasant at two piasters, an equivalent to a week’s pay.
Having spent most of her money Grusha keeps on moving towards the north as the Iron shirts who want to kill Michael pursue her. The singer tells us that she then arrives at the River Sirra and with the burden of the child weighing on her; she decides to keep him at the doorstep of a farmyard after realising that the peasant woman has some milk. She anticipates the peasant will feed him and goes to hide behind a tree in order to watch what would happen.
When the peasant woman finds Michael at her door, she takes him into the house. She suggests to her husband that they keep the child but her husband tells her to give him to the local priest. As Grusha hurries off in the opposite direction she bumps on Ironshirts who demand to know where she is coming from. She lies that she is going to meet Simon Shashava. The ironshirts demand the whereabouts of Michael. Grusha gets scared and rushes back to the cottage where she had left the child and pleads with the peasant woman to hide it.
Initially the woman agrees to hide Michael but is immediately frightened by the presence of the soldiers. She reveals to the corporal that Grusha left the child on her doorstep. In desperation, Grusha seizes a log and hits the corporal on the head until he loses consciousness. She then grabs Michael and runs away.
In her flight from the Ironshirts, she finally reaches the foot of Janga-Tau Glacier after journeying for twenty-two days. She adopts Michael. She removes his silken shirt, throws it away and wraps him in rags. Finally, she arrives at the bridge on the glacier still pursed by the Ironshirts. One of the bridge’s rope is broken and half of the bridge is hanging down the abyss. Despite the danger, Grusha is determined to cross the bridge. Luckily they get to the other side of the bridge despite fears and warning by the merchants on the impending danger. She laughs triumphantly to her freedom as the Ironshirts pursuing her cannot cross the bridge. Finally she sings “The Song of the Child” (pg 41)
IN THE NORTHERN MOUNTAINS
After journeying across the glacier for another seven days, Grusha finally arrives at Lavrenti’s (her brother) house. She expects to be welcomed warmly but this is not the case. Her bother has to cook up a story to convince his religious wife that his sister is on her way to her husband’s place at the mountains.
To have Grusha leave the house, Lavrenti comes up with an idea of getting her a husband. He (Lavrenti) organizes to get her married to a “dying” man- Jussup at a fee of 400 piasters. The mother-in-law realizing there is a child demands for an additional 200 piasters for the wedding to proceed. The mother-in-law has hired a cheap monk to unite the two.
After the wedding, neighbours who came to witness the marriage ceremony are served with cakes as they gossip. From the gossiping visitors, news indicate that the Grand Duke has assembled an army to fight the princes that rebelled against him the previous year. When Grusha hears that the soldiers are coming back now that the war is over, she is in shock and drops a cake pan. Her worry being that Simon will come back and find she is married to another man. Once Jussup hears the war is over, he miraculously recovers.
Jussup gets out of bed and the visitors are shocked to see him. He orders them out of the house before kicking them out. Grusha finds herself in a tight position as she discovers she has a husband yet the man she loves is on the way. Furthermore, Jussup demands that she becomes more intimate with him and accuses her of not performing her wifely duties. With time Simon face grows dimmer and his voice becomes fainter.
In a play within a play, we see as Grusha washes linen by the stream accompanied by Michael, she advises him to go play with the other children. As they play they enact the beheading of the governor- Michael’s father. However, instead of playing the part of the governor like the other children want him to do; he insists that he be allowed to behead the fat boy, who represents the fat prince. This foreshadows the beheading of the fat prince later.
As the children play, Grusha turns and sees Simon Shashava on the other side of the stream. After some talk, he sadly learns that all is not well with their relationship. Simon notices the child, Michael, Simon asks, ‘Is there a little one already?’ (pg 61) Grusha admits there is a child but not hers. The singer who speaks for each of the the two character’s thought, reveals much of the information to us. Simon demands that she gives him the silver cross back, but she declines.
Grusha hears the other children calling. She finds the ironshirts taking Michael away. When asked whether the child is hers she responds by saying that she is indeed the mother, something that makes Simon leave a dejected man. The iron shirts take away Michael back to the city.
Grusha follows them to the city but dreads to lay claim on the child. The Singer ends the act with questions about Grusha’s future: “Who will decide the case? To whom will the child be assigned? Who will be the judge?...” (pg 62). The matter will now be handed over by Azdak, the city judge, to determine the rightful owner of the child.
THE STORY OF THE JUDGE
Rewind to the day of the coup, the day Grusha took the child. The village clerk(scrivener), Azdak, has been poaching in the woods and comes across someone he believes to be a refugee. He shelters him for the night only discovering after the man has gone that it was the Grand Duke himself, who escaped the clutches of the rebellious princes.
Rather than risk being found out Azdak hands himself in, expecting to be punished. When he gets to the courtroom he sees the hanging bodies of authority figures and mistakenly interprets the revolution as a people’s revolt. His shouts of joy are interrupted by a soldier who tells him he’s got it all wrong: it’s not a people’s revolution but a military coup. An uprising by the rebellious carpet weavers resulted in all the hangings and the soldiers were brought in to suppress them. Azdak is nearly hanged by soldiers.
The Fat Prince brings his nephew(Bizergan Kazbeki) to be installed as the new judge (the old judge had been killed by the carpet weavers). Azdak suggest that the candidate’s knowledge in law be tested. In a play within a play, Azdak plays the role of the defendant. The soldiers, after testing the nephew in a mock trial in which Azdak accuses the Fat Prince of profiting from the Persian war, makes Azdak judge instead.
Over two years Azdak, with his trusty assistant Shauva, travels the country turning justice on its head, accusing a rape victim of being a rapist herself, sympathising with an old woman clearly guilty of theft, doling out law as he sees fit. Finally the Grand Duke comes back, the Fat Prince is beheaded and Natella Abashvilli returns from exile. Frightened that his behaviour over the last couple of years will land him in trouble now that order is restored, Azdak promises to help Natella get her son back.
THE CHALK CIRCLE
The Singer introduces us to the Act by saying it is “the story of the trial.” The trial is about determining who is the true mother to Michael and in this regard, Grusha has come back to the city to face the law for having taken the Governor’s son.
As they wait for the judge to come, Simon appears and swears he will say he is the father to the child. Then Grusha spots the Ironshirt whom she clobbered and this makes her regret why she came to Nuka. The corporal leaves cursing as he fears exposing Grusha because he would be admitting that he ran after the child to kill it.
The governors wife, Natella, arrives, in her characteristic style, she cannot hide her contempt for the low class and the underprivileged: “At least there are no common people here, thank God. I can’t stand their smell. It always gives me migraine.” (pg 88)
Azdak having been declared an enemy of the new regime( for having worked with the Fat Prince) is stripped of his judge’s robes. The Ironshirts and the farmers tear his gown and beat him. He is about to be hanged when a messenger arrives announcing the Grand Duke would like Azdak to remain as judge, as a thank you for saving his life that Easter Sunday.
Azdak presides over a trial in which he must judge who gets Michael – Grusha, who has cared for him and put herself through hell for him; or his natural mother, Natella, who abandoned him. A heated debate ensues on who is the rightful owner of the child. The prosecutors explain that Grusha has stolen Natella’s child and refuses to hand it over. They advance their case by saying that Grusha does not have any blood relations with the child. On the other hand, Grusha lays claim on the child by saying that she brought him up and always found him something to eat.
Hearing both arguments, Azdak is unable to decide. He adjourns the court to hear the case of an old couple who want a divorce. He tells them he’ll think about it. Returning to Michael’s case, Azdak invokes the ancient wisdom of the Chalk Circle: Michael is placed in the centre of a circle and whoever is strong enough to pull him out must be the right mother. Grusha won’t pull, she cannot hurt him. Azdak orders the women to repeat the trial. Grusha again cannot pull.
Azdak judges that she must be the right mother. Natella faints. Simon and Grusha thank Azdak, who signs the divorce papers – not the divorce of the old couple but Grusha’s divorce from the man she married in the mountains. Everyone dances. Azdak disappears. The Singer explains that the child has been given to the mother who will be best for it – and, reminding us of the prologue, that the land should go to whoever is right for it.