The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Der kaukasische Kreidekreis; The Caucasian Chalk Circle (written 1944-45, performed 1948)

Co-author: Ruth Berlau

Music: Paul Dessau

The play was written in Santa Monica, USA. It was first performed in May 1948 by students at Northfield, Minnesota, in a translation by Eric and Maja Bentley. The German premiere was on 9 November 1954 in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm (the Berliner Ensemble) in Berlin.

The play is about a kitchen maid called Grusche Vachnadze and a baby called Michel. Michel is abandoned by his mother Natella Abaschwili, the governor’s wife. Grusche takes care of the baby and raises him in safety, despite having to face a number of ordeals. At the end of the play, Natella returns with two lawyers and demands custody of Michel. The judge, Azdak, proposes to settle the custody case with a tug of war: the woman who can pull Michel out of the circle ‘must be the true mother’. When Grusche lets go of Michel, not wanting to hurt him, Azdak concludes that Grusche is the true mother. He awards Grusche custody of Michel.

This play has great emotional potential: it completely demolishes the misleading claim that Brechtian theatre lacks emotion.

The importance of the human heart is underlined in the final scene when Azdak tells Grusche that if she gives the child away, it will be rich. Doesn’t she want it to be rich? The singer relates Grusche’s response: ‘Ach, zum Tragen, spät und frühe | Ist zu schwer ein Herz aus Stein’ (Oh, it’s too hard to carry, late and early, a heart of stone).

The dialogue of the play contains many proverbs and sayings. The proverbs have a strong gestural quality: they exemplify the moral attitude of the person who speaks the proverb, but they also have a wider political and moral resonance. See for example the memorable exchange of proverbs between Azdak and Simon, about ten pages into Scene 6.

Scenes 5 and 6 show how, during the short period of the civil uprising, Azdak delivers a new kind of justice, one which favours poor people. There is a festive, carnivalesque quality to these scenes which recalls Brecht’s other late play Die Tage der Kommune; The Days of the Commune, about the Paris Commune of 1870-71. In both plays, Brecht depicts a brief flowering of political justice.

Grusche’s short and pointed song in Scene 3 about the four generals who failed to conquer Iran neatly encapsulates the idea of the play, namely that the people who are put in charge of precious things are often lazy, foolish, corrupt or incompetent. If there is a war to be fought, or a child to be raised, or a valley to be farmed, or a country to be run, then these important things must be entrusted to people who will do a good job, and who will get on with it without making any excuses. Or, as the singer says at the end of the play: ‘Daß da gehören soll, was da ist, denen, die für es gut sind’ (An object should belong to the people who will be good for it).

Scene 1 is set in the Caucasian mountains at the end of World War Two. Hitler’s army has just been defeated. ‘Der Sachverständige’ (the expert) has been sent by the Commission for Reconstruction to mediate in an agricultural dispute between two neighbouring collective farms (in German ‘Kolchose’, from the Russian ‘kolkhozy’). Both collective farms claim ownership of the same valley. The goat farmers of the ‘Galinsk’ collective want it back for their herds; the fruit growers of the ‘Rosa Luxemburg’ collective plan to build a dam and irrigation system that would create 300 hectares of vineyards and fruit orchards. After inspecting the plans, the goat herders agree to give up the valley so that the new project can go ahead. The fruit growers announce that they are going to perform a theatre show, one which is relevant to the debate, directed by the singer Arkadi Tscheidse.

In Scene 2 the governor Georgi Abaschwili, his wife Natella and their infant son Michel head for the church, accompanied by two doctors for Michel and the governor’s aide. Soldiers with whips clear a path through the crowd. The family is greeted by a fat princeling, Arsen Kazbeki. A messenger arrives, but the governor does not want to be disturbed before the church service. Outside the church, a soldier, Simon Chachava, flirts with Grusche Vachnadze, a kitchen maid. Kazbeki makes signals to the palace guards – there is a consipracy going on. The messenger tries again to deliver his message, but the governor does not want to be disturbed before lunch. Shortly afterwards, the governor is arrested by his own palace guards and executed. Simon proposes marriage to Grusche and she accepts, then he leaves to fight in the war. Natella Abaschwili has ordered her maids to pack two chests of clothes. The aide tells her that they cannot take the chests. Natella tells her maids to take out her favourite dresses. The aide says they have to hurry, but she ignores him. Finally she notices that the sky has turned red; she panics and runs away, leaving her son Michel behind. The servants gather around the child and wonder what to do. The servants leave, and Grusche is left holding the child.

In Scene 3, Grusche takes Michel with her into the northern mountains. On her way she sings a song about four generals who failed to conquer Iran. Two rich ladies are joining a caravanserai. Grusche pretends to be a rich lady too, so that she can share a room with them. But when they see her making the beds, they check her hands and they realise that she is a servant. Grusche is thrown out, and has to travel alone. She tries to leave Michel with a farmer’s wife, but when she meets two armoured riders (Panzerreiter) searching for the child, she knows his life is in danger. She runs back to the farm and saves Michel by hitting one of the rider with a piece of wood. She and Michel escape across a rotten bridge across a mountain pass.

In Scene 4, Grusche arrives at her brother’s farm in the mountains. But her brother Lavrenti’s wife Aniko is a pious woman who will not tolerate an unmarried woman with an illegitimate child under her roof. Lavrenti comes up with a scheme: Grusche can marry a farmer called Jussup who is on his deathbed; that way the family honour will be preserved. Grusche is pressured into marrying Jussup. When news arrives that the war is over, Jussup gets up from his sick bed. He was only pretending to be ill to avoid military service. The archduke (Großfürst) has returned with a huge army donated by the Shah of Persia in order to restore order in Grusinien. The Shah may be an enemy of the archduke, but he is also an enemy of ‘disorder’. While Grusche is washing the linen in the stream, Simon Chachava returns from the war. Grusche tries to explain that although she is now married and with a child, she never had relations with her husband and the child is not hers. Simon is not convinced and leaves. The armoured riders arrive and identify Michel as the late governor’s son. They take Michel back to the city and Grusche follows them there.

Scene 5, ‘The Judge’s Story’, introduces the judge in the child custody case. On the day of the rebellion, Azdak, a village scribe, shelters a refugee in his hut and gives him a bed for the night. Later he finds out that the refugee was the archduke himself. He gets Schauwa the policeman to take him to court in Nukha. In the courtroom, Azdak announces that he unwittingly let the archduke escape, and says he should be judged. But there is no one to judge him: the judge has just been hanged by revolutionary carpet weavers who were inspired by the revolution that took place in Persia forty years ago. The fat princeling arrives with his nephew, whom he wants to appoint as the new judge, but he wants the armoured riders to approve his choice. Adzak tests the candidate by means of a hypothetical case: the people of Grusinien versus the archduke. In doing so, he explains how the judicial system is biased against the poor. The cavalrymen appoint Azdak as judge. In this role, he decides cases in favour of poor people. Finally, the poor people have a judge who can be bribed by an empty hand (‘Und die Niedren und Gemeinen | Hatten endlich, endlich einen, | Den die leere Hand bestochen, den Azdak.’)

In Scene 6, the governor’s wife, Natella, demands custody of Michel, backed up by two lawyers. The second lawyer admits that she is motivated by the fact that she can only claim inheritance of the governor’s palace if she has custody of Michel. The first lawyer claims that blood is thicker than water. Azdak asks Grusche if she has anything to respond, and she says: ‘Es ist meins.’ (It is mine). When he asks ‘is that all?’, she replies: ‘Ich hab’s aufgezogen nach bestem Wissen und Gewissen [...] und ich habe allerlei Ungemach auf mich genommen seinetwegen’ (I’ve raised it as well as I know and according to my conscience, and I’ve taken on all kinds of trouble for his sake). In order to establish the true mother, Azdak decrees a tug of war between Grusche and Natella. Whoever can pull the child out of the ring ‘must be the true mother.’ Grusche lets go twice, not wanting to hurt Michel, and so Azdak decrees that she must be the true mother. He also rules that the governor’s estate is to become public property, and made into a park for children, called ‘The Garden of Azdak.’ As a final flourish before he resigns as a judge, he signs a divorce paper for Grusche.

In the current production of the play at the Berliner Ensemble, directed by Michael Thalheimer (premiere: 23 September 2017), much of the Azdak material and much of the social satire has been cut. This reduces the cast and tightens the focus on Gruscha and her ordeals, particularly her betrayal by her brother, thereby maximising the emotional content of the play (pathos). At the end of the play she is not even reunited with Simon Chachava, but instead curls up on a chair.

Further Reading in English

Laura Bradley, ‘Training the Audience: Brecht and the Art of Spectatorship’, Modern Language Review 111:4 (2016), 1029-48

Neil Brough and R. J. Kavanagh, ‘But Who Is Azdak? The Main Source of Brecht’s Der kaukasische Kreidekreis’, Neophilologus 75:4 (1991), 573-80

Darren R. Gobert, ‘Cognitive Catharsis in The Caucasian Chalk Circle’, in: Alan Ackerman (ed.), Reading Modern Drama (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2012), pp. 217-45

Kevin Hilliard, ‘Tableaux of Suffering: Brecht and the Theatre of Pity’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 61 (1990), 48-64

Tom Kuhn, ‘Brecht Reads Bruegel: Verfremdung, Gestic Realism and the Second Phase of Brechtian Theory’, Monatshefte 105:1 (2013), 101-22

Lauren D. McKinney, ‘Weeping in the Night: Reading beyond Language in The Caucasian Chalk Circle’, Modern Drama 35:4 (1992), 530-37

Ernest Schonfield, ‘Brecht and the Modern Picaresque’, in Verwisch die Spuren. Bertolt Brecht’s Work and Legacy. A Reassessment, ed. by Robert Gillett and Godela Weiss-Sussex (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), pp. 57-75

Maria Shevtsova, ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle: The View from Europe’, in The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, ed. by Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 16-71

Darko Suvin, ‘Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle and Marxist Figuralism: Open Dramaturgy as Open History’, in Siegfried Mews (ed.), Critical Essays on Bertolt Brecht (Boston: Hall, 1989), pp. 162-75; also in Clio: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 3 (1974), 257-76

Jürgen Thomaneck, ‘B. Brecht and A. Seghers: Utopian Additions to the Critique of the Gotha Programme’, in: Steve Giles and Rodney Livingstone (eds.), Bertolt Brecht: Centenary Essays, German Monitor 41 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998), pp. 163-80

Further Reading in German

Werner Hecht (ed.), Materialien zu Brechts “Der kaukasische Kreidekreis” (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1966)