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The Caucasian Chalk Circle – Footnotes (*)

Oct 20, 2022 | Footnotes | 0 comments

The Footnotes to our episode on The Caucasian Chalk Circle include notes on the origin of the chalk circle, the Soviet setting of the Prologue, Brecht’s views on the purpose of art, and the pleasures of the language in the play.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

The chalk circle
The set piece that gives the play its title, where the child is placed inside the chalk circle drawn on the stage, is both a wonderfully dramatic piece of theatre and the culmination of Brecht’s moral fable. The scene has its origins in a Chinese play called The Chalk Circle, in which the Chinese emperor’s wife tries to claim maternal rights to another woman’s child.  As in Brecht’s version the judge asks the women to fight to pull the child out of the circle; however in this rendition it is the biological mother who releases the child and is awarded custody. Brecht inverted the judgement in order to advocate moral responsibility over assumed entitlement. Brecht tilts the balance of the moral argument further in Grusha’s favour by revealing that the Governor’s wife’s motive is primarily to reclaim her husband’s palace and the revenue of the estates which vest in the Governor’s heir. Her emotional distress at the loss of her “beloved child” is a self-serving dissemblance. As the Singer summarises the meaning of the story: “That what there is shall belong to those who are good for it”.



The Struggle for the Valley
In our conversation in the podcast we talked about the fact that the first scene was not always part of the play; that it may have been added at a later date. It does feel somewhat tacked on in order to introduce and underline some of Brecht’s thematic or political points. It is certainly steeped in socialist thinking of the time. The State is responsible for creating the peasants’ collective farms, or kolchos, as well as for investment in the land. The Expert from the State argues, for example, that land is not private property but a national asset which should be managed for the benefit of all.

The scene also features representatives of ordinary Soviet society: peasants, soldiers, an Agronomist, even a character called The Girl Tractor Driver. From our vantage point today it reads almost like a parody of Soviet propaganda. The political allegory had real power at the time, however, because in 1955 the West German premiere of the play omitted the prologue as “politically inopportune”. It constituted an enemy missive in the Cold War.


Art is a hammer
“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

These words are often attributed to Bertolt Brecht, perhaps because they may serve as shorthand for his dramatic purpose. He professed that his aim was to create politically instructive work so as to bring about real social change. This intent informed his theatrical philosophy, in which, as we discussed in the podcast, he deliberately drew attention to the artifice of theatre-making in order to influence audiences to consider the real arguments and meanings being presented. His ideas about theatre have been collated under the label “epic theatre”, although he apparently preferred the term ‘dialectical theatre’, which encapsulates more precisely his use of logical discussion to investigate the truth.

Brecht employed a number of devices to establish this dialectic relationship with the audience, including most obviously introducing a narrative voice. In the case of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, this is of course The Singer, who speaks directly to us, providing not only narrative exposition but also commentary – as he does at the end of the play in summarizing the moral of the chalk circle: But you, who have listened to the story of the Chalk Circle/Take note of the meaning of the ancient song…”

And of course the use of song in itself reminds us that what we are watching is not a mirror of reality.

Brecht’s drama focuses on the social challenges that people face, rather than their individual internal issues. Or at least, it asks them to address moral questions in response to social challenges. As Christopher said in our conversation, the central message of the play is to enjoin us to “choose actively what is right…to take personal moral responsibility”, rather than rely on the established order of society or institutional structures and systems. This is a view that Brecht would surely endorse – that in response to the moral questions he raises it is we who can decide to change the world.

Zoe West as The Singer
Rose Theatre Kingston 2022
Photo: Iona Farouzabadi


W.H. Auden in 1939
Photo: Carl Van Vechten

The language in the play
One of the other ways that the play does not pretend to be a mirror of reality is that Brecht employs a heightened poetic language. This is most obviously true in the song lyrics, which include fundamental features of verse such as rhythm, rhyme and repetition. I was fascinated to discover that in one of the original English translations of the play, the song lyrics were written by none other than W.H. Auden. The text of the play that includes Auden’s lyrics was translated by James Stern and his German wife Tania. Like Brecht, Tania had fled Nazi Germany in 1933, and Auden met the Sterns in the late 1930s in Paris. Also like Brecht, the Sterns and Auden moved to the United States during the war, where they collaborated on their version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Knowing this I fancy that one can hear his poetic voice in the play’s poetic song lyrics.

The language of the lyrics and of the speech in general is certainly one of the pleasures of the play. The Singer’s opening line is the age-old beginning of a fairy tale, “Once upon a time”, which he rhythmically repeats at the end of each verse. Grusha’s vow to wait for Simon to return from the “bloody battle, the bitter battle” – a description that is also repeated throughout the play – is given emotional weight by the poetry with which she expresses it. The Singer’s account of Azdak’s eccentric judgements in favour of the people concisely captures Brecht’s parody of justice:
“Beware of willing Judges
For Truth is a black cat

In a windowless room at midnight
And Justice a blind bat.
A third and shrugging party
Alone can right our wrong.
This, this, this, Azdak
Does for a mere song.”
(It sounds like pure Auden doesn’t it?).

Brecht also relishes the playfulness of Simon’s riddling, especially in the nonsensical battle of wit between he and Azdak at the court:
Simon (loudly): ‘When the horse was shod, the horsefly stretched out its leg”.
Azdak: (eagerly accepting the challenge): ‘Better a treasure in the sewer than a stone in the mountain stream.”
Simon: ‘”A fine day. Let’s go fishing,” said the angler to the worm.’
Azdak: ‘”I’m my own master,” said the servant, and cut off his foot.’
Simon: ‘”I love you like a father,” said the Czar to the peasant, and had the Czarevitch’s head chopped off.’
Azdak: ‘The fool’s worst enemy is himself.’
Simon: But ‘a fart has no nose.’
Azdak: Fined ten piastres for indecent language in Court.

In fact now that I hear them again, perhaps there is some sense in their words after all.

The Texts
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