The Caucasian Chalk Circle Summary
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play by Bertolt Brecht. It features a play-within-a-play as two rival soviet communes vie for a tract of land.
- Two soviet communes stage a play to help decide which one of them will inherit a tract of land.
- The play-within-the-play involves a custody dispute: Grusha has raised Michael since she found him abandoned. Michael's birth-mother, Natella, hopes to use Michael to claim her late husband's lands.
- The magistrate claims that Michael's true mother will be able to pull Michael out of a chalk circle. Grusha refuses to pull Michael for fear of hurting him, and she is declared his mother.
Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 175
The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht is a play derived from a Chinese story. It focuses on Grusha, who runs away from her home due to a political uprising. She saves and flees with the deceased governor’s child. Two years later, the previous regime is returned to power. The governor’s widow wants a share of her dead husband’s estate—however, the legal beneficiary is the child that Grusha saved. Soldiers, under the widow’s orders, arrest Grusha and present her in court.
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The story focuses on the two women who are fighting for the same child. To determine who the real mother is, the judge places the child at the center of a chalked circle and asks the women to try removing the child from the circle. The person who succeeds in taking the child is the real mother. Grusha, who does not attempt to remove the child, wins the case. The judge’s reasoning is that she was afraid of hurting the child and, therefore, opted not to do anything.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is Brecht’s most cheerful and charming play, offered as a moral lesson with deference to the techniques of both the Oriental and the Elizabethan theater. Its structure is intricate, and more distanced, or epic, than that of any other Brechtian play. Several plots run through it, all merging at the end.
Plot 1 is set in the Russian province of Georgia, where members of two collective farms meet to resolve a dispute about a tract of land. Plot 2 is a story of flight. The peasant Grusha is forced to flee a Caucasian city as a result of usurpation and revolt. Having saved the abandoned child of the dead governor’s wife, she risks her life for her maternal instinct, passing over dangerous bridges, marrying an apparently dying man (who then revives to plague her), and almost sacrificing her lover, Simon, who is returning from the civil war. After two years, a counterrevolt returns the governor’s party to power, and the governor’s widow claims her estate, which she can obtain only as the mother of the legal heir. Her soldiers find Grusha and the infant and bring them to trial. As the storyteller, who distances the text in epic fashion, sings, “She who had borne him demanded the child./ She who had raised him faced trial./ Who will decide the case?”
The judge is Azdak, one of the finest rogues in dramatic literature. Plot 3 features him as a brilliant Lord of Misrule. Having been appointed magistrate as a consequence of a prank, he used bourgeois, Marxist legal chicanery to pass down antibourgeois, Marxist legal decisions. He is a drunk, lecher, and monumental bribe taker, yet he always manages to arrive at humane and fair decisions, acting according to the spirit of justice while ignoring the letter of the law.
In plot 4, the play’s separate actions neatly converge, finding their moment of impact in a marvelous courtroom scene. Azdak awards Grusha the child in a chalk-circle test that enacts the biblical legend with inverse results: The woman who has been a nurturing mother obtains custody rather than the biological but unfeeling mother; moreover, Azdak divorces Grusha from her husband so that she and Simon can marry. The disputed land is awarded to the fruit growers, who can use it better than its previous, goat-breeding owners.
The play is a parable that poses and resolves a set of basic issues: legal justice versus practical justice, morality versus expediency, reason versus sentiment, and, as stated, the claims of the adoptive mother versus those of the natural mother. Yet the work is singularly lacking in didacticism and offers a wealth of theatrically striking episodes, while the lyrical language of the storyteller’s narration is suitably balanced by starkly realistic, earthy idioms.