The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht

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What happens in The Caucasian Chalk Circle?

Bertolt Brecht's play The Caucasian Chalk Circle, premiered in 1948. A play-within-a-play, two Soviet Union communes are arguing over who will take over farmland that the Nazis have abandoned in their retreat. One of the communes organizes a skit, based on an old folk tale to be played to cast light on the situation.

A singer and a band of musicians tell the tale: an evil prince organizes a coup to overthrow the governor and his wife, Natella. Arusha, Natella's maid, is left caring for the governor's infant son in the ensuing chaos, when Natella forgets about him in her escape. When the governor's party returns to power, Natella tries to claim her dead husband's estate, sparking a legal battle with Grusha over the custody of the governor's heir.

  • During a bloody civil war, Grusha is forced to flee a Caucasian city in a Russian province in Georgia. While fleeing, she saves Michael, the son of Natella Abashwili, widow to the governor of the province.

  • Years later, Grusha is trapped in a loveless marriage with a man she had expected to die. When Natella tries to claim her dead husband's lands, she tries to take Michael away from Grusha.

  • A legal battle ensues between Natella and Grusha over Michael. An unconventional judge enacts a Solomon-style test to determine who is the real mother, by placing Michael in a chalk circle, saying that the real mother will be able to pull the child from the circle. Grusha does not want to hurt Michael by tugging on him and the judge rules in her favor.

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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.

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.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 638 words.)