The Caucasian Chalk Circle

by Bertolt Brecht

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Critical Context

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle is one of several Brechtian plays exemplifying the principles of epic theater. However, Bertolt Brecht’s influential dramatic theory—which permanently altered the development of the theater, at least in Germany—is not to be interpreted as a prescriptive model but rather as an explanation of the innovations he achieved in practice.

Brecht’s early dramatic works, Baal (pb. 1922; English translation, 1963), Trommeln in der Nacht (pr., pb. 1922; Drums in the Night, 1961), and Im Dickicht der Städte (pr. 1923; In the Jungle of Cities, 1961), with their anti-illusionistic effects and their unrealistic dialogues, broke with theatrical convention. Brecht first used the term “epic theater” for Mann ist Mann (pr. 1926; A Man’s a Man, 1961), a story about the malleability of man, as exemplified in the transformation of a good-natured Irish dockworker into a criminal soldier.

The main character in Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (pr. 1940; Mother Courage and Her Children, 1941) is a trader who follows the armies during the Thirty Years’ War. As she lives by the war, she has to pay the war its due. She sacrifices her children to her commercial ventures and does not learn from her experiences. Instead, it is the audience that is to experience a learning process.

Leben des Galilei (first version pr. 1943, third version pb. 1955-1956; Life of Galileo, 1947) tells the story of Galileo, who recants his teaching in order to gain time to complete his Discorsi. Galileo himself sees his reaction as an act of cowardice, permitting science to become the servant of authority.

Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (pr. 1943; The Good Woman of Setzuan, 1948) is a parable play set in modern China. Three ineffectual gods come to earth seeking one good human being. The play relates the story of Shen Te, who is unable to remain good and take care of herself and her unborn child without the help of her ruthless “cousin,” Shui Ta, who is Shen Te in disguise. Again, the audience is to draw the conclusion, presented in the epilogue, that a world where the good are not able to live surely should be changed.

With his extensive theoretical reflections on the theater, as well as his work as a playwright, Bertolt Brecht was probably the single most important innovator of German drama of his time.

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