The Play

The Caucasian Chalk Circle begins in a ruined village in the Soviet Caucasus shortly after the end of World War II. Workers of two collective farms meet with an expert from the State Commission for Reconstruction to discuss the rebuilding of their valley. While members of the Galinsk goat-breeding kolkhoz want to return to the valley, members of the neighboring Rosa Luxemburg fruit farm intend to use the former grassland to plant orchards and vineyards. With the help of an agronomist, the two groups try to arrive at a solution. The agronomist reminds them of the days when they had to hide in the mountains from the Germans, dreaming of rebuilding the valley together, and provides them with plans for an irrigation project which could increase the land’s fertility tenfold.

In honor of the visiting delegates from Galinsk and the experts, the fruit-growing kolkhoz has invited a famous folksinger, under whose direction a Chinese play called The Chalk Circle will be performed in traditional masks. It is emphasized that the play has some bearing on their problem.

The play takes place in ancient times, when Governor Georgi Abashvili was alive and well and the poor were oppressed. One Easter Sunday, while the governor and his wife are in church, Grusche, the kitchen maid, makes the acquaintance of Simon, a young soldier of the palace guard. A coup by the “Fat Prince” relieves the governor of his duties, and he is bound in chains and taken away. Simon is to accompany the governor’s wife, but before he leaves he proposes to Grusche; she promises to wait for him until he returns.

The governor’s wife is primarily concerned with assuring that the appropriate clothes are taken along; only when the gate is on fire does she leave in haste, abandoning her child, Michael. It is rumored that the governor has been beheaded and that anyone found with his child is in danger. Despite the warning, Grusche takes Michael and flees into the mountains. As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to care for the child; she leaves him at the doorstep of a peasant woman, hoping that he...

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Dramatic Devices

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is an excellent example of Bertolt Brecht’s theory of the “epic theater.” As early as the 1920’s, he experimented with a wide variety of techniques, including those of German expressionistic theater, with its loose construction and its utilization of types instead of characters. He collaborated with Erwin Piscator on his political theater, which made use of a wide variety of technical innovations to turn drama into a forum for learning and discussion.

Brecht fused these influences to restructure the theater as a laboratory in which the human condition was to be examined and social change facilitated. This type of drama was developed in explicit opposition to what he perceived to be the dominant form of German drama of the time—the Aristotelian classicism advocated by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Theirs was a drama of illusion, in which the spectator identified with the actors and was emotionally swept along in the apparent immediacy of the dramatic action. Brecht wanted to remove his own plays completely from this form of “culinary theater” in which the spectator consumes the mental food, only to forget it in a short time.

For the spell of the illusory immediacy to be broken, the audience had to be distanced from the events presented onstage. Brecht created numerous devices to keep audiences detached from the action so that they could reflect critically on the social and...

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Sources for Further Study

Bentley, Eric. Bentley on Brecht. New York: Applause, 1999.

Brecht, Bertolt. Bertolt Brecht Journals, 1934-1955. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theater. Translated and edited by John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.

Brustein, Robert. Review of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The New Republic 204 (January 21, 1991): 28.

Casabro, Tony. Bertolt Brecht’s Art of Dissemblance. Wakefield, N.H.: Longwood Academic, 1990.

Dickson, Keith A. Towards Utopia: A Study of Brecht. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Esslin, Martin. Brecht, a Choice of Evils: A Critical Study of the Man, His Work, and His Opinions. 4th rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1984.

Gaskell, Ronald. “The Form of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” Modern Drama 10 (1967/1968): 195-201.

Hill, Claude. Bertolt Brecht. Boston: Twayne, 1975.

White, Alfred D. Bertolt Brecht’s Great Plays. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1978.

Willett, John. The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects. 4th rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1977.