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The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play by German playwright Bertolt Brecht (10 February 1898–14 August 1956). It was written in 1944 in the final years of World War II as the Nazis were slowly losing territory. Brecht himself, a committed Marxist, wrote the play while living in exile because of fear of persecution by the Nazis due to his radical politics. The play itself is technically an exemplar of modernism and is philosophically grounded in the works of Karl Marx and especially in a belief in the innate virtues of the oppressed peasantry and proletariat.

By using a frame technique, Brecht deconstructs the illusion of the theater. The frame concerns two quarreling Soviet communes set in the present and the interior or framed play-within-a-play tells a fable concerning a Governor and his wife whose child is left in the care of a peasant Grusha who is the heroine of the play and victim of class and gender oppression. The story of Grusha's eventual triumph is a moral parable showing that the peasant mentality leads to treating people as ends in themselves rather than things to be exploited for profit or power. This moral also has implications, as the Singer argues, for which commune is most deserving of the land based on community values and utility rather than capitalist measures of exploitation.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871

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 will be fed and kept safe. On the way from the peasant’s house, however, Grusche meets the prince’s Ironshirts, who interrogate her. Panicked, she runs back to the peasant’s cottage to take the child, but the Ironshirts catch her. As they inspect the crib, Grusche knocks one of them down and escapes with the child. After a perilous walk through the mountains, Grusche arrives at her brother’s house, hoping to find shelter for the winter. Her sister-in-law, however, is a heartless bigot and keeps questioning Grusche about her husband. In order to provide a husband for Grusche, her brother resorts to a trick: He locates a dying man and bribes his mother to have him wedded to Grusche. Having heard that the war is over and he will no longer be required to perform military duty, the seemingly dying bridegroom miraculously recovers.

After some time, Simon returns to Grusche, who tells him briefly that nothing has changed between them. As Simon leaves, he observes the Ironshirts taking young Michael to the city, where a trial is to determine his true mother.

The singer then tells the story of the judge who will hear the case of the governor’s wife against Grusche. On the fateful Easter Day when the governor was beheaded, the town’s clerk, Azdak, had given shelter to a fugitive who proved to be the grand duke. Full of remorse, Azdak gave himself up to the police to take him to town for his punishment. In town, however, he encountered two Ironshirts. After Azdak had indicated his sympathies for the revolution, the Ironshirts inform him of an uprising in the village. As it became clear that he had misjudged the situation, Azdak was quick to emphasize that he actually let the grand duke escape. The Ironshirts dragged him to the gallows but released him because their story was a hoax. The Fat Prince appeared and proposed that his nephew should be elected the new judge; the Ironshirts, however, voted for Azdak. The man who became judge in this manner purposefully subverts the laws so that he can bring justice to the poor.

After two years of civil unrest, the grand duke has returned to power and with him the governor’s wife, who wants her son back because her inheritance is tied up with him. Judge Azdak takes her case but suggests a test to prove who the real mother is. He has a circle drawn in the courtroom and the child placed in it. Each woman shall attempt to pull the child out of the circle. Grusche lets go of the child because she does not want to hurt him, and the governor’s wife pulls Michael out of the circle. The judge declares Grusche to be the true mother, and the governor’s estate is confiscated and turned into a playground. Grusche is also divorced from her unloved husband, for her case has been deliberately mixed up with a divorce case. She is now free to keep her promise to Simon.


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The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht is an interesting play that reveals to readers a moral lesson. The playwright was a German theater director. The play’s structure is complicated, as the story has many plots. For instance, the first plot involves two Russians settling a disagreement regarding a piece of land. The second plot is about two women fighting for child custody. Some of the themes in the play include political instability and war. By writing the play, the author reveals that sometimes justice does not mean following the law.

Brecht writes the play in chronological order. The play starts with two people making amends about a land disagreement. The two men decide to make a skit, which is about Grusha and Natella. Therefore, the author transitions into other plots in the story without interrupting the flow of his writing. I agree with the author’s sentiments about justice and the importance of using reason in making legal decisions. I found the play interesting, especially since different plots are revealed and connect with each other by the time the story ends.

Dramatic Devices

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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 moral implications of the play. At all times, he insisted, audiences had to be aware that they were sitting in a theater watching reenactments and representations. Thus, Brecht created such roles as that of the singer who tells the story, depicts the characters’ thoughts, comments on events, and reminds spectators that they are receiving merely a report.

Brecht’s ambivalent characterization of Grusche and Azdak is yet another means to keep playgoers from becoming emotionally entangled in the action. Grusche is by no means simply a portrayal of human kindness or an idealized example of her class. She is naïve and simple but at the same time dim-witted and pigheaded. Similarly, audiences are kept at arm’s length from the love story between Grusche and Simon by having the pair speak in the third person.

To prevent audience identification, Brecht developed an acting style in which the actors were not to identify with their roles but merely to “quote” the characters. The Brechtian actor was to appear relaxed, in control of his emotions, rational, and demonstrative.

It is not the inner motivations of the characters that are important to Brecht but the story in which they are involved. Through the sequence of events in which Grusche’s actions can be observed, the social experiment of the play is conducted. Grusche’s plight, juxtaposed to the decision-making process of the kolkhozy, is to serve as an instrument of social enlightenment. The audience is being encouraged to see the contradictions in society—whether in Grusche’s feudal society or the modern society of the kolkhozy.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 146

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.


Critical Essays