The Caucasian Chalk Circle

by Bertolt Brecht

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How can one identify the historification in The Caucasian Chalk Circle?

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Historification in The Caucasian Chalk Circle can be identified through its play-within-a-play structure and the use of different historical settings. The framing play is set in Soviet Russia post-World War II, while the inner play is a Chinese parable set in Georgia, Russia. This technique creates a distancing effect, encouraging audiences to draw parallels between the play's events and contemporary issues.

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Historification is a term invented and used by playwright Bertolt Brecht in his plays. Brecht's theater was a revolt against the theater of realism. His epic theater, as he called it, told large narrative stories spread across many locations and episodes. Brecht believed that most modern theater of his day (the 1920s to the 1950s) was like a drug on the audience, sending them to sleep. He wanted to wake up audiences, and he wanted to present vital theatrical productions that were also didactic and made people think.

The alienation effect was another primary tool Brecht used in his plays. Definitions have varied over the years, but he basically wanted to "make the familiar strange" for audiences, while at the same time using historification, which means (for him) to set the story of the play in past. The purpose of this is for audiences to view the action with enough emotional detachment that they can have a thinking response that creates parallels between the play's events and the modern world.

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which premiered in 1948, Brecht first "historifies" the play by creating a frame around the central play. There is a play within a play. The frame play shows a conflict between two communes in Soviet Russia at the end of World War 2 over who is to manage a piece of land. To help everyone understand the conflict better, one of the communes has arranged for the production of a play, a parable, so everyone can watch and perhaps find illumination about their dispute.

The players who are going to tell the parable of The Caucasian Chalk Circle take the stage. A Singer leads them. This Singer character tells us, as well as the commune audience, that this is an ancient Chinese fable, but now it will be told with modern twists.

The central concept of Brecht's play is the play within the play. As we in the audience are watching the play, we are also watching the Russian watchers who are watching the play. This layering of viewpoint—the real life audience watching two different narratives, both set in the past—was a technique that Brecht hoped would help create the distancing effect he wanted to achieve for his audiences.

So, the different locations of the two plays—the prologue/epilogue framing play in the USSR and the performed Chinese parable set in Georgia, Russia (called Grusinia in the play)—exemplify the use of the historification technique.

We may also identify historification by comparing and contrasting the different styles of stagecraft used to identify the two locations. For instance, if a cart is used in the commune framing play and a carriage is used in the parable play, that is use of historification. Different productions of the play, if they are aware of what Brecht wanted to do with his plays in general, may find many ways to create these contrasts.

In a 2010 San Francisco production of the play, director John Doyle created the commune frame play and set with an encircling chain link fence, hanging tarps, and a litter-scattered central space. The commune soldiers are wearing military fatigues, their faces covered with soot and blackened to hide themselves if there should be more combat. Inside of this grim wartime reality, the parable play is told with music, with performers often singing and playing musical instruments, creating a vaudeville-style performance with just a smattering of story-specific props. Did the historification contrast work for the audience in this instance? It is always worthwhile creating experiments onstage, and if the performance kept the audience awake and thinking as the story was presented, then Brecht probably would have approved.

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Historification is one of the central technical conventions that Bertolt Brecht deployed in his multi-faceted epic theater. The technique involved setting a play in the past and highlighting specific actions and events that would present close parallels to contemporary events. This effect is distinct from the utilization of real people as characters in the history plays that he also wrote. Historification may be confined to individual allusions or carry throughout the entire work, as in allegory.

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht applies the technique in several ways. He uses the convention of maternal choice to elicit comparison with the well-known ancient example of the Biblical story of King Solomon, but he combines this with the Chinese story; in both cases, the “true” mother is the one who makes the best choice for the child. The other application is the play-within-a-play, or framing, device. As the play was written during World War II, the impact of war on moral choices is a primary theme.

By setting the interior play in a distant time, the playwright creates a reflexive distance for the audience. By dramatizing two aspects of the story, clearly establishing Grusha as the sympathetic character first, Brecht accentuates the negative characteristics of Arsen, the Fat Prince and, by extension, of all hereditary elites. This negative assessment is accentuated when Michael’s "real" mother cannot recover him but is willing to hurt him by trying. The analogy to the play’s present-day setting applies to all community resources (i.e., land), which belong to those who care for and about them.

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Historification is one of Brecht's most commonly used effects in his plays which serves to highlight and underline the alienation that he works so hard to achieve. Historification can be defined as setting a play in the historic past so as to invite parallels to be drawn with contemporary events. This is achieved in this play through what can be described as the framing story, which is the dispute in Georgia between two farming collectives, both of whom want some land to use for their own purposes. The story is broken by the account of Grusha and Azdak, and their story of flight and trying to achieve justice in an unjust world. The play's story highlights the way in which true justice is very difficult to achieve, and how sometimes justice and the law battle for supremacy. Historification is therefore achieved in this play through the paralelling of Grusha's struggle to gain parenthood of the child that isn't hers even though the law does not support her with the cause of the fruit farmers who eventually gain the land because they will be able to use it more effectively. Note how these themes are summed up in the following song:

What there is shall belong to those who are good for it, thus

The children to the maternal, that they thrive;

The carriages to the good drivers, that they are driven well;

And the valley to the waterers, that it shall bear fruit.

Two different stories set in very different times have almost identical messages, allowing parallels to be drawn between the two and the reinforcement of the key themes and principles of this play. 

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