The Caucasian Chalk Circle

by Bertolt Brecht

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What are the themes in The Caucasian Chalk Circle?

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The themes in The Caucasian Chalk Circle include Marxist ideology, as seen in the dispute over land ownership and the idea that property should belong to those who can use it best. Another theme is the critique of bourgeois society and its materialistic values. Additionally, the play explores justice, contrasting the letter of the law with true justice, embodied by the character Azdak.

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As in much of his work, Brecht's themes in The Caucasian Chalk Circle are largely Marxian. (As a bit of side information, one of the reasons that Brecht's collaboration with the composer Kurt Weill did not continue, according to Weill's widow, was that "Kurt Weill didn't want to write Karl Marx; he wanted to write music.") The key to the basic meaning of the play lies in the frame story format, beginning as it does with a dispute between two kolkhozy—the term for the collective farms of the former Soviet Union—over which one should control a certain tract of land. Within this frame Brecht's basic story, narrated by the folk-singer, transposes the plot elements to a scenario in which the custody of a child is in dispute. The baby Michael is saved and cared for by the maid Grusha, though he's the son of the Governor and his wife. In the climactic segment the judge Azdak (who is himself an anti-establishment figure somewhat comically elevated to his position) uses a test to determine whether Grusha or the governor's wife should have custody by placing the child in a circle of chalk and charging them each to tug at his arms so that Azdak can discover which one wants him more strongly. Grusha refuses to participate out of concern for the child's safety, so Azdak decides in her favor.

The underlying issue is that although Grusha isn't the biological mother, the child should nevertheless be hers because she loves him more than the actual mother does. This is implicitly analogized with the issue of land ownership in the framing story. Land, in Brecht's view, should be given to those who can make use of it properly, not to its original "owners." It is an extension, of course, of the Marxian view that it's inevitable the owner class will be overthrown and its property given to the workers who should be in charge of it. But even beyond his usual Marxianism, Brecht is making a purely human point in the play—that those who have traditionally held wealth and power are no better than anyone else and do not deserve simply by virtue of their status to hold power over others and to control them.

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht has several interlocking themes, set against a background of Marxist ideology. Part of Brecht's ideological background is a rejection of the notion that the audience should believe in and identify with the characters on stage. Instead, in this, as all his works, Brecht includes elements of overt artifice, to make the viewer see Grushe objectively, including the use of the third person in her speech.

The next theme is the critique of bourgeois society, and the way it creates not only economic but cultural injustice, including the materialistic values of Natella Abashwili who cares more for her clothing than for her child.

The final theme is justice, and especially the difference between the letter of the law and real justice, following the spirit of the law. The character of Azdak, a sort of trickster, embodies this notion of real justice, with an absurdist twist. 

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