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Bertolt Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a social and political commentary, focusing on justice and motherhood. Using revolutionary theatrical techniques and devices to reinforce his theme, Brecht attempts to free his audience from the constraints of traditional theatre, enabling them to make impartial judgments of their own. Despite combining these radical ideas about theatre with the theme of motherhood, Brecht does not wholly succeed in alienating the audience, as it is impossible for them to totally distance themselves from such an emotive subject as motherhood.
A German poet, playwright, and theatrical reformer, Brecht was born in Augsburg, Germany in 1898. He showed an interest in literature at an early age, writing articles for a school magazine and for the local newspaper. Upon leaving school in 1917, he studied philosophy and medicine at the University of Munich. During the First World War, he worked as a medical orderly in a German military hospital. This experience reinforced his hatred of war and undoubtedly influenced his support for the failed Socialist revolution in 1919. When he returned to University Brecht abandoned medicine in order to pursue a literary career, and in 1922 his first play, Bael was written. Brecht’s plays reflect and advocate a Marxist interpretation of society and when Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933, he was forced to flee from Germany. He lived in Denmark, Sweden and the Soviet Union, before arriving in the United States of America in 1941. During his exile, Brecht wrote a number of anti-nazi plays, including The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1943). In 1947, he returned to East Germany, where he died in 1956. During his life Brecht lived under various and different political regimes and these influenced him in his work.
As a playwright, Brecht is famous for his revolutionary ideas about theatre. Throughout his earlier plays, he experimented with dada and expressionism. However, as his work progressed he developed his own theatrical style and techniques. He schooled actors to alienate themselves from their roles. He created epic theatre in which narrative, montage, self-contained scenes and rational argument were used to create a shock of realisation in the spectator. In order to give the audience a more objective perspective on the action, Brecht promoted a style of acting and staging that created a distancing effect.
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Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a good example of Brechtian theatre, using many of Brecht’s theatrical techniques and devices. It is a play within a play, a collection of scenes related loosely by social theme. The singer, who acts as narrator and commentator, links two separate yet convergent stories, which relate back to the realistic prologue set in Soviet Georgia. Brecht subverts an ancient Chinese story, The Chalk Circle (which is also echoed in the tale of the judgement of Solomon) into a parable advocating the idea that resources should go to those best able to make use of them. In this play Brecht presents a number of ideological and social alternatives, through his distancing techniques he encourages the audience to consider the options with less bias than conventional theatre allows.
The concept of motherhood is a major theme in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. In the play, Brecht explores social alternatives as the audience is presented with various types of mothers. Grusha represents all that a ‘good’ mother should be. She continues to care for Michael, even after she is advised to leave the child behind. She is forced to flee the city in order to protect him from the ironshirts. She pays two piasters, equivalent to a week’s wages, so that he can have milk. She does not abandon him when the ironshirts catch up with them but hits one over the head with a piece of wood, allowing them to escape. Grusha is forced to make many self-sacrifices in order to save Michael. She does so financially, emotionally, in terms of her promise to Simon, and in terms of her life. When her brother Lavrenti insists that she must marry Jussup in order to make Michael a ‘legitimate child’, she agrees, thus breaking her engagement promise to Simon. When she is confronted by the Ironshirts and must choose between claiming Michael as her child and losing Simon, or disclaiming Michael and regaining Simon’s love and respect, She chooses Michael. In doing so, she sacrifices her future happiness with Simon. Grusha gives up everything that is important in her life in order to keep Michael safe.
Brecht’s depiction of Grusha contrasts enormously with the other representations of mothers in the text. In the first act, Michael’s natural mother Natella is portrayed as jealous of her own son, “But Georgi, of course, will only build for his little Michael. Never for me! Michael is all! All for Michael!” When forced to flee the city, she places more value on material items such as her clothes, leaving Michael behind in her haste.
Similarly, in Act Three, Jussup’s mother is more concerned with money than her dying son. When asked by the monk if she would like him to perform Extreme Unction, a sacrament for anointing the dead, she refuses by saying “Nothing doing! The wedding was quite expensive enough”. Likewise, at the trial, Natella is more concerned with her own current situation, than with seeing her child. Her motivation proves to be in her own interest, as she needs custody of Michael in order to take over the Governor’s former estates.
The social and political undertones of the play also impact on the way the concept of motherhood is perceived. The play is anti-capitalist in its message, promoting a communist ‘value system’. Brecht explores the concept of motherhood based on humanity and social relationships rather than the motherhood determined by blood. Whilst Natella is Michael’s natural mother, it is Grusha who has cared for him. She has protected him, provided for him and most importantly loved him. Through the chalk circle, Azdak comes to see who is a better mother to Michael. Natella continues to pull, whereas Grusha cries in despair “I’ve brought him up! Am I to tear him to pieces? I can’t do it!” Because of this display of real ‘motherhood’ Azdak is finally able to decide that “the hardships Grusha has shared with Michael and the sacrifices she has made to bring him up, plus her inability to hurt him entitle her to have the child” . His final judgement does not make sense from a legal point of view. However, from a humanistic perspective, it is the only reasonable solution. The justice of the play is, therefore, a social one. Brecht’s aim is to illustrate that “society is a better place when rights are earned rather than simply inherited” . His reasoning is based on a communist view of humanity.
Brecht’s concept of epic theatre and alienating techniques, impact on the way Grusha is portrayed and viewed by the audience. As a mother figure to Michael, it could be argued that Grusha is depicted as the heroine of the play. However, Brecht does not encourage his audience to side with her unconditionally. When advised by the cook to leave the child behind, she replies “…he looks at you like a human being”. Brecht depicts Grusha’s act of humanity in a negative light and the cook is quick to point out that such kindness is often taken advantage of “You’re just the kind of fool who always gets put upon.” Brecht also presents the argument that whilst Grusha saves Michael from certain death, she is in a sense stealing the child “Like booty she took it for herself...like a thief she sneaked away”. In portraying Grusha in such an impartial way, Brecht is encouraging his audience to decide for itself whether she is a thief who should be punished for her actions, or whether she is a hero who should be rewarded by being allowed to keep Michael. But by the end of the play it is clear that Grusha deserves custody of Michael. Regardless of whether or not she is his natural mother, Grusha is everything a mother should be and it is her compassion, endless humanity and motherly nature that enable the audience to identify with her and relate to the play.
Whilst the play contains many revolutionary theatrical ideas Brecht fails to sustain distance and objectivity in his audience in relation to motherhood. He fails to achieve his desired outcome, which is to create a piece of literary work that departs from the conventions of theatrical illusion, allowing the play to become a social, political and cultural commentary, devoid of any irrational emotions.
Eric Bentley, The Brecht Commentaries, Grove Press, 1981.
Eric Bentley, The Brecht Memoir, PAJ Publications, 1985.
Harold Bloom, Maria P. Alter, Bloom’s Major Dramatists: Bertolt Brecht, Chelsea House Publishers, 2002.
Hugh Rorrison, Commentary and notes on The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Methuen Publishing Ltd, 1984.
John Fuegi, Brecht & Co; Sex Politics and the making of Modern Drama, Grove Press, 1994.