The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

By Justin Hayford

Only he who knows that the fate of man is man

Can see his fellow man keenly with accuracy –Bertolt Brecht

By all accounts, Bertolt Brecht was a contradictory cuss. Living in Hollywood in the 1940s he often presented himself as a penniless exile, yet he collected over $20,000 by selling the movie rights to one of his works. As he wrote in the poem “Hollywood,” “To earn my daily bread / I go to the market where lies are bought / Hopefully / I take my place among the sellers.” During his stay in America he wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle as a Broadway vehicle for Luise Rainer, but he described the 1944 play as “partly conditioned by a revulsion against the commercialized dramaturgy of Broadway.” Reportedly he was so rude to Rainer–who’d signed the affidavit that allowed Brecht to come to the United States although she’d never met him–that she withdrew before the play was produced. Still, he sent her a copy of the script after he finished it.

Of course Brecht’s affinity for contradiction spilled over into his art, and particularly The Caucasian Chalk Circle. In the traditional Chinese parable that is its inspiration, two women trying to prove to a judge which of them is the real mother try to yank a child out of a circle. In Brecht’s subversive version, defying traditional notions of familial rights, the biological mother loses the child. He sets the action in a corner of Grusinia, in a peaceful town overpopulated by soldiers. “No other governor in Grusinia / Had as many horses in his stable / As many beggars on his doorstep,” a wandering minstrel sings as the story begins.

Revolution erupts, and when the governor is executed, his luxury-loving wife dumps their child and flees. The child ends up in the arms of the none-too-bright kitchen maid Grusha, who escapes with it into the mountains, pursued by “ironshirts” with orders to run the child through on a spear. As Grusha journeys into the wilderness, she becomes the play’s central contradiction. As Brecht puts it in contemporary notes to the play, “The more Grusha does to save the child’s life, the more she endangers her own; her productivity tends to her own destruction.” Ultimately Grusha stands before a man as contradictory as herself: Azdak, the former village clerk turned puppet judge. He openly accepts bribes from the rich, yet tends to rule in favor of the poor. He is a lecherous sot, yet an arbiter of true justice. In Brecht’s words he is “a disappointed revolutionary posing as a human wretch,” and it is he who presides over the climactic chalk circle test.

Brecht’s genius lies in his ability to render irreconcilable human contradictions true, remaining sensitive to the ways in which political and economic realities conspire against a person’s innate nature. In one seemingly insignificant exchange, Grusha, with little money and near starvation, asks a farmer for some milk for the child. The farmer charges an exorbitant price, then kindly helps her pick up the baby. As Brecht explains, “He isn’t mean; he’s poor.” Although Brecht’s characters often function as ideological icons–“more akin to the Shakespearean synthesis of allegory and realism than to the Individualist 18-20th Century drama,” as Darko Suvin writes–they are intricately human. In short, Brecht sees his fellow man keenly with accuracy.

In Mary-Arrchie’s Caucasian Chalk Circle director Richard Cotovsky and his cast struggle to maintain that accuracy. The piece begins with great promise. Doing away with conventional theatrical architecture, set designer Robert G. Smith eliminates any distinction between stage and audience, transforming Mary-Arrchie’s second-floor theater into a spacious beatnik cafe complete with bongos, wandering poets, and a coffee bar. At first the cast is indistinguishable from the audience, as everyone is milling about or lounging at tables. The effect is wonderfully Brechtian in its estrangement of the formerly ordinary; I’ve attended shows at Mary-Arrchie pretty regularly over the past few years, yet I found myself momentarily bewildered, wondering where I was.

After a rather muddled prologue, Dara Cox enters as the Singer, providing the first of numerous ballads that narrate Grusha’s story. With her domineering physicality and reedy voice, Cox makes the song a beacon of clarity, commanding Brecht’s story into sharp focus. Robert Steel’s original music, with its stark, haunting lines and folk music themes, displays the “cold beauty” Brecht wanted for this play.

But as the story begins, Smith’s coffeehouse design makes it nearly impossible for Cotovsky to focus the action. The roomful of chairs and tables leaves the actors with only a few feet of peripheral space for their scenes, making much of the blocking cramped and ineffective. Often the audience is in the way, as the actors either weave their way through the clutter of tables or, scattered around the space, play scenes over our heads. True, Cotovsky’s unconventional, unfocused blocking serves the play’s chaotic scenes well, as when the terrified, confused townspeople scurry about while their city burns at the hands of the revolutionaries. But at other times the story becomes indistinct, lost in obscure corners of the room.

Cotovsky tries to heighten the often overlooked humor in Brecht’s drama–a wise move considering Brecht’s admitted indebtedness to American burlesque and the films of Charlie Chaplin in this play. But most of the actors don’t have strong enough comedic skills to pull off the amalgam of slapstick and commedia dell’arte that Cotovsky concocts. Too often they opt for noise, speed, and fussiness over precision and nuance. Rather than allegorical, the characters become two-dimensional. As Brecht warned, “The worst enemy of true playing is playing about.”

Yet in its quieter moments this production does engage us, in part because of Brecht’s fantastic parable. Grusha’s treacherous journey has biblical overtones–she’s a virgin, a surrogate mother fleeing from murderous soldiers with a venerated child–and, especially as enacted by Laura Scott Wade, Grusha’s story is engrossing. In contrast to the unsettled, blurry performances around her, Wade shows great economy, as though demonstrating her part to a crowd she knows may have trouble seeing her. She never plays Grusha in a fully realistic sense, but instead stands just outside the character, showing the audience how Grusha would behave if she were here. Call it the classic Brechtian “alienation effect” (or, more accurately, “estrangement” effect), or call it a canny solution to the problem of performing in a bitch of a room. Either way, Wade is captivating.

As are all of the actors during the many musical passages. In these moments the actors let go of their actorly tricks and deliver Brecht’s words with great candor and simplicity. And given Brecht’s uncharacteristic optimism in The Caucasian Chalk Circle–written, after all, the year that fascism fell–that modesty is essential to the play’s warm heart. For in the end, justice and love triumph over opportunism and greed. Grusha and Azdak are harbingers of a new order, based not on class or parentage but fitness of soul. In the play’s final moments, as the cast forms a ring surrounding the audience to sing Brecht’s heartfelt benediction, you might believe for a moment that such a new order may actually come to pass.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): stage photo by Daniel Guidara.