Caucasian Chalk Circle Paperback – Nov 15 1999
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'an adept new translation by Alistair Beaton' Dominic Maxwell, The Times, 2.10.09 'The Caucasian Chalk Circle, written in 1944 while he was in exile from Germany, gives some epic illumination to socialist ideas about ownership and injustice. But more than that it's a story about love winning out over endemic corruption' Dominic Maxwell, The Times, 2.10.09 --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
About the Author
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is acknowledged as one of the great dramatists whose plays, work with the Berliner Ensemble and critical writings have had a considerable influence on the theatre. His landmark plays include "The Threepenny Opera", "Fear and Misery of the Third Reich", "The Life of Galileo, " "Mother Courage and Her Children "and "The Caucasian Chalk Circle."
Eric Bentley is the author of "Bentley on Brecht", "What Is Theater?", and other volumes about drama. Born in England in 1916, he was inducted into the American Hall of Fame in 1998. He lives in New York City.
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Woe to the foregone conclusion, then. Its trial date is ever on the way.
Laughably, the Helms-Burton bill, recently signed into law by Pres. Bill Clinton, is a giggle back to Brecht's discussion. And a silly one. One should think that were the United States to be in the business of giving back land "once stolen," that the Navajo, Sioux, Chippewa, et. al. would be first in line.
Apparently, Cuba's land belongs not to its current owners, but to its capitalists of 40 years hence. Oh, silliness. Oh, amusement.
So ask Brecht's question, then, not as a socialist, a communist or a red. Ask it as a human being. To whom does anything belong? What is belonging? What is ownership? Who owns anything? When - and why - does ownership occasionally turn on its own head?
It is a different version, but similar product and the moral of the story is still reached!
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Lavrenti, her brother, suggests she get married immediately to avoid suspicion that the baby is hers out of wedlock, and the most available candidate is a local wretched peasant. After living with this man for a couple of years, Grusha is apprehended by soldiers who have come to take young Michael, the sole heir of the deposed Governor's estate, back to Grusinia. The case of Michael's custody, contested by the Governor's wife against Grusha, is brought to trial, where the judge, a drunk named Azdak whose unofficial appointment to this position is a farce, decrees that the boy will be placed inside a circle drawn with chalk on the courtroom floor, and that the woman who is able to pull him out of the circle is the real mother. (Study the judge's exact words when you read this.)
Although the story is of medieval Chinese origin, Brecht's play is a sort of refashioning of the Biblical anecdote about Solomon and expands the idea by supplying a whole backstory to the women's argument. Solomon's judgment is accepted because his wisdom is universally considered to be impeccable, but what of a man like Azdak who functions on whim more than on wisdom? The ending is subtly brilliant in the sense that the outcome of the contest is subject to semantic debate (whether you think the judgment is fair or logical or contradictory depends on how closely you read the judge's words), but also in the question of irony or sincerity in the suggestion that true justice will be conferred by nature rather than by man.
The question posed here is whether a child abandoned by its natural mother then found and raised by another women should go to the former or that latter. Nice dilemma, right? But Brecht, as seem in Mother Courage and other parables, is not above cutting right to the bone on moral questions. What makes this work a cut above some of Brecht's more didactic plays is the way that he weaves the parable about the odd resolution of an ancient Chinese property dispute and places that `wisdom' in context of a then current dispute between two Soviet-era communes.
In the ancient dispute the judge who is called upon to render judgment, using the circle as a medium to resolve the dispute, seems to be Solomonic but is really a buffoon. This is pure Brechtian irony. This says as much about Brecht attitude toward property as it does about the old time Chinese justice system. The question of property rights as presented by Brecht and their value as a societal glue is also something the reader or viewer of this play should think about as well.