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Theatre / The Caucasian Chalk Circle

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Der kaukasische Kreidekreis) is a play by Bertolt Brecht, first performed in 1948. The play retells an old Chinese tale ("The Chalk Circle") with several changes, including moving the setting to medieval Georgia in The Caucasus.

A nobleman is murdered in a coup, and his widow flees the city, leaving behind her infant son Michael. A servant, Grusha, is left holding the baby and decides to raise Michael herself, sticking to the decision even after it becomes apparent that having a baby along will add many difficulties to her own survival. Years later, after the original government returns to power, the noblewoman seeks to reclaim Michael, not for his own sake but because he's the key to inheriting her late husband's property. At the court hearing to determine Michael's future, things go badly for Grusha; she is poor and unfamiliar with court procedure, while the noblewoman has a team of lawyers and plenty of money for bribes. Judge Azdak declares a test: Michael will be placed inside a circle of chalk, each prospective mother will take hold of an arm, and the one who wants him enough to drag him out of the circle can keep him. Grusha is unable to bring herself to pull at all because she doesn't want to hurt Michael, and thus passes Azdak's Secret Test of Character: custody of Michael is awarded to Grusha, the mother who cares about his well-being.

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This work contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Brecht had previously retold "The Chalk Circle" as a short story, "The Augsburg Chalk Circle" (set in Brecht's home town in Germany). The short story establishes the bones of Brecht's version, including the two mothers being a rich woman who abandoned her child and the servant who took the child in and is recognised at the end as the true mother. The play goes into more detail about everything: how the child was abandoned, the troubles the servant has as a result of taking care of him, the trial itself — the role of the judge is significantly expanded, as Azdak with his complicated personality and convoluted life story replaces a more straightforward wise judge with no life story worth mentioning.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Azdak the judge is a maverick pursuer of poetic justice and a hero to poor underdogs, in whose favour he often rules. He is also drunken, horny, rude, violent and so completely in contempt of his own court that he is nearly hanged at one point.
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  • Deconstruction: The story plays with some of the assumptions of "The Chalk Circle" and other similar 'wise judge finds the true mother' stories. For one thing, every other story operates under the assumption that the true mother and the biological mother are one and the same, but in this case it's the adoptive mother who truly loves the child even though they're not related, while the biological mother only wants to get her hands on his inheritance (which is the false mother's motivation in the Chinese original). And in place of the wise and incorruptible judge who will surely discover the truth, there's Azdak, a selfish and corrupt trickster who was made a judge as a joke, and of whom we're shown that he has some sympathy for the underdog but not at the risk of his own skin.
  • Framing Device: The play has a prologue, which some productions omit. The prologue is set in present-day (1940s) Georgia, where there is a dispute over who is the rightful owner of an area of farmland: it was abandoned by the legal owners during the war, but another family took care of it and kept it in good condition; now the original owners want it back, along with the improvements that have been made. A group of traveling players offer to perform a story that will cast light on the dispute, which is the rest of the play. The leader of the players appears from time to time in the role of a narrator, and at the end offers a moral that implicitly compares the parties in the land dispute to the two mothers in the play.
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  • Judgment of Solomon: In a clear Shout-Out to the Trope Namer, Azdak suggests that the dispute can be settled by placing Michael inside the eponymous chalk circle and declaring that both mothers will try to pull him out of the circle in opposite directions and the real mother will be the one who succeeds (meaning that a little boy will have to endure being pulled between two grown women). He awards custody of Michael to Grusha because she can't bring herself to harm Michael even if the alternative is losing him.
  • Marriage of Convenience: One of the things Grusha does to protect baby Michael is marry a dying man so that they can have a home and an answer to questions about who Michael's father is. It becomes decidedly inconvenient when her new husband makes an unexpected recovery and she's stuck with him. Judge Azdak also learns about this and at the end of the play he also nullifies the marriage so Grusha can marry the man she loves, who has been supporting her through her ordeal.
  • Secret Test of Character: The judge must decide whether a child should be returned to his biological mother or remain with the woman who had raised him as her own son. He settles it by drawing a circle with chalk and placing the child in the center of it. He tells the women to pull on the boy and that whichever of them can pull him out of the circle first will be considered the true mother. The birth mother pulls hard, the adoptive mother lets go rather than injure the child. The judge then reveals that it was a test, and that the adoptive mother has proven herself to be the better mother because she put the child's interests ahead of her own.
  • Setting Update: The Chinese tale of "The Chalk Circle" is moved closer geographically to the target audience, although the time period is probably about the same. (Frame story aside, the period in which it's set is deliberately vague, but part of the play takes place in a region that was only part of the Kingdom of Georgia for a time period around the time that "The Chalk Circle" was published.)

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