The Caucasian Chalk Circle is written in 1944 by Bertolt Brecht after he came to America in 1941. As with the majority of the theatre he made, the purpose of the play is to ask the audience to think, reflect and act upon the play. There are all the hallmarks of an Epic Theatre production, designed to stop that empathetic connection between audience and character, so that the audience may be pushed into action rather than submissive or passive observation.
In this case, his aim is for the audience to consider what happens post World War Two. What happens in a world where fascism and the politics of the far right have been pushed back, or even eradicated. What will take its place and how will the world look afterwards.
This is achieved through a variety of ways, most notably the structure of the play. Which at first glance can be confusing. Firstly, it is a play within a play. The first scene focuses on a post war world where two communities return to the land and dispute over its ownership. A mediator helps them come to a decision and as part of their celebrations, a play is performed. The play that follows comes in three parts. The first is the story of Grusha as she escapes the revolution with a child of a the wealthy and powerful Governor who has been killed in the revolution. Her story is one of courage, class and overcoming the shift in society caused by the revolution. The second is the story of Azdak and how he fills the power vacuum that has been created after the revolution. Azdak is a commoner dispensing justice and seduced by power. The common thread between these two stories are the holes in society created by the revolution and who is left to fill them. The two stories run concurrently until they finally meet in the final story, where the fate of Grusha, the wealthy Governors Wife, the child and society are decided upon.
The play is consistent with Epic Theatre conventions and is a good model for students to see how they are employed to their best. The central characters are likable, real and emotional. The audience get tantalisingly close to them before they are ripped away from them by a scene change, a song or a sudden change in tempo. The story is epic, taking place over several years. There is space for placards, direct audience address and stock characters.
There are some real challenges for technical elements too. There are big signature scenes where the city needs to burn down, Grusha escapes over an old rope bridge and Azdak receives several harrowing and hard physical beatings. There are some opportunities to create magnificent set pieces with lights and sound. And there is a fantastic challenge to how one maintains the Epic Theatre conventions of performance with modern theatre making techniques and facilities. Remember at the time of their first performance, Brecht would have scaled down his set, lighting and sound design to a minimum and stylised design.
The time of the original performance was a tricky one. The end of World War Two was in sight, and these questions about a power vacuum created by the defeat of the far right were valid. But in the USA at the time, there was another war getting under way, and that was the fight against Communism. The questions Brecht raised in this performance, whilst valid, also highlighted the dangers and pitfalls of right wing politics, of consumerism and of capitalism. This got Brecht into difficultly, and earned him the attention of the anti-communist trials that took place after World War Two. It wasn’t long after that when Brecht left America to return to Germany.
But these questions still important today. As we enter the 2020’s, world politics of major developed countries continue to see the rise of right wing politics as a norm. The distance between rich and poor, not just in wealth but in attitude, perspective and in tolerance, seem to be as wide as ever.
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