Caucasian Chalk Circle Summary

Bertolt Brecht

Caucasian Chalk Circle

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Caucasian Chalk Circle Summary

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brechtbegins with a prologue, a play-within-the-play, concerning a dispute between two groups of peasants as to which one will take control over a valley abandoned after the Nazis invaded in World War Two. One group herds goats, and its claim comes as a result of having worked the valley before. The other group wants to plant fruit trees. The fruit growers outline elaborate plans for irrigation that will allow them to grow a massive amount of food. The goat-herders rely on their history in the valley only. The Delegate assigned as arbitrator chooses the fruit growers because they will use the land better. They hold a party in celebration, and during the proceedings, a Singer agrees to tell them the story of the Caucasian Chalk Circle.

The Singer’s story begins with Governor Georgi Abashwili and his wife, Natella being approached by citizens on the way to Easter Mass; the citizens are ignored. Arsen Kazbeki, the Fat Prince, arrives on the stage, and he fawns on them by complimenting their newborn son, Michael. They enter the church.

Grusha Vashnadze arrives. She is the governor’s wife’s maid. Grusha meets a soldier, Simon Shashava, who tells her he had spied on her while she was bathing in the river. Grusha storms off, furious.

The Fat Price stages a coup, and the Governor’s guards turn on him. The Governor is beheaded. Simon proposes to Grusha, giving her his silver cross. Grusha accepts the proposal. Simon rushes off to serve the Governor’s wife, but finds her packing for a trip, denying the nature of the emergency and harm she is in. As she is carried off, she forgets her son, Michael, and leaves him behind. Grusha takes the boy to the mountains with her, hoping the child can escape his father’s fate.

As the Singer continues his story, Grusha makes her escape, but she needs to stop and get milk for Michael. She buys milk from a goat-herder at an incredibly high mark-up. This takes longer than it should, and the soldiers are on her tail. She finds a house for the baby, and abandons him on the doorstep. He is adopted by a peasant woman.

Though Grusha feels bad, those feelings go away when she encounters the Fat Prince’s men. After an altercation with the soldiers, Grusha runs away to live with her brother, Lavrenti, at his house in the forest. There, Grusha catches scarlet fever, forcing her to stay at the house for quite some time.

Lavrenti convinces Grusha to marry a dying peasant, Jussup, to quash rumors going around the village. At the wedding/funeral, gossip reveals that the Grand Duke is overthrowing the princes. Civil war has ended, and with it, the draft. At this, Jussup suddenly jumps up. He was not dying, merely pretending to be sick to avoid the draft. Now Grusha is married, and despite her new husband’s advances, the marriage remains unconsummated.

Years later, Simon comes upon Grusha washing clothes in the river. They speak with affection, though Grusha reveals she is unhappily married. Simon sees Michael and mistakes him for Grusha’s son. Then soldiers arrive and take Michael away, planning to return him to where he belongs. Grusha follows the soldiers and Michael into the city.

Within the play, the Singer tells the audience there is another story we must know before Grusha’s future can unfold.

This, we learn, is the story of Azdak. Azdak shelters a peasant during the same war. Azdak comes to realize this peasant is, in fact, the Grand Duke, and Azdak saves his life. The Grand Duke is mistaken about the roots of the rebellion, incorrectly thinking the peasants are uprising, while in actuality, the princes are revolting.

The Fat Prince arrives with plans to make his nephew a judge. Azdak suggests a test, to prove the nephew is worthy. As a result of the test, the soldiers choose Azdak over the Fat Prince’s nephew, and Azdak becomes a judge.

Azdak presides over a series of cases, always siding with the poor and oppressed. After some years, though, the Grand Duke returns to power, and the Fat Prince is beheaded. As Azdak is about to be beheaded, the Grand Duke intervenes.

Azdak now must preside over the case of Grusha and the child Michael. The Governor’s wife wants the child, because without him, she cannot gain control of the Governor’s estates. Grusha wants the child because she has loved and raised him for two years.

Azdak orders that a chalk circle be drawn. With the child in the center, the women are told to use him in a sort of tug-of-war, and whichever woman can pull the child the hardest out of the circle can keep him. The Governor’s wife pulls the boy, while Grusha lets go, unwilling to harm him. After this happens a second time, Azdak rewards Michael, as well as the Governor’s estates, to Grusha. He also grants Grusha a divorce, allowing her to marry Simon.

The Singer ends the play as everyone dances happily.

The main thematic element of the play is the concept of love and parenthood. A mother’s love for a child is not necessarily determined by birth, and it absolutely has nothing to do with riches or power. Grusha is a far-better mother to Michael than his birth mom could ever be.

Azdak’s process of determining who deserves the child more echoes the Biblical story of King Solomon and the “splitting the baby” parable.