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Note from The Caucasian Chalk Circle Artistic Director Brian Kulick
THAT TERRIBLE TEMPTATION
For many, THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE is to Brecht what THE TEMPEST is to Shakespeare: the great final work. But in reality both writers had a few more plays up their sleeves before they shuf ed off to that “great stage in the sky.” For Shakespeare, THE TEMPEST was followed by the much lesser-loved HENRY VIII, TWO NOBLE KINSMEN and the now lost CARDENIO; for Brecht there would still be an adaptation of ANTIGONE, THE DAYS OF THE COMMUNE and the incomplete FRATZER. But these myths persist. We acknowledge these truths and then nd such excuses as, “Well, THE TEMPEST was the last play Shakespeare penned on his own, the rest were sporadic collaborations with Fletcher.” And, in the case of Brecht, we like to remind ourselves, “Well, it was the last play he staged before he died.” And with these somewhat imsy excuses in place, we hold onto the illusion that these were intended to be the great “summa-like” works of these two master theatremakers, their nal statements on the nature of the world and its relation to their beloved theatre. They certainly feel that way. Not to mention that the central characters of each of these plays—Prospero and Azdak— seem very much like dramatic self-portraits of their respective authors. The plays also magically recapitulate each author’s entire dramatic and thematic repertory in a single play. Perhaps this is indeed why, when faced with which production to send out on tour, the ailing Brecht chose THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE to join the company’s signature production of MOTHER COURAGE. It certainly balances out the bleak relentlessness of MOTHER COURAGE with THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE’s lightness. It has an airy fairy tale-ness that almost resembles one of Shakespeare’s late romances—a nice way to show audiences the alpha and omega of Brecht’s dramatic range.
The play itself had a long gestation period. Brecht rst encountered the story when he was a young dramaturg in 1925 at the Deutsches Theater where Max Reinhardt had staged Klabund’s THE CHALK CIRCLE, which was loosely based on the 13th Century Chinese play by Li Xing Dao. This play, upon review, feels more like the world of Brecht’s later GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN than his own version of CHALK CIRCLE; but clearly the parable structure, exotic landscape and central Solomon-like story struck a responsive chord that haunted Brecht throughout the late ‘30s and early ‘40s when he wasin ightfromtheNazis. Firsttherewerea series of dramatic sketches for a never-completed play entitled THE ODENSE CHALK CIRCLE that were composed in 1938 during Brecht’s exile in Svendborg. Then in 1941, we nd Brecht picks up the story again, this time in narrative form and transposed from Odense to Brecht’s birthplace. This version, THE AUGSBURG CHALK CIRCLE, can be found in Brecht’s TALES FROM THE CALENDAR. But it was not until May of 1943, when Brecht was ensconced in Santa Monica, California, that he decided to turn his full dramatic attention to the story once again.
The impetus behind this renewed interest was the actress Luise Rainer. When Brecht asked her on one of their occasional strolls across the beach what play she most wanted to do, she responded, “CHALK CIRCLE.” That was enough for the out-of-work and under-appreciated Brecht. Rainer was at the height of her fame as an actress, having just completed the Academy Award- winning movie THE GOOD EARTH. With her backing, Brecht completed his rst draft of what would nally become THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE, a play that Brecht believed was Broadway-bound. But such dreams were dashed. Rainer, it seems, lost interest in the project. Brecht would have to wait another decade to nally see this week performed. By then he had returned to East Germany where he founded the renowned Berliner Ensemble.
Although the play is set in mythic Grusinia (known more familiarly as Georgia), it is heavily in uenced by Brecht’s time on the peripheries of Hollywood and Broadway. Ten years of American exile had left its mark on Brecht. Throughout his working notes, we nd mention of Hollywood’s penchant for the “happy ending” and his making use of “certain elements of that older American theatre whose forte lay in burlesques and ‘shows.’ In those highly imaginative manifestations which recall the lms of that splendid man Chaplin.”
But when we strip away the fairy tale trappings of the ancient Caucasus setting and put aside the various Broadway interpolations of songs, “comic bits,” “melodrama” and “happy endings,” we discover the same secret story that seems to haunt much of Brecht’s work during the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Beneath all this, we nd Brecht once again grappling with the question of revolution and its ability to maintain its true emancipatory promise without eventually being overcome by reactionary and repressive forces. It is interesting to note that throughout much of the rehearsal of THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE at the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht was struggling with rewriting his play THE DAYS OF THE COMMUNE, which he worried would be too confrontational for an East German audience that was experiencing rst-hand a questioning of its own hard-won socialist status with a series of worker strikes.
Change in Brecht is a necessity, but change with a capital C is dangerous and seems only to last so long before the status quo returns. But within this window of historical opportunity, we see the temptation to do good that the revolution can unleash. This is where the innocent kitchen maid Grusha and the cynical country clerk Azdak rhyme: they cannot NOT help, even if it is ultimately against their best interests. They are compelled to do the right thing. This same impulse from these two disparate souls is, in Brecht’s understanding, humanity’s saving grace.
Brecht said jokingly, “My CHALK CIRCLE is the perfect play for the repertory,” and it seems, on this count, that he was right. His CHALK CIRCLE is one of his most performed plays. No doubt history has aided in keeping CHALK CIRCLE relevant with its endless series of late 20th and early 21st Century uprisings, beginning with the fall of the Soviet Union, through the breakup of The Eastern Bloc, and all the way to the Arab Spring that rages on right now. In each case, we watch from afar, holding our collective breath, hoping for the change that Azdak calls “the Golden Age.” But Brecht and history tell us that such “Golden Ages” are sadly eeting. We have chosen to set our CHALK CIRCLE during the fall of the Soviet Union, perhaps because it is still so very hard to separate Brecht’s dramatic hopes from the realities of history—not that Brecht was blind to what was happening in his lifetime. His CHALK CIRCLE is as much about “ancient Grusinia” as it is about the precarious state of a socialist society. We have decided to use that tumultuous period between Gorbachev and Putin as a way to foreground some of these latent concerns that lie beneath the surface of Brecht’s parable. And so our play begins when the hammer and sickle gives way to the ubiquitous Coca-Cola bottle—a moment of chaos, confusion and in nite emancipatory possibility, not unlike Azdak’s 700-day reign. Brecht’s CHALK CIRCLE knows that such days may be numbered, that the forces of change are quickly subdued and almost always subverted by the powers that be (same brute, just in a different suit).
The play acknowledges this sobering historical recursiveness but it does not buckle under it. This is its extraordinary power, a power that seems to transcend the historical dead-end that so many of us feel as we watch the nobler aspirations of communism, as well as our own delicate democratic spirit, falter. It tells us simply to do what we can while we can. It places care for “the other”frontandcenter. Itsays,unapologetically, that this, above all else, is the only hope for human kind. If Shakespeare’s theatre can be distilled to the axiom of “see better,” then perhaps Brecht’s dramatic motto might best be distilled as “care more.” Maybe this is why we feel compelled to circle back to Brecht’s CHALK CIRCLE. In a world where, as our ironic narrator warns, “terrible is the temptation to do good,” perhaps we need such plays to whisper to us, “may you always be tempted.”
– Brian Kulick