The Caucasian Chalk Circle


Bertolt Brecht

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Bertolt Brecht

The German playwright, poet, and theatre director Bertolt Brecht is perhaps best known as a pioneer of epic theatre—plays and musicals which, in stark opposition to naturalist or realist drama, often employ choruses and narration to highlight the artifice of the theatre and to clearly and methodically describe for the audience both the characters’ innermost thoughts and the major themes and lessons of the work itself. Brecht began writing drama in 1918. Heavily influenced by the violence and injustice of the First World War, his early work had strong anarchist overtones, and rejected both societal norms and artistic ones. Brecht made a name for himself in the Berlin theatre scene, and his career soared to great heights with the success of The Threepenny Opera—but in 1933, as the Nazis rose to power, Brecht fled Germany and sought refuge in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland while he waited for approval to live and work in the United States. As a writer in exile, he composed some of his most famous work: Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle were all written abroad. Brecht’s career was again threatened when he was named as a suspicious individual during the “Red Scare” in the early years of the Cold War, due to his Marxist leanings and his outspokenness about his political views. In 1949, Brecht returned to Berlin and established the Berliner Ensemble. He lived in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin until his death in 1956. The Berliner Ensemble continues to perform innovative and groundbreaking work to this day.
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Historical Context of The Caucasian Chalk Circle

The Caucasian Chalk Circle was written while Brecht was in exile during the Second World War. Having witnessed the violence, injustice, and destruction of two world wars in a span of under twenty years, Brecht set The Caucasian Chalk Circle against a background of war, corruption, and political tumult. The play is a rarity among Brecht’s compositions in that it ends on a happy note, as goodness shines through and justice is restored, at least for Grusha and her adopted son. This hint of optimism, and the triumph of good over evil and reason over chaos, perhaps speaks to Brecht’s Marxist politics and his desire to witness true revolution, lasting change, and an end to the systems of violence and corruption which oppress the poor, the downtrodden, and those targeted by unjust regimes.

Other Books Related to The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Brecht is perhaps the most famous writer of epic theatre, but he was not its sole creator. The poet Vladimir Myakovsky (who is quoted in the prologue of The Caucasian Chalk Circle) and the director Erwin Piscator were instrumental in developing and disseminating the ideals and aesthetics of epic theatre. Piscator, as the director of a major theatre company in Berlin, urged writers to address actual societal and existential issues, and would then stage the written works in a style which incorporated sometimes heavy-handed narration and description (such as Brecht’s use of Arkadi and his chorus of singers in Chalk Circle). This approach to writing theatre would come to influence work by later playwrights, such as Augusto Boal, who coined the term “The Theatre of the Oppressed” in the 1950s. Boal devised a mode of analyzing and producing theatre which leaned heavily on audience interaction and the creation of spectacle. The drama of Caryl Churchill, a major British playwright still working today, and the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Hal Hartley, and Lars Von Trier have all been described as Brechtian in terms of their use of theatrical devices, direct address, and detached performances from their actors.
Key Facts about The Caucasian Chalk Circle
  • Full Title: The Caucasian Chalk Circle
  • When Written: 1944
  • Where Written: United States
  • Literary Period: Modernist
  • Genre: Historical drama; Fable; Epic theatre
  • Setting: Georgia, or “Grusinia”
  • Climax: Azdak draws the titular chalk circle on the courtroom floor and instructs Natella and Grusha to engage in a tug-of-war over young Michael to determine who should be given custody
  • Antagonist: The Fat Prince; Natella; wealth; injustice

Extra Credit for The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Alternate Ending. In the Chinese play which serves as the source text for Brecht’s play, it is the child’s birth mother who is unable to harm him during the test of the chalk circle, and who is awarded custody in the end. Brecht’s play, which features themes of class warfare and the corruption of the wealthy, ends with Azdak granting custody to Grusha, the servant girl whose goodness and selflessness outshine the vanity and narcissism of the child’s birth mother.