It is the summer of 1945 in a war-ravaged Caucasian village. Workers from two farming collectives sit in a circle smoking and drinking. The dairy farmers are arranged on the right, and the fruit farmers are on the left. A delegation from the State Reconstruction Commission is also among them. A peasant woman from the left side—a fruit farmer—points out the place where, during the war, she and her fellow farmers stopped three Nazi tanks in their tracks, expressing sorrow that the tanks had already destroyed the apple orchard by the time the farmers stopped them. Meanwhile, an old man on the right side of the stage laments the ruin of his beautiful dairy farm.
Brecht begins the prologue to his play in a village which has recently been decimated by the violence and atrocities of World War II. As the play was written when he was in exile in the 1930s and 40s, he is attempting to ground the main action of the story of the chalk circle within a setting that’s more immediately relatable to his audience, and also to create a dialogue about the unjust and chaotic effects of war.
One of the delegates urges his “comrades” to pay attention to the matter at hand: the dairy farm—the Collective Goat Farm Rosa Luxemburg—was once located in the valley where the characters are all now gathered, but moved East after the government warned them of Hitler’s approaching armies. They now want to return their farm to the valley. However, the members of the fruit farm (the Collective Fruit Farm Galinsk) want the empty valley to be assigned to them instead. The delegate charges the two collectives to decide between themselves who should rebuild in the valley.
The conflict between the two farming collectives is tied in with themes of chaos. The farmers simply want to get back to work after having endured a long war, but the order of their lives has been upended and forever altered by the chaos of wartime. Now, they are forced to struggle against one another to impart order once again.
The old dairy farmer offers to explain just why the dairy farmers need their valley back, and urges a nearby peasant woman to unpack some goat cheese from a basket. He tells the gathered group to help themselves and insists that all he wants from the group is an honest answer as to whether or not they like the cheese. A fruit farmer tastes the cheese and replies that he likes it, but the dairy farmer says that cheese is subpar compared to what their farm produced in “the old days,” as their goats do not like the new grass and are unable to find good grazing land.
The land that the dairy farmers have occupied “from all eternity” has been thrown into chaos and dispute due to the war, and nothing is as it once was. The dairy farmers are unable to produce what they feel is quality cheese, and this small change—barely perceptible to the fruit farmers—is symbolic of how the dairy farmers’ lives have all been upended, and are now unrecognizable compared to the world they once knew.
The old dairy farmer tells the delegation that the valley has belonged to his family “from all eternity.” A wounded soldier argues with him, stating that nothing has belonged to anyone for “eternity,” so the dairy farmer amends his statement, saying that the valley belongs to him “by law.” A girl tractorist suggests the laws be reexamined, to make sure they are still right.
In this passage, Brecht’s characters argue whether birthright or legal right reigns triumphant. As the play will come to be concerned with subverting traditional notions of ownership and complicating the idea of justice, Brecht sets these ideas up early through the farmers’ arguments.
Next, the fruit farmers speak up. One woman says that they have not had the chance to say their piece, and that while their valley has been ravaged, the dairy farmers at least still have the foundations for their land. Even so, the peasant woman from the fruit farm admits that she understands why the dairy farmers want their land back. She acknowledges that, even though the dairy farmers’ situation may objectively be better, they still prefer their “own” land and their own home.
Even though she is opposing the dairy farmers over the disputed land, the peasant woman from the fruit farm is still able to see their side of the argument and understand where they are coming from. She offers them the grace of acknowledging the veracity of their claims.
As the gathered crowd begins to grow agitated, the delegation attempts to settle everyone down. The delegation acknowledges that even though a piece of land is only a tool to help provide something useful, “there’s also such a thing as love for a particular piece of land.” A member of the delegation reiterates that all he needs to know from both the fruit farmers and the dairy farmers is what they would do with the valley if it was theirs.
Though it’s a tense situation, people on all sides of it—fruit farmers, dairy farmers, and government representatives alike—are able to see the intricacies of the matter at hand and offer empathy and the promise of a just solution.
A woman named Kato, in military dress, speaks up on behalf of the fruit farmers. She has planned an irrigation project to turn seven hundred acres of infertile land into arable land, in order to grow more fruit and support vineyards as well. To make the plan work, though, they are in need of adding the disputed land to their property. She hands over the schematics for the endeavor to the delegation. The girl tractorist proclaims that the fruit farm’s plans were made while they were taking cover in the mountains in between fighting the enemy, and both sides—fruit farmers and dairy farmers—applaud her. Even the old man from the dairy farm thanks the Comrades of the Galinsk farm for helping to defend the country. He shakes the girl tractorist’s hand and embraces her, conceding that the fruit farmers should have the land. The girl tractorist quotes the poet Mayakovsky, who said that “The home of the Soviet people shall also be the home of Reason.”
The dispute between the farms—which was so tense just moments ago—is resolved when both sides realize that it is fair for the land to go to those who will use it best. The fruit farmers toiled endlessly through the chaos of warfare, making plans under cover of darkness while besieged by violence. Thus, even the dairy farmers can acknowledge the fruit farmers’ commitment to the disputed land, and their desire for it to flourish more than it ever has before. For both sides it seems that the takeaway from the brief dispute is that ownership and leadership should be given to those with the greatest sense of stewardship and responsibility.
The delegates begin to study Kato the agriculturist’s schematics, commenting aloud on the plans amongst themselves. A young worker urges the old dairy farmer to look at the project plans. The old man refuses to look, but states that he always knew that whatever project the fruit farmers had planned was bound to be good. The delegation asks the dairy farmers to confirm that they are going to give up the valley—the old man asks for copies of the fruit farmers’ blueprints, and agrees.
In this passage, the head of the dairy farm acknowledges the worthiness of his “opponents.” Justice has won out, and though the dairy farmers are a little stung about the decision, they are well aware of the fruit farmers’ desire to improve the land and want for them to have the chance to do so.
The fruit farmers wish the dairy farmers well, proclaiming “Long live the ‘Rosa Luxemburg.” One of the women from the fruit farm says that in honor of their shared guests—the delegation—they will hear a singer that evening, Arkadi Tscheidse. The girl tractorist leaves to retrieve him. The woman from the fruit farm assures the dairy farmers—who are still just slightly bitter—that Arkadi will sing something that bears directly on their shared problem.
The dairy farmers and fruit farmers continue to show their mutual respect for and support of one another in this passage, as they wish each other well and announce their intention to celebrate together despite the tense interaction earlier.
Arkadi Tscheidse, accompanied by the girl tractorist and four musicians, enter the gathering. They are all greeted with applause. Even the delegation proclaims that they are honored to meet him, and asks if Arkadi will sing one of his old legends for them. Arkadi says that he will sing an old Chinese legend called The Chalk Circle, but he will be presenting a “changed” version. Arkadi asks if there will be food before the performance, and all of them—delegates, dairy farmers, and fruit farmers—enter the Club House for a meal. One of the delegates confesses that he hopes the performance won’t take too long. Arkadi remarks that he is actually going to tell two stories, and that his performance will take a couple of hours. The delegate asks if Arkadi can make it any shorter, and Arkadi replies that he cannot.
Arkadi has selected the perfect story to sing; though the farmers don’t know it yet, the story of the Chalk Circle will illuminate and celebrate the triumph of reason and empathy in the decision they have come together to make. Arkadi refuses to tell a shortened version of his story, hinting that its moral message is too important to be abbreviated.