Chaos and chance rule the world of The Caucasian Chalk Circle from the very first scene. From the prologue set in a ruined valley in the wake of World War II to the main action (i.e., the play-within-a-play set in the war-torn Grusinia of long ago), Brecht creates an atmosphere of tumult, revolt, and pandemonium. He does so in order to reveal the ways in which chaos can be both destructive and generative, and suggests that chaos and chance can be forces of renewal and redemption, for they hold the potential to precipitate and even hasten the arrival of change.
The peasants in the prologue have had their lives turned upside down in the chaos of wartime. Forced to vacate a lush and fertile valley to escape the approach of Hitler’s armies, both the fruit farmers and the dairy farmers are now both physically and emotionally displaced. The tumult they have endured, however, stokes their desire for justice and reform. This is attested to in a scene in which two large groups of farmers from opposing camps attempt to win over a delegation from the government. The situation seems ripe for an outbreak of violence, but in the end the delegation sides with the fruit farmers, and the dairy farmers see the truth in the fruit farmers’ argument: they will put the land to better use, so it should go to them. The meeting was necessitated by the general state of chaos, but chaos did not define it, and as a result the peasants are able to return to their respective farms in peace, and know that not only has the land has gone to those who are “good for it,” but that the land will flourish and prosper and yield even more bounty than it did in the years before the war.
It is solely a matter of chance that Grusha, a servant girl, is in the palace courtyard when one of her fellow servants sets the Governor’s son Michael down on the ground in order to fetch his mother Natella’s saffron boots, only to have Natella and her coterie flee the palace to escape the approaching riots. In a moment of total chaos, Grusha finds that she is the only one willing to stay with the child through the night. Realizing that the child will no doubt be killed if captured by the Fat Prince’s soldiers, Grusha shoulders the burden of taking the child into her own care, and flees to the mountains to protect him. As Grusha’s relationship with the child deepens, she realizes that she is all that stands between him and a life of either certain death, or otherwise (once the political tides change and the Grand Duke returns to power) a life of corruptive luxury and the cyclical patterns of injustice that have kept the ruling class in power for so long. Chaos and chance converged to make Grusha Michael’s mother, and Grusha graciously accepts the opportunity.
The chaos of war—the backdrop for Brecht as he wrote the play—is also the backdrop of the play’s main action. Intentionally designed to be faceless, causeless, and confusing, a long and bloody war rages on in the background of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and the atmosphere of uncertainty and discord it creates affects several of the play’s main characters. Simon Shashava, the soldier to whom Grusha is betrothed, is called away to war at the start of the play and does not return until its middle. By this time, however, chaos and chance have already made Grusha into a mother, taken her on a long journey through the mountains, and forced her to marry a man she does not know in order to carve out some measure of stability and safety for her child. Though the audience does not witness Simon’s own journey, it is safe to wager that his time at war has also been marked by chaos and disarray. When he returns home, his first action is to seek out Grusha, whom he believes has been waiting for him and who ostensibly stands to provide comfort, familiarity, and a safe haven. When Simon finds out that Grusha has married another, and learns that she has a child, he assumes the child is hers by blood and will not stick around long enough to hear the truth or to try to understand. Simon is unable to see that Grusha’s life, too, has been dominated by chaos and chance in the years they have been separated. Nonetheless, Simon is there for Grusha during her trial, and even offers to falsely claim that he is Michael’s father if it will allow Grusha to keep him. After the chaos of the trial is over and Grusha has been awarded custody of the child—and has also been divorced from her husband, slyly, by Azdak himself—Simon and Grusha are free to return to the life they had always wanted together. They now find themselves free of the chaos that has marked their lives for so long, and grateful for the perspective it has given them.
Although justice is one force for bringing about change in the play, chaos and chance are harbingers of change in their own right. Chaos and chance force stagnant circumstances forward, and often herald a reorganization of those circumstances. For Grusha, Michael, Simon, and the farmers in the prologue, circumstances actually improve from the beginning to the end of the play. In using chaos and chance to throw his characters’ lives into disarray, which in turn forces their lives to change and actually improve, Brecht argues that chaos can be useful. Chaos and chance force the characters within the play to adapt to discord and embrace randomness, and finally come together around the shared purpose of recreating a new and perhaps even better order.
Chaos and Chance ThemeTracker
Chaos and Chance Quotes in The Caucasian Chalk Circle
“O blindness of the great! They go their way like gods, great over bent backs, sure of hired fists, trusting in the power which has lasted so long. But long is not forever. O change from age to age! Thou hope of the people!”
“Know, woman, he who hears not a cry for help but passes by with troubled ears will never hear the gentle call of a lover nor the blackbird at dawn nor the happy sigh of the tired grape-picker.”
“Deep is the abyss, son, I see the weak bridge sway. But it’s not for us, son, to choose the way. The way I know is the one you must tread, and all you will eat is my bit of bread. Of every four pieces, you shall have three. Would that I knew how big they will be!”
“While you fought in the battle, soldier, the bloody battle, the bitter battle, I found a helpless infant. I had not the heart to destroy him. I had to care for a creature that was lost. I had to stoop for breadcrumbs on the floor. I had to break myself for that which was not mine, that which was other people’s. Someone must help! For the little tree needs water. The lamb loses its way when the shepherd is asleep and its cry is unheard!”