The Caucasian Chalk Circle is, at its heart, a work that forces its audience to reckon with the harsh realities of economic and social inequality. In keeping with Brecht’s Marxist political leanings, The Caucasian Chalk Circle depicts the narcissism and carelessness of the rich and the goodness and diligence of the poor in stark contrast. He sets this social critique against a backdrop of political turmoil in Grusinia (the Russian name for Georgia), as the nation weathers a long, bloody war, as well as several smaller coups and transfers of power. Written while Brecht was in exile during World War II—and had already witnessed the horrors of World War I as a young man in Berlin—The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a treatise against political, social, and economic corruption. In it, Brecht argues that wealth, privilege, and power lead to both political and moral corruption, which takes the form of evil deeds, war, and the perpetuation of the lower class’s suffering.
The first example of moral corruption in the play comes early on, with the introduction of the Abashwili family. The Governor, Georgi Abashwili, and his wife Natella employ two doctors to look after their baby Michael’s every need. Although the baby is healthy, Natella is constantly worried that he will fall ill, and forces the doctors to minister to the child’s every cough or cry. Meanwhile, Georgi is planning to expand add a new wing his palace, even as a war rages through his country and peasants approach him on the street to beg for lower taxes and an end to the fighting. The Abashwilis are only concerned with themselves and their life of luxury. Their power and wealth has corrupted them and blinded them to the plight of the poor. When the Fat Prince leads a coup against the Governor and beheads him, Natella is forced to flee. Because she does not take the coup seriously, she struggles with several trunks stuffed full of fine dresses, shoes, and other accessories, even as the sky over Nuka turns red with fire from the peasant’s riots and Natella’s servants urge her that her life—and the life of her child—is at stake. In fact, Natella is so focused on bringing the right pair of boots along with her (themselves a symbol of wealth and decadence) that she leaves her child behind in the courtyard. Natella is completely corrupt, and is the worst kind of narcissist—deeply obsessed not only with herself, but with the material possessions she has amassed despite the despicable living conditions of the people she and her husband supposedly serve.
When Natella finally brings Grusha to trial in an attempt to get Michael back for herself, it comes to light that it is not even the child himself that she is set on repossessing—it is his inheritance, as he is the heir apparent to all his father’s estates. That Natella waxes poetic about how deeply she has missed her child when she is only after his inheritance demonstrates how corrupt she really is. Grusha alone seems aware of the tendency of wealth and power to corrupt, and sings several times of how she hopes her child will grow up free of the trappings of luxury. In the end, she knows that if her child is returned to his birth mother, he will grow up to be cruel and narcissistic, and it is her wish to continue to raise him up right, which helps to sway Azdak in her favor.
Political corruption, too, is rampant in Grusinia, and Brecht intentionally shields his audience from ever knowing who the “most” corrupt party is. The Abashwilis work for a regime led by the Grand Duke that is revealed to be deeply hated, and yet the peasants riot in the street when they are deposed and replaced by the Fat Prince. Grusha learns, while she is seeking shelter in the mountains, that the Grand Duke has returned, and has brought mercenaries from the Persian Army to help him fight against the Fat Prince and his brother, but all of this information is delivered in a second-hand and gossipy manner. Brecht does this intentionally, to prevent the audience from being able to keep up with the waves of corrupt power-grabbing that are sweeping Grusinia, and to show that ultimately it doesn’t matter who is in charge, since corruption will mar each and every regime that takes power. Brecht uses the theme of corruption in this play to comment on the times he was living in—a moment in history during which the world was war-torn, disparities in wealth were deeply felt, and unspeakable violence and corruption were taking hold of his homeland. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht sought to argue—through the play’s climax and denouement, when justice and reason finally triumph—that corruption must be overturned and eradicated completely if the suffering of the world is ever to be lessened.
Corruption 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.”
“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!”
AZDAK: “I’ve noticed you have a soft spot for justice. I don’t believe he’s your child, but if he were yours, woman, wouldn’t you want him to be rich? You’d only have to say he wasn’t’ yours, and he’d have a palace and horses in his stable and beggars on his doorstep and soldiers in his service. What do you say—don’t you want him to be rich?”
Grusha is silent.
ARKADI: “Hear now what the angry girl thought but did not say: Had he golden shoes to wear, he’d be cruel as a bear. Evil would his life disgrace. He’d laugh in my face.”