The story at the heart of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is the story of Grusha’s adoption of Michael Abashwili. Michael, the pampered son of the Governor of Nuka, was carelessly left behind by his biological mother, Natella, when a coup swiftly and violently removed the Abashwilis from power. Although Grusha is initially uncertain of whether she should rescue the child and is afraid to take on the liability of being the protector of a “noble” child, her conscience compels her to take the child into her own care. Over the course of the play, Grusha struggles with the burdens and joys of motherhood, and the responsibilities of bringing a child up the “right” way. Although Grusha is not the child’s mother by blood, she ultimately earns the status of his rightful mother when she wins custody—one of Brecht’s rare happy endings, and a divergence from the plot of the Chinese myth on which the play is based. In ending the play with Grusha retaining custody of the child, Brecht sets up the concept of motherhood as a metaphor. Only those who are good and just, and who are aware of the corrupting influence of power and wealth, are fit to be “mothers”—and for Brecht, “mothers” are a metaphor for those responsible enough not only to care for others selflessly, as a mother would, but to lead society as a whole and remold it to better serve all people.
Brecht used his work to advance his political message—one which advocated for dismantling capitalism in favor of a more egalitarian social and economic system. The Caucasian Chalk Circle is rife with allusions to revolution and depictions of the upper class’s cruel treatment of the poor. Natella and Grusha—both “mothers” to Michael—are, in different ways, at the center of these conflicts, and Brecht uses the two very different mothers to model the behaviors of an unfit mother (i.e., an irresponsible member of society) and a fit mother (i.e., a “comrade,” an exemplar of egalitarianism). Natella, the Governor’s wife, is so distracted by her need to bring her finest possessions, including a pair of treasured saffron shoes, along as she flees the city that she leaves her child behind and does not come back for him later. Grusha scoops the child up and takes him into her care. As time passes, power is restored to the Grand Duke, and Natella, in command of the Ironshirts once again, tracks down and seizes her son back from Grusha. Grusha is brought to trial, and as Natella argues to regain custody of her son, she uses over-the-top language to describe her sorrow and pain at having lost her child. Her story of woe is revealed to be false, however, when it comes to light that her true motive in reclaiming her child is to secure her wealth, as Michael stands to inherit his father’s estate. Thus, Natella was an unfit mother when she lost her child, and, years later, she remains unfit to love or care for him. In the end, custody is restored to Grusha and Michael is stripped of his inheritance—a fact which does not matter to Grusha, but which causes Natella to faint on the spot. Thus, Brecht shows that Natella’s narcissism, vanity, and obsession with wealth and finery lead to her downfall, even after power has been restored to the regime she and her husband served.
Grusha is a humble servant girl who, somewhat reluctantly, takes Michael from where he was left in the palace courtyard and runs away with him into the mountains. Although Grusha later attempts to abandon the child with a peasant woman and her husband, she quickly realizes that she is the only one who can be the boy’s protector. Her commitment to his safety is cemented in that moment, and Grusha risks imprisonment and danger to ensure that her adopted child is kept from the clutches of those who would do him harm. Over the course of her journey through the mountains, Grusha sings again and again of her worries for the boy. She wants him to grow up to be kind, and hopes that she will be able to raise him “right.” Years pass, and Michael is eventually seized by Natella’s soldiers, at which point Grusha follows him to court in Nuka at her own risk; having assaulted a Corporal in the process of saving Michael, she has reason to fear that she will be recognized and punished if she returns. Once the trial begins, Grusha tells the judge plainly that she believes Michael is hers because she raised him. She taught him to be kind and a hard worker. In the test of the chalk circle, when Grusha is unable to bring herself to harm Michael even though the judge has told her it is the only way she can prove her worth as a mother, Grusha is ultimately victorious, proving that she is Michael’s rightful mother.
If mothers are the symbols of leadership in the world of the play, then children—particularly Michael—are symbols of the future of society, and its potential for goodness and justice. Grusha’s fierce desire to protect Michael from corruption, and the corruptive forces of wealth, power, and greed, mirrors Brecht’s utopian vision of a world in which the future of society is steered away from evil and, in the capable hands of those who are good and just, groomed for a future in which hard work and righteousness are prized above all else. Both Natella and Grusha have a “right” to the “noble child” at the center of the drama, just as both the wealthy elite and the common people have a stake in the future of society. In the play, Brecht imagines a world in which the question of who should lead society isn’t a matter of blood but of merit. Brecht envisions a social structure in which nepotism is overturned, dynasties and cycles of power are demolished, and leadership is given to those who have the greatest capacity for compassion and the fiercest desire to do good.
Motherhood as Leadership ThemeTracker
Motherhood as Leadership Quotes in The Caucasian Chalk Circle
“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.”
“She who carries the child feels its weight and little more.”
“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!”
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.”
“You, you who have listened to the story of the Chalk Circle, take note of what men of old concluded: That what there is shall go to those who are good for it. Children to the motherly, that they prosper, carts to good drivers, that they be driven well, the valley to the waterers, that it yield fruit.”