Brecht Without Marx: A review of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”

Judith Mahoney Pasternak Apr 30, 2008

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
A Play by Bertolt Brecht, with music by Demetrios Bonaros
Produced by the Hipgnosis Theatre Company
At the Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street until May 11
All tickets $18

Only once in Bertolt Brecht’s large theatrical output did love, virtue, and generosity triumph over greed and indifference: in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, his warmest and most exuberant play.

Both warmth and exuberance are amply present in the play’s current production by the Hipgnosis Theatre Company, playing in Noho until May 11, but Brecht’s Marxism, which informed and was the point of everything he wrote, is less in evidence, thanks to a substantive cut in the play’s text.

The story of a heroic kitchen maid, the soldier she loves, the baby she finds, the dangers that beset them, and the bribe-taking rascal of a judge who saves them, the Chalk Circle begins (more or less — see below) amid the hurly-burly of a palace coup.

A soldier asks Grusha, the kitchen maid, to wait for him and marry him when the fighting is over. She agrees, he leaves — and then she finds the baby, the son and heir of the deposed, beheaded governor, left behind when its mother fled. When she realizes that the child is hunted, she flees with him over mountains, glaciers, and abysses, ultimately marrying a farmer—and, she thinks, giving up the soldier she loves — to put a roof over little Michael’s head. Ultimately, Grusha, Michael, and Michael’s birth mother find themselves before Azdak, the poacher-turned-judge.

As Brecht wrote it, Grusha’s story is preceded by a prologue about a post-World War II dispute between two collective farms in the Soviet Union’s Caucasus Mountains over the ownership of a fertile valley. A bard relates the tale of Grusha and the chalk circle to show that “what is there shall belong to those who are good for it … the children to the maternal, that they thrive, … and the valley to the waterers, that it may bear fruit.”

The Hipgnosis Theatre Company, however, has chosen to stage the play without the prologue, and the loss is a material one. Without it, Grusha may convince us that children belong to the maternal, but there’s no one to speak for the materialist half of the moral — that the valley belongs to the waterers — which was perhaps more significant to Brecht.

That said, the Hipgnosis cast and crew, playing in the round on a bare stage under the competent direction of Margot Newkirk and with a lyrical original score by Demetrios Bonaros, certainly brings out the charm of the play. John Kevin Jones may be a little too polished in the crucial role of Azdak, but Rachel Tiemann’s Grusha — the part that carries the play — conveys both Grusha’s ternderness and her strength.

Brecht was a great communist poet and playwright. If this production has diluted his communism, the great poetry and drama are still there.

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