The Caucasian Chalk Circle | Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle | Plot Summary

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Summary

Prologue

After a long war, peasants from two neighboring villages meet to discuss how best to reconstruct the valley they share. One village wants to turn the valley into a fruit orchard; the other wants to use it for goat breeding. A singer and musicians arrive to put on a play, The Chalk Circle, which serves as an instructive analogy—or relevant comparison—for the villagers' situation.

Act 1

In the play it's Easter Sunday. The wealthy governor of Grusinia arrives at church with his beautiful wife, Natella, and their infant son, Michael. They push past crowds of beggars, discussing the lavish gardens they want to add to their palace, unconcerned by the suffering around them. At church they are greeted by the fat prince, who pretends to delight in seeing Michael for the first time. During the service the fat prince signals to the Ironshirts (soldiers), and his coup—or takeover—begins. As the governor and his family walk back to their palace, the governor's own Ironshirts turn against him, eventually arresting and beheading him. As chaos spreads in Grusinia, Natella and her servants frantically pack for their escape. Natella is far more concerned with choosing which fancy dresses to pack than she is with Michael's safety. The baby ends up being left behind. A kitchen maid, Grusha, finds Michael and takes pity on him, saving him from certain death. Although she has promised to wait in Grusinia for her fiancé to return from war, Grusha takes Michael and flees the palace with him.

Act 2

Grusha wanders the neighboring villages with Michael in search of food and shelter. The villagers charge exorbitant rates for milk, which Grusha pays knowing that otherwise Michael will die. She attempts to secure housing with some wealthy refugees, but they quickly discover that she is a servant and kick her out. Desperate, Grusha tries to leave Michael on the doorstep of a farming family, but she rushes back to protect him after learning that bloodthirsty Ironshirts have orders to kill him. The Ironshirts follow Grusha back to the farmhouse and try to snatch Michael from her. Grusha attacks them with a log of firewood, wounding one badly. She grabs Michael and escapes with him, determined to reach her brother's house in the mountains. Nothing stops her from making the daring escape, even crossing a rotting rope bridge.

Act 3

When Grusha finally arrives at her brother's house, she doesn't get the warm welcome she had anticipated. Her sister-in-law, Aniko, dislikes the fact the unwed Grusha has shown up with a seemingly illegitimate child. Although Aniko allows Grusha to stay for six months, she doesn't welcome her. When spring comes, Aniko demands that Grusha leave. Grusha's brother, Lavrenti, arranges for Grusha to marry a dying man on the other side of the mountain. He offers to pay a few hundred piasters (1/100 of the primary monetary unit in varying Middle Eastern countries) to ensure that Grusha can live on the farm after the man's death. As part of the deal, Michael will be given the man's name, making him a legitimate child. Although Grusha is already engaged to a soldier called Simon, she agrees and travels across the mountain for the wedding ceremony. Her future husband, Yussup, lies like a corpse in bed and doesn't open his eyes or speak during the ceremony. Some wedding guests express surprise that Yussup is actually dying, having heard rumors that he was faking his condition to avoid wartime service. After the service, musicians announce that the war has ended and that the soldiers, including Simon, have come home. Almost immediately, Yussup climbs out of bed and starts making cruel demands of his new wife. Grusha lives in this unhappy domestic situation for two years before Simon returns. He is heartbroken to find that she has moved on. That same day, Ironshirts arrive and arrest Grusha for allegedly kidnapping the governor's child.

Act 4

The scene returns to the Easter Uprising of two years earlier. On the day of the governor's assassination, a village scribe, Azdak, finds an old beggar and hides him from the police. He offers the beggar food and then realizes he eats like a wealthy man, not a starving one. Just as he realizes that the beggar is actually a rich man in disguise, Azdak's friend Shauva, a police officer, arrives and scolds Azdak for hiding fugitives. With the regime change, the fat prince wants to punish anyone sympathetic to the old leader, the grand duke. Despite Shauva's teasing, Azdak doesn't turn over the beggar. Instead, he teaches him how to eat like a poor man to help him escape. Later, when Azdak learns that the beggar was the grand duke himself, he tries to turn himself in to the Ironshirts for treason. He is surprised when the Ironshirts aren't interested. Chaos has erupted, and there aren't any judges left to try his case, anyway. The fat prince arrives with his nephew in the hopes of appointing him the new judge. He claims to want democracy, however, so the Ironshirts offer up Azdak as the nephew's rival for the job. They hold a mock trial, and Azdak emerges as the victor and is appointed judge.

Act 5

Two years later, Azdak is called to judge the case against Grusha. He must decide which woman, Grusha or Natella, can legally claim Michael as her son. Natella claims Michael because he's her blood, but Grusha claims him because she raised him. The trial gets off to a rocky start. Azdak tried to escape the night before and has been brought back bloodied and in chains. Natella's lawyers pay him a hefty bribe, and he accuses Grusha of using the court to try to cover up her "whoring" mistakes. Enraged, Grusha unleashes a tirade against Azdak, accusing him of being evil and corrupt. Azdak asks the women to prove which of them is Michael's mother through a sort of tug-of-war. The boy is placed in a chalk circle, and each woman is to grab one of his arms and try to pull him out. Azdak says that motherhood is strong, but Grusha refuses to pull Michael out of fear of hurting him. This enables Azdak to make his decision. Because she actually cares for Michael's well-being, he declares Grusha his legal mother. Azdak's last act as a judge is to sign a divorce decree ending Grusha's marriage to the farmer.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Natella flees during the fat prince's coup.

Rising Action

2 Grusha saves Michael from the bloodthirsty Ironshirts.

3 Grusha crosses icy mountains to reach her brother's house.

4 Grusha marries Yussup to give Michael security.

Climax

5 Grusha refuses to tug on Michael in the chalk circle test.

Falling Action

6 Grusha wins custody of Michael.

Resolution

7 Azdak dissolves Grusha's marriage.

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