BY PASCAL MWANDAMBO
and TIMOTHY CHAWANA
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a remarkable work of literature whose style and themes reflect our day to day lives.
It’s drama that is both didactic and entertaining, while raising pertinent issues in our contemporary society.
It is a story about love and sacrifice, treachery and subterfuges, honesty and betrayal, poverty and affluence, courage and despair, kindness and cruelty.
In the Chalk Circle, Brecht paints a picture of a society undergoing radical socio-political transformations; coups and counter-coups, which are the hallmarks of a changing political order.
The high drama revolves around the toppling of governor George Abashwili by his brother the Fat Prince who beheads him, leaving behind a young heir Michael in the hands of a servant maid Grusha.
The governors wife, Natella, while fleeing from the turmoil, is more concerned about her expensive material possessions,leaving her only child behind.
The play addresses a number of thematic concerns. These include love, abuse of power, betrayal, justice, social class and inequality, negligence of duty/ irresponsibility, greed/materialism and religious hypocrisy.
These are briefly illustrated thus:
In the play, love is illustrated in many forms. There is parental love and romantic love.
In parental love, the governor and Grusha have great love for Michael. In romantic love, Grusha and Simon are lovers.
Abuse of power
We learn from the play that the Governor’s son had ‘two doctors who never moved from the noble child, apple of the Governor’s eye.’ (pg 15) He is also said to be planning to tear down slums in order to start building the east wing garden, which will belong to the heir Michael. tearing them down does not matter provided he constructs what he wants.
Soldiers are also seen abusing power. ‘ … soldiers push the crowd back lashing at them with thick whips.’ (pg 14) when the people jostle to have a peep at this heir, baby Michael, they are driven back with whips. The Fat Price abuses power when he conspires with the other Princes to overthrow the Governor from power and has him beheaded.
Natella is extremely ruthless in her treatment of her servant. She orders them around at a critical moment oblivious of the danger she is exposing them to. She beats a young woman whom she accuses of almost tearing her dress. She tells her, ‘I’ll kill you, you bitch!” (pg 24) She takes advantage of her powerful position to mishandle the servants.
When the coup takes place, Ironshirts who should guard the Governor, fail to take commands from the Adjutant.
The doctors also betray the Abashwili family immediately they realize the Governor has been arrested.
The Fat Prince was together with Governor at the church and wishes him a happy Easter. Later he leads an insurrection and the Governor is beheaded.
When Grusha leaves Michael with the old couple of peasants, she changes her mind and returns to save the child from the Corporal who was looking for him to run through him. The old peasant woman betrays Grusha when Corporal starts suspecting them.
Natella betrays her son as a mother and remembers to carry her expensive clothes and shoes but forgets about Michael.
Right from the prologue, justice is a common concern. This is illustrated when arbitrators preside over fruit growers and goat- herders dispute and determine who should be given the valley. When the Girl Tractorist comments that, “ The home of the Soviet people shall be the home of reason.” (pg 10) This is meant to appeal to the Goat Herders to be reasonable. The delegate is thoroughly impressed by the clever plan of the project and rules that the Goat Herders relinquish the valley. They arrive at a consensus through the voice of reason rather that by the rule of law.
In another instance the petitioners and beggars bitterly cry for justice. The Governor demurs to heed to the their pitiable calls for fair treatment. However, reason does not prevail; the soldiers are guilty of obstructing justice by lashing at the pitiful petitioners. They are heavily taxed and expect the water inspector who takes bribes to be brought to justice.
Social class and inequality
The problem of class-consciousness in the diverse lifestyle enjoyed by the Governor and his family is in contrast to the abject poverty the lowly citizen has to endure.
The Governor and his beautiful wife go to church guarded by many soldiers who are at his service. Beggars and petitioners pour from the church gateway with a deluge of complaints. They display thin children to the Governor, others hold up crutches and petitions. They are a pitiful sight. The social difference is due to the poor governance. The Governor’s family is expensively dressed. This is a clear indication that the Governor takes advantage of his high status to be exploitative.
Negligence of duty and irresponsibility
George Abashwili is the Governor and therefore responsible for the welfare of those under him. Although we are told he is stinking rich, he has so many beggars at his doorstep.
The sense of irresponsibility astonishes more when Natella Abashwili takes all her time choosing the dresses and the shoes to carry. She finally leaves and forgets her child whom she had directed to be laid on the floor.
Greed, exploitation and materialism
The princes, and the especially the Fat Prince, are motivated by greed for power. The Fat Prince’s greed for power makes him hypocritical as seen when he salutes the Governor and praises young Michael. Soon after, the Governor is beheaded and young Michael is sought after. The Grand Duke however, manages to escape.
The Governor, George Abashwili, is materialistic. On the Easter Sunday when he and his family are escorted by the soldiers to church, many beggars and petitioners try in vain to reach out to them.
After the Governor is overthrown, Natella seems to forget her husband too soon as she orders servants to pack her clothes in readiness for safety. It is no wonder that she even abandons her son Michael because all she cares about it her comfort and dresses. Later, we learn that the main reason why she claims her son is to get inheritance of the great Governor Abashwili’s assets.
In advancing the plot, Brecht songs as a powerful stylistic device which, apart from relieving tension, are also laden with proverbs.
The author also uses satire, which offers comic relief, a good example being the stage-managed marriage between Grusha and Jussup, a peasant on his deathbed who cannot even pronounce the vows “ until death do us part” . Miraculously, Jussup recovers and chases away the revelers who had been feasting on cases thinking that he was going to die!
There are also several ironies that present themselves, chief among them the moral standing of the Judge Azdak. As a judge he is required to be beyond reproach but as we see in the play, he takes bribes and is also a habitual drunkard, which makes nonsense of the old saying, “as sober as a judge.