One of Brecht’s best-loved and most-performed works, The Caucasian Chalk Circle was written in Los Angeles in 1944 while the playwright was still in exile. He returned to Germany in 1947, but the play remained behind, a parting gift to the country that had offered him refuge from the Nazis, but which, with the Cold War heating up and the House Un-American Activities Committee in full lather, had turned against his socialist politics. With Brecht back in East Berlin, The Caucasian Chalk Circle received its premiere in May of 1948 in a student production at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota under the direction of the young theater professor Henry Goodman, a World War II veteran.
A native of Minneapolis, Goodman had been stationed in Berlin during the occupation and had seen Brecht’s work onstage in the devastated city. From America Brecht had tried to stop such productions. In September of 1945 he wrote to the Soviet cultural official Mikhail Apletin requesting that all further stagings of his work be forbidden until his own repatriation to Germany. Brecht was appalled that a production of his Threepenny Opera—utterly inappropriate given the circumstances, he thought—had been mounted in August of 1945, just a few months after the end of the war, and likely seen by Goodman. In the new post-Nazi, post-War world, Brecht felt all his plays needed at least some revision. The only work he believed ready for immediate presentation was Fear and Misery of the Third Reich.
After his return from Germany, Goodman had quickly completed a bachelor and masters degrees at the University of Minnesota, working with faculty member Eric Bentley, an Englishman who would later became a professor at Columbia and drama critic for the New Republic; Bentley was a wide-ranging, influential, and brilliant figure in American and international theater culture. Now 103, Bentley knew Brecht and championed his works in the United States, though without success at the University of Minnesota. Goodman mounted the Carleton production in Bentley’s translation, with another GI, the Carleton student Alvis Tinnin taking the vital role of the clown-like judge, Azdak. Tinnin was the first African-American ever to enroll at the college—“the fly in the buttermilk,” as he put it with a humor worthy of Brecht. In this first production of the play, the weird and whacky speaker of truth is black—an outsider.
Azdak is master of misrule who, in the aftermath of a revolution, has been given the power to decide on the fate of the noble infant Michael absconded with and cared for by the peasant woman Grusha because the birth mother had fled the mob in order to save her own skin. Grusha’s love for the child is real, whereas the birth mother’s belated interest is driven by greed, since the boy is set to inherit his dead father’s estates. In a replay of the Judgement of Solomon at the close of Brecht’s play, Azdak has a chalk circle drawn on the floor and the child placed inside it; he instructs each woman to grab a limb and proclaims that whoever wins the tug-of-war will be granted custody. As with almost all his pronouncements, Azdak means the opposite.
By the time of the Carleton production, Brecht was back in East Germany. He had testified—to the displeasure of many wrtiers who had refused to do so—before HUAC on October 30th, 1947; he left for Europe the next day. Brecht later claimed he was simply following the orders of his lawyers and that, as a foreigner, he had no choice but to appear before the committee. Whatever the case, his testimony is a masterpiece of political theater, its solipsistic legalisms and literalisms set the standard (minus the heavy German accent and laughs from the audience) for the later feints and follies of Bill Clinton and, if devotees of political dramas get their wish, those soon to spout forth from Donald Trump.
In January of 1949 Brecht formed his Berliner Ensemble; five years later the group took up residence in Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm where The Threepenny Opera had been premiered back in 1928. The Caucasian Chalk Circle was the first play the company put on there. The building is directly on the Spree River across from the Friedrichstraße Station where the Kindertransport trains departed in 1938, also site of tearful goodbyes between families divided between East and West Berlin during the Cold War.
Set in Soviet Georgia and written by an exiled German, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is still for me an American play. We read it in high school, our teacher proudly pointing to its Minnesota premiere. Though I don’t recall Brecht’s humor coming through to me back then in the early Reagan years, the big ideas certainly did. War, revolution, love, sex, cruelty, kindness, and righteousness confronted us—challenged us—on every page. The noble, even seemingly futile, battle against bleakest adversity was worth fighting, even alone—so thought a semi-suburban kid from the Pacific Northwest who knew nothing of adversity.
In spite of the overwhelmingly negative critical reception of the current production led by Michael Thalmeier, the Berliner Ensemble’s house director, the long and land narrow neo-baroque theater am Schiffbauerdamm built in 1892 was filled to capacity. The play remains essential, something that has to be seen: running over Christmas and into the New Year, the work has accrued the patina of tradition, even if Thalmeier has taken the grinder and blow-torch to it.
Another draw was Stefanie Reinsperger and her elemental portrayal of the peasant woman, Grusha—loud, loyal, unsinkable, frightened, frightening, unfailingly moral without any need or capacity to justify her actions. She does not save the child, Michael, out of a sense of obligation, but because she must. Like the rest of the cast—mostly rooted to the floorboards and costumed in garish colors and outrageous hairdos—she faces forward and shouts her lines from the set-less stage. All is stark and cold; static, yet exaggerated. Brecht’s humor, compassion and taut theatrical timing are bullied into becoming absurd, schematic. The most egregious example of this transformation is Grusha’s fiancé, the soldier Simon (played by Nico Holonics) who proposes to her just before heading off to war: their union is one of convenience but also of love. Simon touchingly presents her with his mother’s cross on a necklace before departing, then asks for it back when he returns from the war to find that she has been forced into a marriage to protect the baby, Michael. Holonics’s Simon is a Dumb and Dumber simpleton in shorts and a greased back 50s haircut. He leers cross-eyed, gropes greedily and lolls with his tongue. He shouts plenty, too. Stripped of all sentiment, the character becomes just one more predator, his heartbreaking homecoming turned into hollow, who-cares comedy.
Thalmeier sponsors many cuts and many repetitions of words and phrases, as if the collective attention has shortened significantly since 1948. He seems to think we need lots of browbeating, and he supplies plenty of it: Brecht as Bruiser.
One expects such promiscuous engagement with plays and operas these days in Berlin: not just in blocking and scenery, but in the text. The Berliner Ensemble program book, which seeks to rationalize its intrusive and distracting interpretations with reference to neo-liberalism, global and national inequality, and the collective expropriations of Facebook, too. Being lectured in the booklet is one thing, being lectured in tub-thumping fashion from the stage is another.
Even Brecht sanctioned cuts, as the current program note eagerly pointed out. Brecht told a group of visiting drama students at a performance in 1955, the year before his death at the age of 58, that they would miss their train back to Leipzig if the whole piece were done.
But was hard to approve of Thalmeier’s erasure of Brecht’s many songs. They were replaceed with blaring electronic guitar that thrummed in the background—often intruding far into the foreground—through most of the scant ninety, intermission-free minutes of the performance.
As done in Minnesota in 1948 and printed in Brecth’s Complete Works, the work had a play-with-in-a the-play, the framing device depicting two collective farms contending for a Caucasian valley recently freed from the Nazis. The original goat-herding inhabitants are intent on reclaiming their grassy homeland; the interlopers with their “machines and projects” hope to plant fruit trees and propose to build a dam that will flood the valley and allow full-scale irrigation of their orchards.
One might have thought these details could have offered pretext for creative updating: Brecht’s visionary and hilarious send-up of locally-sourced goat cheese tasting and/or some clean energy commentary on sustainability and Germany’s Green New Deal. Instead, Thalmeier opted for slash-and-burn.
In the complete play the local collective farmers have summoned a famed bard, called the Singer, to lead an uplifting entertainment; wearing a white three-piece suit with no shirt underneath, Ingo Hülsmann did the part as a gruffly nonchalant bystander—hardly the venerable epic poet who will narrate and ornament the ensuing parable of the contest for the valley: is it exploitable resource or natural patrimony? The visiting Expert (disappeared from the Berlin production) will decide the fate of the land and its people, but needs to hasten back to the capital and asks how long the folksy drama will last. “Only about a two hours,” replies the Singer. “Can’t you make it shorter?” asks the Expert. In the face of progress, the answer is always yes. In the present production there’s not even time to pose the question.
In the end even the chalk has to be changed. When judgement time arrives, Azdak, given to supercharged slapstick that verges on sadism as interpreted by Tilo Nest, is clad only in his Afro wig and white underwear. He wallows in stage blood and paints the fateful circle with his own hands.
In 2020 Berlin it is not the child that is dismembered, but Brecht’s play.