The Caucasian Chalk Circle is one of Bertolt Brecht's most important plays and one of the most regularly performed German plays. It is one of a group of plays written by Brecht during his six-year stay in the United States, and was first staged in May 1948 by students at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
The play is often regarded as part of the epic theatre tradition. The motives used in the play are taken from the Bible, Buddhist and Islamic narrations, and the 13th-century Chinese drama piece Hui Lan Ji by Li-Xing-dao.
Prologue: The play begins with peasants finally resolving the ownership of a farm after Nazis almost destroy it. Afterwards, we meet the Singer Arkadi, who tells the peasants his story, which forms the narrative of the play.
Act I: The Noble Child
Arkadi's story begins with Governor Georgi Abashwili and his wife Natella blatantly ignoring the citizens on the way to Easter Mass. The Singer show us the show's antagonist, Arsen Kabezki, the Fat Prince. He sucks up to the pair and remarks how their new child Michael is "a governor from head to toe." They enter the church, leaving the peasants behind. Next to be introduced is the heroine Grusha Vashnadze, a maid to the governor's wife. Grusha, while carrying a goose for the Easter meal, meets a soldier, Simon Shashava, who reveals he has watched her bathe in the rivers. She storms off enraged. As the soldier contacts two architects for the Governor's new mansion, the Ironshirts, gestapo-esque guards, turn on him. The Fat Prince has orchestrated a coup and is now in control. The Governor is quickly beheaded. Simon finds Grusha and proposes, giving her his silver cross. Grusha accepts. Simon runs off to fulfill his duty to the Governor's wife, who has been foolishly packing clothing for the "trip", caring nothing of her loss. She is carried off, away from the flaming city of Nuka and inadvertently leaves her son behind. Grusha is left with the boy and, after seeing the Governor's head nailed to the church door, takes him with her to the mountains.
Act II: Flight to the Northern Mountains
Grusha finds a home for Michael to stay in. Abandoning him on the doorstep, he is adopted by a peasant woman. Grusha has mixed emotions about this, which change when she meets a demented Corporal bent on finding the child. He suspects something about her, and Grusha is forced to knock him out to save Michael. She wearily retreats to her brother's mountain farm. Laverenti, Grusha's brother, fabricates a story to his jealous wife, who suspects Michael is Grusha's bastard. Grusha catches fever and lives there for quite some time. Rumors spread in the village, and Laverenti convinces Grusha to marry a dying peasant, Yussup, in order to quell them. She reluctantly agrees. Guests arrive at the wedding/funeral and gossip endlessly. It is revealed that the Grand Duke is overthrowing the Princes and the civil war has finally ended, and no one can be drafted anymore. At this, the supposedly-dead villager returns to life and Grusha finds herself married. For months, Grusha's new husband trys to make her a 'real wife', but she refuses. Years pass, and Grusha finds Simon again, only to tell him she has unwillingly married. Simon spots Michael, and Grusha convinces him they are not related. However, Ironshirts arrive carrying him in, and ask Grusha if she is his mother. She says that she is, and Simon leaves distraught. It turns out The Governor's Wife wants the child back and Grusha must go to court back in Nuhka.
Act III: The Story of the Judge
The Singer introduces another hero named Azdak. Azdak shelters a "peasant" and protects him from authorities by a demonstration of convoluted logic. Only later does Azdak realize that he sheltered the Grand Duke, the Prince's greatest enemy. Azdak tries to turn himself in, but the Ironshirts laugh at him. The Fat Prince enters and wishes the Ironshirts to appoint his nephew as a new judge. Azdak insists they hold a mock trial to test the little fellow, which results in Azdak being appointed as judge by the Ironshirts. Azdak uses his new position and talent with argument to favor the poor while liberally fining the rich and unjust. Later, the Fat Prince is beheaded as the Grand Duke is reinstated in power. Azdak fear this is the end for him, but the Governor's Wife informs him he may be needed for an upcoming trial. Azdak, afraid for his life, agrees.
Act IV: The Chalk Circle
We meet Grusha in court, supported by a former cook of the Governor and, strangely enough, Simon Shashava, who will swear he is the father of the boy. Natella Abashwili comes in with two lawyers, who each reassure her things will be taken care of. Azdak is beaten by Ironshirts, who are told he is an enemy of the state. A rider comes in with a proclamation, stating the Grand Duke has reappointed Azdak as judge. Azdak is cleaned up and the trial begins. The prosecution comes forth and liberally bribes Azdak in hopes of swinging the verdict. It is revealed that Natella only wants the child because all the estates and finances of the Governor are tied to her heir and cannot be accessed without him. Grusha's defense does not go over well, as it develops into her and Simon insulting Azdak for taking bribes. Azdak fines them forty piasters (the currency of the time) and tells them he will resolve their case later. An old couple approaches and wishes for a divorce. Azdak says he'll think about it and goes back to our main trial. Azdak claims he can't find the true mother and says he'll make a test. A circle of chalk is drawn and Michael is placed in the center. The true mother, Azdak states, will be able to pull the child from the center. If they both pull, they will tear the child in half and get half each. The test begins but Grusha refuses to pull as she cannot bear to hurt Michael. She would prefer the Governor's wife to get him than to kill him. Azdak declares that Grusha is the true mother as she loves Michael more and cannot hurt him. The Governor's wife is told that the estates shall fall to the city and made to a garden for children. Simon pays Azdak his fine. Azdak tells the old couple he shall divorce them, but "accidentally" divorces Grusha and the peasant man, leaving her free to marry Simon. Everyone dances off happily as Azdak disappears. The Singer remarks upon Azdaks's wisdom and remarks that in the end, everyone got what they deserved.