Chris Harman


No fear of contradiction

(May 1997)

Reviews, Socialist Review, No.208, May 1997.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
by Bertolt Brecht

This is the best production you are likely to get the chance to see of one of the best of Brecht’s plays. He wrote it in 1944, after more than ten years of exile from Nazi Germany, and filled it with his revulsion at the inhumanity and violence of class society.

On the surface, the play takes the form of a story with music about Grusha, a serving maid, who saves a baby abandoned by a governor’s wife in a civil war. Putting up with every sort of hardship she brings it up in conditions of extreme danger and poverty – and is then dragged before a court with the demand to surrender it to its rich ‘natural’ mother.

But the power of the play depends not on the story so much as on the way Brecht built each scene around what he called ‘contradictions’ – between the veneer of civilisation flaunted by the rich and their deep seated barbarity, between the suffering of the poor and their eagerness to prostrate themselves on ceremonial occasions to the rich who cause such suffering, the contradiction between the acceptance of militarism by the poor and their revulsion at its consequences, between the desire of most people to do good and the economic conditions that force them to behave badly.

The stress on such contradictions is dramatically effective in a double sense. On the one hand, they produce a theatrically enthralling combination of brilliant farce and deep pathos. On the other, they point to political lessons, about the inhumanity of existing society, the barbarity of its rulers and the absurdity of its codes of law.

This production is superb in two respects. It employs a new translation by Frank McGuinness, who replaces the somewhat stilted English of the old James and Tania Stern translation with the sort of vibrant everyday language which made his Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching to the Somme shine.

Further, it moves away from the over-formalistic stylisation that often characterises performances of the later Brecht. He himself complained that such stylisation removed ‘whatever is unique, special, contradictory, accidental’ and provided ‘hackneyed stereotypes, the bulk of which represent no mastery of reality’. It also results in performances that do nothing to challenge the prejudices of those members of the audience who are most like the upper class characters on the stage.

Here, by contrast, is a staging that is not to be missed because it does challenge those prejudices and, in so doing, shows why Brecht is probably the greatest playwright of our century.

I found only one fault with the performance. That is with the prologue scene, where the story is introduced.

Brecht placed this in Soviet Georgia, just after the defeat of the Nazi forces at the end of Second World War. Its basic optimism about the condition of the peasants jars with everything we now know – and which, to be honest, Brecht secretly suspected – about life in the countryside under Stalin’s rule, and so plants a folksy and phoney cover up for tyranny and class rule at the beginning of a brilliant attack on such things. It would have been an even better production had it been ditched.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is at the National Theatre in May and then touring with the Theatre de Complicité to Liverpool (26-28 June), Cambridge (2-5 July), and Plymouth (8-10 July)

Last updated on 21 December 2009