Written in 1944 while Brecht was living in America, The Caucasian Chalk Circle was initially intended for Broadway. It never quite made it there, but was instead premiered by students at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota in 1948. Brecht’s source for the play is most likely Klabund’s Circle of Chalk, which was based on an ancient Chinese play written in 1300 A.D. with the same name. Brecht adapted this story into parable form and changed the setting to Soviet Georgia near the end of World War II.
Brecht wrote the play for the Viennese actress Luise Rainer, who already had experience playing a figure like Grusha in Klabund’s play. Unfortunately, she and Brecht quarreled and parted company forever before the play was produced.
The play was initially translated by Eric Bentley. The first edition of The Caucasian Chalk Circle was mostly true to the German text with the only serious omission being that of the Prologue. The reason for this omission is related to the fact that Brecht was forced to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington in October, 1947. Since the play was about to be published at this time, the publication of the Prologue was postponed at his request. This caused two false rumors to start: one, that the prologue was written after the original text, and two, that Bentley himself had initiated the omission. Neither of these rumors was true.
The play itself is unusual for Brecht because it has a relatively happy ending; everything works out for Grusha. At the same time, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is clearly a Communist play: whoever can make the best use of resources in order to provide for others deserves to get those resources. Implicit in this Communist moral is also a secularized version of the Biblical Christ story. With typical anti-religious fervor, Brecht parallels Christ’s story through the life of the drunken judge Azdak. Furthermore, The Chalk Circle is itself a version of Solomonic Law, based on the Biblical story of Solomon and the baby. When two women came to Solomon, both of them claiming the same child, he ordered the child cut in half. The true mother chose to instead give the entire baby to the other woman, thereby revealing to Solomon that she was in fact the mother.
The play did not gain popularity in the United States until the 1950s. The first professional production took place at Hedgerow Theater in Philadelphia in 1948 and was directed by Eric Bentley. Soon thereafter The Caucasian Chalk Circle became Brecht’s most popular parable in the United States
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