Brecht’s Chalk Circle Again and Again
by Laleen Jayamanne
Soldier: Your Honour, we meant no harm. Your Honour, what do you wish?
Azdak: Nothing, fellow dogs. Or just an occasional boot to lick!
Fetch me wine, red wine, sweet red wine.
‘In a faraway and long-ago, dark and bloody epoch, in a sunburnt and cursed city, there lived a Duke…’ sang the storyteller. In the mid-’60s when Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle was first performed there, Colombo had ceased being dark and bloody. April ‘71 was yet a few years away. But the effects of the Sinhala Only Act of ‘56 were taking root in educational institutions, like the National School of Art and Crafts, creating a myopic, monolingual culture. In this context, Henry Jayasena and others in the Sinhala theatre who were interested in developing contemporary drama, began to translate modern European plays, originally written in German, Russian and Italian. Crucially, these Sinhala versions were drawn from English translations of the original languages of the plays. So English worked as the essential ‘link’ language without which we would not have had any access to world theatre and much else. Henry had a good command of English, learnt in high school and at Teachers’ College. Like his similarly brilliant contemporary Sugathapala de Silva, he was not a University educated artist. But Jayasena’s superb theatrical imagination allowed him to translate from English the Chalk Circle into a most wonderful colloquial poetic Sinhala idiom. So much so that it feels like the play was written originally in Sinhala! Reading the Sinhala script was a pleasure in itself and sections have remained in my old brain, as good poetry does. The epic techniques of supple shifts from the songs of the narrator, to the every-day racy, bawdy dialogue of the soldiers, to the lyrical love passages between Grusha and Simon Shashava, to the absurdist folk utterances of Azdak, are all memorably crafted and differentiated.
Bertolt Brecht’s Epic play written in 1944 while he was in exile in the US, fleeing Hitler’s fascist Germany, continues to be a vibrant part of Lanka’s living ‘theatrical epic-memory’. Also, as a text for the O’Level, a large number of Lankans must have become familiar with it. The play has a ‘play-within-a-play’ double structure but in scene 4, Azdak’s story, there is a further third level. That is, a ‘play-within-a play-within-a play’. The first play is set in the present postwar Soviet Republic of Georgia in 1945, where workers of two Collective Farms meet with a State official to decide, through discussion, as to who should have the stewardship of a particular valley. The Farmers who have been in the valley since birth claim it as their own for their goats to graze in, while the other group say that through irrigation they can make the valley more productive of fruit and wine. Its key question is, ‘who is good for the land?’
The play-within the play, set in the Imperial past of a fictional Georgia or Grusinia, at war with Persia. The folk parable of the Chalk Circle is performed as entertainment after the debate about the valley has been reasonably decided. The key question there becomes, ‘who is the good mother for the child?’ – (hadu mavada, vadu mavada? The third level of a play-within a play-within a play is a mock trial between a prince who wants to be the Judge and Azdak pretending to be the deposed Grand Duke, as the defendant. In all there are six or seven judgments that involve Azdak in one way or another. The intricacies of each of these legal cases and their differences from each other, make scene 4 a most fascinating aspect of the episodic structure of the play itself. In contrast, scenes 1-3 involving Grusha the kitchen-hand and her dilemma are expressed memorably and clearly by the narrator: “Terrible is the temptation to be good.” This is Grusha’s decision to save and nurture the Governor’s abandoned infant, without counting the terrible cost to herself. Her scenes, engaging as they are, do not have the kind of intricacy and complexity of the six or so episodes where Azdak plays with several ideas of Law and of Justice.
Animals’ Rights and the Folk Imagination
An Epic Contest is staged in the play, between the idea of The Law as a written code by absolutist rulers, and ideas of Social Justice, which include a sense of fairness towards the poor and powerless. This ample human feeling of fairness is encoded in folk tales of peoples across Eurasia where animals also have a claim on Justice from humans. For example, the Mahavamsa tells us of the remarkable sense of justice embodied by the Tamil King Elara when he ruled Anuradhapura. He had a bell hung at his palace gate, which anyone could ring to make a claim when an injustice had been committed. So, when a cow complained to Elara that his son in his chariot had run over and killed her calf, he did not hesitate to put his son to death. We are told that taking pity on them, both lives were restored by a god. According to my friend Amrit MacIntyre who is a lawyer and legal scholar that story is found in various forms in the Middle East to Europe. Each version of the story is about a king from the distant past who is known for his justice. Critically, in each version the person seeking justice was an animal, a serpent in Italy seeking justice from Charlemagne, and an ass in the Middle East seeking justice from an Iranian Emperor (Khusro I). What is intriguing in all of this is a common conception of justice equally applying to all, including animals, that forms part of the mental landscape across Eurasia from very early on. Interestingly, a 2017 decision of the Supreme Court of India referred to the story of Elara as part of its reasoning! The folk tale of the Chalk Circle is found in an ancient Chinese play, as well as in the Judgment of Solomon in the Old Testament, and both were points of reference for Brecht in radically rewriting the tale as a modern epic parable influenced by Marxist ideas.
Azdak, the town scribe and rogue judge, was played memorably by Winston Serasinghe in Ernest MacIntyre’s English production. Henry Jayasena played the same in his own production, also in the mid-60s. And MacIntyre also acted as the priest in Henry’s production – one of the earliest exchanges between English and Sinhala Theatre in the ‘60s. That is to say, between the Lionel Wendt and Lumbini theatres, respectively. Azdak was the village scribe who, when the State collapsed and the official judge hanged by the rebellious carpet weavers, was forcibly roped in to act as a judge by the illiterate soldiers. But it turned out that he had his own eccentric ideas of Justice and fair play and was a bit drunk, sexist and openly took money from plaintiffs. Though Azdak appears only in the last 2 scenes, he leaves a powerful impression in one’s memory as a character like Shakespeare’s Falstaff. But he is unlike Falstaff whose fall from grace, after rejection by his former buddy Prince Hal, is full of tragic pathos. Azdak is a creature of the folk imagination.
Sumathy Sivamohan concludes her recent article on the links between the two Republican Constitutions of Sri Lanka (‘72 & ‘78), by invoking Azdak as a figure relevant to this moment of the People’s Aragalaya, (The Island 8/8). Azdak is a Brechtian Epic-Character through whom the very ideas of Law and Justice are examined, played with, debated and put into crisis, theatrically. He is also a great comic figure introducing laughter into the court where it is thought to be unseemly. In this way Brecht’s Epic Theatrical practice offers us several unusual angles on the process of making Judgements, the reasoning behind them. Through these scenes, the idea of Justice appears paradoxical, not altogether just in one case, but also both reasonable and yet ‘unlawful’, if judged according to the letter of the Law, in another. And some downright absurd. This complexity, of plot lines and intricacy of comic procedural ‘legal’ detail, is significant in demonstrating the class basis of judgements and how they are reached. The hilarious comic absurdity of some of Azdak’s arguments and rulings parody seemingly rational, legalistic linguistic power-play in regular courts. ‘Demonstrability’ is a strong concept in Brechtian theatrical theory and is linked to the idea of the pedagogical function of Epic Theatre.
A Brechtian Parable for the Aragalaya?
The comedic demonstration of the interplay between the Law and Justice, appears to be relevant to Lankans now, poised in their struggle to make politicians accountable for their actions which have plunged the country into economic, political and existential chaos. Azdak is an epic construct and as such we don’t quite empathise with him or like or dislike him. Rather, we observe this comic figure with enjoyment, as he plays with a variety of judgments, with no rule book as guide. He excites our curiosity about the mechanics of the Law, its different avatars, (Totalitarian Law, People’s Law, a judgment without a precedent), which, in an Imperial regime, as in the world of the play within the play, seems invincible and arbitrary. The two lawyers of the Governor’s wife Natella Abashvili are, however, immediately recognisable social types aligned with social power, contrasting with Azdak’s Epic singularity. They argue for the right of the blood-line to obtain the child from Grusha, to return to his biological but callous and predatory mother, only so that she can claim the property bequeathed to the child.
A Palace Revolution
The Chalk Circle opens on a seemingly normal Easter Sunday, with the wealthy Governor and family attending church to great fanfare that soon turns violent – palace revolution creates chaos and soldiers go to war against distant Persia. The Governor is beheaded, his head impaled on a lance and displayed, nailed to a wall, while his wife flees forgetting to take their baby. The Grand Duke has also gone into hiding. The Carpet Weavers, taking advantage of the revolt, hang the Judge. So it comes to pass that the village scribe Azdak becomes the accidental Judge, under a state of emergency. Not knowing the Law is no impediment to Azdak. Some of these events and scenes of the play have an uncanny resemblance to the farcical misrule seen in the Lankan Parliament not too long ago. Before we look at Azdak’s celebrated Judgments it’s worth looking at Brecht’s original theatrical structure, which is Epic rather than Dramatic.
Epic Theatre vs Tragic Drama
Brecht’s play is not a tragedy, a genre he rejected as an Aristotelian Greek notion driven by an idea of Destiny and causality and heroic action. The presence of a singer-narrator who introduces us to the play is an epic device in that, as the story-teller, he conducts the action. He stops characters in their tracks and sings of what they feel, but cannot say. He explains the action when necessary and advances the story. The famous singer who knows twenty-one thousand lines of verse becomes the story-teller. He announces that the play consists of ‘two stories and will take two hours to perform’. The Soviet expert from the city is impatient and asks him, (after the disagreement between the two collective farmers is resolved), “can’t you make it shorter?” The singer responds with a firm ‘No’. Brecht offers a play, which is profoundly episodic in its construction. Each episode is autonomous, has a relative freedom from a tight causally driven dramatic structure. What Brecht wanted was a theatrical structure which didn’t have any inevitable causal links propelling events as in the case of, say, Oedipus Rex. In this way he demonstrates how History and its presentation in the Epic, hold alternative possibilities. The Epic form can reveal in its episodic structure ‘the many roads not taken’. Some academics in the Aragalaya have begun to examine Lanka’s post independent history and the many roads not taken in structuring the economy, in race relations and education and development policy, for instance.
Why do I think that a ‘close reading’ of Azdak’s judgements matter, especially now? Because he has a window of opportunity during a palace revolution, to play with and interrogate ideas of Law and Justice. It is quite by chance that he is made a judge because the official judge has been hanged, the Governor executed and the Duke has fled during the civil war. Now is a time when a large number of people in Lanka are feeling that the Laws that govern them and their sense of Justice are at variance. And Azdak’s idiosyncratic process of judging and his rulings offer several unusual angles on both. He is unprincipled and we can’t tell which way his Judgment will fall, regardless of his own precedent. He is inconsistent but not amoral, he shows feelings on the bench, he is not ‘Blind Justice’. He has a strong conscience. Guilt-ridden, he has himself arrested and shackled by Sauwa the cop, for having unwittingly given the fugitive Grand Duke refuge in his hut and helped him escape, during the palace revolution.
In the mock trial Azdak impersonates the Grand Duke. The soldiers who call the shots say they want to test if the Nephew is fit and proper to be a judge as recommended by his uncle Prince Kazbeki. So they create a legal play within the play by making Azdak play the role of the Grand Duke as the defendant and the Nephew the acting judge. Azdak as the Grand Duke is accused of losing the war and in his comic defense he demonstrates how the Princes actually won by war-profiteering and enabling the Persians victory. All this is done in a brilliant quick-witted, punchy question and answer session where Azdak twists words and wins the argument with relish. Proven guilty of embezzlement, the soldiers arrest the acting judge and Prince Kazbeki and plonk Azdak on the throne, unceremoniously throwing the cloak of the dead judge across his shoulders. It’s high farce with linguistic fireworks in court.
A judgement Azdak makes from the bench deals with a farmer’s complaint against his farmhand who is accused of raping his daughter-in-law, Ludovica. By contemporary feminist standards Azdak’s judgment that Ludovica by virtue of her seductive walk, seduced and thereby ‘raped’ the man, is idiotic and sexist. But the scene is more ambiguous. It might be the case that what was called rape by the father-in-law may have been consensual sex, which he happened to stumble in on. We are told by the narrator that the Ludovica’s speech was well rehearsed. The scene remains ambiguous, open to several readings especially because Azdak orders Ludovica to accompany him to examine the scene of the crime after the verdict has found her guilty! The narrator has called him, ‘Good judge, bad judge, Azdak.’
Another judgment shows that Azdak is indeed a ‘people’s judge,’ ruling in favour of a grandmotherly old woman, against the three farmers who accuse her of theft. The old woman wins the case by virtue of being poor, despite the fact that the items were stolen on her behalf by a relative who is a Bandit. The plea she offers in her defense is her belief in miracles. So, taking up her cue Azdak reprimands the Farmers for not believing in miracles! To save time, Azdak decides to hear two similar cases of professional negligence and blackmail, together!
The judgment of the Chalk Circle is what Azdak is most famous for. But the previous ones, with their pileup of parodic absurdity, are crucial for Brecht’s politics in Demonstrating how social class, wealth and power determine legal ritual. Once the normality of the Grand Duke’s authoritarian rule is restored, Prince Kazbeki is beheaded as a traitor. The chaos of the revolutionary moment (‘a Golden age’?) that saw Azdak become a judge, with his own unique sense of justice, is reversed with the return of the Grand Duke. He is now attacked by the illiterate soldiers, bloodied and humiliated, soon to be hanged. But at the last moment a messenger from the Grand Duke arrives with a document ordering Azdak to be exonerated and made judge for having saved the Duke’s life. It is jarring to register that the Grand Duke does have a sense of aristocratic honour (unlike Lanka’s rulers) despite his reputation as a swindler and butcher.
Azdak wipes the blood from his eyes as he finds himself plonked on the judges’ chair yet again, and makes the celebrated progressive modern judgment of the Chalk Circle. It is reached through an ingenious process based on an ancient wordless contest. Grusha repeatedly refuses to pull the child out of the circle lest he be injured and so she is deemed the ‘true’ mother and given custody of the child, against the predatory biological mother who pulls him out. The singer then concludes the epic parable with a poetic summary of how Azdak aligned a feeling of Justice with eminently reasonable new rules. In that legal thinking, human emotion becomes the sister of rational thought.
“The people of Georgia
Remembered him, and remembered
For a long time,
The times when he was judge
As a short, golden age
When there was justice – nearly.
Take to heart,
All you who’ve heard
The Tale of the Chalk Circle
And what that ancient song means.
What there is should belong
To those who are good at it.
Children to true mothers,
That they may thrive.
Carts to the good drivers,
That they may be driven well,
And the valley to the waterers,
So that it bears fruit.”
Sri Lanka is a country in which Chalk Circle has been seen and enjoyed for generations. Doing a close reading of the play, while following the non-violent political uprising and struggle of the people from afar, gives one hope that changes good for Lanka are imaginable so that the land may bear fruit.