Friday, March 18, 2011

Caucasian Chalk Circle Revisited

I reviewed Pipeline's Caucasian Chalk Circle here. The Orange Hats archived some response here:

(In case you don't know me, I'm the weak-voiced guy with the goatee and the trench-coat).

It's the last day of the show tomorrow, with two shows (that's six hours of Brecht!) that you should go see.

I saw it again on Thursday, and I don't have much to add to the review (they give a really consistent performance, so my review stands, although some elements were more solid and others were less so). But I do have some more things to say about my favorite play from my favorite playwright.


Every once in a while, people ask why nobody can write an overtly political play anymore. There's handwringing and it doesn't amount to much. But Brecht, when he was successful, understood how to write a political play. Here's my understanding of how he does it.

The initial main plot arc of Caucasian Chalk Circle is not set up to be a political arc: it's set up to be a boy-meets-girl plot arc. At each step in the way, the plot is progressed by a political event: The Governor is murdered, the city falls into chaos, he goes to war and she leaves with the baby.

At no point are these two political characters: they don't have political motives (he explicitly states that he has no idea why he has to go to war; she simply falls in love with the helpless babe). But at each point in the story, they are forced to deal with the ramifications of the chaos around them.

The second main plot arc (that of the rascal-judge Azdak) progresses in the same way -- person goes about their business, collides on the street with history, and is forced to make a decision in the face of it.

It's something that's relatable to those who don't live politics. Me, I read the news all over the internet, but I know plenty of people who don't really observe or live much beyond their own communities.

Now, what that might suggest is something like the political drama, where we watch a political life (e.g. Frost/Nixon, etc.), where politics unfolds but as an emotional study of the players involved.

Brecht takes a different tack. He keeps the players playing their lives, getting increasingly wrapped up in the greater political struggle -- but, separately, he keeps the plot arc of history running in the background. And the audience experiences the history in the same way that they experience the news -- either sporadic announcements when a huge change has happened, or characters stumbling across changes in history that have happened without them noticing.

Some characters don't get news updates. Some characters gossip about it during a funeral. At one point, the rascal Azdak makes a big scene on the assumption that one group of people are in charge, only to discover afterwards that he is completely wrong about the political situation. You don't need to have a political ideology to understand what politics means to the character onstage.

When characters make judgments on politics, it's less pronouncements of theory and more carping at the pub. Azdak, for instance, puts the entire political system on (mock) trial during his act; but it's as a joke, to impress soldiers and humiliate a pompous jackass and his rich Prince Uncle.

Hell, Brecht even manages to sneak in the economics of chaos during the play. What's inflation? It's when you want to buy a drop of milk, and it costs 3 piasters instead of half a piaster.


This time around, I couldn't stop thinking about Libya. You see, both Caucasian Chalk Circle and the news story around Libya is about what happens when a dictatorship pops. In both cases, people assume that there is a simple, two-sided battle for power.

In Caucasian Chalk Circle, it becomes very clear that once a country's organization falters, it is very easy for chaos to set in (as Azdak puts it, "If you don't treat the law with respect, it just disappears on you.") The Prince sets out to kill the Governor. He succeeds. Then the people go mad with power and kill a city judge. He has them punished and tries to put his nephew in place of the judge, but the soldiers put up their own judge instead. The Grand Duke reappears and has the Judge killed.

"Status Quo" is a situation wherein all of the powerful interests of a country are aligned, at least enough to preserve the overall structure of the country. In Caucasian Chalk Circle, the war in Persia strains the nation to the point that the Governor's selfish oblivion and the Grand Duke's mismanagement of the war takes those interests out of alignment. The course of the play starts with that moment, and ends about where the interests land on a new status quo.

People who try to take a side on all of the chaos are pretty much destroyed quickly enough. Every person who takes to the stage tries to align themselves with "the people" but as the play progresses, it becomes increasingly unclear who "the people" are, except for those who are too poor to be involved. When Azdak appeals to the soldiers, calling them "comrade" and hailing the achievement of "the people," he quickly discovers that it was not to be -- no matter what changes happened, "the people" would not be in charge.

How does it apply to Libya? I don't know, fully. I have a feeling that if we asked Brecht about the situation, he would shake his head sadly with a smile at the idea of a "No Fly Zone" or a limited intervention. Chaos is chaos, and with a complicated tribal system such as the one in Libya is difficult to reduce to a "Madman-vs.-the-people" narrative.

And next door, in Egypt, and in Tunisia; the people rose up, they drove out the men they disliked. Was it then a government of "The People"? Not exactly. In Egypt, a 40 year dictatorship has passed into an unelected military Junta. I'm not closing the door on a path to a democracy, I'm just observing that life gets complicated. It's complicated.

A brief note; me, my personal artistic aesthetic is to look for moments when something intangible (a political ideology, an emotion, a philosophy, a poem) becomes tangible and real on a gut level. I think that's the moment when theater really hits its audience, like electricity arcing through the air to form a connection.

In my last post on Caucasian Chalk Circle, I talked about how the scene by the river made the gulf between the soldier and the civillian tangible. This second viewing made me realize how the public hanging serves to make revolution tangible.

Anya Saffir's interpretation of the play included at a few crucial moments the hoisting of a stuffed puppet of the person most recently executed political figure. At one point, Azdak asks where the judge is, and the soldiers direct his attention to the judge, hanging upstage from the gallows. Azdak comments on the fact that a revolution is the only time a peasant can say, "Why, here is the judge! Here is the prince!" Because they are buried or hanged close at hand.

The public hanging is a ritual that we no longer really partake in. But there's one notable example: the bungled hanging of Saddam Hussein. It's a really chilling and tangible moment in the mess that is the Iraq War.

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