Brecht, Chinese Theatre, and verfremdungseffekt

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, there is a scene where two women each claim motherhood of a baby, and a judge must determine who is the mother. If this theme is ringing a bell, it should - it is similar to the Biblical story of King Solomon and the two mothers. For those of you who do not recall the story, here is a brief refresher: A baby is brought to King Solomon by two women, each of whom claims she is the mother of the child. King Solomon, unable to determine who is the biological mother (this is a bit before DNA testing) orders that the baby be split in two, so that each can have half a baby. One woman readily agrees, seeing the fairness of this judgment. The other woman cries in anguish for the child not to be harmed, that it’s better for the other woman to have the baby alone. King Solomon proclaims her the mother, because her unwillingness to have the child hurt proves her maternal love. 

 

Though a similar story is found in much folklore throughout the world - India, Greece, and Sumeria - the Chinese version is probably the most influential in the theatrical world. The Chinese version, translated as either The Chalk Circle or The Circle of Chalk, was written by Li Qianfu during the Yuan Dynasty (1259-1368). Influenced by his play, Stanislas Julien translated it into French (Le Cercle de Craie), Klabund into German (Der Kreiderkreis), and James Laver into English (The Circle of Chalk).

 

Bertolt Brecht’s first version of this tale was a short story. He changed it around, erasing the Chinese Imperial elements and changing how the women relate to the baby. In his theatrical version (Der Augsburger Kreiderkreis), Brecht further edited the story by moving the setting to medieval Georgia, adding the prologue in Soviet Georgia, and extending the story to play length.

 

In the case of Brecht, it is unsurprising that his piece can trace its origins back to the Chinese original. Brecht was heavily influenced by Chinese theater: another of his well-known plays is set in China - The Good Person of Szechwan. And Brecht was so impressed by what he saw in Chinese drama that he drew elements from it as he developed his theory of Epic Theatre.

 

Brecht’s theory of Epic Theatre sought to make theater more theatrical and less realistic, so as to force the audience to be aware they were watching a show and to think critically about the issues, instead of identifying emotionally and reaching a catharsis as in Aristotelian drama. He sought to engender a verfremdungseffekt, an estrangement effect, a separation between the audience and the characters on stage. Brecht noted several elements that he saw in Chinese theater which he thought could be used in Epic Theatre. For example, actors performed without the idea of a “fourth wall” separating them from the audience. Additionally, the actors used a series of symbolic gestures to externalize the character’s feelings, as opposed to naturalistic behaviors. Finally, the actors watched their own performances, keeping themselves alienated from the characters they were portraying. 

 

There is debate as to whether or not Brecht’s impressions of Chinese theatrical techniques are precise or misinterpretations. Either way, how he experienced Chinese theater had an important influence on his work. He began to incorporate narration and musical interludes in his plays, to create a separation between the actors and the characters they played. Similar to Chinese theater, Brecht wanted to eliminate the fourth wall, thereby eliminating the barrier between the actors and audience. Like in Chinese theater, the props, sets, and costumes are representational instead of exact.

 

Seeing a play by Brecht is a different experience than seeing Arthur Miller or Neil Simon. But there is no correct way to enjoy the show. Though his goal was to have the audience think critically, it is okay to connect emotionally. The musical interludes might jolt you out of the reality of the play, or you might just enjoy the songs (especially with the original music conceived by our cast.) However, if you want to honor Brecht’s intention, the best thing you can do is walk away from the show thinking critically about the issues and performance presented onstage.

Sources:

Cross- Cultural Encounters: Bertolt Brecht Meets Chinese Drama

The Chalk Circle

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