Bertok Brecht was a magnificent failure. Better known in this country for his notions of what the theater should be than for his plays themselves, his plays, with the exception of The Threepenny Opera, are too rarely produced. We prefer arguing about Communism, the didactic theater, the epic theater, the A-effect, and the V-effect (alienation or Verfremdungseffekt, depending upon your degree of snobbery). As John Hancock's superb production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle demonstrated, Brecht was too much an artist to be seduced by his own theories. The stage of the Loeb Drama Center was from more than an animated lecture platform. (The program calls it the Loeb Dramatic Drama Center, and I will allow that this production may be permitted that boast.) The theories provide the shape of the play and the style of the production, but what moved the audience to laughter, tears, and a tumultuous ovation is something far less easy to talk about than theories, something human.
The play is framed by the narration of a story teller to two groups of collective farmers who are trying to decide who will have possession of a valley stream, its former owners, the goatherds, or those who now need it, the planters. He tells of a revolution in which the governor of a Caucasian city is overthrown and his wife forced to abandon their child. Grusha, a simple peasant girl, rescues him, carries him to the distant home of her brother, pursued all the way by Ironshirts, and eventually marries a dying man so that the child will not be raised a bastard. The peasant she marries is not dead, but merely lying in bed for a year to escape the draft, so when Simon, her betrothed, returns from the war to claim her, she must tell him that she has broken her promise.
The child is taken from Grusha, and a court must determine whether he will remain hers or be given back to the governor's wife. The second half of the play returns to the beginning of the revolution and traces the career of the judge, Azdak. A thief and village scribe, he is made judge by the soldiers, and during his reign he subverts the law for the sake of justice, taking bribes from the rich to give verdicts to the poor. He tries Grusha's case, and decides that the real mother is the woman who can pull the child from a chalk circle drawn on the ground. The governor's wife wins the tug-of-war, but Grusha is awarded the child, because she loves him enough not to harm him. The moral of the tale is that the child and the stream must go to those who use them best. Mr. Hancock's cutting of everything dealing with the collective farm is silly politically and dramatically, for the last three lines of the play, "And the valley to the waterers, that it bring forth fruit," becomes poetically lewd in a way Brecht wouldn't have appreciated.
But that is my only quibble with Mr. Hancock. His direction was otherwise an inspired and faithful interpretation of Brechtian techniques, for which the Loeb is well suited. Titles are flashed on a curtain covering the lower half of the stage; an enormous revolve turns as Grusha and the soldiers march; music comes from offstage to accompany the songs; and scenery is moved in a public and unabashed way. The tension between the formality of the staging and the tenderness of the story makes for Brecht's tough beauty, and Hancock understood and used it with joyful discrimination.
The production required around seventy actors, many of whom performed with real distinction. I give them all my congratulations and thanks, and regretfully limit myself to discussing only a few of them. Margery Ziskind, as Grusha, gives one of the most touching performances I've seen on any Harvard stage. Grusha's simple faith and love, her fury at injustice, and her durability are portrayed with a passion so full that they always almost border on the stupid. Miss Ziskind miraculously keeps them on the right side of the line. A good performance would not have been good enough; Miss Ziskind's is magnificent.
David Michaels plays both the storyteller and Azdak in the Brechtian tradition, a very difficult one for an actor to follow. It requires that he not only play his character with full emotional understanding of the role, but that he communicate to the audience the fact that he is an actor, making his own judgement of what the character does. Azdak is Brecht's ideal man, sympathetic to the aspirations of the masses, never condemning their immorality or brutality, and always ready to assume whatever mask his situation requires. In danger of being executed by the henchmen of the governor's wife, he is servile; he cringes and begs without pride, knowing that he is more useful alive than dead. Michaels is in complete control of his character and of the stage. Occasionally he lapses into the speech and body movement of a hipster, which, though not really inconsistent with the character, strain one's powers of comprehension. But there is no question that he is a professional.
Two of the relatively minor actors also gave outstanding performances--Jean Weston as the prim and vicious governor's wife and Robert P. Youngsberg as the loutish corporal. Brecht displayed his discretion in not giving the little prince any speaking lines, and Mr. Hancock displayed his in choosing a beautiful urchin to play the role.
Designing the sets for The Caucasian Chalk Circle must have been something of a nightmare for Ian Strasfogel. The play requires about a dozen sets and has twenty scene changes. All of them were carried off with the height of economy, and the sets themselves are perfectly adapted to the actors' needs and they are not only beautiful but even manage to be a satire on the tone of certain of the scenes, in the Brechtian manner.
I intend to see The Caucasian Chalk Circle a second time and hope to see a good deal more of both Brecht and Hancock around here.