Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Nothing new under the sun

I went through a Bertolt Brecht phase towards the end of sixth form (that is, age about 17) - his plays ("Mother Courage and her Children", "The Caucasian Chalk Circle") were probably instrumental in bumping up my socialist awareness. A group of us went from Haywards Heath College to perform The Caucasian Chalk Circle (I played the violin in the band) on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which was an amazing opportunity.

Brecht himself was no saint by all accounts, but the concern for justice which is the subtext of much of his writing is potent.

Azdak, one of the main characters, shelters the Grand Duke who has been overthrown, because he can't bring himself to turn the duke in, and then throws himself on the mercy of the court, only to find the judge himself has already been killed. In this extract, Azdak finds himself involved in the process of replacing the judge, supposedly by giving Prince Kazbeki's nephew a test to see how good he would be in the job. Azdak is acting - convincingly, it seems - as the Grand Duke, on trial for losing the war.
Nephew: ... So you claim the Princes forced you to declare war. Then how can you claim they made a mess of it?

Azdak: Didn’t send enough troops. Embezzled funds. Brought sick horses. During attack found drunk in whorehouse. Propose Uncle Kaz as witness. The Ironshirts laugh.

Nephew: Are you making the outrageous claim that the Princes of this country did not fight?

Azdak: No. Princes fought. Fought for war contracts.

The Fat Prince: jumping up: That’s too much!

Azdak: Really? Only telling the truth!

The Fat Prince: Hang him! Hang him!

Ironshirt 1: Keep quiet. Get on, Excellency.

Nephew: Quiet! Now pass sentence. Must be hanged. Hanged by the neck. Having lost war. Sentence passed. No appeal.

The Fat Prince: hysterically: Away with him! Away with him! Away with him!

Azdak: Young man, seriously advise not to fall publicly into jerky, clipped manner of speech. Can’t be employed as watchdog if howl like wolf. Got it?

The Fat Prince: Hang him!

Azdak: If people realise Princes talk same language as Grand Dukes, may even hang Grand Dukes and Princes. By the way, sentence quashed. Reason: war lost, but not for Princes. Princes have won their war. Got themselves paid 3,863,000 piastres for horses not delivered.

The Fat Prince: Hang him!

Azdak: 8,240,000 piastres for food supplies not produced.

The Fat Prince: Hang him!

Azdak: Are therefore victors. War lost only for Grusinia, which is not present in this Court.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht, trans. Tania and James Stern with WH Auden
I trust the resonances with more recent history will not be missed ....

Azdak turns out to be a good judge, with a strong inclination for natural (if unorthodox) justice, although he remains something of a scoundrel. The story is really about a girl called Grusha Vashnadze, and how she ends up rich by graciously caring for the governor's child ("Of every four pieces you shall have three. Would that I knew how big they would be.") when the governor and his wife flee in the troubles. The chalk circle of the title is a reference to a maternity test, very similar in concept to Solomon's one.

The play is worth a read - or better still, a watch - although it would probably need a 12 certificate, due to some language and mild sexual references. I got the extract from the play from this PDF, which I think is a teachers' guide produced in Australia to accompany a production of the play.