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Bertolt Brecht’s WWII play on good and evil ‘strikingly relevant’ today

By: Julian Robison,  Department of Performing and Media Arts
September 6, 2017

When: September 21, 22 & 23, 7:30 p.m.; September 23, 2:00 p.m. 

Where: Kiplinger Theatre, Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts


The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht’s WWII-era parable about good and evil, has special resonance in today’s political climate. Staged for modern audiences with original music, Cornell’s Schwartz Center production runs September 21–23.

A political coup kicks off the action of The Caucasian Chalk Circle; Grusha, a maidservant, rescues the abandoned son of the ruling family amid the chaos. After years of evading enemies who wish to do the child harm, Grusha is discovered and thrown into a custody battle with the child’s conniving mother. The wily trickster Azdak presides over the trial and must decide who has the rightful claim to the boy: the woman who bore him or the woman who raised him. The play draws from a Chinese drama by Li Qianfu but features a prologue in which members of two Soviet communes argue over land following the Nazis’ retreat.

Brecht wrote Chalk Circle in the United States in 1944, having fled Germany in 1933 during Hitler’s rise to power. In light of the recent violence in Charlottesville, VA, director Beth F. Milles worked with the 12 cast members to make the story relevant to a modern audience.

“The work of playwright Brecht is strikingly relevant and contemporary—and today feels more so,” said Milles, associate professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts. “Our cast has endeavored to create an environment where anything can and will occur. All human behavior is called into question. On its purest level the parable represents the epic challenge of goodness against the alluring draw of survival at all cost. Brecht’s work reaches in and shakes our sensibilities and comfort zones to the core.”

Brecht’s “epic theatre” is sharp-edged, sociopolitical entertainment designed to awaken and engage the audience. It demands spectators find meaning in the ideas presented: Chalk Circle challenges viewers to question how to remain good in a corrupt world.

In line with Brecht’s heavy use of music in his plays, cast members will perform original music by Broadway, television, and film composer and longtime Milles collaborator Lewis Flinn throughout the gripping tale of murder, romance, and compassion.

This presentation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is supported by a grant from the Cornell Council for the Arts.

Performances of The Caucasian Chalk Circle are in the Schwartz Center’s Kiplinger Theatre September 21, 22, and 23 at 7:30 p.m., and September 23 at 2:00. Tickets are available at or at the Schwartz Center box office Monday–Saturday, 1:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for students, seniors, and Cornell faculty, staff, students, and alumni.

The Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts is located at 430 College Avenue in Ithaca.

Julian Robison '20 is a communications assistant for the Department of Performing and Media Arts.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle ©Thomas Hoebbel Photography

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