‘Terrible is the Temptation to do Good’
This has got to be one of my favourite quotes of all time . As Grusha the servant girl, in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle ponders whether to save the baby whose parents oppress her and all her kind, thereby risking her own life, the Narrator speaks those words. We have all had those feelings, when the Temptation comes to speak out against something that is wrong, or to take an action which you know is right but might compromise your career or your relationship. It must have been a question which often needed to be asked in Germany as Hitler came to power and the Second World War was raging, around the time the play was writtten.
My first contact with the play was when I was 17 and I watched an amateur production at the Lowther pavilion in St Anne’s near Blackpool. I remember the production was very static, and ‘Chinese’,[ the play is based on a Chinese story], and something in me even then said this play needs to be alive and vital and desperate. Much of the story concerns a young girl running for her life. I have come across a number of productions that lacked this vital, accessible , adventure story element. They presumably lacked this vitality in an attempt to be ‘Brechtian’ which in some ways is a term I am still baffled by. It seems to be interpreted as a kind of distancing of the audience from the material when at the end of the day, Brecht’s plays are human, funny , brutal, and gutsy.
My next contact with the play was when I was training at LAMDA. I played a massive range of roles , including A large female nurse, and I was the Singer for a portion of it. I remember the director, an amazing woman called Helena Kaut Hausen telling me that I had a feel for the material. Was it the sense of injustice in the story, or the sheer theatricality of it , or my own European genes that caused that, because I certainly felt it too, that affinity? But it was the play’s raw energy , theatricality and joy when I was performing it, that really won me over.
In 1999 I was asked to direct a youth theatre project at Limerick and chose the play for it. At first the young people were afraid they could not handle the play . It was too big, there were all those foreign names, one minute it was a musical, next minute it was a rip roaring comedy, next minute it was a tragedy… An incredibly diverse group acquitted themselves well, and discovered that the play was exciting and political. It spoke to them. This was at a time when there was very little political drama in Ireland and I felt it very important that young people could see the theatre had this power, not just to express their own immediate concerns but concerns of a wider sort.
A few years ago, I staged a reading of the play with eight professional actors. We rehearsed for three days only, and managed songs and limited movement . So much of the play leapt off the page even within these limited circumstances.
If I was to do this play again what elements have I missed? One thing I do feel is that if a play has to say something about the times we live in then this one certainly does. The poor are exploited through poverty, through the media and on and on. If they have any say at all it is limited. They are tolerated to create wealth for the wealthy. Democracy as we have it, is at best something which gives some people a limited voice. When people take on the authorities, it is only in the most extraordinary circumstances of chaos that Justice wins through, or when highly principled whistle blowers, against all opposition, set their faces against the establishment.
When you work with youth theatre and students, then somehow it is the theatricality and ensemble nature of the story which makes this such a powerful play to do, but the reality of the oppression the poor suffer in the play is often stylised,as if the play was some kind of fairy tale, and not some bloody messy tale about people trying to survive, laugh and get justice in a brutal, unjust and dangerous world. Intellectually at least, we know what the world is like because we see it on the news and the internet. Of course there is a view being expressed, but there is no doubt from the footage we see, that there is injustice, suffering, danger and poverty. We cannot kid ourselves. Chalk Circle is not really a fable. It is about the world as it is.