Before I finally let go of my production of the Caucasian Chalk Circle I would like to share some discoveries that came because of my exploration into Chekhov’s laws of composition, along with my own experience and common sense.
In my experience it is always a massive wrench for the audience when we leave the story of Grusha suspended in the narrative, and take a step back in time to follow the story of Azdak, the man who will become her judge in the case of the child. This is inevitable given we feel we know Grusha, have followed her story for three acts, and understand what she has given up in order to keep the child. We identify and empathise with her and suddenly she is gone from the play. Ironically I know all this flies in the face of the idea of Brechtian alienation but I feel, as did one of my student actors, that Brecht fails miserably in his attempt to alienate in the Chalk Circle because Grusha, Simon and Azdak are such sympathetic characters.
So back to the wrench the audience experience as they move not just from one story to the other, and one lead character to another , but to a different style of playing as well. They move from an epic tale to a cabaret.
In exploring the play through the principles of composition of Michael Chekhov I looked at the shape of the play with the cast as to its beginning, middle and end. The whole of the first three stories concerning Grusha and her escape and her sacrifice in order to protect little Michael, belonged to the beginning .It seemed,in our exploration, that the Story of the Judge, the section in which Azdak is introduced and,through a fluke, becomes the judge throughout the chaos which follows the revolution, was like a party; an anarchic time through which fairness and justice occasionally shone through on those poor and disenfranchised people who were usually ignored, abused and spat upon. We felt this section had the atmosphere of a party. This party section was the middle.
Before the end of this act though, the rulers from the beginning were back, and order (and repression) was restored. This was beginning of the end section.
So we reach the Trial, a heady atmosphere where the forces of repression and anarchy struggle in the courtroom. There is a great temptation in this final act to fall into the ‘fable trap’. What I mean is an assumption that everyone knows the end so we just play the act with strength and pace. The act however is full of moral twists and turns.
What is interesting for me is how Azdak gives Grusha such a hard time for nearly 30 minutes before eventually being courageous enough to award the child to her. Is he just a boor? What is clear is though he knows full well the Governor’s wife wants the child for her own material reasons, he is rude to Grusha and appears to side with the nobles. His life has just been saved and he has been reappointed as judge through his own random act of kindness.
It seems to me that Grusha is his conscience; through her sacrifice and endurance and love for this child she moves from being an obedient servant to being an outspoken revolutionary. For me though this is less interesting than what is happening to Azdak, who has a decision to make. Is he going to side with the rich, compromise his principles and save his life? Or is he going to side with Grusha and move into a very dangerous future? It is easy to justify giving the child to the nobles. After all, Natella is the real mother, but it is not the moral decision. We all make these compromises every single day of our lives, and for me this courageous decision of Azdak, along with the fact that both he and Grusha perform acts of generosity which result in transformation is what makes this a really great uplifting yet unsentimental play.