CHALK: The Path of the Circle

Hello Faithful Readers! Loyal blogslave Keith Hock here, and I want to take this opportunity to tell you a little about our upcoming play, CHALK, and its very interesting history, but in order to do that, I need to talk to you about stories. If you read my previous blog post about Star Wars or the one about Iphigenia you know I have a lot to say about stories, where they come from, and how they’re told and explored by different people and cultures. It may or may not be obvious to you that if you break down stories, and keep breaking them down, further and further until all you have is the bare structure, you start to find similar structures. There are only so many things that can happen to a character; how many stories can be described as “man is betrayed, seeks revenge” or “woman meets man, circumstances keep them separated” or “arrogance causes a person’s downfall” or “God floods the earth”? A lot, across all cultures. Some people much much smarter than me or you (well, me at least) realized this, and that these stories kept appearing over and over in different cultures, and they created something called the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Folk Tale Classification Index to keep track of them; to group similar stories, trace origins, and possibly discover the Ur-Myths that gave rise to them [A friend of mine who is also much much smarter than me clued me in to the existence of this amazing resource, for an unrelated project]. The story we are telling this summer would be classified as ATU 926: Clever Acts and Words, the Judgment of Solomon, otherwise known as the Circle of Chalk.

But the bare-bones classification number and description isn’t a story, much less a compelling one that you should go see in late June or early July. The structure is not the art, its just what holds the art together. How did this dry story structure, ATU 926, become a story you would be interested to hear? I am glad you asked, because that is the exact question I spent the next 2500 words answering. I would like to tell you the story of The Story of the Circle of Chalk, from its origin in the temple of Solomon, through South Asia to the Forbidden City, all the way back up the Silk Road to Europe from the Orientalist salons to the rubble of the Berlin Wall, where We Happy Few are honored to pick up the trail ourselves.

Solomon

The Judgment of Solomon, by Raphael.

The origin of the Ur-Myth that led us on the path that would eventually lead to CHALK is, in the nature of  Ur-Myths, likely destined to remain a mystery. The oldest version of the story that exists, and which I would therefore assert is the probable origin point, would be the famous Judgment of Solomon in First Kings in the Old Testament, dating, at the very latest, to around 500 BC. If you are reading this under a rock or immediately after an attack of amnesia and are therefore somehow unfamiliar with the myth, the basis of the story is that two women bring a baby to the king and each claim that the child belongs to them. Solomon, in his infinite wisdom, calls for his sword and proposes to cut the living baby in half and each presumptive mother be given an equal portion. One of the mothers rather spitefully assents to this suggestion, while the other pleads that she would rather see the child alive and raised by her rival than cut into pieces in front of her. Solomon cunningly deduces from this test that she is the true mother and awards her custody, and “all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice”. I am glossing over a few elements here (the women are prostitutes and roommates, the first one accidentally crushed her own baby to death by rolling onto it while sleeping and swapped her dead child with the other woman’s live one, the babies were born 3 days apart), but the basic structure is there. That structure is very simple. A child, usually a boy, is at stake, and two women claim it. It is one woman’s word against the other, and there is no way for any outsider to know who is telling the truth. The judge proposes a trial which will in some way harm the child, the true mother would rather give the child away than potentially hurt him, and the judge uses her compassion as evidence that she is the real mother.

Next came The Mahosadha’s Judgment from Hindu folklore. In this story, instead of two women arguing, it is a single woman and a shapeshifting ghoul who steals the child in order to devour it. In addition, the judge (in this case Mahosadha, an incarnation of the Buddha) knows from the beginning which is the true mother, as the ghoul was unable to conceal its red eyes or inability to cast a shadow from the Enlightened One. And finally, instead of threatening to cut the baby in half, Mahosadha draws a line on the ground, stands the kid between the women on it, and instructs the two women to pull the child to them. It proceeds the same; when the mother lets go she explains that she could not bear to hurt her child, the judge demonstrates from this that she must be the mother, and lectures the crowd and demon on the virtue of compassion. It is not impossible that this, or a similar story on the subcontinent, is actually the Ur-Myth; while the stories are similar, there are a number of key differences and there are no hints that clearly suggest one story was drawn from the other. The line on the ground and the arm-pulling is a storytelling advancement from bisection in the direction of the Circle, but no other version has the judge knowing the identity of the mother before he conducts the trial or any supernatural elements, both of which seem likely things to disappear as a story is refined. Since the earliest physical evidence of this story appears much later than Wisdom of Solomon, however, I am willing to give the nod to the Old Testament as the origin. It also pleases me aesthetically if the path of syncretism flows East from the Holy Land to the subcontinent to China, instead of beginning in India, moving first to the Levant and then doubling back to get to the Far East.

Mahosadha

Sudarshanarama, by Galle Naravala

Additional evidence that the story began with the Old Testament is the original Chinese version of the story, dated around 150 AD, which is much closer to the Wisdom of Solomon than that of the Buddha, but clearly carries elements of the Hindu story; two women are pregnant, one miscarries but conceals it, steals the other’s child in the middle of the night. The judge had the child stand in the middle of the room and the women on opposite ends, and run to snatch him up. The older woman grabs him first and he begins to cry, at which the younger woman lets him go for fear of hurting him. By this evidence the Councilor-in-Chief deduces that the younger is the mother. This story features two women, one whose child has died, instead of a monster, a point in Solomon’s favor. But it also shows the women themselves being forced to act upon the child, specifically pulling on him, instead of a threat of violence from the Authority, which leans towards the Mahosadha. It could still go either way (hell, maybe THIS is the first story and the other two are disseminated from it!) but given how old the Old Testament is I still give the origin to Solomon.

This story in turn gave rise to the first representation of the story to my knowledge in play format, in Hui-Lan-Ki, The Story of the Circle of Chalk, from about 1200-1300 AD. This is where things really start to change, as the myth acquires an actual story and characters with names to lead up to the final judgment, as well as, at long last, the circle on the ground. Unfortunately, as I cannot read medieval Chinese (or modern Chinese for that matter) we must rely on the prudish 19th-century Bowlderization translation of Stanislas Julien into French in the 1820s. This translation, while old-fashioned, is absolutely hilarious, primly informing us at a particularly salacious scene that “Here follow eleven words, expurgated by Stanislas Julien, coarsely describing the physical attractions of Chen” [Naturally it was the first order of business of Kerry McGee and myself in adapting to ensure that our text made explicit mention of the nature of Chen’s …substantial physical attraction]. They also curiously remove all details on the mechanics of childbirth “for reasons of propriety” but leave in every one of the 5 beatings that the female protagonist receives, a small but telling glimpse at the priorities of 19th-century Europe.

Chalk Circle

Unnamed Illustration in  The Story of the Circle of Chalk, trans. Frances Hume, published by The Rodale Press. Painted by John Buckland-Wright

But I have put the cart before the horse. Let’s look what has been added; a plot. A young woman’s family has fallen onto hard times when her father dies and she is forced to “sell her beauty” to support her mother and brother. The brother, ashamed by this, beats his sister and departs in a rage to live with his uncle. A wealthy man has become enamored with the young woman and marries her as his second wife, but not before her mother extracts a sizable dowry from him and then promptly dies. The man’s first wife becomes jealous of her after the young woman bears him a son. She hates her husband and is having an affair with a clerk [the well-endowed Chen; see above], and the two of them begin to plot a way to kill the wealthy man and take his estate. The young woman’s brother returns impoverished and the first wife gives him gifts which the young woman had originally received from the rich man. The first wife tells the rich man that the young woman had an affair and offers the gifts she gave as evidence. In a fit of rage the rich man beats the young woman and then is poisoned by his first wife, who frames the young woman and claims the child as her own. A laughably corrupt and incompetent judge hears the testimony of some bribed townspeople, beats the young woman, sentences her to death, and then beats her some more for good measure. On the road to the capitol for execution the young woman is beaten even more by her guards and meets her brother again, who now serves in the court. In the capitol her case is heard again by a competent judge, who smells something fishy in the details. He hears the details, including all the beatings, and then calls for a piece of chalk and draws a circle on the floor. The young woman proves her innocence by releasing the child when it cries out, the clerk is beaten until he confesses to the murder, and he and the first wife are sentenced to be “cut into one hundred and twenty pieces”. And they all lived happily ever after. Not an exceptionally stirring plot, but a real story with rising and falling action and characters with traits beyond ‘mother’ and ‘judge’, ripe to be further refined.

Which it, of course, was, by German playwright Klabund in Der Kreidekreis, the Chalk Circle, about 100 years later in 1925. The plot remains the same with a few additions meant to update the story for a new audience: the wealthy man drove the young woman’s father to commit suicide, the Imperial Prince meets the young woman in the ‘tea’-house before the wealthy man marries her, her brother has fallen in with a revolutionary secret society and is sentenced to death alongside her, her case is retried after the Emperor dies and all death sentences are appealed by the new Emperor, who just happens to be the same Prince the young woman met before, and they get married.  Also, very uncomfortably, the love-struck Imperial Prince snuck into the young woman’s room while she worked in the tea house and ‘made love’ to raped her in her sleep, which she believed was a dream, and the child is revealed to actually be the new Prince of China [Kerry and I made very sure that this did NOT find its way into our interpretation of the story]. This is the same story, with a handful of flourishes to make it more interesting for a German audience, but it is still recognizably a Chinese story.

That all changed with Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, the most famous interpretation of the story since Solomon (at least for now) and introducer of a number of story differences. I will not bore you with a full summary of Brecht, as it is a damn sight easier to get your hands on his plays than the Klabund or Julien, and I am already pushing 2000 words in this post. I will say, however that while the bones of the story remain identifiable, Cauc Chalk is very much its own story in a way that Der Kreidekreis was not. Brecht ditches the mother and the brothel and the affair and the poison, adds a literal class war, makes the young woman a fugitive, introduces some ancillary mean and selfish people, expands the character of the judge; he makes the story, in a word, Brechtian. Most significantly, however, he inverts the moral; the young woman is NOT the mother of the child, but a poor maid who protected the child from a mob when his mother abandoned him, and raised him herself, and when the trial comes, it is SHE, not the baby’s bourgeois mother, who is awarded custody. Also, in case his political leanings weren’t transparent enough, he adds a framing device where two neighboring kolkhoz argue about who deserves to use their adjoining valley that they liberated from the Nazis, and they turn to a character they address as “Comrade Agronomist” to settle the dispute before listening to the story of the Circle of Chalk. Brecht took the 2500-year-old implication in the myth that blood will out, that the bond of family is the most important thing in the world, and he asked if it was really still the best metric that we had, or if, perhaps, we should place more weight on a person’s actions and potential than on the circumstances of their birth. An altogether-too-relevant question for an exiled Communist German writer in the 1940s; a frustratingly-still-relevant question today.

Berlin Wall Falls

Muro de Berlin, photo by Alexandra Akavian

After Brecht, Charles Mee took a crack at the story in his own Full Circle, which he cheekily set in Brecht’s native Germany in the chaos of the demolition of the Berlin Wall. In many ways a shot-for-shot update of Brecht’s play, Full Circle doesn’t add much to the core of the Ur-Myth. Exploring the Ur-Myth and the meanings of love, duty, family, and obligation was never what Mee had in mind with this play, though; this play is about the cyclical nature of politics, and the crosshairs of Full Circle were centered on Communists, capitalists, revolutionaries, fascists…anyone who believes that there is a uniform System that would be the best for everyone, if everyone would only listen and do what they were told. Mee, in fine Mee fashion, does an excellent job of pointing out the flaws in every argument without suggesting a workable solution, enumerating what is bad without postulating what is good, and bringing everybody down a needed peg or two. The moral of his judge to the mothers is ‘If you let go of something it will be taken from you, and the winner is the person who ends with it’’. Because he is Charles Mee, he also has plenty to say about the role and purpose and meaning of art in society, particularly in the form of an exceedingly long speech he gives to his judge. As a play Full Circle is as great as your own feelings on Charles Mee and his particular style will allow it to be; as a piece exploring the Wisdom of Solomon…

All this, of course, brings us to OUR play, the next step along the path which we just began rehearsing this Monday. The Hebrews came up with the myth, the Hindus gave the actors agency, the Chinese fit the myth into a story, Brecht interrogated the moral of the myth, Mee used the myth to explore a different story; what did we add? Well, I suppose you’ll just have to come see the play in June to find out.

Until next time,
Keith Hock

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