In 1968, Simon Williams was a young man just setting out on his career in academia. He had taken leave of his native Britain and was teaching at a university in Iran. Among his projects: a production of Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 masterpiece The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Alas, a strike by students — remember, this was the late ‘60s — closed down the university. Williams and his fellow Westerners were sent home, and the show never opened.
For nearly 50 years, Williams has desired to direct the play again, this time seeing it through to the finish. On Friday night — one month before he retires after 33 years with the UCSB Department of Theater and Dance — he will finally do so. “Since this is probably going to be my last production at the university, I thought, what better play to end with?” he asked. “That’s my personal reason for doing it.” And his larger reason? “It’s even more relevant today than it was in 1968.”
Brecht is a curious figure of 20th-century theater. His plays are often criticized for being too long, too didactic, and insufficiently emotionally engaging. And yet they continue to be staged regularly — for good reason, according to Williams. “While they’re packed with ideas, his great plays are also very exciting,” he insisted. “I think they’re among the best things written for the theater in the 20th century. The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a bit more visceral than his other works. The first three acts are written as a thriller, almost. The fourth act is a fabulous satire of the law. If delivered properly, it can have a tremendous impact on an audience.”
Based in part on a 13th-century Chinese tale, the play focuses on two characters. Grusha is a kitchen maid who rescues the child of her employers, the governor and his wife, when they are forced to flee during a political uprising. At much personal sacrifice, she raises the child as her own. Azdak is an alcoholic rogue who, thanks to the political upheaval, somehow gets appointed as a judge. When the former governor’s wife returns to claim the child (for monetary reasons — he holds the title to her estate), it is Azdak who decides which woman truly deserves custody.
“Brecht called this play a ‘parable for the theater,’” Williams said. “It begins with an easily understandable moral situation, but it grows in complexity as it goes on. In directing it, I’ve come to appreciate how complex the conflicts become by the end of the play. I think we see a certain exemplary quality in Grusha. She is a figure of goodness. And in the final act, Azdak, too, comes to recognize his [own] goodness. He’s completely corrupt, a hellion figure. But he gradually begins to recognize what true justice is.”
The play certainly echoes some of today’s political debates about inequality and abuse of power. Williams and his student actors have noted them in rehearsal, “but I don’t want to belabor them,” he said. “I’m sure the audience will be fully capable of picking them up for themselves.”
So what would Brecht think of Donald Trump? “He would be amused and appalled by him at the same time,” Williams said. “Today you see in America the distressing potential for dismantling all sorts of [democratic] institutions. As somebody who witnessed the worst aspects of Europe in the first half of the 20th century, Brecht would have recognized that —and been appalled by it.”
411 The Caucasian Chalk Circle opens Friday, May 26, 8 p.m., and runs through June 4, at the UCSB Hatlen Theater. Call (805) 893-2064 or see theaterdance.ucsb.edu/news/event/490.