vicious circle

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vicious circle

daya dissanayake

It is not easy to decide where the story of the judgement first evolved, when two women fight over a child. When the women were fighting over a child, King Solomon had ordered that the child be split in two and to give the two halves to the two women, like they would split such disputed property. The true mother had cried out pleading with the king, not to kill the child, but to give him to the other woman, while the false claimant had agreed to the split. The king decided to give the custody of the child to the true mother.

This story is found in the Ummagga Jataka, where Mahaoushada draws a line on the ground and asks the two women to pull the child. Most of the Jataka stories are based on ancient Indian folk lore, and thus could predate the story of Solomon. It could also have spread to China, from India.

The same story in a slightly different version is found in the Chinese classical verse play, by Li Quianfu during the 13th century. The childless first wife of a rich man poisons him and frames the second wife for the murder, to lay claim to the child of the second wife and her husband's estate. The second wife is found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, but Bao Zheng, the wise and upright 'Cultural Symbol of Justice in China' draws a chalk circle around the child and asks the two women to pull the child. The second wife refuses to hurt her child and is judged to be the child's true mother.

Bertolt Brecht had first written this as a short story, 'Der Augsburger Kredekris' (Augsberg Chalk Circle) in 1940. Brecht had written the play in 1944 when he was in the United States. It had been translated by Eric Bentley and first performed at Carlton College, Minnesota in 1948. Henry Jayasena brought the 'Hunu Wataye Kathawa' to the Sinhala stage in 1967, and it is still as popular as it had been 56 years ago.

We do not know if Brecht was influenced by the Jataka story or the Chinese play or other similar stories. However Brecht has given a political twist to the story, where it is not the biological mother, but the woman who took care of him who really loves the child, and deserved to be his mother. He attempts to show that selfishness and human greed could surpass even motherly love.

All these stories are supposed to show the wisdom and intelligence of the judge, and the fair decision given. Yet it also shows the way justice was meted out in a male dominated society. It is a man who is the judge, of the two women one is a selfish, unfeeling cruel creature, while the other is a good, kind, loving creature who is also submissive and ever ready to accept the decision of the dominant male.

In the story of King Solomon, did the mother really believe that the king meant the child to be split in half? Did she believe that the order was to be carried out? If the women and the others present believed that the child was to be killed, it would only show the sadistic reputation of the king. If the people believed he was a just and benevolent king, no one would have believed the child was in any danger. Then the mother would also have been playing a role which was expected of her, which the king too would have known.

In the Jataka and the Chinese story, the mother would have known that if she pulled the child by his hands, she would be hurting her child. If she really loved her child she would have refused to pull her child to her, when the order was given. Unless she too was playing her part in the public performance.

The other issue is the need to use or threaten violence to resolve issues or conflicts, in most of our history and literature. It is only in a society where extreme violence was very common, that even the thought of cutting a small child in two could even be conceived. We could say the same about ordering two women, both claiming to be the mother of the child, to pull the child from his limbs which could tear him apart.

Brecht was creating a play, where he had to make it as dramatic as possible. That could be the only reason why he had to make Grusha pull on the child's hands. But it also explains what the audience would have wanted to see. Could he not have found a more non-violent, simpler way to let Asadak give his judgement, the way he gave all his other decisions?

Ever since man became a violent, cruel creature, all our literature also took on a violent form. The readers and the audience too seemed to enjoy violence more than peaceful situations, and it would have created a vicious circle, with every new artistic creation bringing in more violence and the readers expecting still more violence.

"And you who have heard the story of the chalk circle

Bear in mind the wisdom of our fathers:

Things should belong to those who do well by themselves

Children to motherly women that they may thrive

Wagons to good drivers that they may be well driven

And the valley to those who water it, that it may bear fruit."

That is the Golden Age Brecht would have wished for, and which we should all strive to attain.

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