As a playwright and director, Bertolt Brecht revolutionized theater, dragging 20th-century politics into the room and swapping escapism for urgent and timely themes played out almost in the laps of audience members.
He also provoked many theatrical companies — notably the Salzburg Festival. In 1950, Brecht was given Austrian citizenship after agreeing to adapt the 15th-century play “Jedermann” (“Everyman”), a staple of the festival since 1920. But he never did, instead embracing Marxist ideologies and moving to East Berlin, which prompted an official boycott of his work in Austria that lasted 10 years. His works have rarely been performed at the Salzburg Festival since.
But now, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” his 1944 play written during his years in America, will be staged there on Aug. 12-22 (in German with English supertitles). In a theatrical choice that would have no doubt thrilled the ever-inventive Brecht, this “Chalk Circle” will be presented with the Swiss company Theater Hora, made up of actors with learning disabilities, underscoring the power of Brecht’s works to push the boundaries of both performers and audiences. This “Chalk Circle” feels more urgent and well-timed for those involved.
“The play takes place during a civil war and is all about empathy,” Bettina Hering, the drama director of the Salzburg Festival, said in a video interview, “but it also shows that society is multilayered.”
Like Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” “Chalk Circle” weaves motherhood into politics and the brutality of war. The play is based on a 13th-century Chinese parable, in which two women fight over the custody of a child. During wartime, a governor’s wife has abandoned her child, who is then saved by a servant girl. A judge determines that custody will be granted to the mother who can pull the child safely from a circle of chalk drawn around the child. Brecht used this as a metaphor for a misguided society.
Brecht’s own family story and life in the theater reads like a drama. Born in Bavaria in 1898 and raised in a strict Christian household, he became interested in politics, theater and writing at a young age (he was a fierce critic of the carnage of his generation of young men in World War I and avoided combat as a medic). In Berlin, along with the German director Erwin Piscator, Brecht created what became known as “epic theater,” or “dialectical theater,” which asked audiences to confront sociopolitical issues rather than suspend disbelief and be swept away.
This revolution in German theater flourished during the Weimar Republic, but Brecht left Germany when the Nazis gained power, fearing persecution, fleeing to Scandinavia and then America, where he lived in the Los Angeles area and co-wrote the story for one movie (“Hangmen Also Die!”) and many of his most famous plays, including “Chalk Circle.” After World War II, he returned to Europe, and though never officially a member of the Communist Party, his Marxist leanings prompted that boycott of his work in Austria from 1953 to 1963.
“One critic wrote that it was an atomic bomb scandal,” Ms. Hering said. “It was the equivalent of cancel culture today.”
His works are often heavy on politics and religion, from fascism (“The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui”) to the clash between theology and science (“Life of Galileo”). He also wrote “The Threepenny Opera,” which the Salzburg Festival staged in 2015, with the composer Kurt Weill.
Brecht died in East Berlin in 1956 at 58, leaving behind an enormous theatrical legacy.
“One of his poems refers to the future when he won’t be needed, but we still live in a world he would recognize,” Tom Kuhn, a professor of German literature at Oxford University and one of the translators of Brecht’s “Collected Poems,” said in a video interview. “But we have populists strutting the stage. We have fascism. We have war in Europe. Brecht could comment on those in urgent and insistent ways.”
That sense of relevancy is what drew Ms. Hering to “Chalk Circle” and to choose Theater Hora as the company to bring it to life. Brecht’s experimental theatrical style, as both a writer and director, felt perfectly suited to Hora, as did the mother-and-child plot of “Chalk Circle.”
“People with disabilities are dependent on others,” Ms. Hering said. “They are like an eternal child in a way.”
She invited Helgard Haug, a celebrated German director more associated with interactive theater who had never directed the Hora troupe, nor a Brecht piece, to lead this “Chalk Circle.” For Ms. Haug, it was both a daunting and exciting proposition.
“I’m really interested when people really bring their own conditions to the stage where they are open enough to tell their own stories,” Ms. Haug said in a video interview. “It’s more than a discussion between two mothers. Can systems change? Can it be different? It feels special to stage Brecht with a group of performers who have their own approach and their own way to translate text into their own understanding.”
The evolving relevance of Brecht’s works speaks to those still devoted to preserving his legacy and acknowledging that he created new possibilities for theater to educate and provoke audiences. And they inspire performers, playwrights and directors who come after him.
“‘Chalk’ is a play for the moment, and I see it as a way to observe the difficulty of the world and how it is possible to find a right and honest way through chaos,” said Erdmut Wizisla, head of the Bertolt Brecht Archive in Berlin. “It is an invitation to think. He’s a poet. He’s a political author but not a politician. And that is why Brecht will always have a future.”