The much we didn’t learn from The Caucasian Chalk Circle

The much we didn’t learn from The Caucasian Chalk Circle

By Kelvin Kiarie

A few months ago a prominent lawyer took to social media to complain about the legal system in Kenya. Apparently frustrated after losing a case, the learned friend likened Kenyan judges to Azdak in Bertolt Brecht’s play the caucasian chalk circle. Predictably, the tweet attracted comments from across of the political spectrum -you know Kenyans and their love for politics. While it was moving to know that people still spare time to read literature books, it was unsettling that people would make such an obvious misinterpretation of Azdak’s character, and his actions, and by extension the author’s main goal for including Azdak as a central character in the play.

I followed the discussion with a tinge of sadness because it was in February this year, just two months after our annual KCSE results-precipitated debate. The 2017 class, like many cohorts before them, had posted a low score in English which had attracted wrath from all corners of the country. Much of the blame was slung at teachers and their students. Some debris also landed on their parents -for transferring the bad English genes to their offspring. A popular tv analyst tweeted “these [KCSE] results reflect the correct ability of our children. Most of our children and of course parents are grade C and B material.” Ouch! There are mean people out there. Given this context, a public misinterpretation of a high school setbook is worrying. It makes me think that maybe we expect students to think critically in exams when the majority of people do not think critically in real life.

Also saddening was the fact the 2018 marks the last year that The Caucasian Chalk Circle will be tested in KCSE. Could it be that since 2013 when the book was first tested, the playwright’s message has been lost on us as a nation?

To understand Azdak’s character and actions, it is imperative that we understand that the playwright, Bertolt Brecht was a confirmed and christened Marxist. As a communist, Brecht had to go to exile to escape Nazi persecution when Hitler came to power. In the US where he had sought refuge, Brecht was blacklisted on suspicion of being a member of the communist party in the cold war era.

It is therefore important to read The Caucasian Chalk Circle as a Marxist text. Among other things, Marxists are uncomfortable with the societal structure in which the masses are dominated by a small ruling class which controls the society’s wealth and political power. Instead, Marxists advocate for a revolution by the masses to seize power and wealth from the ruling class. Brecht’s play is firmly based on these perspectives of society, and Azdak embodies these convictions.

Strangely, Azdak becomes judge when he was literally under arrest for stealing the Grand Duke’s rabbits. He craftily convinced soldiers that he would make a better judge than a prince’s nephew who had been recommended for the position. In a classic Marxist plot, the previous judge had been murdered in a peasants’ revolt.

With all his weirdness and strange rulings, Azdak remains a protagonist in the play. Unlike his predecessors who decided rulings based on the book of law, Azdak sits on the book and dispenses his own brand of justice that favours the poor. He makes many controversial but deliberate rulings meant to shift the power dynamics in a society, like ours, where corruption has made it impossible for the poor to get justice. The take away from this play is that when the law [read the constitution] does not serve the common people then that law should be thrown away – or sat on. This is why I found the lawyer’s metaphor on twitter curious; on the contrary, I believe it is hard to find a Kenyan judge that would be likened to Azdak when poor Kenyans fill the prisons for petty offenses while rich criminals get easy bails and court injunctions. Anyway, we should just be Kenyan and blame the teachers.

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