The Chalk Circle
Circle of Chalk (Chinese: 灰闌記; pinyin: huīlán jì, sometimes translated Chalk Circle, The Circle of Chalk, or A Circle of Chalk), by Li Qianfu (also transliterated as Li Ch'ien-fu, Li Xingdao, Li Hsing-tao, or Li Xingfu), is a Yuan dynasty (1259–1368) Chinese classical zaju verse play and gong'an crime drama, in four acts with a prologue. It was preserved in a collection entitled Yuan-chu-po-cheng, or The Hundred Pieces. The Chinese language original is known for the beauty of its lyrical verse, and considered a Yuan masterpiece; a series of translations and revisions inspired several popular modern plays.
A beautiful sixteen-year-old girl, Hai-tang (also transliterated Hai-t'ang, Hi-tang, or Chang-hi-tang), is sold into a house of prostitution by her impoverished family, after her father's death. There she is befriended by Ma Chun-shing, a wealthy and childless tax collector, who takes her into his house as his second wife. She bears him a son, Shoulang, but earns the jealousy of his first wife, Ah-Siu. Ah-Siu accuses Hai-tang of adultery, poisons Ma, blaming Hai-tang for the crime, and claims to a court that Shoulang is her own child, so that she can inherit Ma's fortune. Hai-tang is arrested, and beaten until she confesses. As Hai-tang is about to be hanged, she is rescued by Bao Zheng in a scene similar to the Judgment of Solomon: Shoulang is placed in a circle of chalk between the two women, and each is ordered to pull; as Hai-tang can not bear to hurt her child, she is judged his true mother.
The play became first known in the Western world in a French language translation by Stanislas Julien, published in London in 1832 as Le Cercle de Craie. This was liberally re-translated into German by Klabund as Der Kreidekreis in 1924, which was very popular. In Klabund's version, the Emperor marries the heroine at the end of the play, while in the original she returns to live with her brother, who is now a court official. Based on Klabund's play the Austrian composer Zemlinsky adapted a libretto for his Der Kreidekreis (opera), performed in Zurich in 1933.
Klabund's version was translated into English by James Laver as The Circle of Chalk, in five acts, published in London by William Heinemann in 1929. It was put on stage in March of that year, produced by Basil Dean, starring the American actress Anna May Wong, Australian actress Rose Quong, and British actor Laurence Olivier. As of 2008, this version is still being produced by various theatre groups.
In 1940, Bertolt Brecht wrote Der Augsburger Kreidekreis, a short story based on Der Kreidekreis, which reworks the story by omitting any Imperial intervention and making the first wife the biological mother, but having her abandon the child. The heroine is a serving girl who rescues and raises him, becoming the "real" mother. In 1944, he further reworked the story as the play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, moving the events to medieval Georgia, adding a prologue set in Soviet Georgia, and greatly elaborating the narrative. In 2000, The Caucasian Chalk Circle in turn was rewritten as Full Circle, or The Berlin Circle, by Charles L. Mee, set in 1989 East Germany after the fall of Communism.
- "Chalk Circle, The (Hui-Lan Ji)", Oxford Dictionary of Plays, online at Enotes.com. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
- "The Circle of Chalk" Masterplots, Definitive Revised Edition, online at Enotes.com. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
- Das Fremde und das Vertraute: Studien zur musiktheoretischen und musikdramatischen Ostasienrezeption, by Peter Revers, Published 1997 Franz Steiner Verlag, ISBN 3-515-07133-4, pages 212, 213. Online excerpt at Google Books retrieved May 27, 2008.
- "Historicity and Contemporaneity: Adaptations of Yuan Plays in the 1990s", Wenwei Du, Asian Theatre Journal, Volume 18, Number 2, Fall 2001, pp. 222-237.
- "The Circle of Chalk Character Analysis", Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, online at Enotes.com. Retrieved May 28, 2008.
- "The Circle of Chalk", website for UK staging of Klabund adaptation. Retrieved May 28, 2008.
- Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend, by Graham Russell Hodges, Published 2004, Macmillan, ISBN 0-312-29319-4, page 96. Online excerpt at Google Books retrieved May 28, 2008.
- PDF (260 KB)[sic], Paul G. Brewster, Folklore Studies, Vol. 21, (1962), pp. 236-240, Asian Folklore Studies, Nanzan University. Online version accessed May 28, 2008.
- "Klabund", The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2008. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
- This was possibly Laurence Olivier's first West End theatre role; Hodges (above), claims it was, but his work wasn't really focused on Olivier, rather on Wong. Our article Laurence Olivier chronology of stage and film performances differs.
- "All About Mee", Gideon Lester, January 2000, American Repertory Theatre.