YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  THE CHALK CIRCLE                                                 


(German: Der Kreidekreis; Yiddish: Der krayd tsirkl)

“The Chalk Circle” was originally a Chinese drama written by Li Qianfu (13th-14th century). "The Chinese language original is known for the beauty of its lyrical verse, and [is] considered a Yuan masterpiece; a series of translations and revisions inspired several popular modern plays".1

In 1924 "The Chalk Circle" was liberally adapted by Klabund (real name: Alfred Henschke), a little-known German historical novelist and translator of Oriental poetry, and subsequently translated into Yiddish by Moshe Leib Halpern.

On 24 December 1925, Maurice Schwartz, the prominent Yiddish actor and director who strove to stage Yiddish plays of the highest caliber, ventured far outside both Yiddish and mainstream literature by staging this play in New York City with his famed Yiddish Art Theatre troupe.

Besides Maurice Schwartz, the cast of the play included: Izidore Casher, Miriam Elias, Leah Rosen, Mark Schweid, Ben Zvi Baratoff, Bella Bellarina, Abraham Teitelbaum, Anna Teitelbaum, Jacob Mestel, Ben Zion Katz and Moshe Strassberg.


photo: Klabund, 1928. From Das Bundesarchiv.

According to Maximilian Horowitz, who often wrote the synopses during those years for the plays staged by the Yiddish Art Theatre: “This extraordinary play, at once realistic drama and fairy tale, is a mordant satire on social and political conditions with a happy, Cinderella-like ending. Though its theme is universal, it reproduces faithfully the life of the East with its sordidness and picturesque quaintness, its brutality and tenderness, its sensuous, mysticism, its stolid resignation and heroic endurance. There are many lyrical passages of great beauty. The author, whose real name is Alfred Henschke, is a German Jew who, despite his comparative youth (he is only thirty-four), has produced numerous poems, plays, novels and short stories which have won for him a place in the front rank of German writers of today.” Horowitz further notes that there just was published an English version of his novel, "Peter the Great".

It is the Museum's belief that the best way to appreciate Yiddish theatre (besides being able to understand the Yiddish language itself and read a Yiddish play in its original language) is to take a foray into the past and actually read a Yiddish play (many English translations of Yiddish plays are also available), to appreciate the play's history, to consider the Yiddish playwright and his writings in depth and with a proper sensitivity, to allow oneself to ponder a number of essential questions, e.g. why was a particular play written? Who was the playwright and what did they experience in their lives that motivated them to write such a play? Had they, for example, been incarcerated in a Russian prison for a time (such as H. Leivick or Maxim Gorky)? Did they serve in the Russian army, or were they otherwise strongly affected by war, prejudice, social inequality, poverty or pogrom, by the Jewish condition of the day, or by some deep ideological or political philosophy?


It is also important to ask how the theme of a particular play, or any symbolism found within it, might have relevance to Jewish history. In “Chalk Circle”, for instance, the original author of this play was Chinese, who lived in the days of the Yuan Dynasty during the 13th-14th century, but in what way might it historically or otherwise be relevant to Jewish history? You will find a situation that might remind you of an action said to be taken by King Solomon in biblical times.

Also one may ask why did Klabund, a German writer, decide to adapt this old Chinese tale in the early 1920s?

It seemed that he actually suffered from tuberculosis, and during World War I he spent time in Swiss sanitoria, and it was here that he began to translate and adapt Far Eastern literature. He passed away in Italy at the young age of thirty-seven in 1928.

photo: Scenes from N. Y. production of "The Chalk Circle", Forverts, N. Y., N. Y., January 1926. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

As a side note here, Klabund's version was translated into English as "The Circle of Chalk", in five acts, and was published in London in 1929. It was put on stage in March of that year, starring the American actress Anna May Wong, Australian actress Rose Quong, and British actor Laurence Olivier. The play was further reworked in the 1940s by Bertolt Brecht, who moved the events to medieval (Soviet) Georgia. Subsequently in 2000, it was rewritten and set in 1989 East Germany after the fall of Communism. Thus it is up to you, dear museum visitor, once you read the full synopsis of the play to evaluate the relevance of the play to Jewish history of the time. Perhaps you might also imagine how the play might have relevance to the audience member of 1925, as performed in cities found within the U.S.

The synopsis of this particular play has been taken from the playbill of a production staged at (Mike/Max) Thomashefsky’s Garden Theatre (8th and Race Streets) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 28-29 May, probably in 1926 (courtesy of YIVO), though it may be assumed that the synopsis was similar or the same for the original New York Yiddish Art Theatre production.

The cast of this Philadelphia production included: Maurice Schwartz, Julius Adler, Anna Appel, Bella Bellarina, Izidore Casher, Miriam Elias, Lazar Freed, Ben Zion Katz, Boruch Lumet, Jacob Mestel, Mark Schweid, Abraham Teitelbaum and Anna Teitelbaum.

So, here is the synopsis of Klabund's "The Chalk Circle". The name of the actor who portrayed the particular role is in parentheses):



Tschang, a man of learning and refinement despite his humble trade of gardener, has had all his possessions taken away from him by the greedy and ruthless tax collector Ma (Julius Adler). He resorts to the peculiarly Chinese method of revenge by committing suicide in front of Ma's house, thereby charging him before the world with responsibility for his death. Tschang is survived by his wife (Miriam Elias), by his daughter Haitang (Bella Bellarina), a beautiful, accomplished and angelic girl of sixteen, and by his son Tschang-Ling (Mark Schweid), a spirited but easy-going student. Thus left penniless, the widow is forced to sell her daughter to Tong (Izidor Casher), the keeper of a tea house which is also a brothel. Haitang resigns herself to this life of degradation, but Tschang Ling protests. He becomes reconciled when part of the money Tong pays for his sister is turned over to him. Haitang enters one of the cages in which Tong keeps his girls. Presently she is visited by Pao (Lazar Freed), a young prince of the blood. The prince is fascinated by her beauty, wit and soulfulness, and she too falls in love with him. But their romance is nipped in the bud when Ma enters and offers to buy Haitang of [sic] Tong. Pao tries to outbid him, but has to withdraw when Ma offers a thousand taels for the girl. And so Haitang is forced to part with her "Prince Charming" and is carried off by the man who drove her father to his death.


One year later, Haitang has presented the doting Ma with a child, which makes her all the more hateful to the jealous Yu-Pei. Ma's childless first wife (Anna Appel) ("wife of the first order," as she haughtily styles herself). Her paramour Tschao (Abraham Teitelbaum), the Clerk of Court, arrives in response to a summons of Ma. The lovers meet secretly in the garden, and Tschao intimates that since he cannot gratify his love for her, he may put and end to his life with some poison he had on him, then questions him regarding the law of inheritance. He tells her that when a man dies, his estate goes to his "wife of the first order" second wife if the latter has borne him a child. Yu-Pei hints that she has a plan for preventing Haitang from inheriting Ma's fortune. She then goes to announce Tschao to her husband. Ma comes into the garden, and when the two men are left alone, he informs Tschao that he has sent for him because he wants him to assist him, Ma, in getting a divorce from Yu-Pei, for which he will pay him handsomely. Tschao promises his aid and Ma returns to the house. Tschao at once informs Yu-Pei of Ma's intention to divorce her, and she resolves to carry out this very day the plan she previously hinted of Ma's garden. Haitang enters into a conversation with him, and the two soon recognize each other. He informs her he has been assigned by a secret society he belongs to kill Ma, and that this is why he has come. She defends Ma and pleas with her brother to spare him. As Ling is determined, she decides to consult the White Circle. With a piece of chalk she draws a white circle on the ground, then taking the knife with which Ling intended to kill her husband, she throws it, with the understanding that if it hits inside the circle, Ma is to be killed, otherwise he is to be spared. The blade hits exactly the line of the circumference, and she prevails upon her brother to go back to the leaders of the society and ask them to interpret this omen before carrying out the sentence on Ma. Before her brother leaves, she gives him her fur coat. He departs, and Yu-Pei, who was spying on the two, accuses Haitang of infidelity to Ma. The latter questions Haitang. She tells him the stranger was her brother, and Ma believes her because, as he says, he loves her. Tea is then served in the garden, and when they notice that sugar is missing, Yu-Pei offers to fetch it. She returns, but instead of sugar, she comes back with poison which she puts into Ma's tea. He unsuspectingly drinks it and soon drops dead. Yu-Pei at once begins to scream murder, and when police arrive accuses Haitang of having poisoned her husband. Haitang meekly submits to arrest, asking only that she be permitted to take her baby with her; but Yu-Pei brazenly asserts that the child is hers, and not Haitang's.



Tschu-Tschu, the chief justice of the court where Haitang is to be tried that day for murder, is having his breakfast, for as he observes, when he is full he can sentence a starving thief to be hanged with a light heart. Tschao appears and presents him with a bag of money, the gift of Yu-Pei, the plaintiff in the case to be tried today.

This convinces His Honor that Yu-Pei is an honorable woman. He retires to his chambers. Yu-Pei enters accompanied by the midwife who delivered Haitang of her child. She bribers her to say that Yu-Pei is the child's real mother. She bribes and coaches two other witnesses. Court commences and witnesses testify as they have been paid to.

photo: Maurice Schwartz as Tschu-Tschu, the Chief Justice.
From the playbill of the N. Y. production. Courtesy of YIVO.

The question of the child's maternity thus settled, the Court proceeds to take up the matter of the crime itself. Tschao testifies that Haitang's father committed suicide in front of Ma's house after the latter has seized his belongings in payment of overdue taxes, a fact which establishes a motive for the murder on Haitang's part.

Finally Yu-Pei swears with studied ambiguity that the murder was committed by the woman who is not the child's mother. Haitang cries out in anguish that Yu-Pei swore truly. This is taken as a confession of guilt on her part, and the Court sentences her to be beheaded. At this moment a courier rushes in and hands the Chief Justice a message. The Justice reads it with trembling, for the message states that the old Emperor is dead and has been succeeded by Prince Pao, and that the new Emperor has ordered all executions to be stayed and all judges and persons condemned to die be brought to Peking so that the Emperor may find out for himself whether justice is being done throughout the land. Tschu-Tschu's dismay is quite evident, whereupon Tschang-Ling, who has been sitting among the spectators, cries out to the judge: "What are you afraid of, old fool? The new Emperor is no better than the old. In his reign, too, the poor will starve and drop dead in the streets." Tschu-Tschu orders Ling to be held on a charge of treason and to be taken to the Emperor, who he hopes to please greatly with this arrest.

Scene from "The Chalk Circle". Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery Collection.


Scene 1 -- Haitang is marching on foot to Peking in a snowstorm. She is guarded by two soldiers. Presently they are overtaken by two other soldiers leading her brother. The soldiers decide to tie the two prisoners together so that it may be easier to guard them. As they trudge along, they are overtaken by three rickshaws, the first containing Tschu-Tschu, the second Tschao, and the third Yu-Pei (now married to Tschao) and Haitang's baby.

Scene 2 -- From the conversation with the young Emperor with poet, we learn that he is still lovesick for the wonderful girl he once saw for a brief moment at Tong's tea house. Presently he goes to the Throne Room, where all the judges and condemned criminals of the whole country are assembled. He questions Tschang-Ling, admires his courage and soon sets him free. He then has Haitang brought before him. The two recognize each other. By an ingenious stratagem of King Solomon, he establishes that Haitang is the the mother of the child, and from this it is an easy matter for him to establish also her innocence and Yu-Pei's guilt of the murder of Ma. Yu-Pei confesses and implicates Tschao, who in turn appoints Tschao and Tschu-Tschu; she also forgives Yu-Pei for having tried to rob her of her child, but punishes her for having poisoned her husband by ordering her to go home and partake of the same poison. Thereupon all depart save Haitang. The Emperor requests her to tell him what happened to her the night Ma carried her off to his house. She relates that Ma placed her in a room whose door opened upon a garden. She pleaded with him, and he let her alone that night, and because it was so hot she slept with the door open. When she fell asleep she had a wonderful dream. She dreamt that a handsome young man stole into the room from the garden, came over to her couch, lay down by her side and embraced her as a man embraces his bride. The Emperor is surprised that she should remember a dream so vividly, and Haitang answers that this was because he was the man she saw that night in her dream. Thereupon he tells her that it was no dream, but an actual occurrence, for he followed her that night and stole into the room where she was sleeping, and overpowered by her charms yielded to his passion. He begs her to forgive him, and she agrees to do so provided he will acknowledge her child as his own. He replies that this very day he will proclaim her his wife before all the people.

1 -- From Wikipedia, "The Circle of Chalk".

2 -- Maximilian Hurwitz. Playbill for the Yiddish Art Theatre's production of "The Chalk Circle", Courtesy of YIVO.





Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

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