The tale of the Chalk Circle is an old one and has had many lives. This property (to use a word that appropriately blends echoes of Marxism and show business) first took dramatic form as a play by Li Hsing Tao in the thirteenth-century Yuan-dynasty Golden Age of Chinese drama that told of a wise judge (many classic Chinese plays dealt with the reforming activities of heroic, itinerant judges) awarding a disputed child to the woman less willing to wrench it out of a chalk circle drawn on the ground. In the Yuan play the child was thus given to its true biological mother. In Weimar Germany a playwright who called himself simply Klabund told a garbled version of the story in his play Chalk Circle, which starred Elisabeth Bergner in Berlin and Anna May Wong in London.

We then move forward to New York in February 1944. The film star Luise Rainer, an Austrian, mentioned the Klabund play to Bertolt Brecht as a possible vehicle for...

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