Mother Courage and Her Children
Mother Courage and Her Children (German: Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder) is a play written in 1939 by the German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) with significant contributions from Margarete Steffin. After four very important theatrical productions in Switzerland and Germany from 1941 to 1952—the last three supervised and/or directed by Brecht—the play was filmed several years after Brecht's death in 1959/1960 with Brecht's widow and leading actress, Helene Weigel.
Mother Courage is considered by some to be the greatest play of the 20th century, and perhaps also the greatest anti-war play of all time.[3
Mother Courage is one of nine plays that Brecht wrote in an attempt to counter the rise of Fascism and Nazism. In response to the invasion of Poland by the German armies of Adolf Hitler in 1939, Brecht wrote Mother Courage in what writers call a "white heat"—in a little over a month. As leading Brecht scholars Ralph Manheim and John Willett wrote:
Mother Courage, with its theme of the devastating effects of a European war and the blindness of anyone hoping to profit by it, is said to have been written in a month; judging by the almost complete absence of drafts or any other evidence of preliminary studies, it must have been an exceptionally direct piece of inspiration
Following Brecht's own principles for political drama, the play is not set in modern times but during the Thirty Years' War of 1618–1648. It follows the fortunes of Anna Fierling, nicknamed "Mother Courage", a wily canteen woman with the Swedish Army who is determined to make her living from the war. Over the course of the play, she loses all three of her children, Swiss Cheese, Eilif, and Kattrin, to the same war from which she sought to profit
OverviewThe name of the central character, Mother Courage, is drawn from the picaresque writings of the 17th-century German writer Grimmelshausen, whose central character in the early short novel, The Runagate Courage, also struggles and connives her way through the Thirty Years' War in Germany and Poland, but otherwise the story is mostly Brecht's, in collaboration with Steffin.
The action of the play takes place over the course of 12 years (1624 to 1636), represented in 12 scenes. Some give a sense of Courage's career without being given enough time to develop sentimental feelings and empathize with any of the characters. Meanwhile, Mother Courage is not depicted as a noble character – here the Brechtian epic theatre sets itself apart from the ancient Greek tragedies in which the heroes are far above the average. With the same alienating effect, the ending of Brecht's play does not arouse our desire to imitate the main character, Mother Courage.
Mother Courage is among Brecht's most famous plays, and has been considered by some to be the greatest play of the 20th century. His work attempts to show the dreadfulness of war and the idea that virtues are not rewarded in corrupt times. He used an epic structure so that the audience focuses on the issues being displayed rather than getting involved with the characters and emotions. Epic plays are of a very distinct genre and are typical of Brecht; a strong case could be made that he invented the form
Mother Courage as Epic Theatre
Mother Courage is an example of Brecht's concepts of Epic Theatre and Verfremdungseffekt or "estrangement effect". Verfremdungseffekt is achieved through the use of placards which reveal the events of each scene, juxtaposition, actors changing characters and costume on stage, the use of narration, simple props and scenery. For instance, a single tree would be used to convey a whole forest, and the stage is usually flooded with bright white light whether it's a winter's night or a summer's day. Several songs, interspersed throughout the play, are used to underscore the themes of the play, while making the audience think about what the playwright is saying.
The Verfremdungseffekt is the primary innovation of Brecht's epic theater. By alienating spectator's from the spectacle, the devices producing this effect would reveal the social gestus underlying every incident on- stage. Brecht defined this gestus, meaning gist as well as gesture, as the mimetic expression of the social relationships prevailing between people in a given historical moment.
Often times alienation also means making the workings of the spectacle visible and decomposing the unity of the theatrical illusion. Brecht calls for the spectator's alienation from the mystifying tendencies of the conventional stage, tendencies that reduced its audience to passive, trance-like states. Particularly insidious among them was the mechanism of identification.
A good example of Brechtian alienation comes from Scene Three, where Mother Courage, the Cook, and the Chaplain discuss the politics of the Thirty Years War. Already the Cook functions here as a critical voice and finds the irony in the opinions of the Chaplain. The Swedish King is fortunate he can invoke the word of God; otherwise it might seem that he has undertaken the war for profit. Notably, the Cook is also aware of his social position, his awareness militating against his ostensible duty to his monarch. The Cook notes that he does not eat the king's bread, he just bakes it. The element of alienation in this scene, however, involves a spatial device, Brecht placing the three characters behind the wagon. Simultaneously, Kattrin tries on Yvette's red boots. By moving the characters behind the cart, the play would hinder the spectator's identification with their debate. Thus it opens a critical distance enabling the audience to reflect on the spectacle.
Mother Courage (also known as "Canteen Anna")
Kattrin (Catherine), her mute daughter
Eilif, her oldest son
Swiss Cheese (also mentioned as Feyos), her youngest son
Man with the Bandage
Another Peasant Woman
Kattrin (Catherine), her mute daughter
Eilif, her oldest son
Swiss Cheese (also mentioned as Feyos), her youngest son
Man with the Bandage
Another Peasant Woman
The play is set in the 17th century in Europe during the Thirty Years' War. The Recruiting Officer and Sergeant are introduced, both complaining about the difficulty of recruiting soldiers to the war. A canteen woman named Anna Fierling (Mother Courage) enters pulling a cart that she uses to trade with soldiers and make profits from the war. She has three children, Eilif, Kattrin, and Swiss Cheese. The sergeant negotiates a deal with Mother Courage while Eilif is led off by the recruiting officer. One of her children is now gone.
Two years from then, Mother Courage argues with a Protestant General's cook over a capon, or chicken. At the same time, Eilif is congratulated by the General for killing peasants and slaughtering their cattle. Eilif and his mother sing "The Fishwife and the Soldier". Mother Courage scolds her son for taking risks that could have got him killed and slaps him across the face.
Three years later, Swiss Cheese works as an army paymaster. The camp prostitute, Yvette Pottier, sings "The Fraternization Song". Mother Courage uses this song to warn Kattrin about involving herself with soldiers. Before the Catholic troops arrive, the Cook and Chaplain bring a message from Eilif. Swiss Cheese hides the regiment's paybox from invading soldiers. Mother Courage & co. hurriedly switch their insignia from Protestant to Catholic. Swiss Cheese is captured by the Catholics while attempting to return the paybox to his General. Mother Courage deals her cart to get money to try and barter with the soldiers to free her son. She takes too long trying negotiate small amount of money for herself, the Chaplin, and Kattrin to live from and Swiss Cheese is shot dead with 11 bullets. To acknowledge the body could be fatal, so Mother Courage does not acknowledge it and it is thrown into a pit.
Later, Mother Courage waits outside the General's tent in order to register a complaint and sings the "Song of Great Capitulation" to a young soldier waiting for the General as well. The soldier is angry that he has not been paid and also wishes to complain. The song persuades the soldier that complaining would be unwise, and Mother Courage (reaching the same conclusion) decides she also does not want to complain.
When Catholic General Tilly's funeral approaches, Mother Courage discusses with the Chaplain about whether the war will continue. The Chaplain then suggests to Mother Courage that she marry him, but she rejects his proposal. Mother Courage curses the war because she finds Kattrin disfigured after being raped by the clerk while collecting more merchandise.
At some point about here Mother Courage is again following the Protestant army.
Two peasants wake Mother Courage up and try to sell merchandise to her while they find out that peace has broken out. The Cook appears and creates an argument between Mother Courage and the Chaplain. Mother Courage departs for the town while Eilif enters, dragged in by soldiers. Eilif is executed for killing peasants but his mother never finds out. When the war begins again, the Cook and Mother Courage start their own business.
The seventeenth year of the war marks a point where there is no food and no supplies. The Cook inherits an inn in Utrecht and suggests to Mother Courage that she operate it with him, but he refuses to harbour Kattrin. It is a very small inn. Mother Courage will not leave her daughter and they part ways with the Cook. Mother Courage and Kattrin pull the wagon by themselves.
The Catholic army attacks the small Protestant town of Halle while Mother Courage is away from town, trading. Kattrin is woken up by a search party that is taking peasants as guides. Kattrin fetches a drum from the cart, climbs onto the roof, and beats it in an attempt to awake the townspeople. Though the soldiers shoot Kattrin, she succeeds in waking up the town.
Early in the morning, Mother Courage sings to her daughter's corpse, has the peasants bury her and hitches herself to the cart. The cart rolls lighter now because there are no more children and very little merchandise left.
Lower Classes During Wartime
From the first image--a nameless "Sergeant" and "Recruiting Officer" freezing in a field--Brecht's play sets its focus firmly on the lower classes affected by wars. No historically significant figures (General Tilly or the Kaiser, for example) make appearances in the play, being mentioned only in passing. Mother Courage, her family, and her companions are all the "little people," and it is their story which Brecht finds interesting. They usually are unable to extract any benefit from the war. Notice, too, how often minor characters in the play are given only a profession or a description rather than a proper name: we have peasants, numerous soldiers, generals, clerks, captains, officers, and even chaplains. This is not just because they are stock characters.
Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 5, 11, and 12.
"Parachutists are dropped like bombs," Brecht once wrote, "and bombs do not need courage. Real courage would be refusing to get into the plane in the first place." This idea points toward the remarkable irony with which Mother Courage's nickname is imbued. That is, the play suggests that her courage is as questionable as her motherhood. She gets her nickname from driving loaves through the bombardment of Riga before they become too moldy (see Scene 1), but this might be rashness rather than true courage. Moreover, in light of Brecht's lines above, real courageousness seems to involve opting out of the war and its capitalism altogether, something Mother Courage never does, although it is hard to see her alternatives as one of the "little people."
Mother Courage herself seems to see this idea: real courage requires persistence enough to make a significant, life-threatening change, as Kattrin does at the end of Scene 11. Consider when Mother Courage advises the young soldier about the Great Capitulation in Scene 4--but this insight does not survive with her to the end of the play.
Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 2, 4, and 11.
Families and Parenthood
The play examines war not just as a capitalistic system but also on a domestic level. It is central to the emotional impact of the play that it is about a mother and her children. Mother Courage's treatment of (particularly) Kattrin and Swiss Cheese emphasizes the difficulty of combining her role of "mother" with her professional role of "canteen woman." One of the play's key questions is whether her trading helps or hinders her family--it is the only way for them to survive, but it results in the deaths of all of her children. Significantly, whenever one of the children die, Brecht ensures that Mother Courage is distracted by business affairs.
It also is interesting to examine Kattrin's journey (as by far the most important of the children) through the play in light of how far her development, desires, and growing sexuality are repressed and damaged by the fact that her mother is a wartime canteen woman.
Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 3, 9, 11, and 12.
War as Capitalism
Brecht was a lifelong socialist. After the First World War, the idea began to become more popular that war was often associated with financial gain. From this point of view, Brecht's purpose in writing the play was to show that in wartime "you need a big pair of scissors in order to get your cut." War, as the play portrays it, is itself a capitalist system designed to make profit for just a few players, and it is perpetuated for that purpose.
Therefore, despite the fact that she is constantly trying to make profit from it, Mother Courage is destined to lose by trading during the war; only the fat cats at the top of the system have a real chance of profiting from it. People in this play are always looking to get their cut, large or small, and it is no accident that the original text repeats the verb kriegen, to "wage"--that is, to wage war (Krieg), but also meaning to "get" or "acquire."
Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 3, and 7.
Silence and Dumbness
Kattrin's dumbness is deeply symbolic. That is, real virtue and goodness are silenced in the time of war. Brecht even makes clear that Kattrin's dumbness is due directly to the war: "a soldier stuck something in her mouth when she was small." The play itself deals similarly with several significant silences: Mother Courage's refusal to complain after the Song of the Great Capitulation, the chaplain's denial of his own faith when the Catholics arrive in Scene 3 ("All good Catholics here!"), and the way Mother Courage denies her own son at the end of the scene, first in life and then in death. Weigel's silent scream at the end of this scene is itself an emblem of how war neuters human response.
An antithesis to dumbness is eloquence, and Kattrin's death (itself conducted through loud noises, and answered by the noises from the town after she has died) is perhaps the single most eloquent act in the play.
Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 3, 6, and 11.
A common critical discussion about the play is whether or not it is a tragedy. Brecht perhaps did not write it as one, titling his play "A Chronicle of the Thirty Years' War" and aiming to make connections to contemporary issues. But some critics have argued that, in line with Brecht's guidance about Mother Courage's failure to learn, the play is perhaps Mother Courage's tragedy. After all, her children die and she never profits appreciably from the war.
Such a discussion depends much on how "tragedy" is defined. For instance, it is worth noting that, in addition to Mother Courage's failure to learn, Brecht assigns each of her children a "tragic flaw" which is repeated throughout the play: Eilif is "dashing," Swiss Cheese is "honest," and Kattrin "suffers from pity."
To research this theme more, after reading a theoretical work on tragedy (such as Aristotle's Poetics), one could ask the following questions: is Mother Courage herself responsible for the events of the play? That is, would events go differently if only Mother Courage were different? Does the play arouse a catharsis as the curtain comes down? Is the play merely sad or a true tragedy?
Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 4, 6, and 12.
Brecht's view of religion in this play is blatantly clear: it is of little help, and is often a hindrance, during wartime. Religion is portrayed through the sniveling, hypocritical figure of the Chaplain, and it has little positive role to play. The Chaplain changes his allegiances (for example, dusting out his clerical robes when peace is announced) at the drop of a hat (see Scene 6 for the point at which his character becomes clearest). At the very end, the prayers of the peasants are juxtaposed with Kattrin climbing the rooftop, suggesting ineffective inaction among the religious versus effective action by Kattrin.
The text, like all of Brecht's work, is steeped in a complex knowledge of the Old Testament, but the play itself makes little concession to religion as a positive influence on society.
Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 2, 3, 6, and 8.
War as Order
In the first scene, there is a grotesque description of how the citizens of the world rely on war to hold civilization together. An audience member might be forgiven for dismissing it as an opening joke. Yet, the idea of war as order, "peace as war undeclared," as the Chaplain has it--recurs throughout, and the Chaplain believably expresses very similar sentiments at various points in the play.
Mother Courage herself is an emblem of the way the play's society seems to depend upon the perpetuity of war and, for the brief time while peace is declared, peace is often described as a disaster rather than the end of a devastating war. Is war actually the axis on which the society of the play turns? Is the nature of man antagonistic rather than cooperative?
Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 5, 6, 7, and 8.
Feeding the War
Scene 2, outside and inside the General's kitchen, introduces the Cook and the idea of "feeding the war." The Cook's name is "Lamb," and though he becomes a sacrificial lamb later in the play when the food runs out, the idea of being a lamb also suggests a way that his role reflects the mission of the whole army. The play opens with a conversation between a sergeant and a recruiting officer about how difficult it is to find enough soldiers to fill the quota--the war's appetite is greater than the available resources can satisfy. The Cook and the whole army feed society's appetite for war.
Throughout the play, nevertheless, starvation recurs. The lack of men in Scene 1 becomes the more literal lack of good meat in Scene 2. The lack of such food, by the bleak ending of the play, has become manifest across the whole country. In Scene 9, trade has had to stop because food is no longer growing.
Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 2, 8, and 9.
Rather than accompany the action or integrate itself into dramatic illusion, music in Brecht's theater assumes an independent reality, at times standing autonomous from the other elements of the play. In Brecht's production of Mother Courage, stagehands would lower a musical emblem whenever a song that remained separate from the action would arise. This elevation of music to its own reality breaks the dramatic illusion, helping to decompose it into its constitutive elements. For Brecht, this decomposition renders the audience an observer and forces it into a relation of critical spectatorship. For example, "The Song of the Great Souls of the Earth" recounts how various great figures meet dark fates on account of their respective virtues. Rehearsing Mother Courage's fortune telling in Scene One, the song is a thinly veiled allegory for herself and her children: Courage is Solomon and Eilif is Caesar. The separation of the music from the action might facilitate the spectator interrogation of the terms of the allegory.