Endless sufferings: Mother figure in Brecht??™s Mother Courage and Her Children
Brecht began writing plays as early as 1919, and in a very few years he was forging a place for himself in modern drama with such innovative works as? Trommeln in der Nacht? (pr., pb. 1922;? Drums in the Night, 1961),? Im Dickicht der Stadte? (pr. 1923;? In the Jungle of the Cities, 1961), and? Die Dreigroschenoper? (pr. 1928;? The Threepenny Opera, 1949). His great decade as a playwright, however, was the 1940??™s, which witnessed the production of first? Mother Courage and Her Children? and then ? Leben des Galilei? (pr. 1943;? Life of Galileo, 1947),? Der gute Mensch von Sezuan? (pr. 1943;? The Good Woman of Setzuan, 1948), and? Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis? (pr. 1958;? The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1948), among others. By the time he began writing? Mother Courage and Her Children, Brecht had already developed the theory behind his epic theater and begun to put it into practice; he had also demonstrated a subtle and passionate grasp of socio-political issues. The 1940??™s was a fertile decade for Brecht for several reasons, not the least of which is the simple fact that by then he had reached full maturity, because personal circumstances galvanized him to creative action.
Mother Courage and Her Children? is the simplest of great plays to understand because the singlemindedness with which the author presents his theme of the horror of war/capitalism is aided by his technical innovations. ???Epic theater??? is the label that Brecht gave to his drama, a label derived from Brecht??™s belief that modern drama should abandon the traditional Aristotelean model and aspire instead to the condition of epic poetry??”at least in some regards.
Brecht??™s epic theater deliberately distances the audience from the action, just as does epic poetry, with its narrator interposed between audience and story. Brecht achieves this distancing through what he calls ???alienation effects??? (Verfremdung, or ???V-effects???). Equally important for both the alienation effect and the entertainment value of the play are the songs and humor. The humor is more of the ???black??? than the traditional variety??”that is, it increases rather than releases tension??”and thus is in keeping with the tragic theme of the play. The frequent songs carry some of the weightiest thematic statements (the ???Song of the Great Capitulation,??? for example) while perforce deflating whatever illusion of reality (and emotional identification) might be building. Altogether, then, Brecht??™s epic theater is an ideal vehicle for his passionately held convictions concerning war and capitalism.
The play??™s protagonist, Anna Fierling, is a canteen owner known more familiarly as Mother Courage. Brecht took the name from a character who appeared in two novels,? Der abenteuerlich Simplicissimus? (1688;? The Adventurous Simplicissimus, 1912) and? Lebensbeschreibung der Ertzbetrugerin und Landstortzerin Courasche? (1670;? Courage: The Adventuress, 1964), both written by the German novelist Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. Whereas Grimmelshausen??™s heroine is a seductive, hedonistic, childless harlot of illegitimate but aristocratic birth, Brecht??™s Courage is a salty, opportunistic, self-serving businesswoman, a shameless profiteer who cashes in on the troops??™ needs for alcohol and clothing; another character calls her ???a hyena of the battlefield.??? Shrewd, sardonic, and skeptical, she is a full-blooded personification of her creator??™s antiheroic view of life.
During twelve scenes that take place from 1624 to 1636, the reader/spectator follows Anna Fierling??™s wagon as she makes her living from the war yet believes she can keep her grown children out of it. Each child represents one virtue in excess and is consequently killed by it. Swiss Cheese, honest but stupid, is entrusted with the cashbox as paymaster of a Protestant regiment; when he is captured by the Catholics, he refuses to surrender the money and is riddled by eleven bullets. His mother could have saved him, but only at the price of pawning her wagon, on which she and her daughter depend for their livelihood. The mother concludes prolonged bouts of bargaining with the realization, ???I believe??”I haggled too long.???
Mother Courage, a camp follower about forty years old who sells supplies from a canteen wagon to both sides in the Thirty Years??™ War. She got the nickname after her mad drive through the bombardment of Riga, made in an attempt to sell her bread before it became too moldy. Mother Courage is an inveterate haggler and trader who profits from the war and dreads the coming of peace. Although she retains several endearing qualities, she is nevertheless the focus of the author??™s criticism of war and those who would profit from it. Even as she loses each of her three children (fathered by three different men) to the war, Mother Courage is unable to extract herself from it. Her harsh view of life is summarized in ???The Song of the Great Capitulation,??? which states that the individual must abandon romantic dreams and swallow what life imposes on him or her, and ???The Song of the Great Souls of this Earth,??? which maintains that one??™s greatest virtues are at once the cause of one??™s downfall. The latter song (though sung by another character) reflects the destiny of Mother Courage??™s children, whose demise is brought about by the prominent character traits??”bravery, honesty, and compassion??”featured in the song. Mother Courage believes that the presence of virtues is ???a sure sign something??™s wrong??? but never comprehends the lesson of war and plies her trade until the end.
The other son, Eiliff, is brave??”a virtue in wartime but a liability during an interlude of peace, when he murders innocent peasants who wished only to protect their cattle. He discovers that law and morality are relative, shifting their ground to accommodate society??™s needs.
Fierling??™s daughter, Kattrin, mute and disfigured, is the incarnation of kindness, compassion, and love, achieving allegorical grandeur. Yet in this merciless war she is shot down from the wagon??™s roof by soldiers attempting a surprise attack, as she beats her drum to warn the besieged town and thereby save children??™s lives. Her grand gesture succeeds, but at the cost of her life. The scene dramatizing Kattrin??™s heroism has the prolonged excitement and suspense of melodrama, substituting passionate persuasion and spectator empathy for Brecht??™s satiric dialectic and strategy of distancing.
Courage herself is one of Brecht??™s most contradictory and perplexing characters. She is in turn admirable and despicable, with more extreme traits than any other of his protagonists. As Eric Bentley has pointed out, she is tough, honest, resilient, and courageous, but also cold, cunning, rigid, and cowardly. She concludes business deals in the back room while her children die, yet all of her transactions are undertaken for their sake. Her philosophy is to concede defeat on such large issues as the war itself, while trying to prosper as a small business entrepreneur. Brecht intends her as a vice figure in a morality play but cannot control his affection for her as she transcends his design. He tries to condemn her as a vicious Falstaff, yet his drama stresses her single-minded determination to survive.
While it is true that Courage has haggled while her children die, it is also true that her loss of them is desolately tragic. A pathetic victim of wrong dreams, she must end the play by harnessing herself to her inhuman fourth child??”her wagon??”to trudge after the troops as the stage begins to turn in an accelerating vortex of crazed misery. Both her smallness and her greatness are memorable in the last scene of this masterpiece.
Brecht, Bertolt (trans. John Willett).? Mother Courage and Her Children. London: Methuen, 1980.
Brecht, Bertolt (trans. Eric Bentley).? Mother Courage and Her Children. New York: Grove, 1966.
Fuegi, John.? Bertolt Brecht: Chaos According to Plan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Thomson, Peter.? Plays in Production: Mother Courage and Her Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.