The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
Like the Thirty Years’ War in which it is set, Mother Courage and Her Children ranges over several decades of the seventeenth century and over much of Northern and Central Europe. The opening of the play finds Mother Courage and her three children near a mobilization center for the Swedish army. It is 1624, a half-dozen years into the interminable war between Protestants and Catholics, and Sweden is gathering its forces for an invasion of Poland. Army recruiters are scouring the countryside for fresh recruits. They do not have to look far to find Mother Courage and her two draft-age sons, for she makes her living by following armies with her canteen (wagon, a sort of general store on wheels).
The play opens with the recruiter bemoaning the difficulty of finding willing recruits; his pessimism is countered by the sergeant (most minor characters in the play are unnamed), who insists that Europe needs a war to improve order and morality. They soon encounter Mother Courage, who identifies herself as a “business person” and sings a song extolling the virtues of her canteen. The recruiter is more interested in her older son, Eilif, but Mother Courage objects bitterly to his joining the army. Whether her objections stem from a mother’s love for her son or a businesswoman’s need of an extra hand is not entirely clear at this point in the play. At the end of the scene, while Mother Courage is distracted by her business duties (selling liquor to the sergeant), the recruiter makes off with Eilif.
Scene 2 finds Mother Courage and Kattrin (her younger son, Swiss Cheese, has by now been recruited as a paymaster) still following the Swedish army, but it is two years later, in Poland. Mother Courage’s success at extorting an exorbitant price from the cook for a scrawny chicken shows that she is prospering quite handsomely from the war. Her good fortune continues when the soldier she overhears being praised for bravery turns out to be Eilif. Eilif’s heroic deed consists of slaughtering a number of peasants who objected to his appropriating their cattle for the army. The general high spirits suffusing this scene are undercut somewhat by a song that Eilif sings (later joined in by Mother Courage) warning young men not to go off to war.
As scene 3 opens, it is three years later, and the war is going badly for the Protestants. As the cook and chaplain drink Mother Courage’s brandy and debate the merits of the war, the Catholics attack, and they find themselves cut off from their fellow soldiers. Should...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
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”). The first and most obvious alienation effect in Mother Courage and Her Children is the scenes’ headings, which correspond to the narrator of epic poetry. These headings (projected onto a screen in the preferred method) not only tell the audience the time and locale of the scene but also summarize the action and often “give away” dramatic occurrences, which more traditional playwrights would prefer to hold in suspense. If a member of the audience is told that Eilif is to die in the scene, for example, he will not, theoretically, become as emotionally involved in the drama of Eilif’s fate and will instead contemplate the meaning of that fate.
Other alienation effects abound in the play. The...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Sweden *Germany, and *Poland. European countries in which the play is ostensibly set during the Thirty Years’ War of the early seventeenth century. Settings for the play are accomplished via legends displayed or projected for the audience to read, along with small or suggestive bits of scenery or stage properties. The play, with the exception of Mother Courage’s canteen wagon, could easily be performed without any scenery or setting. Brecht’s time frame also creates anachronisms, as he makes no concession to the diction or costuming of the seventeenth century. The play’s apparently modern characters are vital if the audience is to understand that the drama is not actually about the Thirty Years’ War, but about wars in general. The play is universal and timeless in its appeal.
Known for his creation of Epic Theatre, Brecht seeks to alienate his audience by his use of the V effect, thereby destroying the illusion of reality. It is necessary that the audience always remember that they are viewing a performance so that the play’s message can get through to them. If the audience is alienated, it is objective; therefore, the working components of the stage must always show through to the audience, and the appearance of reality must be avoided. Throughout the twelve brief scenes of the play, even though the locales may change, the emphasis is never on the place but rather on the characters and their actions.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Demetz, Peter, ed. Brecht. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Essay on Mother Courage and Her Children focuses on the “Song of the Great Capitulation,” Brecht’s Marxism and pessimism, and epic theater.
Esslin, Martin. Brecht: The Man and His Work. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960. Critical study of Brecht, including biography, poetry, the theory and practice of Brechtian theater, and Brecht’s relationship to the Communists.
Fuegi, John. Bertolt Brecht: Chaos, According to Plan. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Discusses the theater of Brecht’s time...
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