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...
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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.
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The years just before and at the outbreak of World War II were tense and uncertain ones for much of Europe. Adolf Hitler the leader of the National Socialist (also known as Nazi) party, became dictator of Germany in 1933. Hitler secretly armed Germany in violation of the Versailles Treaty which ended World War I and allied himself with Italy and Japan. In 1938, Germany occupied Austria and annexed most of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Hitler continued to invade and occupy many nations in Europe in 1940, adding Denmark, a number of Norwegian port cities, The Netherlands, Belgium, and much of France to his empire. Though Great Britain stopped Hitler’s planned invasion across the British Channel in 1940, the dictator continued his march across Europe. Great Britain and other countries tried to fight back, but it was not until the United States was drawn in to the war by Japan’s bombing of Peal Harbor at the end of 1941, that their efforts had success. World War II did not end in Europe until 1945.
Though Mother Courage and Her Children is set during the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century, Brecht draws several parallels between that war and the events that were unfolding in Europe as he wrote the play. Uncertainty was a way of life in both eras. Men of all ages were conscripted to...
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Mother Courage and Her Children is a prime example of Brecht’s concept of Epic Theater. Instead of following a traditional Aristotelian model of theater, which calls for directly linked action and an emotional climax at the end of the play, Brecht constructs the play more like an epic poem. Each scene is only loosely linked, though there is something of a plot. The play also has an ambiguous, open ending; it is not clear where the remaining years of the war will take Mother Courage. Further, Brecht tries to distance the audience from the action of the play with what he calls alienation effects. He does this to limit the audience’s emotional involvement with the play and its characters. This distancing is performed in the hopes that the viewer can concentrate on the meaning of the action and its inherent social criticism.
These ideas take several forms in Mother Courage. Before each scene, a summary of the events to come are projected to the audience. Thus, they know what will happen and can focus on the meaning of the action. Most every action that could provoke an emotional response—the execution of Swiss Cheese, for example—is not shown onstage, and its emotional aftermath—the grieving—is never shown. Such choices direct the audience’s attention to Brecht’s intellectual antiwar message. There are also songs that emphasize the themes of the play while undercutting its reality by...
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Compare and Contrast
1600s: The Thirty Years’ War rages in Europe from 1618 to 1648.
1930s-40s: World War II ravages Europe and the Pacific from 1939-45.
Today: There is no widespread warfare in the world. Global or continent-wide wars have given way to small pockets of geographically contained conflict such as the Persian Gulf War of the early-1990s.
1600s: The Thirty Years’ War begins as a con- flict of religious ideology, Catholic versus Protestant.
1930s-40s: World War II is a tactical war fought for geographic gain. A religious element still persists, however, in Nazi Germany’s persecution of European Jews as well as other ethnic minorities who do not fit Adolf Hitler’s Aryan ideal.
Today: Religion plays a role in several regional conflicts in the world. In Northern Ireland, it is Catholic versus Protestant; in the Middle East it is Jewish versus Muslim.
1600s: Because the Thirty Years’ War drags on for so many years, armies have a difficult time replenishing their fighting forces.
1930s-40s: Germany has mandatory military service for men aged eighteen to forty-five. The United States has a similar policy.
Today: The United States has an all-volunteer army and has a hard...
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Topics for Further Study
The character of Mother Courage is often compared to Niobe, a character in Greek mythology. Research Niobe and compare and contrast her with Mother Courage.
Research the effect of war on the psyche of the common man. Is there a psychological explanation for Mother Courage’s actions?
Compare the histories of the Thirty Years’ War and World War II. How do events in World War II parallel what is portrayed in Mother Courage and Her Children?
Playwright Brecht was a communist. How do the tenets of communism manifest themselves in the themes and events of Mother Courage?
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Mother Courage and Her Children was filmed in 1960, featuring much of the cast of the 1949 German stage production, including Helene Weigel as Mother Courage. It was directed by Peter Palitzsch and Manfred Wekwerth.
The play was also adapted into a television production by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1959.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Private Life of the Master Race, written by Brecht in 1944, is his interpretation of Hitler’s New Order policies.
Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s Courage: The Adventuress, a novel written in 1670, is centered around a character much like Mother Courage. It is one of the sources Brecht used for Mother Courage.
The Thirty Years’ War, a nonfiction book published by C. V. Wedgewood in 1938, is a history of the war, focusing on its effects in Germany.
Germany, Hitler, and World War II: Essays in Modern German and World History, is a collection published in 1995 and edited by Gerhard Weinberg. The topics include Hitler and German history, including events leading up to and including World War II.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bentley, Eric. ‘‘A Traveler’s Report . . .’’ in Theatre Arts, June, 1949, pp. 26-30, 94.
Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children in Bertolt Brecht: Plays, Volume II, translated by Eric Bentley, Methuen, 1955, pp. 1-81.
Brustein, Robert. ‘‘Bertolt Brecht’’ in his The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama, Little, Brown, 1964, pp. 229-78.
Gray, Ronald. Brecht: The Dramatist, Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Lyons, Charles R. ‘‘Mother Courage: Instinctive Compassion and ’The Great Capitulation’’’ in his Berltolt Brecht: The Despair and the Polemic, Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 89-109.
Schoeps, Karl H. World Dramatists: Bertolt Brecht, Frederick Ungar, 1977.
Wittner, Victor. ‘‘Premieres in Zurich’’ in Theatre Arts, April, 1942, pp. 250-52.
Bentley, Eric. ‘‘Bertolt Brecht and His Work’’ in Theatre Arts, September 1944, p. 509-12. This journal article gives an overview of Brecht’s career and writing through 1944.
Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, translated by John Willet, Methuen, 1963. This nonfiction book discusses Brecht’s theories of writing and theater, including epic theater.
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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 and how he changed it. Section on Mother Courage and Her Children focuses on the 1949 Berlin production and how Brecht’s staging reinforced meaning.
Lyon, Charles R. Bertolt Brecht: The Despair and the Polemic. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. A close reading of seven major Brecht plays, including Mother Courage and Her Children.
Speirs, Ronald. Bertolt Brecht. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. An introduction to Brecht’s works, focusing on the balance between the intellect and the emotional response produced by the plays. In-depth analysis of Mother Courage and Her Children and four of Brecht’s other plays....
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