Brecht completed Mother Courage and Her Children in November, 1939, with its theme of the harrowing and devastating effects of a European war paralleling the outbreak of World War II in September of that year. Its world premiere did not take place until 1941, in Zurich, Switzerland, starring the fine actress Therese Giehse. In 1949, an even finer actress, Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel, assumed the central role for what was to be her most celebrated triumph. The work’s subtitle, A Chronicle of the Thirty Years’ War, indicates that it deals with the feast of death that bore down on much of Europe from 1618 to 1648, solving no problems and settling no issues.
Having identified business with gangsterism in The Threepenny Opera, Brecht now identifies business with war. He seeks to present a relentlessly Marxist indictment of the economic causes of war. In his production notes, he states that the work is designed to demonstrate that “war, which is a continuation of business by other means, makes the human virtues fatal even to their possessors.” In the drama’s atmosphere of rape, pillage, and meaningless killing, with Protestants and Catholics slaughtering one another for a generation, all human ideals degenerate into hypocritical cant, while heroism shatters into splinters of cruelty, madness, greed, or absurdity. The play is bitterly pacifist, with all the featured characters living off the war yet remaining blind to the penalties that it demands, as most of them pay with their lives.
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 Ertzbetrügerin und Landstörtzerin 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,...
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