Mother Courage and Her Children Summary
by Bertolt Brecht

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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, 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 is by a different father, and each 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.”

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...

(The entire section is 3,344 words.)