Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081
In 1624, six years into the Thirty Years’ War, a recruiting officer and a sergeant discuss the difficulty of recruiting in Poland, which had been at peace and was not organized for war. Mother Courage’s canteen wagon rolls on, drawn by her two sons, Eilif and Swiss Cheese. Mother Courage and her daughter, Kattrin, who cannot speak, sit on the wagon. Mother Courage sings a song that both criticizes war and entices officers to buy her wares for their soldiers because “cannon is rough on empty bellies.” She tells the officers she had been given the name Mother Courage because she had driven wildly through the bombardment of Riga to sell fifty loaves of bread that were getting moldy.
When the officers try to recruit Eilif, Mother Courage angrily confronts them. In response to the sergeant’s downplaying of the dangers of war, she offers to look into his future by drawing lots. He draws the black cross of death. The recruiting officer persists, so Mother Courage has Eilif and Swiss Cheese draw lots, and both draw black crosses. Mother Courage draws for Kattrin, who also gets a cross. The sergeant distracts Mother Courage by negotiating to buy a belt, while the recruiting officer convinces Eilif to leave with him.
Two years later, Mother Courage negotiates the sale of a capon to the commander’s cook and helps him prepare it for the commander and his guest of honor, Eilif. Angered as she listens to Eilif recounting his daring in capturing twenty bullocks and the commander’s praising him, she tells the cook that a leader who needs bravery is a bad leader. Eilif and his mother are reunited when she joins his “Song of the Wise Woman and the Soldier,” in which the soldier ignores the wise woman’s advice and dies.
Three years later, Swiss Cheese is paymaster of the retreating Second Protestant Regiment. Yvette, a camp follower, sings “The Fraternization Song,” lamenting her first soldier lover, whom she has not seen in five years. The cook and the chaplain brings Eilif’s request for money before he leaves with his regiment. Concerned about the cash box entrusted to Swiss Cheese, Mother Courage pays, complaining that Eilif speculates in mother love.
The cook, the chaplain, and Mother Courage discuss the religious war. Mother Courage notes the Protestant king is unbeatable because, although he wages war from fear of God, he also wants a good profit, so little fellows back the war.
The Catholics defeat the Protestant soldiers, who retreat hastily, leaving Mother Courage and the others as prisoners. The group quickly gets rid of evidence that ties them to the Protestants, and Catholics ignore the obvious because they need a canteen. Mother Courage notes, “The defeats and victories of the fellows at the top aren’t always defeats and victories for the fellows at the bottom.”
Business is good for the canteen and for Yvette, but Swiss Cheese’s cash box remains a concern. He is discovered by Catholic soldiers, confesses under torture, and is put on trial.
Hoping to save Swiss Cheese, Mother Courage negotiates with Yvette, who has formed a liaison with a Catholic colonel willing to buy her a canteen. Mother Courage is unwilling to part with the wagon, arguing for a lease, to which Yvette agrees. When Mother Courage learns Swiss Cheese had thrown the cash box, from which she had hoped to repay Yvette’s loan, into the river, she tries to haggle with her son’s captors over the bribe for his release. She fails, and he is condemned and shot. When soldiers bring his body for Mother Courage to identify, she denies knowing him, so his body is thrown into a carrion pit.
Mother Courage goes to the officer’s tent to complain that soldiers had vandalized her wagon after Swiss Cheese’s death. She talks an angry young soldier out of complaining, singing the “Song of the Great Capitulation,” then she herself leaves without lodging a complaint.
Two years later the war has widened. Over Mother Courage’s objections, the chaplain and Kattrin tear up officers’ shirts to bind up the peasants’ wounds, and Kattrin rescues a baby from its burning home. During the funeral of a fallen commander, Mother Courage, the chaplain, and the clerk argue about the possibility of peace. The chaplain asserts that war will not end, because it satisfies all needs, including the need for peace. Convinced, Mother Courage sends Kattrin and the clerk to stockpile supplies. In their absence, the chaplain unsuccessfully proposes a closer relationship to Mother Courage. Kattrin returns alone with the supplies and a disfiguring wound. They move on, all three pulling the wagon.
News of peace arrives, and the cook returns. He and Mother Courage berate the chaplain for his reasoning about peace. The argument is interrupted by Yvette’s return. She had married the colonel and is now widowed and well off. Recognizing the cook as her first lover, she warns Mother Courage about him. They leave, and the cook and the chaplain receive Eilif’s last visit. During this brief peace, he acts as if it were still wartime; he steals cattle and is sentenced to death. He is taken away before Mother Courage returns with news that the war has resumed. She is told only that Eilif had gone away. The cook and Kattrin pull the wagon back to the war.
As the war worsens, the cook inherits an inn and invites Mother Courage to run it with him. When he refuses to include Kattrin, she starts to leave her mother. Mother Courage, who sends the cook away, assures Kattrin they must stay together.
Mother Courage leaves Kattrin in the care of a peasant family while she goes into the Protestant town of Halle to buy supplies. Catholic soldiers, intent on ambushing Halle while the town sleeps, force these peasants to assist them. After the soldiers take the peasant son as their guide, his mother prays to God to protect her grandchildren, who are sure to be massacred in the ambush. When Kattrin hears the children mentioned, she grabs a drum and, from the roof, drums loudly to awaken the town. The soldiers shoot her, but the sound of a cannon from the town signals her success.
Mother Courage returns, mourns Kattrin briefly, then, paying the peasants to bury the body, joins the last regiment leaving Halle to resume her business. At the end, she pulls the wagon alone.
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