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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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...
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