Mother Courage and Her Children

by Bertolt Brecht

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Critical Evaluation

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A major force in modern theater, German playwright Bertolt Brecht is perhaps best known for his concepts of epic theater and Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect). A Marxist, Brecht reacted against what he called culinary theater, which provides its audience with the illusion of reality. Brecht wanted theatrical productions to destroy comforting illusions, so the audience would think rather than feel.

Brecht defined the learning process of alienation as a dialectical progression, moving the audience from its familiar—and false—understanding to an estranging nonunderstanding, achieved by a defamiliarizing theatrical presentation, to the final stage of understanding in a new way. This was to be achieved through productions that used the techniques of epic theater. The ideal was a dispassionate presentation. One means was the use of a narrative voice, through projected slogans on stage, to intervene between the audience and events of the play and eliminate audience identification with the character, thus forcing the audience to maintain objectivity.

The plots of epic plays consist of loosely knit episodes, complete within themselves. The nonliterary elements—stage design, music, choreography—are designed to be autonomous, interrupting the flow of the production. Together, these elements are to create distance, resulting in an audience’s viewing the play with a critical eye.

Mother Courage and Her Children, loosely based on Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s Lebensbeschreibung der Ertzbetrügerin und Landstörtzerin Courasche (1670; Courage: The Adventuress, 1964), is Brecht’s most successful play. It uses many epic theater techniques. The play is composed of twelve scenes of varying lengths, each introduced by a slogan designed to place it in historical context, eliminate suspense, and clarify the effect of the war on the characters. For example, the slogan for scene three is “Three years pass and Mother Courage, with parts of a Finnish regiment, is taken prisoner. Her daughter is saved, her wagon likewise, but her honest son dies.”

Music is also used throughout the play to stop action and comment on it. Mother Courage’s first song has a thematically important refrain: “Let all of you who still survive/ Get out of bed and look alive!” This is repeated in several scenes, and sung at the play’s conclusion by the soldiers Mother Courage is rushing to join.

Two other songs are thematically important. “The Song of the Great Capitulation,” sung by Mother Courage, details her progress in learning to “march in lockstep with the rest.” The cook’s “Song of the Great Souls of this Earth” notes problems caused by virtues such as Solomon’s wisdom, concluding that only vices bring reward. Although Brecht was a Marxist, his pessimism, illustrated in these songs, was difficult for Marxist critics to accept.

Brecht considered Mother Courage to be a cautionary tale that shows that those who live on war have to pay. War is a metaphor for capitalistic business; the state of war is analogous to the human condition, poisoned by greed and exploitation. Brecht believed that both war and capitalism made human virtues “fatal even to those who exercise them.” He considered Mother Courage to be guilty, a deformed merchant-mother, the hyena of war.

To Brecht’s irritation, response to the play generally focused on its emotional impact. Mother Courage has been seen as a complex and tragic character, compared to Niobe. Spectators sympathized with her hard choices. Kattrin, whose love of children, eagerness for motherhood, and compassion make her a life force, is also a profoundly sympathetic character. Ravaged by the war (her muteness resulting from a soldier who “stuck something in her mouth when she was little”), she is normal in an abnormal world that has done its best to deform her. Her act of defiance, drumming to save the children of Halle, has been called the most emotionally moving scene in modern drama.

The emotional depth of this play derives from its ambiguity. Brecht made changes in the play before its second production in post-World War II Berlin, hoping to mitigate the emotional response. The Berlin audience, many of whom had lost relatives in the war, sat weeping at the play’s conclusion, and the critics again responded to Mother Courage’s Niobe-like qualities. Later critics also noted its emotional power.

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Critical Context


Critical Overview