Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737

From its earliest productions, critics praised the power and complexity of Mother Courage and Her Children, especially its main character. Though Mother Courage was written in the late-1930s, it was not produced until April 19, 1941. The play debuted in Zurich, Switzerland, at the Schauspielhaus Zurich, a major theater, and was immediately successful— despite the fact that the country was surrounded by Nazis and invasion was always a possibility. (Brecht was regarded as a leftist and his plays were banned by the Nazis in German.) One critic, for the major Swiss newspaper, compared Mother Courage to a Shakespearean character. Another critic, Victor Wittner, writing in Theatre Arts, found powerful commentary on World War II in Brecht’s story of the Thirty Years’ War: ‘‘With all its cynicism, Mother Courage is a compelling portrait, often with subtle humor, often with diabolical undercurrents of meaning, often with a certain fatalism, but also often with pure human simplicity and tenderness. And what moves us even more than that is the parallel with today’s events, the actual recognition that one war is like another, one misery yields nothing to another in gruesomeness.’’

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Following World War II, Brecht directed the first production of Mother Courage in Germany in 1949. Eric Bentley, writing in Theater Arts, wrote that this production was ‘‘The big Berlin theatrical event of the past few months, if not of the whole post-war period so far.’’ Bentley continued: ‘‘This story of the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War is fearfully apt in the ruined cities of present day Germany.’’ Some audiences were said to be moved to tears. Other productions in postwar Europe were also well-received.

The first American productions of Mother Courage were not as highly acclaimed as their European counterparts. The first performance, in San Francisco in 1956, received tepid reviews. The critic for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the play ‘‘lacked suspense,’’ assessing that ‘‘There have been many plays that are sharper weapons against war.’’ The first Broadway production in 1963 was a box office bomb, lasting for only fifty-two performances. The critic for Variety called the play ‘‘sophomorically obvious, cynical, self-consciously drab and tiresome.’’ While other critics found much to praise in Mother Courage, most agreed that the play was not typical commercial theater, and the production was not true to Brecht’s intentions of an emotionally detached, epic theatrical presentation.

The character of Mother Courage, and what she represents, has been a major point of critical discussion. Many critics, especially of the first production in Zurich, argued that she is a tragic character. In several articles, she is compared to the tragic figure of Niobe, a character from Greek mythology who suffers greatly and turns to stone after all her children are killed. Noted theatre critic Robert Brustein, in his essay ‘‘Bertolt Brecht’’ in his The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama, said: ‘‘Mother Courage is no Niobe, all tears, but the author of her own destruction.’’ Other critics, citing Mother Courage’s numerous contradictions, find her to have more complexity than the often one-dimensional characters of classic tragedy. One scholar, Ronald Gray in his book Brecht the Dramatist, appraised Mother Courage as ‘‘adept at turning every situation to her own advantage, conforming with and adapting herself to it.’’

Another critical debate surrounds the themes of Mother Courage. Brecht, as well as many critics and scholars, asserted that the play is about the link between war and commerce, as epitomized in Mother Courage and her love-hate relationship with war and the money it brings her. Charles R. Lyons in his Bertolt Brecht: The Despair and the Polemic, argued that ‘‘Anna Fierling, Mother Courage, does not resist the war, she accommodates and uses it. It is this accommodation which Brecht decries.’’ Ronald Gray disagreed with this assessment in Brecht the Dramatist, arguing that ‘‘if we look at the occasion on which she curses war, we see that she is not perceiving the commercial nature of war at all. She curses it because her daughter has been assaulted . . . because her daughter has been dumb since a soldier stuffed something into her mouth . . . because both of her sons have disappeared, and one of them has been killed.’’ Gray went on to say that ‘‘Peace horrifies her.’’ He stated that the play’s real theme is ‘‘the possibility and the desirability of virtue in a corrupt world. To this question, Brecht gives, as always, an ambiguous answer.’’

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