Mother Courage and Her Children

by Bertolt Brecht

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Mother Courage: Hero and Antihero

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The title character of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children has been the subject of much critical debate. Critics have agreed that Mother Courage’s choices have been hard because of the demands of war-time life. Yet opinions vary widely on the nature of her true character. Some have labeled her a greedy coward; some call her a callous, practical businesswoman; still others deem her courageous. In this essay, Mother Courage is examined as both a hero and an antihero. For every heroic action she takes, she balances it with an antiheroic gesture. By definition, a hero is courageous and noble, distinguished by bravery and admired by others. An antihero is the exact opposite, someone who wallows in negative actions. By looking at Mother Courage in this bifocal fashion, a greater understanding of her motives—specifically the choices she makes—will be reached.

Mother Courage has two goals: for her family to survive the seemingly endless Thirty Years’ War and to make a profit while doing so. The origin of her nickname ‘‘Mother Courage’’ is telling. During a battle in Riga, the former Anna Fierling drove her canteen wagon through a ferocious bomb attack so she could sell fifty loaves of bread before they went moldy. She claims she needed to sell the bread to feed her children, but by doing so, she put herself and everyone in the wagon at risk. How necessary a risk this was is not stated, but the act is illustrative of Mother Courage’s nature as a businesswoman: she is willing to risk death to earn her profit. As a hero, she wants to survive the war and support her children. As an anti-hero, she puts that very intention at risk to earn money.

Mother Courage’s canteen fulfills a need in the Thirty Years’ War. Armies relied on such canteens to provide food, alcohol, and goods, as many such items were not provided for the soldiers. For an unmarried woman with three children and no place to call home, the canteen wagon offers a decent livelihood for Mother Courage’s family. With few alternatives, it is definitely more appealing than prostitution. Instead of begging for a living or abandoning her children, Mother Courage is responsible for her family. Her canteen allows her to take care of her children while fulfilling a basic need for the soldiers. Yet Mother Courage takes advantage of her heroic situation, looking to the war as a potential for profit and her children as a means to that end. She charges outrageous prices for her goods and refuses charity to those in need. She is called greedy several times and regularly puts profit before people.

While Mother Courage does take care of her children, keeping them fed and clothed, and tries to protect them from direct participation in the war, she loses each of them in her quest for profit. She spends much of the first scene trying to keep Eilif from being recruited to a Swedish army regiment. He ends up joining when Mother Courage’s attention is diverted by two soldiers who represent a potential sale. The officer takes Eilif aside and convinces him to sign up while the sergeant haggles with Mother Courage over the price of a belt buckle. If she had not been so concerned with profit, Eilif would not have been recruited (and subsequently executed for a crime).

Mother Courage’s overwhelming concern for money also leads directly to the death of her other son, Swiss Cheese. When he is captured by Catholic soldiers, she haggles over the amount of a ransom that is offered to save him from the...

(This entire section contains 1722 words.)

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firing squad. Her greed prolongs the transaction, and Swiss Cheese is killed before a price is settled. Kattrin suffers a similar fate due to her mother’s negligence. The mute daughter is left with a peasant family overnight while Mother Courage is in a town purchasing goods. When Kattrin learns of a surprise attack on the town, she climbs to a rooftop and drums out a warning. Her selfless act saves her mother and the town, but she is killed by soldiers. Once again, Mother Courage’s preoccupation with her business (securing materials to sell), has prevented her from properly protecting her offspring. In these situations, Mother Courage’s antiheroic nature outweighs her heroic actions.

Yet this is not a black and white issue: Mother Courage does make some sacrifices for her children and others as well. Her outfit has followed the Protestant armies, namely the Swedish, for most of the war. During an attack by the Catholics and a subsequent detention, Mother Courage does her best to hide the Protestant Chaplain who had been visiting her. She makes him take off his cleric’s coat and put on a generic beggar’s cloak. As the canteen follows the Catholic armies around, she shelters the Chaplain’s identity, though she insists that he do work to earn his keep (her antiheroic nature again revealing itself). Similarly, when the Swedish army Cook catches up to them and has nowhere to stay, Mother Courage lets him travel with them—though on the same work-for-shelter terms as the Chaplain.

Mother Courage and the Cook share a mutual affection for one another. When the Cook gets an offer to run an inn in Utrecht, he invites Mother Courage to assist him. She declines this opportunity to get away from the war. The Cook will not let Kattrin, Mother Courage’s only surviving child at this point, accompany them. This act shows the title character taking responsibility for her child, though some have argued that Mother Courage is not interested in working for the Cook and simply needs Kattrin to carry on her independent business. In scene five, the canteen wagon is located at Magdeburg, where a recent battle has taken place.

In a nearby farmhouse, several peasants are suffering from injuries and their home is partially destroyed. The Chaplain begs Mother Courage for some linen to bandage their wounds. Mother Courage says that she has already sold all the bandages she has, and she will not give him officer’s shirts, which are made of linen, for this purpose. The Chaplain begs her, but she replies, ‘‘They have nothing and they pay nothing!’’ It is not until Kattrin threatens Mother Courage with a board and the Chaplain bodily moves her from the wagon that he gets the needed linen. This incident is one of the best examples of Mother Courage’s antiheroic nature.

Despite such selfish actions there is evidence that Brectht’s title character has redeemable qualities which she has imparted to her offspring. Of her three children, two perform heroic acts, which says something positive about how she raised them. After Swiss Cheese is arrested by the Catholics, he protects his mother and sister by denying he is related to them (he tells his captors that he was merely eating a meal at Mother Courage’s canteen). This action probably saves their lives. The mute Kattrin pursues her heroism to much greater lengths, taking great personal risks to help others. Kattrin tries to warn Swiss Cheese about the spies that are following him before his arrest to no avail. When Kattrin overhears the Cook telling Mother Courage that Kattrin is not part of the offer, Kattrin makes ready to leave so that her mother can have a better life. Mother Courage refuses to abandon her daughter, however, and they move on together. The mute girl care also shows great concern for the wellbeing of those outside her family, forcing her mother to surrender the linen for bandages and risking her life to save children from a fire. At the end of the play, Kattrin does give her life to save a town from a surprise attack. The upbringing of these two children is implicitly heroic for Mother Courage.

Yet, in keeping with the duality of the character, Mother Courage’s remaining child displays the influence of her darker side. After Eilif is recruited, he becomes a cutthroat soldier. He is lauded by his commander for his skill as a killer and for pillaging a peasant village, including the clever theft of a herd of oxen. Later, he is arrested for the same crime during peacetime. It is implied that he is executed for this. Eilif’s actions are antiheroic, directly contributing to the death and destruction of war. His behavior counters his siblings’ bravery, balancing the heroic with antiheroic actions.

Mother Courage and Her Children is play full of such balances and contradictions. Mother Courage continually curses war yet embraces its circumstances for profit and survival. Peace means uncertainty to her, and there is no profit in uncertainty. Of her two goals, preserving her family through the war and turning a profit, she achieves neither by the play’s end. All her children are dead, the canteen wagon is nearly empty, and she has little money. She is now resigned to hauling the wagon by herself.

Mother Courage is both hero and antihero, each of her positive actions has a negative counterpart. Brecht shows this duality as a negative consequence of war. It is an unnatural perverse state in which common values are challenged at every turn; people are forced to act on both their good and bad impulses, in the hopes that a balance of the two forces will insure success. Mother Courage’s behavior is driven by a need to survive during wartime, yet by the time the action in the play begins, it is clear her priorities on this matter have become skewed. She has equated the relentless pursuit of profit (her antiheroic side) with success and survival; she comes to believe that if she is profitable, it will allow her family to survive the war. She has allowed this side of her to rule each situation, despite what her heroic nature might dictate. Yet in the end her pragmatism and devotion to commerce leaves her emotionally and financially bankrupt. It is this last point that hammers home Brecht’s primary theme in the play: war is pointless, it robs people of their humanity, and, ultimately, everyone involved loses. While gains may be made in geographic terms, humanity is left poorer for the experience.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

The Danger of Empathy in Mother Courage

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It is by now a critical commonplace that Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children owes its success, if indeed it has any, not so much to the author’s implementation of his many theories of playwriting as to his inability, in spite of himself, to put these theories into full practice in his own work. Thus, it is claimed, we respond not to the story of Mother Courage but to the character herself. We are inspired by the woman’s courage and sent home from the theater admiring her fortitude, ourselves encouraged to emulate her ineffably good qualities. We respond to the play in terms of our response to its title character. In short, we identify with Mother Courage, make her character our own, and turn her survival into an encouraging affirmation of our own human will to survive. Mother Courage is, ultimately, truly courageous, and her courage sees her through all her tribulations: so we, as audience to her courage, take comfort and gain succor through seeing ourselves in Mother Courage. We are better able to face with internal valor the hardships of our own existence, better able to bear the burdens placed upon us by our society. The ultimate nobility of Mother Courage is the play’s success, whether Brecht wished it so or not—as indeed his constant revisions and reworkings, all with a view toward making the title character less sympathetic, clearly indicate. Even the more perfervid admirers of Brecht’s theories and practices of dramatic art seem to insist that the play’s success arises from its strength of characterization and its affirmation of human will. Martin Esslin writes that audiences at Mother Courage are ‘‘moved to tears by the sufferings of a poor woman who, having lost her three children, heroically continued her brave struggle and refused to give in, an embodiment of the eternal virtues of the common people.’’ (Brecht: The Man and His Work, Anchor, 1961.) Similarly, Eric Bentley finds in Mother Courage an affirmation and admiration for a certain kind of courage. ‘‘This is, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich, ‘the courage to be’—in this case, the courage to exist in the face of a world that so powerfully recommends non-existence.’’ (Seven Plays of Bertolt Brecht, Grave, 1961.)

If critics have made of Mother Courage primarily a play of character and attributed its success to the empathy audiences feel for the title character, producers and actors have been quick to respond to this challenge. The recent New York production, under, as a matter of fact, Bentley’s supervision, is reported to have ended with Mother Courage’s having drawn the wagon twice around the stage— the extra turn being obviously a play for a final upheaval of sympathy from the theater party sentimentalists in the audience. And what actress can really be impervious to the temptation of playing for this empathy. Even Helene Weigel, once Brecht was gone, seemed in the eyes of at least one observer, to be playing for more empathy than the playwright might have wished. ‘‘Weigel’s performance [is] more winning, coy, and less distant than the depths other voice and the worldliness of her character lead one to expect. . . . She did not so much underplay, I felt, as overstate, taking a good deal more time to cool things (if that was it) than she needed.’’ (Tulane Drama Review, Vol.3.)

This is all very fine—one supposes. But it is not the play Brecht wrote. Nor is it as good or as important a play as the one Brecht wrote. As a play of character, Mother Courage is an insignificant portrait. if we as audience identify with Mother Courage as character and believe her to triumph, then her triumph is ours and we are left only with a rather narcissistic satisfaction. We learn nothing. Our consciousness of human existence is no more broadened than when we entered the theater. If, on the other hand, we are unable to identify with Mother Courage, unable to feel empathy for such an unsavory heroine, we are able to see the causes and roots of the evil she represents. We then share not in Mother Courage’s humanity, but in Brecht’s anger at the evil her story portrays. Realizing further that this evil is a result of the nature of society, we, as parts of society, share in the guilt for that evil. Without empathy we see ourselves not as Mother Courages preyed upon by a hostile society, but rather, as members of that predatory and hostile society. Where our critics, actors, and producers — and ourselves as playgoers, no doubt—have made of Mother Courage a play that is in the long run comforting, Brecht wrote a play that is highly disturbing, a play that brands us all with a collective guilt for the evils of the world.

One reason, probably, for the misdirection which analyses and productions of Mother Courage have taken is that most of the playwrights of the last hundred years at least have accustomed us to viewing plays primarily in terms of character. The psychological complexities of a Willie Loman, a Hedda Gabler, or a Henry IV are meant to give us valuable insight into our own psychologies. If we accept a system of belief in which behavior is controlled by individual psychology, then indeed those plays do accomplish their task. Brecht, however, we must remember, was, whether or not he was an orthodox Soviet Communist, a thoroughly conditioned and fully believing Marxist. For him, the primary determinant of human behavior was external. Individual behavior, to any Marxist, is the product of the social and economic structure in which that individual lives. Individual psychology is merely a superstructure built upon a pre-established socio-economic foundation. Given this presupposition, Brecht, when he wrote plays dealing with individual human beings, had to find a way of showing the action of these individuals in relation to its social foundations. To do this, he turned from the individually oriented drama of character to the drama of action or narrative. In the drama of narrative, we are to be concerned not so much with the individual character’s psychology as with the relationship between one incident in the narrative and another. We are to see the progress from event to event, to see how one event causes or leads to another. In Brecht’s plays, we are to see also how this progression of events is caused by conditions external to the characters, how those characters are at the mercy of the relentless logic of universal socio-economic-historical law. All the devices of Brecht’s much eulogized but little analyzed ‘‘Epic theatre’’ are aimed at making the audience see more clearly the relation of events both to each other and to the laws under which they take place. The alienation effect in acting, the rejection of suspense by announcing to the audience what is about to happen in a scene, the non-realistic scenic devices, are all calculated to take the audience’s mind away from individual character and to concentrate it upon the action or narrative itself.

That Mother Courage is to be regarded as a narrative play is clear from its subtitle: A Chronicle of the Thirty Years’ War. The action of the play is Mother courage’s fight for survival during that war. Survival, for Brecht, is the first instinct of the human race, and to assure that survival the first principle of all behavior. When other instincts run contrary to the instinct to survive, they will be sacrificed. Thus, Mother Courage, when faced with the loss of her children as the price of survival, has no choice in the matter. In the haggling scene, for instance, the price of Swiss Cheese’s life will be the selling of Mother Courage’s wagon, the means of her livelihood. She has no choice but to haggle until it is too late. Similarly, she has no choice but to deny recognition of her son anti leave him without ministration.

The same lack of choice is evident in the death of Kattrin. In order to provide for her livelihood Mother Courage must leave her daughter unwatched, where she can bring harm upon herself. Again, Mother Courage must deny her daughter any last ministrations in order to catch up with the marching soldiers from whom she gains her living.

In each major episode of the narrative, Mother Courage, to assure her economic survival, has to deny some good instinct that threatens by ramification that survival. The narrative of her struggle for survival thus becomes also the narrative of the loss of whatever goodness Mother Courage might once have had within her. Her mother love, a symbol Brecht uses repeatedly in his plays to stand for pure, instinctive, and uncomplicated goodness, must fi- nally be sacrificed to the need for survival. As the narrative goes on, Mother Courage is driven to increasingly desperate measures, and this desperation leaves her little time for her children. At each new point in the play, it becomes more inevitable that she will have to give up her motherhood in order to survive. At the end, she has lost all her children and all her instinctive goodness. She has left at this point only the basic animal need to survive. Leaving the body of her daughter behind her in the end, she leaves only a ‘‘little’’ of the great deal of money she has made in the town. Physically she is reduced from the human being riding on the wagon to the animal pulling it. From a human being with some instinctive goodness at the beginning of the play, she is reduced to an animal with the instinct only to survive. Another indication of the progressive dehumanization of Mother Courage is that each of the children represents some aspect of the goodness that is, at first, instinctive to Mother Courage. Eilif is courage, Swiss Cheese honesty, Kattrin unreasoning love. As each of the children is sacrificed to the need for survival Mother Courage loses the human aspect represented by that child. With the children gone, Mother Courage’s humanity is gone. She remains only with animal instinct.

The thought behind this action is that the condition of human society makes necessary the sacrifice of innate human goodness to the exigencies of economic subsistence in the world. In setting the play during the Thirty Years’ War, Brecht has chosen a time in which war is not exceptional but routine. Thus, metaphorically, he characterizes the routine life of capitalistic society as a life of constant warfare. In a society where trading and bargaining are necessary to survival, goodness does not have a chance. It even defeats itself. Mother Courage refuses to leave Kattrin for the Cook only to bring herself to the necessity of leaving Kattrin unprotected at the peasants’ farm. The greatest act of goodness Mother Courage tries to perform leads to the final deprivation of her humanity. In the action of Mother Courage’s fight for survival, we see the sacrifice of humanity which that fight requires. We see also that it is the constant warfare state of capitalist economy that makes these sacri- fices necessary.

As written, as a play of narrative exposing the social causes of Mother Courage’s inhumanity, this is anything but an inspiring and comforting affirmation of the human will to live. It is, instead, a condemnation of each of us who contributes to the society in which the requirement of such sacrifice becomes inevitable. Just as Mother Courage shares in her guilt by living according to the laws of that society, so we share in her guilt by assenting to those laws. Mother Courage as Brecht wrote it is not an easy play for Western audiences to take; the truth, someone once said, always hurts. But it is a much our critics, producers, and actors have been representing Brecht as having written.

Source: Ronald S. Woodland, ‘‘The Danger of Empathy in Mother Courage’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. XV, no. 2, September, 1972, pp. 125–29.

Brecht versus Broadway

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Brecht’s masterly chronicle of the Thirty Years War, Mother Courage and Her Children, is often interpreted as a straightforward pacifist document, but it is not simply that. It is also a relentless Marxist indictment of the economic motives behind international aggression. If property is theft in The Threepenny Opera, it is rape, pillage, and murder in Mother Courage—war, in short, is an extension not of diplomacy but of free enterprise. As for the financier, he is no longer a gangster, like Macheath. He is now a cynical warlord—like the Swedish King Gustavus, who pretends to be animated by religious zeal but who is actually seeking personal gain and territorial aggrandizement. In this atmosphere, where Protestants and Catholics slaughter each other for fun and profit, all human ideals degenerate into hypocritical cant, while heroism shatters into splinters of cruelty, madness, or greed. Brecht works these grim sardonic ironies, however, without bringing a single military adventurer center stage. Like the invisible bourgeoisie of Threepenny, the kings and commanders of Mother Courage remain in the background of the play, as well as in the rear of the battles. The external conflict is narrated, like newspaper headlines, in legends preceding each scene; but the dramatic action focuses on the lives of the war’s subordinates and noncombatants, playing local commerce. ‘‘The war is just the same as trading,’’ and ‘‘General Tilley’s victory at Leipzig’’ has significance only insofar as it ‘‘costs Mother Courage four shirts.’’

Mother Courage, to be sure, is a pathetic victim of this war—she sacrifices three children to it. She is not, however, simply a passive sufferer, she is also an active agent in her own destruction. Precariously suspended between her maternal and commercial instincts. Courage may curse the war as a mother, but as a businesswoman, she is identified with it. A ‘‘hyena of the battlefield,’’ she speculates on the lives of men. And since her canteen wagon is her only means of survival, she treats it as a fourth child, tied to her by a commercial umbilical—the three children of her flesh, significantly, are all taken off while she is haggling. Thus, Mother Courage is another of Brecht’s split characters, a compound of good and evil—but one which adds up to more than the sum of its parts. For Courage achieves a third dimension beyond her ideological function. Like Falstaff (her Shakespearean prototype), she is an escaped character who baffles the author’s original intentions. Salty, shrewd, hardbitten, and skeptical, Courage is a full-blooded personifi- cation of the anti-heroic view of life. In a moving lyric, ‘‘The Song of the Great Capitulation,’’ she traces her progress from a youthful Romantic idealist to a cautions compromiser, marching in time with the band, and, throughout the play, she remains faithful to the doctrine of number one. What she preaches is that the Ten Commandments are a mug’s game, and that virtues like bravery, honesty, and unselfishness will invariably bring you low—as indeed such virtues flatten foolhardy Eilif, simpleminded Swiss Cheese, and, finally, kindly Kattrin. Restraining her motherly feelings, Courage survives; yielding to hers, Kattrin dies. But in the world of the play, death and survival are equally dismal alternatives. At the end, childless and desolate, Courage straps herself to her battered wagon and continues to follow the soldiers, having learned nothing except that man’s capacity for suffering is limitless. But this knowledge is the tragic perception; and Brecht, for all his ideologizing, has recreated a tragic universe in which the cruelty of men, the venality of society, and the indifference of the gods seem immutable conditions of life.

The ideological structure, however, provides the intellectual spine of the drama; and I have stressed its importance because the current production is intellectually spineless. It is difficult to say why, since it is totally free from the usual Broadway hokum or cynicism. Eric Bentley’s idiomatic translation preserves the bite of the German, Paul Dessau’s score is sharp and wheedling, and Jerome Robbins’ direction proceeds, in all externals, with almost reverential fidelity to the text. Still, the only episode which works is the emotionally charged Drum Scene (virtually stage-proof anyway). The rest of the evening is too often static and labored, and the ironies very rarely register. Certainly, the affluent Broadway audience is partly to blame. Lacking either the wit or the inclination to respond to Marxist mockery, it has a Yahoo’s appetite only for blunt obscenities (a soldier’s ‘‘Kiss my ass,’’ for example, brought the opening night house down)—and no actor is going to press for unappreciated subtleties. Then, again, Mr. Robbins, for all his good intentions, is not enough of a director for a play of this scope, mounted in a four-week rehearsal period. Taking place on a clean bare stage, dressed only with Courage’s wagon and occasional set pieces, the action itself seems peculiarly clean and bare. One misses stage business, directorial detail, the bustle of life; the actors do not seem sufficiently at home with their props and costumes; and underneath the surface scruffiness, a hint of American wholesomeness still sneaks through. One of Robbins’ effective devices is to project, on a burlap cyclorama, photographs of twentieth-century soldiers and civilians in dusty retreat—but this merely emphasizes the play’s anti-war implications, which are already rather obvious.

Even this scheme could have been partially compatible with Brecht’s design; but the central role of Mother Courage is disastrously miscast. Ann Bancroft should probably be commended for undertaking a character beyond her years, training, and talents—but like the bravery of Courage’s son, Eilif, this often strikes one as mere foolhardiness. Miss Bancroft’s impersonation of age is particularly unconvincing, partly because of flat make-up and a form-fitting waist, partly because of her own inexperience. In order to overcome these handicaps, she has been forced into monotonous vocal intonations, which, along with her aphoristic inflections, account for much of the evening’s tedium. Beyond this, the part of Mother Courage demands intelligence and a capacity for being unpleasant; Miss Bancroft is an exclusively emotional actress who cannot resist playing for sympathy. Her best moments, apart from her rendering of the songs, come in climaxes of grief, and the final scene, where Courage painfully pulls at her wagon, her mouth agape like a wounded animal, is truly harrowing. For the balance of the play, however, Miss Bancroft has the sound and gestures of a tired Jewish housewife, with no more cutting edge than Molly Goldberg. Zohra Lampert, on the other hand, is expressive, lovely, and poignant as the mute Kattrin (though perhaps too spastic in her movements). And though Barbara Harris lapses into Second City vocal mannerisms as the whore Yvette, Mike Kellin and Gene Wilder contribute moments of crisp humor as the Cook and the Chaplain, and Eugene Roche and John Harkins are vigorous in lesser roles. I have harped on the failures of the production; but there are still sufficient virtues in it to make this an important theatrical occasion. A Brecht masterpiece has been produced with all the care, respect, and expertise that our professional theatre can muster. If this is still not quite enough, we must locate the inadequacy in the nature of the American theatre itself.

Source: Robert Brustein, ‘‘Brecht versus Broadway’’ in his Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions, 1959–1965 , Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 152–55.


Critical Overview