Mother Courage and Her Children

by Bertolt Brecht

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The Play

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Like the Thirty Years’ War in which it is set, Mother Courage and Her Children ranges over several decades of the seventeenth century and over much of Northern and Central Europe. The opening of the play finds Mother Courage and her three children near a mobilization center for the Swedish army. It is 1624, a half-dozen years into the interminable war between Protestants and Catholics, and Sweden is gathering its forces for an invasion of Poland. Army recruiters are scouring the countryside for fresh recruits. They do not have to look far to find Mother Courage and her two draft-age sons, for she makes her living by following armies with her canteen (wagon, a sort of general store on wheels).

The play opens with the recruiter bemoaning the difficulty of finding willing recruits; his pessimism is countered by the sergeant (most minor characters in the play are unnamed), who insists that Europe needs a war to improve order and morality. They soon encounter Mother Courage, who identifies herself as a “business person” and sings a song extolling the virtues of her canteen. The recruiter is more interested in her older son, Eilif, but Mother Courage objects bitterly to his joining the army. Whether her objections stem from a mother’s love for her son or a businesswoman’s need of an extra hand is not entirely clear at this point in the play. At the end of the scene, while Mother Courage is distracted by her business duties (selling liquor to the sergeant), the recruiter makes off with Eilif.

Scene 2 finds Mother Courage and Kattrin (her younger son, Swiss Cheese, has by now been recruited as a paymaster) still following the Swedish army, but it is two years later, in Poland. Mother Courage’s success at extorting an exorbitant price from the cook for a scrawny chicken shows that she is prospering quite handsomely from the war. Her good fortune continues when the soldier she overhears being praised for bravery turns out to be Eilif. Eilif’s heroic deed consists of slaughtering a number of peasants who objected to his appropriating their cattle for the army. The general high spirits suffusing this scene are undercut somewhat by a song that Eilif sings (later joined in by Mother Courage) warning young men not to go off to war.

As scene 3 opens, it is three years later, and the war is going badly for the Protestants. As the cook and chaplain drink Mother Courage’s brandy and debate the merits of the war, the Catholics attack, and they find themselves cut off from their fellow soldiers. Should they hide out with Mother Courage or attempt to fight their way back to their unit? The question is even more urgent for Mother Courage’s son, Swiss Cheese, who has in his possession the company payroll. He is arrested soon after hiding the payroll and faces execution unless his mother can ransom him. This she might accomplish if she can only convince herself to sell her wagon. The hour of his execution approaches as Mother Courage haggles with a prospective buyer over the purchase price. At the end of the scene, she is still bargaining as a distant drum roll announces her son’s execution.

The brief scene 4 transpires at some indeterminate point in the future, probably in Germany. Mother Courage stands before an officer’s clerk complaining of unjust treatment at the army’s hands. A young soldier is also there, bitterly complaining that he has received no award for an act of bravery. Mother Courage advises him to give up on the issue—not because he is wrong, but...

(This entire section contains 1039 words.)

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because being right means nothing and will only get him in trouble. The scene concludes with her singing the “Song of the Great Capitulation”—an attack on ambition, courage, hope—at the end of which, not only has the soldier decided to drop his complaint, but so also has Mother Courage.

Scenes 5, 6, and 7 continue the deepening sense of doom and futility that was initiated by the “Song of the Great Capitulation.” Years pass, one indistinguishable from the other; the armies pass through one country after another, each virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor; and defeats and victories mean nothing in a war that is apparently without end. Mother Courage is to be found, as always, on her wagon, trailing the army.

A change seems to be forthcoming in scene 8. Gustavus Adolphus, the King of Sweden, is killed in battle, and peace seems imminent. Mother Courage is not at all happy at the prospect of peace, though. How will she make a living if there are no more armies to follow? At this point Mother Courage’s elder son, Eilif, appears in fetters, guarded by soldiers. He has been arrested for breaking into a farm and killing a peasant woman—just what he has been doing all along, Eilif points out, but what was bravery in war is a crime in times of peace. At the end of the scene, Eilif is led away to his execution.

By scene 9, even Mother Courage appears tired of the war. When the cook asks her to leave with him and help him run his inn, she accepts—that is, until she finds that her handicapped daughter, Kattrin, is not part of the bargain. Finally, she refuses, and she and Kattrin harness themselves to the wagon and begin once more to pull it in the wake of the increasingly bedraggled army—country after country, year after year, scene after scene.

The tragic conclusion comes in scene 11, outside the German city of Halle, which Catholic troops are preparing to attack. Mother Courage has taken advantage of the situation by going into the city to buy up possessions of the fleeing inhabitants—at a dirt-cheap price, of course. She has left her daughter to tend the wagon. Kattrin overhears the Catholic troops planning a surprise attack on the city and, in an effort to warn the inhabitants, climbs up on a roof and begins wildly beating a drum. (She cannot speak.) She is gunned down by the soldiers.

In the very brief last scene, Mother Courage buries Kattrin and then starts off once more behind the army, pulling the wagon alone.

Dramatic Devices

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Mother Courage and Her Children is the simplest of great plays to understand because the singlemindedness with which the author presents his theme of the horror of war/capitalism is aided by his technical innovations. “Epic theater” is the label that Brecht gave to his drama, a label derived from Brecht’s belief that modern drama should abandon the traditional Aristotelean model and aspire instead to the condition of epic poetry—at least in some regards.

Brecht’s epic theater deliberately distances the audience from the action, just as does epic poetry, with its narrator interposed between audience and story. Brecht achieves this distancing through what he calls “alienation effects” (Verfremdung, or “V-effects”). The first and most obvious alienation effect in Mother Courage and Her Children is the scenes’ headings, which correspond to the narrator of epic poetry. These headings (projected onto a screen in the preferred method) not only tell the audience the time and locale of the scene but also summarize the action and often “give away” dramatic occurrences, which more traditional playwrights would prefer to hold in suspense. If a member of the audience is told that Eilif is to die in the scene, for example, he will not, theoretically, become as emotionally involved in the drama of Eilif’s fate and will instead contemplate the meaning of that fate.

Other alienation effects abound in the play. The large number of scenes does not preclude but does inhibit the building of emotional involvement, especially since many of the scenes are very brief (scene 10, not counting stage directions and the heading, is fourteen lines long). Much the same is true of the large number of characters (twenty-seven are listed), most of whom appear only briefly and, even in the case of major characters, often disappear for scenes (and years) at a time. Only Mother Courage appears in every scene. Moreover, most of the potentially emotional scenes (the executions of Swiss Cheese and Eilif, for example) take place offstage; after the emotion-producing action is concluded, Brecht rarely lets the scenes go on to show the effect on loved ones. Rather, the scene ends, and the next begins, often years later in another country, with no mention made of the previous scene.

Equally important for both the alienation effect and the entertainment value of the play are the songs and humor. The humor is more of the “black” than the traditional variety—that is, it increases rather than releases tension—and thus is in keeping with the tragic theme of the play. The frequent songs carry some of the weightiest thematic statements (the “Song of the Great Capitulation,” for example) while perforce deflating whatever illusion of reality (and emotional identification) might be building. Altogether, then, Brecht’s epic theater is an ideal vehicle for his passionately held convictions concerning war and capitalism.

Places Discussed

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*Sweden *Germany, and *Poland. European countries in which the play is ostensibly set during the Thirty Years’ War of the early seventeenth century. Settings for the play are accomplished via legends displayed or projected for the audience to read, along with small or suggestive bits of scenery or stage properties. The play, with the exception of Mother Courage’s canteen wagon, could easily be performed without any scenery or setting. Brecht’s time frame also creates anachronisms, as he makes no concession to the diction or costuming of the seventeenth century. The play’s apparently modern characters are vital if the audience is to understand that the drama is not actually about the Thirty Years’ War, but about wars in general. The play is universal and timeless in its appeal.

Known for his creation of Epic Theatre, Brecht seeks to alienate his audience by his use of the V effect, thereby destroying the illusion of reality. It is necessary that the audience always remember that they are viewing a performance so that the play’s message can get through to them. If the audience is alienated, it is objective; therefore, the working components of the stage must always show through to the audience, and the appearance of reality must be avoided. Throughout the twelve brief scenes of the play, even though the locales may change, the emphasis is never on the place but rather on the characters and their actions.

Historical Context

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The years just before and at the outbreak of World War II were tense and uncertain ones for much of Europe. Adolf Hitler the leader of the National Socialist (also known as Nazi) party, became dictator of Germany in 1933. Hitler secretly armed Germany in violation of the Versailles Treaty which ended World War I and allied himself with Italy and Japan. In 1938, Germany occupied Austria and annexed most of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Hitler continued to invade and occupy many nations in Europe in 1940, adding Denmark, a number of Norwegian port cities, The Netherlands, Belgium, and much of France to his empire. Though Great Britain stopped Hitler’s planned invasion across the British Channel in 1940, the dictator continued his march across Europe. Great Britain and other countries tried to fight back, but it was not until the United States was drawn in to the war by Japan’s bombing of Peal Harbor at the end of 1941, that their efforts had success. World War II did not end in Europe until 1945.

Though Mother Courage and Her Children is set during the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century, Brecht draws several parallels between that war and the events that were unfolding in Europe as he wrote the play. Uncertainty was a way of life in both eras. Men of all ages were conscripted to fight in the war. In 1930s Germany, every man between the ages of nineteen and forty-five were deemed fit for military service, amounting to more than eight million people in the army alone.

Just as Mother Courage looks to the Thirty Years’ War as a business arena, so too was World War II a commercial enterprise. The United States, as well as Germany and other European countries, converted almost all their national infrastructure to service the war; industry became focused on turning out war goods at ever-increasing rates. In the United States, the federal government spent $370 billion on World War II. Even before the U.S. entered the war, however, the American economy geared up to produce goods for war-torn Europe. This boom in production fostered a new age of industrial technology in the U.S. and would pave the way for the prosperity of the postwar years. Despite the frenzied production, which in the United States meant around the clock shifts in factories, there were shortages of consumer items all around the world. This was partially due to the scarcity of some raw materials, again because of the war. In occupied countries, shortages were the most acute. Small-time entrepreneurs such as Mother Courage were able to supply in-demand items and carve a profitable niche for themselves.

Individuals in every country, directly involved or not, suffered during World War II and not just because of the wartime economic realities. In Germany, Hitler and his Nazi party held a tight ideological grip on the populace. In addition to their anti-Semitic policies, the Nazis did not allow freedom of the press or other forms of free expression. People who did not agree with government ideology and expressed those beliefs were dealt with in a harsh manner; many were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. A great number of Jewish scientists and artists, as well as every-day citizens, fled the country if they were able. Though Brecht was not Jewish, he professed communist beliefs and was critical of the Nazi party. Many of his plays were banned. He escaped, his family fleeing Germany in 1936. He spent almost all of the next decade moving around Europe and the United States, avoiding the Nazi occupation. His story is typical of many people in wartime Germany. Such refugees usually had only one focus: survival, just like Mother Courage.

Literary Style

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Epic TheaterMother Courage and Her Children is a prime example of Brecht’s concept of Epic Theater. Instead of following a traditional Aristotelian model of theater, which calls for directly linked action and an emotional climax at the end of the play, Brecht constructs the play more like an epic poem. Each scene is only loosely linked, though there is something of a plot. The play also has an ambiguous, open ending; it is not clear where the remaining years of the war will take Mother Courage. Further, Brecht tries to distance the audience from the action of the play with what he calls alienation effects. He does this to limit the audience’s emotional involvement with the play and its characters. This distancing is performed in the hopes that the viewer can concentrate on the meaning of the action and its inherent social criticism.

These ideas take several forms in Mother Courage. Before each scene, a summary of the events to come are projected to the audience. Thus, they know what will happen and can focus on the meaning of the action. Most every action that could provoke an emotional response—the execution of Swiss Cheese, for example—is not shown onstage, and its emotional aftermath—the grieving—is never shown. Such choices direct the audience’s attention to Brecht’s intellectual antiwar message. There are also songs that emphasize the themes of the play while undercutting its reality by interrupting the action. Black comedic elements, especially in the dialogue of Mother Courage, add to the dramatic tension, being intellectual rather than emotional in nature.

SettingMother Courage and Her Children is an antiwar drama set in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, specifically covering the years 1624-1636. The action takes place in a number of locales in Europe, including (in order) Darlana, Poland, Bavaria, Fichtelgebirge, central Germany, and Halle. Almost every scene is set in the outdoors, on roads and highways, next to camps or peasants’ farms, or inside tents. This represents the constant change and flux of a wartime environment. The settings illustrate the impermanence in Mother Courage’s life. There are only two constants in each scene of the play: Mother Courage and her canteen wagon, and these items are notable for their mobility; they are capable of moving quickly as the war progresses.

Foreshadowing Though Mother Courage and Her Children is a factually straightforward drama that, through Brecht’s alienation effects, informs the audience of forthcoming events, the playwright does employ some elements of foreshadowing to more subtly intimate future developments. One event in the first scene foreshadows the deaths of Mother Courage’s children as well as others. Mother Courage claims to have ‘‘second sight.’’ When the recruiters try to take Eilif away, she has them all draw lots. She tears up a piece of paper into four slips and draws a cross one of them. Everyone who draws, the three children as well as the Swedish sergeant, picks the piece of paper with the cross on it. The cross symbolizes that death is coming to these characters.

Irony Irony is defined as incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the expected result of those events. There is an underlying irony that drives the plot of Mother Courage. Mother Courage engages in her trade to support herself and her family in the unstable economy of war. The expectation is that she will earn enough for her family’s survival. But this very enterprise—and Mother Courage’s all-consuming focus on it—contributes to the death of her three children. Mother Courage focuses on preventing Eilif’s recruitment by two Swedish soldiers until an opportunity for a sale presents itself. She haggles over the amount she should pay for Swiss Cheese’s ransom to prevent his execution. Though she wants to save her son, she does not want to compromise her finances. Mother Courage is in a village trying to buy up low-priced goods from scared citizens when Kattrin is gunned down by Catholic soldiers preparing to make a surprise attack. Though this last death might not have been preventable by Mother Courage, her absence ensures no intercession on her child’s behalf. It is ironic that Mother Courage’s goal is the survival of her family but the means for that survival becomes the instrument of the children’s demise.

Compare and Contrast

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1600s: The Thirty Years’ War rages in Europe from 1618 to 1648.

1930s-40s: World War II ravages Europe and the Pacific from 1939-45.

Today: There is no widespread warfare in the world. Global or continent-wide wars have given way to small pockets of geographically contained conflict such as the Persian Gulf War of the early-1990s.

1600s: The Thirty Years’ War begins as a con- flict of religious ideology, Catholic versus Protestant.

1930s-40s: World War II is a tactical war fought for geographic gain. A religious element still persists, however, in Nazi Germany’s persecution of European Jews as well as other ethnic minorities who do not fit Adolf Hitler’s Aryan ideal.

Today: Religion plays a role in several regional conflicts in the world. In Northern Ireland, it is Catholic versus Protestant; in the Middle East it is Jewish versus Muslim.

1600s: Because the Thirty Years’ War drags on for so many years, armies have a difficult time replenishing their fighting forces.

1930s-40s: Germany has mandatory military service for men aged eighteen to forty-five. The United States has a similar policy.

Today: The United States has an all-volunteer army and has a hard time recruiting enough personnel. However, eighteen-year-old men are required to register for the draft in the event of a war.

1600s: The population of Europe, especially in Germany, becomes severely depleted because of the long war and unchecked disease. For example, in the Wuttemberg, the population drops from 450,000 in 1634, to 100,000 in 1638.

1930s-40s: World War II leads to widespread death of both civilian and military personnel, though not nearly as bad as the Thirty Years’ World. Still, as a result of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, 50,000 people immediately die.

Today: The peacetime population booms. Diseases such as AIDS, cancer, and other health concerns are th primary causes of death.

Media Adaptations

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Mother Courage and Her Children was filmed in 1960, featuring much of the cast of the 1949 German stage production, including Helene Weigel as Mother Courage. It was directed by Peter Palitzsch and Manfred Wekwerth.

The play was also adapted into a television production by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1959.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Bentley, Eric. ‘‘A Traveler’s Report . . .’’ in Theatre Arts, June, 1949, pp. 26-30, 94.

Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children in Bertolt Brecht: Plays, Volume II, translated by Eric Bentley, Methuen, 1955, pp. 1-81.

Brustein, Robert. ‘‘Bertolt Brecht’’ in his The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama, Little, Brown, 1964, pp. 229-78.

Gray, Ronald. Brecht: The Dramatist, Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Lyons, Charles R. ‘‘Mother Courage: Instinctive Compassion and ’The Great Capitulation’’’ in his Berltolt Brecht: The Despair and the Polemic, Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 89-109.

Schoeps, Karl H. World Dramatists: Bertolt Brecht, Frederick Ungar, 1977.

Wittner, Victor. ‘‘Premieres in Zurich’’ in Theatre Arts, April, 1942, pp. 250-52.

Further Reading Bentley, Eric. ‘‘Bertolt Brecht and His Work’’ in Theatre Arts, September 1944, p. 509-12. This journal article gives an overview of Brecht’s career and writing through 1944.

Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, translated by John Willet, Methuen, 1963. This nonfiction book discusses Brecht’s theories of writing and theater, including epic theater.

Demetz, Peter, editor. Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, 1972. This includes a number of essays on many aspects of Brecht’s work, including one solely concerned with Mother Courage and Her Children.

Ewen, Frederic. Bertolt Brecht: His Life, His Art, and His Times, Citadel, 1967. This biography concerns Brecht’s life as well as the context in which his work was written.

Speirs, Ronald. Bertolt Brecht, St. Martin’s, 1987. This work discusses all of Brecht’s works, including an in-depth analysis of Mother Courage and Her Children.


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Demetz, Peter, ed. Brecht. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Essay on Mother Courage and Her Children focuses on the “Song of the Great Capitulation,” Brecht’s Marxism and pessimism, and epic theater.

Esslin, Martin. Brecht: The Man and His Work. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960. Critical study of Brecht, including biography, poetry, the theory and practice of Brechtian theater, and Brecht’s relationship to the Communists.

Fuegi, John. Bertolt Brecht: Chaos, According to Plan. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Discusses the theater of Brecht’s time and how he changed it. Section on Mother Courage and Her Children focuses on the 1949 Berlin production and how Brecht’s staging reinforced meaning.

Lyon, Charles R. Bertolt Brecht: The Despair and the Polemic. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. A close reading of seven major Brecht plays, including Mother Courage and Her Children.

Speirs, Ronald. Bertolt Brecht. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. An introduction to Brecht’s works, focusing on the balance between the intellect and the emotional response produced by the plays. In-depth analysis of Mother Courage and Her Children and four of Brecht’s other plays.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide