The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

(The entire section is 1039 words.)