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Mother Courage and Her Children


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A: Bertolt Brecht (with Margarete Steffin) Pf: 1941, Zurich Pb: 1949; rev. 1950 Tr: 1941 G: Pol. drama in 12 scenes; German prose with songs S: Sweden, Poland, and Germany, 1624–36 C: 19m, 6f, extrasAnna Fierling (‘Mother Courage’) follows the Swedish armies in the Thirty Years War with her mobile canteen, accompanied by her children from three different fathers, Eilif, Swiss Cheese, and the mute Kattrin. Although Courage depends on war for her livelihood, she tries to keep her children out of it. However, one by one they are taken by the conflict. Eilif becomes a soldier and is decorated for risking his life appropriating some peasants' cattle. Later, in a brief lull of peace, he repeats the same exploit and is shot for looting. Swiss Cheese tries to save the regimental cash box when captured by the enemy, and faces execution. Yvette, a tarty camp-follower, has seduced an ancient colonel, and offers to buy Swiss Cheese's freedom in exchange for Mother Courage's canteen. Mother Courage haggles so long over the price that Swiss Cheese is shot before a deal can be struck. Soldiers bring in his corpse, but the grieving mother must pretend not to know him in order to save herself and Kattrin. Kattrin, already made dumb by a soldier's brutality when still a child, is attacked by soldiers and her face scarred. A Cook, who has been wooing Courage, to the annoyance of a cowardly Protestant Chaplain, now joins her on her march. He offers to marry her and settle down, but Courage refuses when it becomes clear that he will not take Kattrin with them. While Courage is in Halle buying fresh supplies, Kattrin learns of a surprise night attack on the town planned by Catholic troops. Horrified at the thought of the innocent townspeople who will die in the onslaught, Kattrin ‘finds her voice’ by bravely drumming a loud warning. The soldiers shoot her to silence her, and Courage arrives back to find herself quite alone. She pays for Kattrin's burial, hitches herself to her cart, and trudges off after the departing troops.

A: Bertolt Brecht (with Margarete Steffin) Pf: 1941, Zurich Pb: 1949; rev. 1950 Tr: 1941 G: Pol. drama in 12 scenes; German prose with songs S: Sweden, Poland, and Germany, 1624–36 C: 19m, 6f, extras

Initially inspired by concern at how neutral countries were profiteering from the war, Mother Courage, arguably Brecht's greatest play, contains a much wider message: that to depend on capitalism and the conflicts it engenders not only leads to disaster but to a coarsening of humanity. While it is essential that some empathy is generated by the action (it is impossible to remain unmoved by the bravery of the drumming Kattrin), there is also the danger that an audience can become uncritically involved in Mother Courage's progress, as happened at the New York premiere. Apart from the device of stating the content of each scene so as to focus attention on the process rather than the outcome, the use of songs, and the epic structure of ‘each scene standing for itself’, the play adopts a fairly realistic style. Only in the masterful playing of an actress like Helene Weigel, notably her famous ‘silent scream’ on hearing Swiss Cheese being shot, is the balance between empathy and critical evaluation maintained.

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Subjects: Literature.


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Authors

Bertolt Brecht (1898—1956) German dramatist, producer, and poet


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