Mother Courage and Her Children

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Manfred Wekwerth and Gisela May during rehearsals of Mother Courage and Her Children (1978)

Mother Courage and Her Children (German: Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder) is a play written in 1939 by the German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) with significant contributions from Margarete Steffin.[1] After four very important theatrical productions in Switzerland and Germany from 1941 to 1952—the last three supervised and/or directed by Brecht—the play was filmed several years after Brecht's death in 1959/1960 with Brecht's widow and leading actress, Helene Weigel.[2]

Mother Courage is considered by some to be the greatest play of the 20th century, and perhaps also the greatest anti-war play of all time.[3]

Context[edit]

Mother Courage is one of nine plays that Brecht wrote in an attempt to counter the rise of Fascism and Nazism. In response to the invasion of Poland by the German armies of Adolf Hitler in 1939, Brecht wrote Mother Courage in what writers call a "white heat"—in a little over a month.[4] As leading Brecht scholars Ralph Manheim and John Willett wrote:

Mother Courage, with its theme of the devastating effects of a European war and the blindness of anyone hoping to profit by it, is said to have been written in a month; judging by the almost complete absence of drafts or any other evidence of preliminary studies, it must have been an exceptionally direct piece of inspiration.[5]

"Brecht's genius was to mix humor in the great tragedies – not always, but as a contrast."

Therese Giehse, 1968.[6]

Following Brecht's own principles for political drama, the play is not set in modern times but during the Thirty Years' War of 1618–1648. It follows the fortunes of Anna Fierling, nicknamed "Mother Courage", a wily canteen woman with the Swedish Army who is determined to make her living from the war. Over the course of the play, she loses all three of her children, Swiss Cheese, Eilif, and Kattrin, to the same war from which she sought to profit.

Overview[edit]

Stamp commemorating the Berliner Ensemble production

The name of the central character, Mother Courage, is drawn from the picaresque writings of the 17th-century German writer Grimmelshausen, whose central character in the early short novel, The Runagate Courage,[7] also struggles and connives her way through the Thirty Years' War in Germany and Poland, but otherwise the story is mostly Brecht's, in collaboration with Steffin.

The action of the play takes place over the course of 12 years (1624 to 1636), represented in 12 scenes. Some give a sense of Courage's career without being given enough time to develop sentimental feelings and empathize with any of the characters. Meanwhile, Mother Courage is not depicted as a noble character – here the Brechtian epic theatre sets itself apart from the ancient Greek tragedies in which the heroes are far above the average. With the same alienating effect, the ending of Brecht's play does not arouse our desire to imitate the main character, Mother Courage.

Mother Courage is among Brecht's most famous plays, and has been considered by some to be the greatest play of the 20th century.[8] His work attempts to show the dreadfulness of war and the idea that virtues are not rewarded in corrupt times. He used an epic structure so that the audience focuses on the issues being displayed rather than getting involved with the characters and emotions. Epic plays are of a very distinct genre and are typical of Brecht; a strong case could be made that he invented the form.[9]

Mother Courage as Epic Theatre[edit]

Mother Courage is an example of Brecht's concepts of Epic Theatre and Verfremdungseffekt or "estrangement effect". Verfremdungseffekt is achieved through the use of placards which reveal the events of each scene, juxtaposition, actors changing characters and costume on stage, the use of narration, simple props and scenery. For instance, a single tree would be used to convey a whole forest, and the stage is usually flooded with bright white light whether it's a winter's night or a summer's day. Several songs, interspersed throughout the play, are used to underscore the themes of the play, while making the audience think about what the playwright is saying.

Roles[edit]

  • Mother Courage (also known as "Canteen Anna")
  • Kattrin (Catherine), her mute daughter
  • Eilif, her oldest son
  • Swiss Cheese (also mentioned as Feyos), her youngest son
  • Recruiting Officer
  • Sergeant
  • Cook
  • Swedish Commander
  • Chaplain
  • Ordinance Officer
  • Yvette Pottier
  • Man with the Bandage
  • Another Sergeant
  • Old Colonel
  • Clerk
  • Young Soldier
  • Older Soldier
  • Peasant
  • Peasant Woman
  • Young Man
  • Old Woman
  • Another Peasant
  • Another Peasant Woman
  • Young Peasant
  • Lieutenant
  • Voice

Synopsis[edit]

The play is set in the 17th century in Europe during the Thirty Years' War. The Recruiting Officer and Sergeant are introduced, both complaining about the difficulty of recruiting soldiers to the war. Anna Fierling (Mother Courage) enters pulling a cart containing food and liquor sold to soldiers, and introduces Eilif, Kattrin, and Swiss Cheese. The sergeant negotiates a deal with Mother Courage while Eilif is conscripted by the Recruiting Officer.

Two years thereafter, Mother Courage argues with a Protestant General's cook over a capon, and Eilif is congratulated by the General for killing peasants and slaughtering their cattle. Eilif and his mother sing "The Fishwife and the Soldier". Mother Courage scolds her son for endangering himself.

Three years later, Swiss Cheese works as an army paymaster. The camp prostitute, Yvette Pottier, sings "The Fraternization Song". Mother Courage uses this song to warn Kattrin against involving herself with soldiers. Before the Catholic troops arrive, the Cook and Chaplain bring a message from Eilif. Swiss Cheese hides the regiment's paybox from invading soldiers, and Mother Courage & Co. change their insignia from Protestant to Catholic. Swiss Cheese is captured by the Catholics while attempting to return the paybox to his General. Mother Courage attempts barter with the soldiers to free him; but takes too long trying to negotiate, and Swiss Cheese is killed. Fearing to be shot as an accomplice, Mother Courage does not acknowledge his body, and it is discarded.

Later, Mother Courage waits outside the General's tent to register a complaint and sings the "Song of Great Capitulation" to a young soldier anxious to complain of inadequate pay. The song persuades both to withdraw their complaints.

When Catholic General Tilly's funeral approaches, Mother Courage discusses with the Chaplain about whether the war will continue. The Chaplain then suggests to Mother Courage that she marry him, but she rejects his proposal. Mother Courage curses the war because she finds Kattrin disfigured after being raped by the clerk. Thereafter Mother Courage is again following the Protestant army.

Two peasants try to sell merchandise to her when they find out that peace has begun. The Cook appears and creates an argument between Mother Courage and the Chaplain. Mother Courage departs for the town while Eilif enters, dragged in by soldiers. Eilif is executed for killing peasants, but Mother Courage never hears thereof. When the war begins again, the Cook and Mother Courage start their own business.

In the seventeenth year of the war, there is no food and no supplies. The Cook inherits an inn in Utrecht and suggests to Mother Courage that she operate it with him, but refuses to harbour Kattrin. Thereafter Mother Courage and Kattrin pull the wagon by themselves.

The Catholic army attacks the small Protestant town of Halle while Mother Courage is away from town. Kattrin is woken by a search party, fetches a drum from the cart and beats it to waken the townspeople, but is herself shot. Early in the morning, Mother Courage sings to her daughter's corpse, has the peasants bury it, and hitches herself to the cart.

Performances[edit]

Therese Giehse as Mother Courage by Günter Rittner

The play was originally produced at the Schauspielhaus Zürich, produced by Leopold Lindtberg in 1941. Music was written by Paul Dessau. The musicians were placed in view of the audience so that they could be seen, one of Brecht's many techniques in Epic Theatre. Therese Giehse, (a well-known actress at the time) took the title role.

The second production of Mother Courage took place in then East Berlin in 1949, with Brecht's (second) wife Helene Weigel, his main actress and later also director, as Mother Courage. This production would highly influence the formation of Brecht's company, the Berliner Ensemble, which would provide him a venue to direct many of his plays. Brecht died directing Galileo for the Ensemble. Brecht revised the play for this production in reaction to the reviews of the Zürich production, which empathized with the "heart-rending vitality of all maternal creatures." Even so, he wrote that the Berlin audience failed to see Mother Courage's crimes and participation in the war and focused on her suffering instead.[10]

The next production (and second production in Germany), was directed by Brecht at the Munich Kammerspiele in 1950, with the original Mother Courage, Therese Giehse, with a set designed by Theo Otto (see photo, above.)

In Spanish, it was premiered in 1954 in Buenos Aires with Alejandra Boero and in 1958 in Montevideo with China Zorrilla.[importance?]

In 1955, Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop gave the play its London première, with Littlewood performing the title role. In 1995/6, Diana Rigg was awarded an Evening Standard Theatre Award for her performance as Mother Courage, directed by Jonathan Kent, at the National Theatre.

In 1971 Joachim Tenschert directed a staging of Brecht's original Berliner Ensemble production for the Melbourne Theatre Company at the Princess Theatre.[11] Gloria Dawn played Mother Courage; Wendy Hughes, John Wood, Tony Llewellyn-Jones her children; Frank Thring the Chaplain; Frederick Parslow the cook; Jennifer Hagan played Yvette, and Peter Curtin.

In 1982, Renu Setna as the Chaplain, Joseph Long as the Soldier, Margaret Robertson as Mother Courage, Angelique Rockas as Yvette, appeared in the multi-racial Internationalist Theatre production directed by Peter Stevenson, London.[12][importance?]

From August to September 2006, Mother Courage and Her Children was produced by The Public Theater in New York City with a new translation by playwright Tony Kushner. This production included new music by composer Jeanine Tesori and was directed by George C. Wolfe. Meryl Streep played Mother Courage with a supporting cast that included Kevin Kline and Austin Pendleton. This production was free to the public and played to full houses at the Public Theater's Delacorte Theater in Central Park. It ran for four weeks.

This same Tony Kushner translation was performed in a new production at London's Royal National Theatre between September and December 2009, with Fiona Shaw in the title role, directed by Deborah Warner and with new songs performed live by Duke Special.

Brecht's reaction[edit]

After the 1941 performances in Switzerland, Brecht believed critics had misunderstood the play. While many sympathized with Courage, Brecht's goal was to show that Mother Courage was wrong for not understanding the circumstances she and her children were in. According to Hans Mayer, Brecht changed the play for the 1949 performances in East Berlin to make Courage less sympathetic to the audience.[13] However, according to Mayer, these alterations did not significantly change the audience's sympathy for Courage.[13]

Popular culture[edit]

The German feminist newspaper Courage, published from 1976 to 1984, was named after Mother Courage, whom the editors saw as a "self-directed woman ... not a starry-eyed idealist but neither is she satisfied with the status quo".[14]

In the Tony Award-winning musical Urinetown, the character of Penelope Pennywise is roughly based on Mother Courage.

The rock band My Chemical Romance created the character Mother War for their third album The Black Parade. Mother War's song, "Mama", is influenced by themes from Mother Courage and Her Children, including the effect of war on personal morals.

Mother Courage has been compared to the popular musical, Fiddler on the Roof. As Matthew Gurewitsch wrote in The New York Sun, "Deep down, Mother Courage has a lot in common with Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof. Like him, she's a mother hen helpless to protect the brood."[15]

Mother Courage was the inspiration for Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer winning play Ruined.[16]

English versions[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Sources consulted (English versions list)

Endnotes

  1. ^ Brecht Chronik, Werner Hecht, editor. (Suhrkamp Verlag, 1998), p. 566.
  2. ^ Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder. (DEFA-Film 1959/60), after the production by Bertolt Brecht and Erich Engel at the Berliner Ensemble, with Helene Weigel, Angelika Hurwicz, Ekkehard Schall, Heinz Schubert, Ernst Busch; directed by Peter Palitzsch and Manfred Wekwerth; with music by Paul Dessau.
  3. ^ Oskar Eustis, Program Note for the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Mother Courage and Her Children with Meryl Streep, August, 2006. See also Brett D. Johnson, "Review of Mother Courage and Her Children". Theatre Journal, Volume 59, Number 2, May 2007, pp. 281–282, in which Johnson writes: "Although numerous theatrical artists and scholars may share artistic director Oskar Eustis's opinion that Brecht's masterpiece is the greatest play of the twentieth century, productions of Mother Courage remain a rarity in contemporary American theatre."
  4. ^ Klaus Volker. Brecht Chronicle. (Seabury Press, 1975). P. 92.
  5. ^ "Introduction," Bertolt Brecht: Collected Plays, vol. 5. (Vintage Books, 1972) p. xi
  6. ^ Therese Giehse interview with W. Stuart McDowell, 1968, in "Acting Brecht: The Munich Years," The Brecht Sourcebook, Carol Martin, Henry Bial, editors (Routledge, 2000) p. 71.
  7. ^ Online text (German original).
  8. ^ Oscar Eustis (Artistic Director of the New York Shakespeare Festival), Program Note for N.Y.S.F. production of Mother Courage and Her Children with Meryl Streep, August, 2006.
  9. ^ Bertolt Brecht. "Brecht on Theatre", Edited by John Willett. p. 121.
  10. ^ For information in English on the revisions to the play, see John Willet and Ralph Manheim, eds. Brecht, Collected Plays: Five (Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children), Metheuen, 1980: 271, 324–5.
  11. ^ Robinson, Ian (2 July 1973). "An 'authentic' version of Mother Courage?". National Times (Sydney: Fairfax Media). 
  12. ^ Christoher Hudson from the Evening Standard: "3 hours of Brecht – underground – the play well served by Peter Stevenson's attention to the text"
  13. ^ a b Coe, Tony; Bessel, Richard; Willett, Amanda (1989). Brecht on stage (Television documentary). BBC Two and Open University. 
  14. ^ Downing, John D. H. (2011). "Feminist Media, 1960–1990 (Germany)". Encyclopedia of Social Movement Media. Sage Publications. pp. 188–190. ISBN 9780761926887. 
  15. ^ Matthew Gurewitsch. The New York Sun, August 22, 2006.
  16. ^ Iqbal, Nosheen (20 April 2010). "Lynn Nottage: a bar, a brothel and Brecht". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 April 2010. 
  17. ^ Merry, Stephanie (30 January 2014). "The many moving parts of ‘Mother Courage’". The Washington Post. Retrieved 3 February 2014. 

External links[edit]

Media related to Mother Courage and Her Children at Wikimedia Commons