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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] Four theatrical productions were produced in Switzerland and Germany from 1941 to 1952, the last three supervised and/or directed by Brecht, who had returned to East Germany from the United States.

Several years after Brecht's death in 1956, the play was adapted as a German film, Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1961), starring Helene Weigel, Brecht's widow and a leading actress.

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.[2] Critic Brett D. Johnson points out, "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."[3]



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 provisions for sale to soldiers, and introduces her children Eilif, Kattrin, and Schweizerkas ("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 and companions change their insignia from Protestant to Catholic. Swiss Cheese is captured and tortured by the Catholics, having hidden the paybox by the river. Mother Courage attempts bribery to free him, planning to pawn the wagon first and redeem it with the regiment money. When Swiss Cheese claims that he has thrown the box in the river, Mother Courage backtracks on the price, 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.

Mother Courage grows desperate to protect her business, so much so that she refuses to give fabric to treat wounded civilians. The Chaplain takes her supplies anyway.

When Catholic General Tilly's funeral approaches, the Chaplain tells Mother Courage that the war will still continue, and she is persuaded to pile up stocks. 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 a drunken soldier. Thereafter Mother Courage is again following the Protestant army.

While two peasants are trying to sell merchandise to her, they hear news of peace with the death of the Swedish king. The Cook appears and causes an argument between Mother Courage and the Chaplain. Mother Courage is off to the market while Eilif enters, dragged in by soldiers. Eilif is executed for killing a peasant while stealing livestock, trying to repeat the same act for which he was praised as hero in wartime, but Mother Courage never hears thereof. When she finds out the war continues, the Cook and Mother Courage move on with the wagon.

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 he refuses to harbour Kattrin because he fears that her disfigurement will repel potential customers. Thereafter Mother Courage and Kattrin pull the wagon by themselves.

When Mother Courage is trading in the Protestant city of Halle, Kattrin is left with a peasant family in the countryside overnight. As Catholic soldiers force the peasants to guide the army to the city for a sneak attack, Kattrin fetches a drum from the cart and beats it, waking the townspeople, but is herself shot. Early in the morning, Mother Courage sings a lullaby to her daughter's corpse, has the peasants bury it, and hitches herself to the cart.



Mother Courage is one of nine plays that Brecht wrote in resistance to 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 the preface to the Ralph Manheim/John Willett Collected Plays puts it:

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]

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, which involved all the German states, France and Sweden. 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, Schweizerkas, Eilif, and Kattrin, to the very war from which she tried to profit.



The name of the central character, Mother Courage, is drawn from the picaresque writings of the 17th-century German writer Grimmelshausen. His central character in the early short novel, The Runagate Courage,[6] also struggles and connives her way through the Thirty Years' War in Germany and Poland. 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, but do not provide time for viewers to develop sentimental feelings and empathize with any of the characters. Meanwhile, Mother Courage is not depicted as a noble character. The Brechtian epic theatre distinguished itself from the ancient Greek tragedies, in which the heroes are far above the average. Neither does Brecht's ending of his play inspire any desire to imitate the main character, Mother Courage.

Mother Courage is among Brecht's most famous plays. Some directors consider it to be the greatest play of the 20th century.[7] Brecht expresses the dreadfulness of war and the idea that virtues are not rewarded in corrupt times. He used an epic structure to force the audience to focus on the issues rather than getting involved with the characters and their emotions. Epic plays are a distinct genre typical of Brecht. Some critics believe that he created the form.[8]

As epic theatre


Mother Courage is an example of Brecht's concepts of epic theatre and Verfremdungseffekt, or "V" effect; preferably "alienation" 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. They also require the audience to think about what the playwright is saying.


  • Mother Courage (also known as "Canteen Anna")
  • Kattrin (Catherine), her mute daughter
  • Eilif, her older son
  • Schweizerkas ("Swiss Cheese", also mentioned as Feyos), her younger 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


Therese Giehse as Mother Courage by Günter Rittner

In German


The play was originally produced at the Schauspielhaus Zürich, produced by Leopold Lindtberg in 1941. Most of the score consisted of original compositions by the Swiss composer Paul Burkhard; the rest had been arranged by him. 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. Teo Otto designed the stage.[9][10]

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. Paul Dessau supplied a new score, composed in close collaboration with Brecht himself. 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.[11]

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, and with a set designed by Teo Otto (see photo, above.)[10]

In English


In other languages


In Spanish, the play was first staged in Argentina in 1953 at Teatro IFT in Buenos Aires, with Cipe Lincovsky in the title role.[31] In 1972, Henry Jayasena adapted the play into Sinhalese, under the title Diriya Mawa Saha Agey Daruwo (The Brave Mother and Her Children).[32]

Angelique Rockas as Yvette and Renu Setna as The Chaplain (1982)

Brecht's reaction


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.[33] However, according to Mayer, these alterations did not significantly change the audience's sympathy for Courage.[33] Katie Baker, in a retrospective article about Mother Courage on its 75th anniversary, notes that "[Brecht's audiences] were missing the point of his Verfremdungseffekt, that breaking of the fourth wall which was supposed to make the masses think, not feel, in order to nudge them in a revolutionary direction." She also quotes Brecht as lamenting: "The (East Berliner) audiences of 1949 did not see Mother Courage's crimes, her participation, her desire to share in the profits of the war business; they saw only her failure, her sufferings."[34]


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".[35]

Mother Courage was the inspiration for Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer winning play Ruined,[36] written after Nottage spent time with Congolese women in Ugandan refugee camps.[37]

English versions


See also



  1. ^ Brecht Chronik, Werner Hecht, editor. (Suhrkamp Verlag, 1998), p. 566.
  2. ^ Oskar Eustis, "Program Note" for the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Mother Courage and Her Children, starring Meryl Streep, August 2006.
  3. ^ Brett D. Johnson, "Review of Mother Courage and Her Children," Theatre Journal, Volume 59, Number 2, May 2007, pp. 281–282.
  4. ^ Klaus Volker. Brecht Chronicle. (Seabury Press, 1975). P. 92.
  5. ^ "Introduction", Bertolt Brecht: Collected Plays, vol. 5. (Vintage Books, 1972), p. xi
  6. ^ Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. "Die Lebensbeschreibung der Erzbetrügerin und Landstörzerin Courasche". gutenberg.spiegel.de.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Bertolt Brecht. Brecht on Theatre, Edited by John Willett. p. 121.
  9. ^ White, Alfred D. (1978), White, Alfred D. (ed.), "Mother Courage and her Children", Bertolt Brecht’s Great Plays, London: Macmillan Education UK, pp. 85–112, doi:10.1007/978-1-349-03278-5_5#chapter-info, ISBN 978-1-349-03278-5, retrieved 2024-07-15
  10. ^ a b Hasche, Christa (1999-06-22). "Through the Minefield of Ideologies: Brecht and the Staging of Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder". Modern Drama. 42 (2): 185–185.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Thomas, June (2006-05-10). "Joan Littlewood's Revelations". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 2024-07-15.
  13. ^ "'Mother Courage' at The Cleveland Play House". The Cleveland Memory Project. Retrieved 2024-07-16.
  14. ^ "Mother Courage and Her Children · British Universities Film & Video Council". bufvc.ac.uk. Retrieved 2024-07-15.
  15. ^ a b "Shout it from the Rooftops", Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, April 1961.
  16. ^ "Mother Courage and Her Children (1963 production)". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  17. ^ "Larry King Live – Interview With Gene Wilder." CNN.com – Transcripts. Retrieved on March 18, 2008
  18. ^ Robinson, Ian (2 July 1973). "An 'authentic' version of Mother Courage?". The National Times. Sydney: Fairfax Media.
  19. ^ Hischak, Thomas S. (2001). American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1969-2000. Oxford University Press p.170. ISBN 978-0-1953-5255-9.
  20. ^ "Mother Courage and Her Children". www.iobdb.com. Retrieved 2024-07-15.
  21. ^ "easydb.archive". archiv.adk.de.
  22. ^ Drama: The Quarterly Theatre Review, issues 139–154, p. 32, 1982 https://archive.org/details/screenshot20200102at6.25.03pm
  23. ^ "Mother Courage review by The Standard, Christopher Hudson" – via Internet Archive.
  24. ^ "Production of Mother Courage and her Children | Theatricalia". theatricalia.com. Retrieved 2024-07-15.
  25. ^ "Mother Courage on the long road to Manchester – in pictures". the Guardian. 2019-02-01. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2024-07-15.
  26. ^ Wolf, Matt (27 November 1995). "Review: 'Mother Courage and Her Children'". Variety. Retrieved 23 November 2016.
  27. ^ "Evening Standard theatre awards 1955-2002". Evening Standard. 12 November 2002.
  28. ^ Brantley, Ben (2006-08-22). "Mother, Courage, Grief and Song". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2024-07-15.
  29. ^ Billington, Michael (2009-09-27). "Mother Courage and Her Children". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2024-07-15.
  30. ^ "Aboriginal viewpoint gives two classic plays an intense colour" by Bridget Cormack, The Australian, 18 May 2013
    Mother Courage & Her Children Archived 2014-11-04 at the Wayback Machine, production details, Playhouse, QPAC, May/June 2013
  31. ^ Cruz, Alejandro (2015-09-01). "Cipe Lincovsky: la actriz que marcó una época". LA NACION (in Spanish). Retrieved 2024-07-19.
  32. ^ Kumar Ediriweera, Padma (2010-01-13). "Artscope | Online edition of Daily News - Lakehouse Newspapers". archives.dailynews.lk. Retrieved 2024-07-19.
  33. ^ a b Coe, Tony; Bessel, Richard; Willett, Amanda (1989). Brecht on stage (Television documentary). BBC Two and Open University.
  34. ^ Baker, Katie (10 September 2014). "Brecht's Mercenary Mother Courage Turns 75". The Daily Beast – via www.thedailybeast.com.
  35. ^ Downing, John D. H. (2011). "Feminist Media, 1960–1990 (Germany)". Encyclopedia of Social Movement Media. SAGE Publications. pp. 188–190. ISBN 9780761926887.
  36. ^ Iqbal, Nosheen (20 April 2010). "Lynn Nottage: a bar, a brothel and Brecht". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 April 2010.
  37. ^ McGee, Celia (17 May 2018). "Lynn Nottage's 'Ruined' Adapts Brecht's 'Mother Courage and Her Children'". The New York Times.
  38. ^ Merry, Stephanie (30 January 2014). "The many moving parts of Mother Courage". The Washington Post. Retrieved 3 February 2014.

Sources consulted (English versions list)


Media related to Mother Courage and Her Children at Wikimedia Commons