Jenny Farrell writes about Bertolt Brecht's anti-war play "Mother Courage and Her Children", first performed in Germany 70 years ago. The play has retained its relevance as a warning against war.
Brecht began writing this work on the day the Nazi army occupied Warsaw. He had watched as fascism took hold of broad sections of the German populace, and Hitler’s fascists prepared for war.
Brecht chose the Thirty Years' War as the historical background for “Mother Courage”. His focus was on the victims of war: the ordinary soldiers, the farmers, cooks, recruiters, sergeants, field preachers, and the plebeians - those who will feed the cannons sooner or later.
Mother Courage is a small trader, who buys goods and sells them to the troops with whom she is travelling, while trying to ensure her patchwork family’s survival. At first she succeeds in doing so, through her wit and repartee, and through her realism and pragmatism - qualities that identify her as part of the lower classes. When she finally loses her children, one after another, it is invariably due to her profiteering, her last-minute deals, her false priorities. It is her business that leads to the death of her children.
The children’s qualities - fearlessness, honesty, naivety and willingness to help - contribute to their demise in this war. Mother Courage, who risks everything for her business - hence her name - tries to reconcile the irreconcilable. Her failure, at the end of a seemingly endless war, is predictable. And yet she herself draws no consequences. She learns nothing, even when she exclaims that war should be cursed. In the end, she harnesses herself to her cart, which becomes the play’s central symbol. Business must go on. That she thereby contributes to the continuation of war never enters her mind.
But there is a counterpart, her daughter, the mute Kattrin. Initially, she seems like a pitiable victim, but she observes her mother's actions, registers the disappearance of her brothers and draws her conclusions. In the end, when Catholic troops are about to attack and slaughter the sleeping population of Magdeburg, she wakens them by beating her drum. She opposes war and acts when she sees the opportunity. She could be called the true ‘Courage’. Her deed is a beacon against the acceptance of war as fate, suggesting the possibility of a society not determined by war and profit.
The Berlin premiere of “Mother Courage” performance took place on 11th January 1949. Looking back later, with the rise of the Cold War, and with the Korean War in progress, Brecht wrote: "A new war threatens. Nobody talks about it, everyone knows about it. The majority of people are not for war.”
In this play, Brecht put on stage his ideas of a theatre that would regain its social meaning by developing practicable models of human existence. He wanted his audiences to see the characters on stage no longer as incapable of change, and helplessly at the mercy of their fate. He wanted them to realise that people are determined by their circumstances. And that not only can people change, but so can the ways they relate to each other, and the world that they create for themselves.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.