When it was released in 1937, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children was heralded as one of the great anti-war plays of that still young century. But while martial and religious themes are certainly visible through the narrative, militarism and religious fervor are not the only things Brecht satirizes throughout the dozen acts. Written on the tail end of a global Great Depression, when life was only just beginning to look livable again, Brecht produced a drama which was meant to remind the people of the world what a nasty place it can be, particularly to the common man. He accomplished this through a narrative that was both classical and modern, one that both repulses and elicits sympathy from its audience. Unlike many plays produced as recently as the 19th century, the story does not revolve around royalty, the rich, or even everyday characters whom the audience can easily relate to. Instead it looks at a destitute family of camp followers clinging to life, who are forced to do gruesome and unethical deeds in order to survive in a world that does not care about them. As the story plays out, the titular Mother Courage and her children, friends, and travelling companions all make different decisions and go down different roads that ultimately lead to the same place. The real message behind Brecht’s tale, dubbed a piece of epic theatre, is not just that war is hell, but that it is a hellish world we live in that produces war. Through clever dialogue, distinct characterization, and a unique setting, Brecht attacks the capitalist society and rigid class system that regularly destroyed and continue to destroy so many lives. The dialogue of the play frequently addresses the issue of wealth and class through a series of sardonic quips, many of which are delivered in an ostensibly serious manner from either Mother Courage or various members of her entourage.
A good example of one of these comes in an exchange between some villagers and soldiers at the play’s end. The troops, members of the Catholic army, need a guide to take them to a nearby town, so they can set it on fire and kill everyone. When they find several local peasants and threaten them for information, the following exchange occurs:
“Young Peasant: I ain’t helping Catholics!… I won’t do it, not to save my life.
First Soldier: I know what’ll change his mind. Goes towards the stable. Two cows and an ox. Listen, you: if you’re not reasonable I’ll chop up your cattle.
Young Peasant: No, not that!
The Peasant’s Wife weeps: Please spare our cattle, captain, it’d be us starving to death,” (Brecht 76).
It may seem silly and counterintuitive at first, to see these villagers have such little regard for their own lives yet will do anything to protect livestock. But the implications of this exchange are much more sinister. The young peasant was willing to die for his beliefs, until he was threatened with hunger, which caused him to instantly comply. To truly fear something, especially something like hunger which we experience to a small degree frequently, we must, generally speaking, have experienced it before. Therefore, it is implied that this young man and his family are no strangers to starvation. They have endured squalor, and do not wish to do so again. Also take note of how quickly the ensign knows to attack the ox—he has done this before, squeezed information from reluctant sources by threatening to deprive them of meals. Has he ever gone through with this action? Did he learn it from another soldier, who also left the poor to starve? Who knows how many families clung to life, their fortunes resting solely on the shoulders of a cow, only to have this hope wrenched away by those the society of the time deemed more valuable? These soldiers, representative of a larger organization and society, display no regard for the poor who provide for them—a thinly veiled attack at a capitalist society that had kept its bankers and businessmen safe during an economic crash which had left so many out of work. There’s also something somehow more moving about dialogue bereft of furbelows and rhetorical flourishes. The characters do not speak in verse, nor do they even speak in grammatically correct sentences.
In contrast to Shakespeare, say, or Sophocles, where even drunks and tinkers usually had the presence of mind to construct elegant sentences in in iambic pentameter, here in the world of Mother Courage and her Children, that is not the case. Every land and nation Mother Courage and her lackluster cavalcade visit is peopled by the indigent, who have no recourse, no means of bettering themselves. Despite their coarseness and cruelty, the characters are far from dumb, and even in their stilted, modern vernacular, make salient points, though these occasionally hide beneath wise-cracks or run on sentences. Take for example Mother Courage telling the sergeant how she acquired her moniker. “Courage is the name they gave me because I was scared of going broke, sergeant, so I drove me cart right through the bombardment of Riga with fifty loaves of bread aboard. They were going mouldy, it was high time, hadn’t any choice really,” (Brecht 3). Though the protagonist is hailed as brave for her mad dash through treacherous territory, but there is no glory in hunger; Mother Courage was forced to brave cannon fire and the terror of battle just to get enough money to live off of. She’s called “Courage” but she really acted out of fear, terrified she would end up dying of malnutrition. Brecht highlights this dichotomy, perhaps, with the intent that the reader sees the unpleasant life given to so many characters who, like Mother Courage, are unable to survive without constantly exposing themselves to danger. But the play’s dialogue is not the only place where such Marxist critiques can be found. The characters of this play are depicted in a way that makes the starkness of their situations immediately visible. First there is Mother Courage herself. She is a penny pincher and frugal to a fault. She doesn’t lend shirts to a man even when they could keep a man from bleeding to death, nor will she sell her cart in order to save her own son from death by firing squad. The reader might feel tempted to call Mother Courage a monster, but this would be missing the point. Mother Courage is a product of the times she lives in. Sure, perhaps in a safer and more profitable peace time, she could have sold her cart, paid Swiss Cheese’s ransom, and then gone off somewhere else and started a new business to feed her and her family. But in the midst of this savage war, there is no place to start over. The farms are burnt, there’s no food, the villages are decimated, and most of the population are employed either as prostitutes or soldiers. Neither job is open for our protagonist, and thus losing her business would mean a slow death for her and her children. Giving away shirts might indeed save her life, but the lost revenue might end up leaving her emaciated in a world where you are only worth what you can do for someone else.
Yvette, the prostitute, also exemplifies the failings of this society, namely the way it treats women. She is duplicitous, switches sides, has no allegiances, and marries for money. However, one must imagine what would happen to her if she didn’t gladly switch sides when enemy forces rode in, or had not been able to seduce the Colonel. Had she remained stalwartly on the side of the protestants, the incoming soldiers would almost certainly have killed her. And if she did not find a means to escape her poverty, she likely would have ended up old, poor and hungry, if not simply dead. Even though her choices are of dubious ethical worth, they’re really the only choices she has. The same can be said of both the chaplain, who defects and frequently lies about himself to avoid being killed, and Eilif, the cunning and craftiest child of Mother Courage, who manages to keep his men well fed and safe by murdering unarmed peasants and stealing cattle. Ironically, it is the amoral and barbaric choices these characters make that make them sympathetic. They may at one time of life been genuinely good people, but they are put in a stark, war-torn world where doing what is ethical is almost impossible. We see later in this story both Swiss Cheese and Kattrin try to stand up for what they think is right, and refuse to accept the moral relativism of their mother, with nasty results. Brecht’s play then is best viewed as a lens, casting light on the way a capitalist and military society treat the poor, the hungry, and the outcasts. Rather than look at nobles who rode gallantly off to war, as his predecessors did, here we see an ensemble cast affected by the choices of their highborn counterparts. This may not seem particularly unique now, but in the 1930’s it was still somewhat interesting, and seldom is this point of view used to greater effect than it is in Mother Courage and her Children. The world is stacked against the eponymous gang, forcing them to choose between a noble death, or sacrificing chunks of their humanity in order to survive, and making themselves seem more wretched to those who exploit and slaughter them. The setting of the play, too, contributes to this interpretation. Obviously, the war being fought, and the fact that it is a holy war that deals in absolute goods and evils, are attributes meant to lampoon the rhetoric and foundation of warfare. But the size and scale of the story’s setting serve a purpose as well.
The events of the plot take place over the course of twelve years, and all throughout Europe. Yet in all this time, conditions remain abhorrent. In scene two, Eilif recounts an incident where, in order to get food for his men, he ends up “hacking [villagers] to pieces,” (Brecht 15). At the play’s end, a family dooms their entire village in order to save the ox that will provide them food. Conditions are still tenuous and terrible, despite twelve years of fighting a war which lasted for thirty. The thirty years war was waged for supposedly good intentions, if the generals and chaplains we encounter are to be believed. Yet the majority of characters we happen across in this time remain in utter squalor. When armies of men thousands strong march across the globe and still nothing changes, one must ask oneself why. This is what Brecht directs his attention to with the play. Of course, conflict has contributed to the deterioration of society, but things weren’t exactly at the beginning of the play when the war was in this infancy, nor did they improve during the short lived peace time of scene 8. Mother Courage sums this dilemma up best near the middle of the play, when she puts it thus: “I won’t have you folk spoiling my war for me. I’m told it kills off the weak, but they’re a write-off in peacetime too. And war gives its people a better deal,” (Brecht 56). It might decrease the number of severed heads, but when war ends, life is still terrible all over the world, and nothing changes. The barren 17th century Europe, and perhaps the world of today, is unrelenting and cruel to people of all walks of life, sticking them in a rat race they can never hope to win.
Ironically, despite being flagrantly anti-war, Mother Courage serves as a call to arms. It calls us to examine a life where we are forced to choose between starvation and death on the battlefield, murder or execution, prostitution or unemployment, and asks ‘is this really the world in which you want to live?’ Mother Courage herself never once bucks against the world order, telling herself and others that that’s merely the way it is. She ends the play searching for something that is not there, alone, cold, and bitter. Her sons accept the cruel reigns of war, dying either for duty or for their own personal gain. Kattrin has the will to be brave and stand up for peace in a world where courage is not rewarded unless it is born of cowardice, and gets blown to pieces with an artillery weapon. Brecht has created a world where we are shown two long, twisted paths that lead to the same place, and asks us to question why we sit idle and let it happen. Why do we allow people to get so poor and hungry, that their only option in life is to die for a flag or a god? Why do we let them starve, to the point where an ox means more to them then their lives? Why do we force them to steal and then punish them for it? The play never really gives us an answer; it merely builds a brief window into a world of bleak choices and unhappy endings. One finishes the play unable to look back at our society, still so entrenched in social classes, and see something noble. Just something with the blood of three children on its hands. Through its use of colloquial and perceptive dialogue, textured characters from working class backgrounds, and panoramic setting, Brecht has created a distinctly modern play which takes a close look at capitalism in the twentieth century, and the gruesome toll it claims in human souls.
Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children. Trans. John Willett. New York: Penguin Pub.:, 1994. Print.