Mother Courage and Her Children
Got to Feed It Something: Class in Mother Courage
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.
Kattrin the Mute and Brave
Mute characters play a significant role in plays. They are the characters most people would ignore because they do not say anything; however, mute characters may be the characters who say the most in a play. Within Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, the mute character Kattrin shows us that the bravest and during characters do not have to be the ones who talk the most. Kattrin may be a mute character, but her actions speak a lot, and as the saying goes, ‘Actions speak louder than word.’ Kattrin is brave, sympathetic, and the one who notices everything in the play, the only thing standing in her way is her incapability to speak.
Brecht’s use of the character Kattrin brings out much irony, both dramatic and situational irony. Kattrin may be mute, but she uses her actions to communicate with others. Throughout the play, Kattrin is rarely noticed by other characters, so when she does actions, no one in the play knows what she is doing or what she is trying to tell them which is a challenge for her because she knows what she is saying but is unable to get it through to others.
Situations throughout the play occur and some involve Kattrin as the focal point for these situations. there are many things that happen that the other characters are oblivious to while Kattrin notices it automatically. When Kattrin is casually communicating to her family, they can understand her and communicate back; however, when a bad situation is about to happen, Kattrin notices it and tries to communicate to her family, they have no clue on what she is trying to say. One example would be when Swiss Cheese was about to hide the Cash Box.
As Swiss Cheese is planning to hide the Cash Box in the river, two soldiers stand behind him and he is unaware that these two soldiers are there and that they are listening to what he plans to do with the Cash Box. Kattrin was aware of the soldiers and tried to signal to her brother what was happening but he is only more oblivious to the situation and say, “I wish I could understand you. Poor thing, I know you’re trying to tell me something, you just can’t say it” (2381) Kattrin’s heroic efforts do not do anything to help save her brother because she is unable to speak as he said. This is a form of dramatic irony because the audience is aware of Kattrin’s signals and the only person unaware is Swiss Cheese, this would be situational irony that Brecht uses to show how Kattrin’s inability to speak comes with many foreshadowing challenges. If Kattrin could speak, her brother may have lived; however, Brecht creating her as a mute character brings more entertainment to the play in both a humorous and suspenseful way.
Another example of Kattrin aware of a situation that others are oblivious to would be when Eilif was being recruited by the soldiers. Eilif wants to join the war, but Mother Courage forbids it, so the soldiers attempt to distract Mother Courage by pretending to be interested in buying a belt, when really the other soldier pulled Eilif to the side to have a drink with him. As Eilif goes off to talk to the soldier, Kattrin notices it and jumps up screaming, calling her mother’s attention; however, her awareness of the situation did not help and Eilif has already disappeared into the war, and Mother Courage has lost a child due to this. Kattrin’s muteness allows her to listen and observe things carefully, but when it comes to informing others, it always ends up being too late.
What we also may notice is that Brecht uses Kattrin to show the audience that disabled people are not all dumb. This is seen when Kattrin shows how she looks up to Yvette and wants to have the life Yvette has. Mother courage usually call Kattrin dumb because Kattrin is unable to speak, but is she really?
Brecht also shows Kattrin’s needs and wants throughout the play; she wants more for her life. Kattrin is not the average beauty, compared to Yvette, and she is also unable to take care of herself because her mother believes the world is dangerous and Kattrin will easily be taken advantage of. Although this may be so, Kattrin wants to get married and have children desperately when peace finally comes and she wants to be beautiful like Yvette. Therefore, Brecht describes Kattrin placing on Yvette’s red shoes and walking around like Yvette, because she admires her beauty and her ability to get men.
Kattrin is incapable of speaking but it does not mean that she is not aware of what life really is. She knows that she must be beautiful if she wants a husband and when she gets hurt by the soldiers and must wear an eye patch, she completely aware of the consequences that come with it; her dreams of getting married may be over. In all, she is aware of life and just because she is mute does not mean she is dumb.
Kattrin’s muteness does not stop her from getting involved in the war. At the end of the play, Kattrin is left alone with the wagon and peasants have come and began to pray. Kattrin intervenes to protect the burning city in front of her, by climbing a tree and beating a drum that was in her apron as loud as she can; she acts in a courageous manner knowing the consequences coming for her are deadly. While the peasants are busy worrying about protecting their farm, Kattrin is willing to sacrifice her own life over the wagon and any materialistic belongings. The peasants as well as the soldiers call for her to be quiet and they all threaten to shoot her and destroy the wagon, but that does not stop Kattrin from drumming. Eventually Kattrin is shot down by one of the soldiers but she was shot down by committing a brave act and not acting as a coward.
Kattrin is a brave character throughout Mother Courage and Her Children and Brecht opens the readers to understand more about her role and why she behaves the way she does. Kattrin’s mute role does not stop her from making noise and doing what she can to protect the family; however, her mute role is what causes her to die in the end. Her mute role affects many of the other characters badly such as Eilif and Swiss Cheese. Although Kattrin was the mute character she is also the most aware of everything being taken place in the war, even the things that Mother Courage may be oblivious to. Although Kattrin is brave and does not allow her muteness stop her from performing necessary actions, the actions she tries to inform for others to be aware of do not help her and her muteness ends up getting in the way for her to protect her own life as well as her brothers.
Imagery in Waiting for Godot and Mother Courage and Her Children
Although Waiting for Godot and Mother Courage and Her Children are quite different in terms of plot structure and setting, there are similarities present in the use of bleak imagery as symbols of religious, social, and political criticism. The symbolism extends beyond the imagery and encompasses the characters themselves. The props, especially in Godot, have an abstract significance more easily apparent in the ways in which they are utilized than their inherent characteristics.
Boots play a symbolic role in both of these plays, although serving different purposes. In Godot, the constant struggle of removing and replacing the boots, as well as the incessant question of which boot belongs to which character, is representative of a deeper fundamental identity crisis channeled toward external signifiers of identity. Mother Courage offers the red high-heeled boots to Kattrin to comfort her after she receives her facial scar. Kattrin refuses to accept them- they symbolize, to her, the abuse that she has suffered at the hands of men. Male attention has stolen her voice and her facial beauty, and the boots represent the incongruity of love and war.
When the drum rolls signify that Swiss Cheese is set to be executed, the stage briefly becomes dark. This is a symbol of death much akin to darkness that occurred before the crucifixion of Christ. Indeed, Mother Courage denies knowledge of Swiss Cheese’s identity, reminiscent of Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus. Interestingly, the chaplain’s song after Swiss Cheese’s arrest tells of the moments leading up to the crucifixion. Waiting for Godot utilizes darkness as a similar allegory of death, as night falls and the men are reprieved of their “duty”, no longer bound to wait for Godot.
One striking moment in Waiting for Godot occurs when Pozzo instructs Vladimir to place the bowler on Lucky’s head so he can think. This inanimate object, by virtue of the status it affords, allows Lucky to think for himself and he begins to soliloquize. When the hat is knocked off, his monologue abruptly ends. We get the sense that it is not Lucky who is doing the thinking, rather it is the hat and the identity that it embodies. The symbolism of the hats is not restricted to Lucky, and Vladimir and Estragon exchange hats with each other multiple times, highlighting the fluidity and flux of their identities. The rope around Lucky’s neck symbolizes the power dynamic between him and Pozzo, and the abuse makes it clear that Lucky is his subordinate. Yet in the second act, the rope is much shorter, and it is Lucky who directs the now-blind Pozzo, blurring the lines between servant and master.
Kattrin, like Lucky, lacks a voice, although hers has been stolen from her through rape rather than slavery. Her drum, another inanimate object, can be said to give her the voice she lacks. It is interested to note that the drum is among the things that Kattrin brings back after she is attacked while purchasing things for her mother. We see that the drum, to Kattrin, symbolizes defiance against oppression. These inanimate objects, although not infused with any special powers, empower the characters to accomplish what they cannot. Both Kattrin and Lucky surprise us with their significance by the end of the plays. It becomes apparent that Lucky’s name, although seemingly ironic, actually suits his position relative to the other characters. Lucky possesses two luxuries that the others lack: certitude and awareness. Lucky does not struggle with the “agony of choice” as Vladimir and Estragon both do; Pozzo gives him the certainty and authority that Godot will never provide for them. Lucky is also fully conscious of his status as a slave, whereas the other characters maintain an illusion of false freedom. There is an interesting duality here, of the seemingly least fortunate character possessing a fortune of consciousness, that is mirrored by Kattrin’s character. She too, is mistreated and seems to lose more in the war than any other character: she loses her voice, her beauty, her dreams, and ultimately her life.
Yet Kattrin displays immense courage, awareness, and self sacrifice- more so than any other character. Mother Courage seemingly touches upon this when she attempts to comfort Kattrin, saying she is “lucky” that she is no longer pretty, and that this would save her. These two characters at first seem inconsequential, but eventually come to symbolize the tremendous potential and fortune of the seemingly unfortunate. Both of these plays are ultimately attempting to portray the devastation and destruction of identity and self that occur through religious, social and political processes.
The Complicity and Explicability of Mother Courage
Berthold Brecht’s explicit intention to impose an emotional distance between dramatic actors and the viewing audience stands in opposition to the use of propagandistic techniques intended to heighten sympathy and runs contrary to notions of theatrical realism. Brecht’s distancing effect involves smashing any passive emotional response a viewer may have through a series of disconcerting elements: the explicit self-consciousness of players, heightened absurdity, deliberate paradoxes and perplexing contradictions, and an irreverent juxtaposition of humor and drama that borders on the offensive. While perhaps meaningful in themselves, these techniques effectively amount to the constant reminder that the performance being viewed is merely a performance, one which stitches together a panoply of nearly vaudevillian theatrical elements, including the slapstick, songs, and witty back-and-forth that flood the dramatic space between the audience and the essentially horrendous story of an impoverished mongrel family in the most devastating war in central European history.Brecht’s epic theater was in a way a dialogue with the 1940s Germany that had been for decades surfeited with poverty, destruction, tragedy, and propaganda. East Berliners in 1948, the date of Mother Courage and Her Children’s first performance on German soil, likely needed no theatrical reminder of the atrociousness of war, the universal suffering of innocents, and the horrendousness of militant nationalism. In that respect, Mother Courage neither patronizes nor sermonizes to the viewer. Rather, the play in itself prioritizes action and presents itself to the audience as a serious discourse for contemplation.Yet if the ambitiousness of alienation technique fails to arouse sympathy, it arouses a number of critical questions. Does Brecht, in both his script and his instructions for staging of the play, actually succeed in making this loaded audience feel no emotion about the entirely familiar and plausible story of a tireless woman losing her children in a European bloodbath? Is the imposed distance between the audience and Mother Courage at all contingent on her supposed culpability – in other words, do we not feel for Mother Courage because she “deserves” what she got? Or is Courage’s complicity a conclusion that can only be reached through epic theater; if so, doesn’t the essential tragic situation of a character making a poor decision and consequently suffering a great loss nevertheless arouse pity? That is, despite the distancing effect, isn’t Mother Courage at its base still a story employing a traditional plot structure to which one can, for all the trappings, nevertheless relate? And could Brecht have effectively applied this lens to a recent horror such as the Holocaust?Regarding that last notion, it appears integral to the function of Mother Courage that the events take place in the distant past. But the point is that alienation technique is meant to override emotion, and if it could not be effective in describing the Holocaust, that implies certain “exceptions” or limitations to its capacities. Despite her faults, the raw tragedy and cruel ironies of Mother Courage’s life may very well be too powerful to be obscured. Even if the actual alienation effect could be so powerful as to leave an audience with blank expressions and dry eyes, the contemplation of Mother Courage’s position in itself ought to arouse powerful feelings of sympathy.In one sense, Mother Courage is sympathetic insofar as she experiences a profound misfortune that emanates from what is essentially just a wrong decision or poor speculation. From a standpoint of self-preservation, Courage trades the danger of avoiding or subverting the war for the danger of following and profiting off the war. Both choices offer profound inherent risks and potential benefits. The war threatens to consume Mother Courage’s family and leave them poorer than they started out, yet they earn the opportunity to make considerable profit and improve their station in life. Similarly, evading the conflict altogether would offer the family virtually no opportunity to earn enough money to survive in a harsh economy, yet they would be relatively secure from the threat posed by the conflict.The play’s outcome suggests that in acting as a beneficiary of the war and profiting off corruption and atrocity both directly and indirectly, Mother Courage becomes complicit in the war and all of its negative effects. She, then, takes a share of responsibility both for specific events within the war and for the continuation of the overall conflict, from all of which she directly profits. For example, Courage exploits Eilif’s cruel murder and deception in Scene 2, only rebuking her son for not surrendering. In Scene 8 when the specter of peace threatens Mother Courage’s business, she reacts with modest appreciation but a great deal disappointment over a poor speculation she has made: “I’m glad about the peace even though I’m ruined” (84). After she is reproached by the Chaplain, Courage remarks, “Remember what one fox said to another that was caught in a trap? ‘If you stay there, you’re just asking for trouble'” (86), not just accusing the Chaplain of hypocrisy but as well indicating that she is entrapped by a war for which she does not take any responsibility. Yet at the end of this same scene, Courage sings of her wagon supplying a war that requires human participation, “If it’s to last, this war needs you!” (94).However, on a practical level Mother Courage’s participation does not have any effect on the war’s extension. The machinations of generals and monarchs like Tilly and Gustavus Adolphus, men supposedly pious and beyond reproach, loom over the variously violent, drunken, and corrupt lower participants in the war who populate the play. The political situation and central religious conflict seem intractable and similarly distant, and despite the perceptiveness of the Cook and Mother Courage in discussing in Scene 3 the underlying profiteering and class struggle the war represents, the consensus is resignation. The Cook and Courage find themselves similarly trapped by two exigencies, and consequently they take for granted that their decision whether or not to accept the war and participate in it is an entirely personal one, as they do not view themselves as consequential actors in the conflict. The fact that Mother Courage switches her flag upon capture by Catholic forces further describes her inconsequentiality. She does not profess a serious fealty to either side and espouses no real political or religious purpose in her involvement; that is, Mother Courage acts as a neutral participant and beneficiary willing to temporarily align herself with either side. Moreover, Courage recognizes that “the defeats and victories of the fellows at the top aren’t always defeats and victories for the fellows at the bottom,” placing herself at odds with both sides in the war (52).Mother Courage calls herself a prisoner to the Catholics, like “lice in fur” (52), suggesting that despite providing the Catholics with a needed canteen, Courage considers herself a parasite who adds nothing to the war. How complicit could that make her in the atrocities caused by either side? In Scene 4 Mother Courage self-consciously teaches herself capitulation; in the next scene, she pits her meager self-interest against helping bandage peasants wounded by pillaging soldiers. Similarly her haggling over Swiss Cheese’s life is a self-inflicted wound again caused by competing interests with the overall aim of protecting and providing for her children by balancing the exigent needs of safety and sustenance. That Mother Courage realizes she has made a mistake in haggling for Swiss Cheese indicates that the certain poverty that would befall the family from pawning the cart is preferable to the death of a son. In these circumstances, she has simply made a poor estimation with insufficient information. But the fact that she bargains at all indicates her comfort and familiarity with such dealings, and the capitalist does appear just a little too adroit at times.Mother Courage could be seen as a bottom-rung analogue to the looting soldiers and the social elites driving the conflict. All of them seek profit in the virtual free-for-all imposed by total war. Yet the kings are unaffected by the need to provide, whereas Mother Courage must labor intensively to get by with her children. Courage is virtually forced to participate in an economic and social system where shrewdness and selfishness are necessary traits for one to survive. Furthermore, she believes she has no opportunity to rebel or avoid either war or poverty, singing “Too many seek a bed to sleep in: / Each ditch is taken, and each cave / And he who digs a hole to creep in, / Finds he has dug an early grave” (82). In The Song of the Great Capitulation, she explains, “Two children round your neck, and the price of bread and what all!” adding in verse, “They had me just where they wanted me” (68). Her agency, thus, is extremely limited, particularly because of her gender.When Kattrin martyrs herself, she reverses Mother Courage’s reckoning: if Courage overvalues her children against her own livelihood (e.g., taking the Cook’s offer) and the lives of others, Kattrin corrects the market. Kattrin ultimate duty can be viewed as an absolution of her mother: Kindness in service of peace where Honest and Brave acted in service of war. Even after the weight of these events, Mother Courage extraordinarily remains set in her ways, calling out to the sound of war drums, “Hey! Take me with you!” (111). Yet just as Mother Courage is a victim of her own lack of agency, she may very well be a victim of her own mentality, her almost preternatural inability to reverse course even as she is aware of the sickness that surrounds her. If Kattrin is unambiguously heroic, it does not follow that her mother is unambiguously villainous. Even if in her own tragedy Mother Courage cannot be exculpated, she can be explicated. And although the function of the play may differ, the pockmarked life of Courage is at its base an eminently human story of struggle and resilience, the consideration of which leading simply to sympathy.Ultimately, the matter of whether or not alienation effect succeeds in Mother Courage may simply come down to personal taste. One who could personally relate to the situation may find it incredibly sad, if only out of empathy; likewise, anyone could be aroused by the frightening implications of the play and thus feel sympathy for Courage and her children if only out of the selfish fear of being thrust into the same situation. Does the play, then, successfully impel action? Fifty years after the second staging of Mother Courage, East Germany began its slow and uneasy transition to capitalism. The play’s final haunting image of an indefatigable Mother Courage pulling up her cart and mindlessly going on alone, trudging unknowingly over her son’s grave, is, in my view, deeply sadder than any number of Shakespeare’s permutations of human tragedy, than the inexplicable death of Lear, or the gruesome mutilation of Livinia, or the asinine misunderstanding of Romeo and Tristan. I am led to believe – perhaps to feel – that no technique or convention employed in staging this play, not even the most offensive or preposterous or damning thing, could bury the raw emotion and sympathy aroused by Mother Courage’s fate.
The Art of Alienation in Brecht’s Work
Writing in the Germany of the 1920s, Brecht shattered the then staple notions of dramatic theatre, with his propagation of the Epic theatre. In terms of play righting, his was a move away from the Isben model of the well made¹ play; in terms of acting as well he led a departure from the Stanislavsky style of realism. Interestingly enough, this maverick Marxist playwright was also highly didactic and authoritarian. Not only did he have a very specific brief for actors on how and how not to act, but he also made very clear the role and the function of the audience. Impelled by a Marxist perspective he insisted that man and society could be intellectually analysed. His demands of drama were high; he wrote, “The urgent revolution of the theatre must start with a transformation of the stagewe do not ask for an audience, but a community, not a stage, but a pulpit.” Theatre then, was an activity meant to be part of a larger social revolution. But Brecht did not ascribe to the “art reflects life” kind of philosophy, he was very well aware of the possibilities art held as a carrier of ideology. “If art reflects life” Brecht wrote “it does so with special mirrors”. It was these “special mirrors” that Brecht sought to invert, in his work, creating a revolutionary new kind of epic theatre. Karl Marx was to call religion “the opium of the masses”; Brecht extended this thought to dramatic theatre, when he called it a “narcotic”. He strove to remove those narcotic elements of dramatic theatre through a highly complex system. Firstly of course, he rejected the paradigm of dramatic theatre; he insisted that his theatre offer multifaceted social and political themes, with a conspicuous rejection of conclusions. The resolution of a play was to come from the world, and not the stage. The audience thus was to be part of a greater social process that they would then in turn instigate. The Aristotelian cathartic emotions of pity and fear were useless to Brecht; he wanted the audience¹s rationality to be engaged and not their emotional identification. The idea was that one was not to share the experience, but study the experience. To this end, he worked on creating alienating effects – simple anti-illusory techniques to remind the spectators that they were watching an enactment of reality, and not reality itself. One such technique was to suddenly flood the stage with a harsh white light, or to have a series of inane jingles sung at critical junctures. A person might streak across the stage holding a placard. By doing away with a narrator, Brecht also did away with the speaking voice that might otherwise hold an audience in thrall. Scenery was minimalist and obviously representative. Nothing was to take away, in short from the message. Actors had a special brief in such a play. They were given instructions on how to hold themselves, the limbs must be loose, and the neck muscles not taut, because tautness might magically¹ draw the eyes of the audience. The speech must be direct, without cadence and sing song tones that might otherwise put the audience in torpor. Brecht was influenced by German expressionism in its insistence on theme or idea centred plays, rather than plot centric plays. As a result of which his play are never linear, they ignore the conventions of growth, progress, movement towards a climax, or even development in the ordinary sense. In Mother Courage and Her Children for example the scenes are loosely held together, and episodic to the extent that they seem fragments of random events occurring over time. As a result of which character is highlighted not as a site of special psychological interest, but as a function of circumstance. Changed circumstances can turn Eilif from a hero, valorised for war-like behaviour, to a coward executed for unnecessary bloodshed. Even opinions can change dramatically when situations change. Mother Courage may say, “Curse the war!” when her fortunes are low, but might reply angrily to criticism of it at another time with ” I won¹t let you spoil my war for me! Destroys the weak does it? Well what does peace do for em huh? War feeds its people better”. What Brecht also achieves by such structuring is to make apparent the contradictions that become part and parcel of a state of war. But we are also made well aware that “war¹s a business like all the rest/ It¹s still about survival of the best”. These contradictions then, are a part of the disease of capitalism, and one witnesses the impossibility of Mother Courage reconciling compassion and tenderness with the values of business. Frustratingly, Brecht¹s characters do not grow. The figure of Mother Courage wheeling her little cart off stage at the end of the play, having lost all three children is pathetic but not sympathetic when she cries “Back to Business”. Having stemmed our natural instinct of identification, Brecht writes ” Even if Mother Courage learns nothing else at least the audience can, in my view, learn something by observing her”. Brecht seems a mixture of intellectual sophistication and psychological naïveté. On one hand, his was a revolutionary new kind of dramatic theatre, using epic forms to throw light on the hidden absurdity of life if warped by the values that come with war and big business. Where success is associated with virtue and not the other way around. He tried to bring to an audience¹s attention, the human costs of this way of life. His characters operate like machinations of their functional world. But there are many ways of seeing. Brecht once wrote “Nothing is more important than learning to think crudely. Crude thinking is the thinking of great men.” For a dramatic form to endure however, beyond an individual proponent, perhaps something more than this is required. A more realistic assessment of mankind might have suggested to Brecht that ultimately, a drama of ideas may not be enough for an audience of human beings.
“The term gender is commonly used to refer to the psychological, cultural, and social characteristics that distinguish the sexes” (Cook 1). From the idea of gender such notions as gender bias and stereotyping have developed. Stereotypes have lead society to believe that a male or female should appear, act, or in more philosophical terms, be a certain way. What these gender stereotypes are and, whether or not they really exist, will be discussed further so that they can be examined in reference to the plays Mother Courage and Her Children and M. Butterfly. In Mother Courage and Her Children “motherhood”, and what it should be, is challenged as a result of the actions and qualities of the character Mother Courage. M. Butterfly gives us a great depiction of a stereotypical male, and uses the female stereotype against him. Both of these plays invert, modify, and even glorify the gender stereotypes.Society has females and males alike typecasted into roles which have basic characteristics that are the reverse of each other. Although this has begun to change over the past thirty years, typically the man was seen as superior to the female. This superior image is one that today, is slowly on its way to being reduced to one of complete equality between the two genders.Before the feminist revolution began, the female was traditionally in charge of taking care of the children and household. Her image in life was that of the wife, mother, and nurturing person. Some of the traits that were thought to be uniquely feminine were; “. . .emotional, sensitive, gentle, quiet, nurturing, interested in personal appearance and beauty, focused upon home and family. . .” (3). Generally the image of the woman was quiet, submissive, and dedicated towards the well-being of her family.”The stereotypical role for women is to focus their lives on marriage, home and children. They rely on men for sustenance and status. The expectancy is that women will engage in nurturing and life preserving activities through childbearing and caretaking behaviors. Additionally, there is also emphasis on personal appearance and prohibition on direct expression of aggression, assertion, and striving for power.” (qtd. in Cook 59)The stereotypical male image was the complete opposite to that of the female one. Men were seen as the leaders of the household, the money-makers, and rational thinkers. Their characteristics were seen as; “. . .aggressive, unemotional, objective, dominant, competitive, logical/rational, decisive, assertive, analytical, strong, sexual, physical, successful. . .” (2). Men were the protectors of their families and were responsible for providing the strength which the family would need to survive. They did not like to have their judgement questioned or be instructed how to act.”The stereotypical role for men includes emphasizing physical strength and achievement, restricting emotions (except anger), avoiding emotional intimacy with same-sex peers, and providing sustenance and protection for women and children.” (qtd. in Cook 59)These ideals for what men and women should be certainly left men with more power and women with a responsibility to keep out of the way. As it was briefly touched upon earlier, the plays Mother Courage and Her Children and M. Butterfly reverse or glorify these stereotypes that have been attributed to the two genders.The character of Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children has personality traits that are far from those stereotypically defined as feminine. In fact, if her characteristics and actions are examined closely, she seems to have assumed those of a male. She tries to help her children survive the thirty years war. While looking after them is typically a female quality and responsibility, doing so by running a small business and welcoming a war rather than running from it, is much more masculine. She received the name Courage, after driving her cart of bread straight through the middle of a military bombardment because she was broke and her bread was going moldy. This is hardly the action of someone who isn’t supposed to be assertive or strive for power. Women aren’t supposed to be responsible for generating money for the family to survive on, but Courage did so ruthlessly. At one point she was so pre-occupied with trying to save money that one of her sons, Swiss Cheese, ends up being executed because she tried to bargain with his captors. Even then, his death doesn’t bring out any feminine emotion in her; she just keeps on pushing, trying to survive. At the end of the play, when the last of her children are dead, Courage still keeps on going. She picks up her cart without a second thought and moves on by herself. Whereas conversely, the typical woman would be drowned in emotion, Mother Courage’s reaction is that of a stereotypical male.Mother Courage is a character who very matter-of-factly makes a statement. Women are capable of achieving exactly that which men do. Women and war are images not traditionally related. Perhaps, if any relation can be drawn during a war, it is that women are waiting for their men to come home from defending their honour. Mother Courage shows us that if a woman is put in such a situation of conflict and disparity she too can survive; although by doing so she takes on those ideal masculine qualities. These qualities are displayed throughout the entire play, and the only time we see the true feminine motherliness in Courage is when a recruiter tries to get her boys to enlist. She immediately tries to convince him that he ought to ignore them. Her boys aren’t up for trade. This motherly protectiveness is supposedly typical of women. As quoted from Cook, “. . .women will engage in nurturing and life preserving activities. . .” (59). However we quickly see Mother Courage revert to her male characteristics as the recruiter decides to keep pressing the issue of her sons enlistment. She suddenly pulls a knife on the man and says: “Go on, you kidnap him, just try. I’ll slit you open, trash” (Brecht 1.1.184-185). Protectiveness is one thing, but sheer aggression is categorized as a male trait. Mother Courage is a physical force to be reckoned with and that force is not a quality indicative of a stereotypical woman.M. Butterfly depicts a man, Gallimard, as a possessor of completely typical, ideal masculine qualities. He is the male stereotype. In this play the female stereotype is what destroys him. The girl Gallimard meets and falls in love with, Song, portrays the ideal female so perfectly that Gallimard can’t fathom the idea, or at the very least deny that she could be a spy; let alone a male actor.The male actor knows exactly how to get Gallimard to pursue Song. He creates a girl who is so fragile that Gallimard immediately finds a desire to protect her in his arms. Song starts to draw Gallimard in when she calls him at 5:30 in the morning and tells him “I waited until I saw the sun. That was as much discipline as I could manage for one night. Do you forgive me?” (Hwang 1.9.76-77) She is appealing to Gallimard’s sexual and dominant characteristics because the stereotypical man enjoys the idea of a woman who is desperate for his attention. Song plays on Gallimard’s need for dominance, and puts him on a pedestal. She acts quiet, and frightened. She even tells him that she has never invited a man into her flat before – which spurns Gallimard’s interest as to whether or not she’s even been with a man before. His dominant and competitive traits make him want to be her first sexual partner. The male actor has achieved exactly what he wants with Song when Gallimard states that he thinks she feels inferior to him (1.10.90).Gallimard stops calling and seeing Song as he wants to make her even more desperate for him. The male actor, Song, plays right along and after six weeks begins to write a series of letters which finally end with telling Gallimard that she has given him her shame – what else could he want? (1.11.90) Gallimard’s stereotypical male reaction is a feeling of power from the process of ignoring her. “. . .I stopped going to the opera, I didn’t phone or write her. I knew this little flower was waiting for me to call, and, as I wickedly refused to do so, I felt for the first time that rush of poweróthat absolute power of a man” (1.11.10). Never does Gallimard find this a little too simple, or his Song too perfect. In fact her perfection encourages him to brag that he found the perfect woman (1.3.5). Of course his perfect woman turns out to be a cross-dressing, male, Chinese informant.The illusions are destroyed and Gallimard’s dream shattered when he learns the truth about Song, and consequently the mythical existence of “the perfect woman”. Instead he only realizes the reality of the stereotypical male qualities he possesses. Near the end of the play when Gallimard laughingly points out that he finds humor in the amount of time he wasted on “. . .just a man” (3.2.99) it’s really quite ironic that his attitude for the entire play could have been summed up as “just a girl.” He obviously didn’t find her to be a challenge, he openly decided that she was inferior to him. It would have been much more logical for him to shake the actor’s hand out of masculine respect when the truth was revealed.Mother Courage and Her Children inverts the stereotypical female ideal and gives the character Mother Courage glorified male characteristics. This play creates a glimpse of gender equality. Mother Courage is capable of exactly that which men are. She becomes even more powerful than the typical man by retaining that motherly quality of looking out for the children and by doing so in an aggressive, masculine manner. So aggressive that she ends up losing her offsprings. Mother Courage and Her Children raises the question: “what would happen if both genders possessed male stereotypical traits?”The male stereotype, Gallimard, is destroyed by the idea of the”Perfect Woman” (1.3.5) in M. Butterfly. The play shatters the illusion of the female ideal. The character Gallimard discovers that it doesn’t really exist. However, the stereotypical male all too real. It is glorified to its absolute extremes in this play.The one conclusion that can be drawn between these two plays and gender stereotypes, is that stereotypical masculine characteristics are quite genuine. Conversely, those qualities that create the female ideal, are merely a figment of male perceptions.Works CitedBrecht, Bertolt. “Mother Courage and Her Children.” Worthen 727-751.Cook, Ellen Piel, ed. Women, Relationships, and Power. Virginia: American Counseling Association, 1993.Hwang, Henry David. “M. Butterfly.” Worthen 1062-1084. Worthen, W.B. ed. The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama. 3rd ed. Toronto: Harcourt, 1993.
The Obvious in Brecht
“When something seems the most obvious thing in the world, it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up.” How does Brecht attempt to ensure that the obvious is absent from this play?Brecht’s intentions when writing Mother Courage were to communicate his beliefs and make people aware of two major issues facing society: war and capitalism. According to Brecht, people deserve the wars they get if they subscribe to a political system which is unfair and favours a specific sector of society, namely capitalism, in which it is up to the individual to secure his own means of survival. In other words, if the system is unjust in any way, war and conflict is inevitable. For this to be understood, it would be essential that the audience sees the play for what it is, as opposed to becoming engaged in its story. This means that they would have to be alienated from the play, and made perpetually aware of it as a play and nothing more. To do this, Brecht jolted audiences out of their expectations and deliberately avoided theatrical techniques that would make appearances realistic. In this way, people were forced to confront the issues at hand and decipher the meanings behind what they were being shown.The “obvious” being referred to by Brecht is what is clearly seen, what one cannot miss. It does not require reflection and arouses no thought. By alienating the audience in this play, they see that nothing is happening at an obvious level, and can gain true understanding of the characters’ reasons for behaving as they do, and of the background against which they exist.Brecht incorporated alienation techniques in the methods of staging used in performances of Mother Courage, firstly by keeping a very bright white light trained evenly upon the set throughout. This eliminated any opportunities for creating an atmosphere; any magical or romantic views of the stage were kept strictly at bay, and no attempt was made to convey the sense of a specific place. A banner was also used to introduce every scene, as opposed to a narrator, as was most common in dramatic performances of the day. This innovative technique appeared unusual to the audience and differed from the traditional storytelling manner. Also, as words were not being spoken to them, it was difficult to get caught up in the story, as it were to be led into an emotion by, for example, an excited tone of voice. In addition, scene changes were made in full view of the audience, reminding them of its existence as a play, again alienating them from the impression of a “true life” tale. This sense was what was intentionally put forth in other plays of the time, and one method used was to communicate the impression that a fourth wall had been cut off from the scene and that the audience was viewing incidents in the characters’ lives, almost as if they were spying on them. In Brecht’s play, however, this effect was dispensed with; spectators were not intended to become involved, thus the fact that it was merely a play was constantly enforced. With regards to acting, actors were not meant to “become” their characters or persuade anyone of a transformation, they were required simply to show the character’s behaviour. They did not intend to evoke empathy, but to startle the audience into objective thought. Theatrical illusion was used to the most minimal extent stage machinery improved some representations of reality, but not enough to draw the audience out of the knowledge that they were still in a theatre. All of these methods were utilised to alienate viewers, so that they adopted and retained an attitude of inquiry and criticism in addressing the incidents and issues raised by the play, which is what epic theatre concentrated on. Songs are frequently used in this play, and interpret the story in an objective tone. Mother Courage’s first appearance on stage is initiated by a song, ensuring the audience is not empathetic, and drawing attention to it as a play from the beginning. Throughout the play, this is what the songs did, as well as make poignant observations and address real issues which Brecht wanted the audience’s focus to be on. The sudden appearance of song at seemingly unlikely points in the play when it is least expected is alienating and can confuse an audience. Often a silly or light-hearted song would come up directly after a dramatic event, creating a lack of moral perspective and irony. Another alienating characteristic is the fact that the melodic and lyrical delivery of songs contrasts with their serious, occasionally distressing content. In the third scene, for example, the chaplain’s song tells of the horrors of Christ’s story, and yet the form resembles that of a nursery rhyme.This occasional use of song makes the play difficult to define in terms of form of theatre; Brecht is mixing these forms in the same way as he does his writing style, which is both poetic and demotic. This alternating between almost romantic poetry and everyday, colloquial speech is recurrent, and the fluctuations are sudden. It is alienating that the two opposing styles are not separated in any distinct way, constantly ensuring the audience’s expectations are denied.To defer from the audience’s expectations is the purpose of the play’s structure the space of time as passes unseen between the scenes is often great. After a dramatic event has surpassed, one would expect the reactions of the characters to be portrayed, or at least regarded, and the anticipated emotions to be seen, but instead one is shown occurrences of several years later. Thus, dramatic climaxes are forfeited. Also, in the same way as one cannot always see a connection between the songs and their surrounding dialogue, each scene is barely connected to the next, to the extent that the audience gets the impression that if a scene were removed, it would make little difference. There is no definite sequence of events, denying the characteristics of traditional story telling. Brecht brings in the theatre of realism by devising the play not as a convenient series of dramatic events, with a noted beginning and distinct end, for this is not what reality is. He also uses what he calls gestures, the denial of the audience’s potentiality to empathise. This is an effect created by epic theatre, designed to compel the audience into remaining distanced from the story.The methods used in this epic theatre produced an alienating effect, and deliberately separated itself from the conventional attributes of Aristotelian theatre, which appealed to the audience’s emotions and evoked empathy, causing them to share the characters’ feelings. Epic theatre, by definition, resolved to engage people’s thinking and reasoning; Brecht objected to the soporific attitude of audiences and did not want them to be lulled into passive viewing, instead he compelled them to confront what they saw and analyse it. A significant method of alienation that ensures the audience does not get wrapped up in the suspenseful “what happens next” element of the story is Brecht’s forestating each scene is introduced with a summary of the following occurrences, establishing an inevitability which denies the audience of the passivity of viewing for the purpose of an unfolding plot. This encourages the adoption of a critical attitude, only through which understanding can be achieved. The conflicts of individual characters in Mother Courage are unimportant; the play’s purpose as epic theatre is to attract the audience’s attention toward more important societal issues.The characters in the play can appear self-contradictory, which would be particularly alienating to an audience familiar solely with Aristotelian theatre. Though the characters change in this sense, no character development can be seen, and it is difficult for people to relate to them. In truth, not only would an audience be unable to empathise, but they would not know how to regard the characters. One is not given a defined set of emotions to experience, and because of the contradictions within characters, one cannot form an opinion on, or an attitude towards, them. The greatest example of this is Mother Courage herself, who is selfish and egocentric in that she subscribes to capitalist principles and is blind to their consequences. Yet, an admirable trait may be that she keeps on going through hardships and confronts danger, surviving in a man’s world and ignoring her own pain for the sake of her children. However, though she disagrees with war in principle, she lacks strength of belief and exploits the war by profiting from it. The fact that she works hard constantly, it would appear, from what we are shown of her life but for little gain, would lead us to sympathise with her, though her deeds in the beginning of scene 3, her selling of ammunition to the opposing army, makes us question her morals. Another example of a contradictory character is the chaplain, who would be expected to condemn war and disapprove of it completely, though he said, “War satisfies all requirements, peaceable ones included, they’re catered for, and it would simply fizzle out if they weren’t.” The chaplain can be said to have been based on contradiction at first he was cold and formal, then later, on the battlefield, he helps the injured and shows a part of himself that is itself a victim.What Brecht wanted to inspire in his audience was a willingness to change people’s attitudes, their fixed money-centred mindsets which overshadowed, and caused confusion in, their basic moral values. According to Marx, whose principles Brecht believed in: unless man has food and shelter, he does not have freedom. This tenet is what Brecht asserts in Mother Courage, and whose understanding can only be gained when audiences realise that the obvious is an irrelevance, that this play should be seen not as a tale but as a presenting of issues. By using the aspects of character, song, structure, style, inevitability, and staging, Brecht ensures that the audience remains alienated, and that their expectations are not met.