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Mother Courage had its origins in 1939. after the Nazis invaded Poland from the west and Soviet Russia invaded Poland from the east — an arrangement made a few days earlier when the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact was signed. This began the first phase of World War II — the so-called “Phoney War” during which nothing very much happened except the Nazis bided their time and prepared for their invasion of the west without having to worry about fighting a war on two fronts. It was during this time, while Brecht was on the lam from the Nazis and living in Sweden, that he wrote the play.
At that time, from the beginning of September 1939 until May 10, 1940, there was no war to speak of. The fighting in Poland was over after a few weeks and the invasion of France and the Low Countries had not begun. And no one really knew what a horrific war it would become, not even Brecht.
At that time he was bitterly resentful and preoccupied with those who played along with the Nazis and enabled them to achieve power in Germany — the war-profiteers — the rich and powerful industrialists in Germany and the Swedish steel-makers who sold much needed steel to Hitler. That is what the play is about. Therefore the warning in scene 8: “…in which case you shouldn’t forget the ancient saying that whoever sups with the devil needs a long spoon,” which may be taken as the moral of the play.
Mother Courage is an entrepreneurial war-profiteer. A “hyena.” The play is a Marxist trumpet blast at the capitalists: WAR IS MONGERED BY CAPITALISTS WHO PROFIT FROM ITS PURSUIT! AND US LITTLE PEOPLE ARE SUCKERED INTO IT BY BOURGEOIS VALUES LIKE PATRIOTISM AND HONOR AND DUTY!
If Brecht had lived in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century he would have been a pamphleteer — not a playwright. That is what Mother Courage is — a political comic book with POW! and BAM! and with the simplest of chronological plots; with bad guys and good guys you can identify by how they look and dress; with characters who are stereotypes: Yvette, the tough whore with heart of gold; the son who is dumb but honest; the mute daughter who is sweet natured, naive, and dreams of being a mother. There are three main “characters” who have no character, not even any names, who are only mouthpieces for the contradictory thoughts of Mother Courage: the cook, the chaplain, and Mother Courage are all really one character — Bertold Brecht, who was probably the most entrepreneurial Communist that ever lived. He was always on the lookout for the main chance and for ways to exploit anyone he could — friends, lovers, collaborators.
The play is an anachronism. It looks backwards from 1939 to centuries of religious wars — like the Thirty Years War — monarchical wars in which kingly whims were motivators of war and so-called nobles fought each other over who owned what. This went on in Western Europe for fifteen hundred years, until the end of World War II. Since then the countries of Western Civilization have not participated in “Marxist” wars: wars of the powerful for personal profit or gain. They have been fought over ideology — whether wealth is to be distributed by a central authority (with all its injustices and unfairnesses) or by a more or less free market (with all its injustices and unfairnesses) since no system for distributing wealth is ever perfect.
Brecht’s atavistic view of war and capitalism is as dead as Communism is itself. (Even in The Peoples Republic of China capitalism is flourishing.) In Western Europe war is also dead, unthinkable since no country has enough of an army to make war on any other country. All the fighting in Western Europe (and soon Eastern Europe) occurs in Brussels among gabbling bureaucrats on a thousand different commissions.
The old motives for war are dead as well. Wherever there is a free and open press, with free mass media, and a free blogosphere; wherever there are freely elected governments with distributed power; wherever there is a more or less free marketplace with a system of wealth distribution which allows the redistribution of wealth through trans-generational effort and education — in such venues there can never be war in Brecht’s sense.
Brecht and the Gang that Couldn’t Think Straight are singing to the wrong choir. They should try North Korea, or any of the dictatorships of Central Africa, or Saudi Arabia, or the other Islamic dictatorships where Brechtian wars can still occur.
THE PERFORMANCE THAT NIGHT? Oh, yes. It was much too long as it usually is because those who undertake to produce Brecht believe his words are more or less sacrosanct. They really believe that he wrote great masterpieces like Shakespeare and therefore his words must not be tampered with.
And poor Streep was clearly out of her depth. Too good-looking, bones too fine, manners too good. She should have worn a dirty wool seaman’s cap instead of a snappy officer’s cap. She tried mightily to be tough and earthy, straining too much at it. She miscast herself. Mother Courage should have been played by an aging Ethel Merman — a little fatter and older than Merman was in Gypsy.
In any case the director and two of the main actors, Streep and Austin Pendleton who played the Chaplain, could not play the scenes the way Brecht would have wanted them played. Brecht’s theory of Epic Theater calls for a kind of acting which is the opposite of Stanislavskian acting. Since Brecht believed that drama should be used primarily for propagandistic purposes rather than entertainment, he wanted the audience to be kept from being swept away in waves of emotion. He wanted it to be able to attend to the intellectual content of the messages he was sending. So he did not want the actors to be caught up in their characters the way Stanislavski and the famous Actors Studio trained Marlon Brando and the others of that group.
Brecht said that there were two ways of playing Mother Courage: the way that it’s usually played, the sentimental way, as Streep played her that night. In this case Mother Courage is played as a hero — emotionally she feels she is the indomitable Mother Courage who triumphs over the adversity of losing her three children in an interminable war, and is able to go on in spite of her suffering and pain.
Helene Weigel, Brecht’s last wife, played Mother Courage in the 1949 East Berlin production, directed by the master himself. This production became the gold standard by which other productions and performances came to be judged over the years. About it Brecht wrote, “Weigel’s way of playing Mother Courage was hard and angry; that is, her Mother Courage was not angry; she herself, the actress, was angry. She played a merchant, a strong crafty woman who loses her children to the war one after another and still goes on believing in the profit to be derived from war….Mother Courage learns nothing from her misery…even at the end she does not understand. Few [who saw the play] realized that just this was the bitterest and most meaningful lesson of the play.” Try telling that to the Gang Who Couldn’t Think Straight.
Brecht went further. He wrote in 1954, a couple of years before he croaked (as he himself would have put it):
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