Initial Response to the set task
The group was asked to select a scene from Mother Courage (Brecht, 1980, – ) and a Raisin in the Sun (Hansberry ,1959 , – ) and lead the class in the discussion of the scene and the dramatic style as well as reflect an understanding of key concepts proposed by the readings and build on those, with additional researched materials. The group’s initial response to the set task was positive as it stimulated a discussion, leading to a deeper exploration of both playwrights as well as the plays. The choice of picking one play was an easy one, as the group much preferred Mother Courage to a Raisin in the Sun due to as the group was far more intrigued by the integral themes throughout the play, such as the war.
The context which the group drew upon was distributed and researched evenly. My main focus was the setting of the play, including the historical allegories and the playwright – Bertolt Brecht.
Before we begin our analysis, it is important to give you an overview so everyone has a primary understanding of the play and the author. Mother Courage was first produced in Switzerland in 1941, it was later directed by Brecht in Berlin in 1949 with his second wife Helene Weigel playing the title role. The play represented Brecht’s response to Hitlers invasion of Poland in 1939 – other works by Bertolt Brecht such as the Caucasian Circle and ” hold major political messages, a fundamental example of Brecht’s style. Many critics believe MC to be the master work of Brecht’s concept of Epic Theatre, due to its strong political messages.
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is considered to be one of the most prolific and significant writer-directors of the twentieth century and changed the theatre in political and technical ways. Brecht’s notions and concepts regarding political theatre reject the naturalistic ‘system’ put forward countless years before by Konstantin Stanislavski and tried to encourage the spectator to want to make a difference in society. Devoted to his ideas, his and Helen Weigel’s sweeping Berliner Ensemble (1949) contrasts the model of the ‘pure drama’ with one particular counter-tendency – epic theatre.
The massive economic, social and political upheavals that occurred during Brecht’s lifetime (i.e. carnage of two wars, destruction of empires, cold war and the emergence of mass communist and fascist movements) led Bertolt to propose an alternative direction for the theatre and begin his exploration into Marxism, highlighting the importance of the class struggle in society whilst sustaining the belief that every person is an equal. Verfremdungseffekt (“alienation”) was sought to induce a critical frame of mind in the spectator. This was considered necessary as it could help the spectators to understand their social environment both realistically and emotionally, contributing to the desired indirect impact.
Setting, Character and Themes
Diana: Mother Courage opens in Dalarna, spring 1624, in the midst of the Thirty Years War – a war that fought primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. One of the longest and most destructive conflicts in human history, as well as the deadliest European religious war in history, it resulted in eight million fatalities). The quote on the board (“Though they are now largely silent, the voices from the seventeenth century still speak to us from the innumerable texts and images we are fortunate to possess. They offer a warning of the dangers of entrusting power to those who feel summoned by God to war, or feel that their sense of justice and order is the only one valid” (Peter H. Wilson, Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War) is another sum up of the horrid experience just to help you visualise the setting of the play. A Sergeant and Recruiting Officer are looking for soldiers in Poland. A canteen wagon appears, bearing Mother Courage, her daughter, Kattrin, and her sons, Eilif and Swiss Cheese. Although the characters are introduced, Brecht’s main intention of the play was always to provoke his audience to think about war which is exactly what the initial dialogue explores, implying this is a major as well as a thorough theme; the second sentence is “I’ve been thinking about suicide” (Brecht, 1980, p.1) and “this place has shattered my confidence in the human race” (Brecht, 1980, p.1). This highlights that the play will exploring war’s effect on lower class people – and I believe that mother courage is a major example of someone whose notions and beliefs have been utterly crushed by war.
Beth: I disagree with the previous point, as Mother Courage showed lack of compassion for any of her children and that has nothing to do with war but simply her character. In the first scene, when asked who she is, she responds with ‘business folk’ implying that her business is more important to her than her children, who do nothing more than carry her cart. Their identities are only revealed when she is called ‘trash’ by the Sergeant and decides to defend her character. All of them have different fathers, from different countries, implying that MC will never settle. Her cart is her family and her life, as well as her career. I do agree with the point about the implications of war globally. Bertolt Brecht LEFT Germany as soon as Hitler gained power in 1933 and began writing Mother Courage in 1938/1939, when he suspected war. It does not come as a surprise that the play acts as an allegory as the Thirty Years of War represent the upcoming WW2. Unlike other playwrights who would offer escapism, Bertolt Brecht wants to alienate and confront the audience with global issues that are still relevant to this day..
Ever since the play was published, a diverse variety of successful productions have taken place all over the world. This simply highlights the universality of the play and how relatable it is to people of all kinds. However, Brecht’s notions and ideas are embedded in the script, for example, the time frame does not remain consistent throughout the plot. Although chronological, it is episodic.
This is a technique that is frequently used by Bertolt Brecht to ensure that the audience do not get connected to the cast, but rather the themes/opinions explored throughout the plot. In this case, war. All the frames of the production were synthesized for telling the story and frequently conveyed meaning. This indeed was innovative and set out a new standard for dramatists, and often made writers i.e. Barthes to ‘declare their reluctance to write about any other kind of theatre from then on’. (Lehmann: 2006, p.30) Even with a predominantly black cast, set at the American frontier during the reconstruction period during the late nineteenth century, the social and political context intended by Brecht was still acknowledged and used in various ways.
The untragic heroines real name is Anna Fierling. We discover in scene 1 that Anna gained the name she goes by in Riga when she ran through a bombardment in order to sell her loaves of bread. Mother Courage works tirelessly, relentlessly haggling, dealing, and celebrating the war as her breadwinner in her times of prosperity. Something that’s hardly worth mentioning is that she has three children, Eilif, Swiss Cheese, and Kattrin, whom she tries to take care of and protect throughout the play but her business has always appeared to be the priority.
Beth: Mother Courage is a deeply differing character: daring, outspoken, and intelligent, yet fatally unable to give up her trade in order to protect her children. Brecht attempts, by the end of the play, to make her seem deeply unsympathetic and bring back the detachment between her and the spectator. The war has ruined her, but it hasn’t taught her – Her Solomon-like wisdom does not enable her to oppose the war, but Brecht hopes that the play will act as a device that will foreshadow the coming of WW2.
She will ironically see her children’s deaths from the outset, foretelling their fates in Scene One.
Diana: In the initial scene, Bertolt Brecht wants the spectator to be alienated from the sergeant’s hyperbolic stories about war and is therefore creating an immediate detachment. This is important, so the spectator can easily focus on the message of the play rather its cast. This intention is heightened by making the soldiers nameless and therefore universal and this occurs thoroughly throughout the play.
The point that Bertolt is trying to underline is war’s omnipresence in capitalist civilization and that it is a system by which people and civilizations seem to survive–like capitalism with its markets, war is a system that most people like Mother Courage not only accept but depend upon.
Beth: Although her character has thoroughly been mentioned previously, it is important to note that the cart signifies Mother Courage’s conflict between motherhood and business, two interests that simply do not come hand in hand – when she it told that she has a nice family, she responds “aye, me and me cart have seen the world” and this simply highlights her unfortunate priority. The spectator sees Mother Courage being very defensive of Eilif joining the army, only to see him being led away minutes later whilst Mother Courage is distracted by her business. Just that on its own shows her priority and this remains relatively thorough throughout the play, although protective of her children, she does not manage to keep them safe and sound because her focus heavily relies on the cart and not on them. What Brecht wants us to realize is that Mother Courage does not see how she is tempting fate and that is something she does not realise until the end.
Diana: This brings us back to the beginning of the scene where the spectator should now recognize that the only way not to be crushed by war is by not getting involved – in its fighting or the business. At the end of the play, Mother Courage, having lost all her children lives with a far greater regret than anyone else.
The Song of The Grand Capitulation
Diana: In The Song of The Grand Capitulation (IV, 94-145), Courage tells the story of how she learned it’s best to play by the rules, rather than resist the coming of war. The song is in the first person, which strengthens the claim that she’s singing about herself. She begins with a description of herself as a girl.
Beth: This excerpt from the song shows how every things changed for her when the war started and how she lost her faith in those “higher things” that she once believed in. We think it is important to consider other elements of the play as it shows how the main themes run throughout the story and how even towards the end she still feels it necessary to get back into business showing how the war taught her nothing.
Diana: On the board there are a few articles that myself and Beth read and considered when bringing our research and analysis together, they were insightful and deepened our understanding of the context of the play. Personally, I found the second article most useful as it deepened my knowledge on the political side of the play. It intends to argue that Mother Courage, fails to support her children financially because of a socio-psychological state defined by Marx as “alienation”. Mother Courage’s attempt to maintain and secure financial profit leads to a tragic failure because her endeavour falls into the Marxist category of alienated labour. The article offers a study of the two major aspects of “alienation”– ‘alienation and identity,’ and ‘alienation and political’.
Beth: I was quite aware of Marxism so although I found it useful, I was more interested in articles that focused on other elements such as feminism. For example, Elisabeth Alexander is one of the key authors in post-war German literature and discusses the controversy of her role amongst other women. She talks about her own personal and intellectual development, the cultural differences between Germany and America, her relationship to Germany’s fascist past, her strong but ambivalent involvement with Germany’s student movement, feminism, and the Catholic church. A substantial part of the interview focuses on her own work, discussing its recurring themes of sexuality, pornography, gender trouble, men as such, and the role of women, especially mothers, in modern society. (FAL)
We deliberately chose materials that didn’t just focus on the play because we wanted a greater overview so we could provide you with a greater perspective of the historical and social setting.
We added them in here in case any of you would like to take a look at them. One of them was only published last week so this shows how mother courage is still very relevant to theatre world today, this would be a good one to look at as its so recent.
‘a theatre that cannot be laughed in is a theatre to be laughed at. Humourless people are ridiculous’ (Brecht as cited by Bradby and McCormick: 1978, p. 112).
We felt that it would be good to end this on this quote as Mother Courage can easily be misinterpreted. Rather than pushing comedy at or onto the spectator, Brecht juxtaposed opposing acting styles to create contrast and comedy, whilst also making a political statement. Mother Courage is a great illustration of this, and we hope that our analysis has helped your understanding and interpretation of the play.
My personal reflection