MOTHER COURAGE – BRECHT

10 Dec

Mother Courage and the Theatre of the Absurd

BRECHT

            In America in 1947 at the end of the Second World War, a committee was formed for the investigation into un-American activities. It was claimed that America and in particular the Hollywood movie industry, had been infiltrated by Communist sympathizers and with the fear of the spread of the Soviet idealism many celebrities where put on trial for their professional lives. One such figure who was interviewed by the committee was Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was a Bavarian and an immigrant playwright who’d fled the Nazis at the beginning of the war. Ironically he’d been persecuted in Europe for anti-fascist incitement which had led to his exile in Denmark, only later to be pursued in America for alleged Soviet affiliations.

             Neither a Communist nor a Fascist, Brecht was an absurdist; a playwright who’d invented a new genre of theater that did not follow the Aristotelean model as proscribed in the Poetics. (White. 6)  Subjected to the illogical scrutiny of ideological purity he eventually left America and settled in Berlin in the former D.D.R. where he continued to pursue his craft. Although subscribing to Marxist ideology he never joined the Communist party however, did declare his support for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. (7) Brecht in his politics as in his writing was himself absurd to the point of contradiction; a man who curiously welcomed the Socialist Ideal and the cache of the Workers’ Paradise whilst being personally sustained by the West thanks to the remunerations of his many plays. A man who claimed not to be a Communist and yet who willingly lived behind the Iron Curtain.

             The Theatre of the Absurd which is widely attributed to the modernist period was the progeny of Brecht and was much emulated during and after his lifetime.  Bertolt Brecht’s, “play style followed plots that were cyclical or absurdly expansive… [and consequently]either a parody or dismissive of realism… [as well as] the concept of the well-made play.” (White. 16)

            Mother Courage probably the most famous of Brecht’s plays is a depiction of a family struggling to survive the Thirty Years War (a conflict which initially pitted Catholics against Protestants during the seventeenth century; 1618-1648) Although historically relevant it is easy to understand how contemporary theatre has portrayed his work as analogous to the influx of Communism in Eastern Europe and the conflict of political conscience. Originally written to warn of the rise of fascism in Germany during the thirties, it has seen myriad performances globally to great acclaim. The play is said by some to be the greatest play of the twentieth century and also the greatest antiwar play of all time. Labeled as epic-theatre it includes all the absurdist’s devices that Brecht has become synonymous with. The play includes bright, garish white lighting rather than the subdued lighting contemporary audiences have become accustomed to, minimalist stage props to indicate location, live stage direction during the performance and hand held placards to insure that the audience is aware of the falling action. Mother Courage is an austere, scaffold of a play that operates in full view of the audience and juxtaposes the traditionally polished performances modern audiences have come to expect. Nothing is hidden from the audience and even the costume changes are performed on stage. Brecht was intent upon total immersion theatre where the audience was conscious the whole time that the play wasn’t just a work of entertainment or an exposition of art but a necessary, visceral interaction between the performers and the audience in order to evoke a reaction. By adding a nontraditional dimensionality to the performance Brecht expected that the audience would identify with the actors and not just their characters. Brecht wanted his audience to experience his plays rather than just observe them. By witnessing the construction of the play as well as the performance each participant i.e. member of the audience, would take away an individual experience of that which they’d seen. By purposeful construction Brecht created a very private performance in a very public space, where no two plays were exactly the same and where each performance allowed the audience to experience something fresh. This is not dissimilar to the sixteenth century street theatre of the Commedia dell’arte where, although the audience was familiar with the stock characters and their representative personality traits, each was a separate and distinct performance. This ensured that the characters and the production had longevity and the story remained vital and financially viable. Brecht borrowed heavily from a genre famous for sketch and improvisation; something he achieved with great success in the subsequent themes of his own productions.

            Mother Courage and her three children are tinkers who harness themselves to their own wagon and who drag it from battlefield to battlefield. Their poverty is abject and their only source of income is the chandlery they sell to the Protestant soldiers of the Thirty Years War. Conflict rages on all fronts and the corpses of the dead, whose only value in death is the clothing and equipment they still wear, are innumerable. Courage and her family strip the dead in order to resell it so that they, by means of war profiteering at its most meagre, may survive: albeit from hand to mouth.

            During a lull in the fighting Courage happens upon two recruiters who, looking for fresh cannon fodder to replace those already killed distract her with an offer of money in order to trick her youngest son Eilif – an anagram for life – into joining the Protestant Army. Unable to prevent what will almost certainly be the death of her son she prophetically lists the fates of all her three children. Eilif will die for his courage, her second son Swiss Cheese for his honesty and her daughter Kattrin for her kindness. The progress of the play, despite the obvious qualities that her children possess, will prove the validity of her predictions.

             The play advances by several years, as it does in each subsequent act, to another battlefield where in the pursuit of her livelihood she comes across her brave soldier son Eilif who is now a decorated hero. Reunited with her son Courage ponders the soldierly virtue of bravery and realizes that if commanders need brave men then trouble is surely on the wind. A minor character chatters about the righteousness of the campaign and how if their leaders hadn’t been ordained by a Protestant God to destroy the Catholics they would surely be accused of war profiteering. This is ironic in that everybody in the microcosm of the world of the camp followers is doing exactly that. Eilif is eventually caught by the Catholics doing that for which he has been decorated by his own side and is executed for his “courageous” deeds. Seen as an enemy by the Catholics and not as a hero, Brecht presents the paradox of one man’s freedom fighter being another man’s terrorist. Eilif is hanged in chains for his part in the war. Likewise his brother Swiss Cheese, also a member of the Protestant Army, is caught and executed whilst trying to protect the regiment’s payroll. In an act of honesty, as predicted by his mother, he too is hanged.

            Berieved of both her boys, Mother Courage finds herself alone with just her daughter in a burned out village where the wounded from the latest battle lay dying on the ground. In need of rags to stem their bleeding a commander begs Courage for some of her shirts to rip into rags to turn into bandages. Courage refuses saying that she will not part with her officers’ shirts, her most valuable merchandise, unless it is for money. Courage understands the suffering of the wounded and despite having lost her own children persists in the absurdity of survival that the shirts represent to her. Without the sale of the shirts she herself will die of starvation; an obvious paradox of who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

             In the midst of the carnage of war Courage finds love however, in order to be with a man who will save her from herself and the war, she must abandon her daughter Kattrin her only surviving child. Once again Courage is faced with the agony of decision and ultimately chooses to relinquish her love and remain with her daughter: an act of self-sacrifice in a world where nobody notices and nobody cares.

             The play ends several years after it has begun. Overrun by the Catholics whilst Courage goes to town for supplies, her daughter is witness to the advancing enemy. Climbing onto the tinker’s wagon, Kattrin sounds out a drum to warn the locals of imminent danger and for her kindness and bravery is shot and killed. Mother Courage returns to the wagon and the corpse of her dead daughter. Instead of burying the girl herself, she uses that which is most important to her and pays the local villages to do the job instead. With nobody left in the world, her children dead and her love lost, the only thing that survives is her diabolical occupation. Strapping herself into the harness of the wagon as though she were a horse, she moves forward to join up with the advancing Protestant Army. Her final words which strike deep into any audience with revulsion for war and an awareness of social subjugation are, “I must return to business.”  This is particularly pertinent and representative of indifferently turning the other cheek whilst living under intolerable, irrevocable strain. Brecht may have lived in East Germany but his message is very astute to anybody paying the least attention.

                        According to Blau, “Brecht is a polemicist… and his dialectic approach is rhetoric.”(4) This is conceivable when one considers that Brecht was the founder of the theatrical epic (Mother Courage is a performance that endures for a full three hours) and the avant-garde of modernist twentieth century political theatre. His play Mother Courage relates the story of those who participate in war, not for patriotic or selfless reasons, but for financial gain; those who paradoxically make their living from the carnage of which they themselves are victims. The symbolism is that of an ordinary woman trying to survive in an impossible situation. In order to preserve the lives of her children she must ultimately sacrifice them all to feed the war machine that sustains her own life. Rather than the epitome of conflict and courage she represents human absurdity. Brecht’s play is therefore, a polemic on war and an exposition of the tragedy of the human condition.

            Mother Courage has unusual facility in that it can be recast to suit any number of political topics. In the past the play has been used to highlight climate change, racial segregation, geo-politics and in particular anti-Soviet rhetoric. The story is a survival story that portrays the protagonist as a besieged, embattled figure. This of course can be representative of almost any conflict and accounts for both the longevity and brilliance of Brecht’s play writing. It is the method by which he portrays his subject that is the most enduring; a theatrical framework that espouses no particular ideology but which unapologetically renounces the subjugation of human freedoms.

             Mother Courage although first appearing in the first half of the twentieth Century is as relevant today as it was in 1939. Given Brecht’s own persecution at the hands of the Un-American committee in 1947, the play has come to be seen as a prophetic piece of writing similar to the dystopian novel 1984, that was published just a couple of years later in 1949 by George Orwell. Just like Orwell, Brecht realized the necessity of highlighting the dangers of totalitarianism and the ineffectuality of the individual when faced by the crushing power of overt political will. Whether an envisaged dystopia, or protracted warfare created by unseen forces in order to realize political goals beneficial to the few at the expense of the many, Brecht created an “every woman” in Mother just as Orwell created an “everyman” in Winston Smith. In Brecht’s own words, “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.” (White. 17) This reflects Orwell’s own treatise of, “War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is truth.”(Rodden. 5)

             Brecht despite his socialist leanings realized that no matter the quotidian politic, whether it was Capitalist or Communist, the dangers to civil liberties where very real and that everything should be done to preserve those hard won freedoms and the sanctity of human life. It is this kind of theatrical discourse that makes Brecht such a political chameleon and could possibly explain his ability to live in affability whether in the West or behind the Iron Curtain. Although espousing socialist tendency it was the rights of man which were truly at the heart of his political genius rather than ideological dogma.

Works Cited.

Blau, Herbert. Mother Courage: The Rite of War and the Rhythm of Epic. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Mar., 1957), pp. 1-10. Print.

Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and her Children. Arcade Publishing. New York. 1994. Print

Rodden, John. George Orwell: the politics of literary reputation. New Brunswick,N.J. Transactions Publishers. 2002. Print.

 

White, John J. Bertolt Brecht’s dramatic theory. Camden House. Rochester, N.Y. 2004. Print.

 

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