TODAY IN THEATRE HISTORY: In 1963, Anne Bancroft stars in the first Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, opening today at the Martin Beck Theatre. Jerome Robbins directs a cast that also includes Gene Wilder and Barbara Harris.
Act 1; p. 1: SERGEANT: It’s too long since they had a war here; stands to reason. Where’s their sense of morality to come from? Peace – that’s just a mess; takes a war to make order. Peacetime, the human race runs wild.
Act 1; p. 2: SERGEANT: Same with all good things, it’s a job to get a war going. But once it’s blossomed out there’s no holding it; folk start fighting shy of peace like punters what can’t stop for fear of having to tot up what they lost. Before that it’s war they’re fighting shy of. It’s something new to them.
Act 3; p. 19: MOTHER COURGE to Yvette: Oh well, war’s off to a good start. Easily take four, five years before all countries are in. A bit of foresight, don’t do nothing silly, and business’ll flourish.
Act 3; p. 20: MOTHER COURAGE: Now don’t you start up again about that Pieter of yours and how it all happened, in front of my innocent daughter too. YVETTE: She’s the one should hear it, put her off love. MOTHER COURAGE: Nobody can put ‘em off that.
Act 3; p. 21: MOTHER COURAGE: Be thankful you’re dumb, then you can’t contradict yourself and won’t be wanting to bite your tongue off for speaking the truth; it’s a godsend, being dumb is.
Act 8; p. 61: THE CHAPLAIN to Courage: But when I see you picking up peace betwixt your finger and your thumb like some dirty old snot-rag, then my humanity feels outraged; for then I see that you don’t want peace but war, because you profit from it; in which case you shouldn’t forget the ancient saying that whosoever sups with the devil needs a long spoon. MOTHER COURAGE: I go no use for war, and war ain’t got much use for me. But I’m not being called no hyaena, you and me’s through, THE CHAPLAIN: Then why grumble about peace when everybody’s breathing sighs of relief? Because of some old junk in your cart? MOTHER COURAGE: My goods ain’t old junk but what I lives by, and you too up to now. THE CHAPLAIN: Off war, in other words. Aha.
Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht is centered around Mother Courage, a canteen woman who thrives off of the war – the Thirty Years War, to be precise. Mother Courage travels with her three children: Katterin (her dumb daughter), Swiss Cheese, and Eilif.
In the opening act of the play, Mother Courage predicts the fate of her children. She predicts that all three will die from their virtues. Kattrin for her kindness, Swiss Cheese for his honesty, and Eilif for his bravery. All three predictions come true.
Death by virtue is a Brechtian characteristic in that it incorporates a fatal virtue as opposed to a fatal flaw.
Brecht also uses the alienation effect in Mother Courage and Her Children as a means of getting his audience to think about what is being shown on stage as opposed to being swallowed by the play and falling into a trance-like state.
Different directors may decide to incorporate this Brechtian element in different ways (use of placards, half-curtain, etc.); however, there are some qualities of the text which put the effect into action as well. For example, Brecht incorporates various songs into the script. The music serves to remind the audience that they are watching a play. Secondly, Brecht makes all of his characters hard to relate to. For example, one minute we see Mother Courage singing a lullaby to her daughter, Kattrin. The next, we see her paying for Kattrin’s funeral, almost stoically. This ambivalence and irony builds a wall between the audience and the characters in the sense that the audience has a hard time understanding the characters.
Brecht prompts his audience to examine the social conditioning of his characters rather than their disposition. In other words, he does not want us to look down on Mother Courage for her seemingly twisted values. He wants us to look at the type of person war has turned her into.
Reinhold Rattigan’s all mouse opossum production of Mother Courage and Her Children will be in New York from now until the end of May. The show was a runaway success throughout Europe last year and gave Rattigan the momentum he needed to return to the West End and Broadway stages. Some critics say that the production was actually lacking Brecht’s original bite and that audiences were merely dazzled by the whimsy of a cast that originated in Peru. Still, the performance of Anita Opossumirez as Mother Courage should not be missed. Her South American twang adds a new, confusing dimension to the classic Germanic role.
What they could use around here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization. And when do you get the organization? In a war. Peace is one big waste of equipment.