Mother, War and Courage

Well, we all just had another Mother’s Day go by yesterday. Hope you all pampered and showed how much you love your mothers yesterday and continue to do so throughout because just one day isn’t really enough to show your gratitude and affection, is it?

There are countless books, plays, poems and stories on mothers-whether they celebrate them or stereotype them or show their complexity of roles, relations and personality. Many of these works were highlighted in yesterday’s newspapers and magazines.

Another marvellous work of literature produced by one of the most celebrated German playwright of the 20th century that takes a hard and critical look at the role of a mother amidst a crushing war is ‘Mother Courage and Her Children‘ by Bertolt Brecht. Written in 1939, Brecht superbly hits out at the capitalism of war through the lens of the titular character-Anna Fierling who is more popularly known as Mother Courage.

The plot is simple and straightforward. ‘Mother Courage and Her Children‘ is set in the 17th century while the grim Thirty Years War rages on. It is divided into 12 scenes which corresponds to the span of 12 years across which the play is spread. Mother Courage makes a living in the war through her trusty wagon and the food, drink and war equipment she sells to the officers and soldiers. She has three children- Eilif, Swiss Cheese and Kattrin who is dumb. Mother Courage works very hard at making a living so that her children and she can survive during the war. She is shrewd and business minded. The play opens in Dalarna where a sergeant and a recruiting officer converse ironically about the necessity of war and about recruiting soldiers. Just then, Mother Courage happens to pass with her children and her wagon. The sergeant wants Eilif to join the war and he is quite willing to do so but Mother Courage objects saying he is not made for war. Nonetheless, the sergeant too is shrewd enough to involve her in a bargain for a belt while the officer whisks Eilif away and entices him to join the war. Similarly her Swiss Cheese also becomes part of the war and Kattrin suffers a fate much worse.Then the play wounds through the other places like Poland, Bavaria, Italy, Moravia etc. that Courage goes with her wagon and her children selling her goods and making more business transactions. In the course, she meets a Chaplain, a cook and a prostitute-Yvette who become part of the entourage and aid her while also living with her.

Throughout the play, Brecht has shown the war’s brutalities and Mother Courage’s struggle to survive and protect her children from the war through her wagon. She is courageous in as much that she struggles and strives hard in the face of the most bitter adversities and yet she fails to notice that it is the war that feeds her and sustains her. He creates a crucial paradox in her character and Franz Mennemeier has aptly called her ‘merchant mother.’ implying that while she has her motherly instincts, they are inseparable from her business instincts. Brecht shows the futility of war through the futility of Mother Courage’s actions and struggles. He plays on the idea that had then gradually emerged that war is a business, something initiated by the big, fat capitalists for their own vested interests. He was a life long socialist and his abhorrence for all thing capitalist comes through in the play as he projects how small people like the characters of the play get caught up by the conflicts of the big people and the former lose a lot while it is only the latter who gain and profit. He attacked the Nazi regime through this particular play.

Brecht had developed his own non-Aristotelian form of drama called epic theatre which uses a plethora of techniques, most predominant being the ‘estrangement’ or alienation’ technique. The other one is the use of songs which were always used by Brecht to comment upon the situation in the scene. ‘Mother Courage and Her Children‘ adheres to the tenants of epic theatre by and large. It is peppered with songs and alienates the audience particularly by making them compare the 17th century war with the 20th century Nazi regime.  The play is also episodic-each scene exists for itself. It also does not have clearly good or bad characters as Brecht rejected the Aristotelian idea of a ‘hero’.

Thus, ‘Mother Courage and Her Children‘ provides the reader thoughtful insights with the aid of epic theatre’s tenants. It makes the audience think critically and apply the situation of Mother Courage to their own bleak and oppressive reality. Even today, the 21st century readers can think about the way in which wars are fought and who it is that really starts them? Is there really an enemy or war is just another business? There maybe no Hitler today but the play is very relevant to the politics of war raging in the world today. This universality of the theme of Brecht’s play is what can appeal to the modern audience and if on reading the play, s/he is aroused to change her/his situation, then Brecht would be really happy in his grave now because that is what he believed that plays show do-make the audience active participate and change their world for the better.

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