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.

Pati, patni aur woh

Obscenity, indecency and lewdness are quite common in today’s media-television shows, news, soaps, popular songs, movies, magazines,books, Facebook, and the internet in general. It probably does not shock us that much because we are ‘oh so modern’ and are not narrow minded like those restrained Victorians! Its also kind of ‘cool’ to be indecent at times in today’s world. Bollywood movies will teach all the Indian guys how to woo a girl by eve teasing her or worse even by raping her. However, even today, we do sometimes get outraged by shameless displays of obscenity and well mostly its the Censor Board that gets outraged which then displays its own obscene power to chop down obscenity to protect the people from getting outraged too!

Well, there wasn’t any Censor Board in the Restoration Period in the late 17th century or even later on yet the drama of that time received some flak for its indecency. Nonetheless, at the height of the Restoration, it was enjoyed by the audience to the fullest and only later on did the drama begin to be looked down upon.

The Country Wife‘ is one such play produced at that time which was one of the most popular plays but like the rest of Restoration drama it was ignored and only resurrected in the 20th century when a few ‘modern’ critics considered those works from a literary angle and critiqued it intelligently. Written by William Wycherley, ‘The Country Wife‘ is a quintessential Restoration play as its core is wit, satire, and indecency. The Indian Censor Board would have banned it if it was written today but thankfully it has been put in the sacred halls of literary work. Even if it hadn’t been, it is wrong to define this play and all the other Restoration plays as being solely obscene. As mentioned before, the play is replete with wit and it pokes fun at the aristocracy and their hollow/superficial lives. Satire and wit were esteemed aspects of that life and were incorporated in the plays as well particularly in comedies. Thus, ‘The Country Wife‘ is a hilarious play with several literary devices particularly the double entendre (double meanings) which furthers the wit along with the indecency.It is this hilarity that also acts as a biting commentary on the frivolous and decadent ways of the Restoration aristocracy.

The Country Wife‘ has a main plot and a sub plot. The former is centered on a gentleman named Horner, who pretends to be an eunuch so that he can gain the trust of the husbands who would then allow their wives to spend time with him. A rich middle class man, Sir Jasper Fidget, falls for this ruse and allows him to enjoy the company of his wife, Lady Fidget and daughter, Miss Dainty Fidget. He also falls for a town gentleman’s wife, Margery Pinchwife when he sees her in the theater. Her husband, Mr. Pinchwife only married her because he could not keep a ‘whore’ to himself and felt that the country wife would not cheat on him because of her innocence and naivete. Yet he is wholly jealous of her and keeps her restricted and even locked up so that she won’t cheat on him. Margery is thus the titular character of the play. The play then goes on as to how Horner makes a ‘cuckold’ of all the husbands because of his stratagem. This is interspersed with the sub plot that basically deals with Harcourt and Alithea’s (Mr. Pinchwife’s sister) love. The two plots are in stark contrast to each other. The former is all about cheating on one’s wives and husbands and the latter extolls true love. In the end, it is Harcourt and Alithea’s relationship that is a right example of how love should be treated.

The downside of the play is that is a tad bit sexist because it is judgmental towards the aristocratic women and not the great pretender Horner who seems to have a vicious appetite for fornication. This attitude also reflects on how badly women were treated then particularly accentuated by Pinchwife’s cruel treatment of his wife. Wycherley, however, does show Pinchwife in a ludicrous light perhaps to manifest that husbands who restrict their better halves and treat them so will deserve to be cheated and ‘cuckolded.’

The play may not be everyone’s cup of tea especially for those who are touchy about indecent language and manners. Yet those very things are what make the play a satire. It is an inseparable part of the play. Knowing a little about the time and the literary techniques and customs will also help in further understanding the play. For eg, the dominant stock characters such as the fop, the rake, the wit etc that were usually used in the Restoration comedies, the predominant French influence(seen in ‘The Country Wife‘ as well in the many French words and the influence of Moliere), the importance of wit in the towns, the constant juxtaposition of town and country and the usual deriding of the country ways and manners etc.

So you could either dismiss ‘The Country Wife‘ as being bawdy and uncouth or read it up and go with the flow as 17th century bawdry could not shock us anymore! Moreover, who wouldn’t enjoy the sexual innuendos?