On September 1, 1939, one week after entering into a secret alliance, the armies of Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland—the opening move in the Wehrmacht land grab that precipitated the Second World War. The “September Campaign” set off shock waves across Europe, reverberating even on the rugged Swedish island of Lidingö, where the playwright Bertolt Brecht had fled—along with his family and a few favorite mistresses—after being labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi regime. Brecht had been busy in exile, penning impassioned screeds against the Führer’s war machine and warning of German dreams of empire. With Poland overrun, he abandoned his other projects and, in just five weeks, produced a draft of one of the greatest works of theater in the 20th century: a play about a sutler woman who followed armies around from battle to battle, selling her wares and profiting off the combat even as it devoured her offspring. He called it Mother Courage and Her Children.
Seventy-five years later, Mother Courage remains one of the most captivating and daunting plays—and characters—in the modern canon. Along with Galileo, it represents Brecht at his epic apogee. Among theater folk, Mother Courage is seen as the female Lear, a once-in-a-lifetime role demanding an actress’s full range, from bawdy humor to venality, callousness, and raw tragedy. (“It was a joy to do,” said Diana Rigg after playing the part for London’s Royal National Theatre, “but bloody hard work pulling that blessed cart around for three hours every night.” Or as Dame Judi Dench put it: “Fuck this. I never have a scene off.”) Yet the play remains a rarity on the American stage. It’s only appeared on Broadway twice—in 1963 and ’67—and had a smattering of other runs at big-name theaters. When Oskar Eustis, director of New York’s Public Theater, mounted a 2006 production starring Meryl Streep as the warped Mater Dolorosa, he told the Times: “Most [thespians] I know will agree that Mother Courage is a great play, but nobody actually wants to do it.”
Our historic reluctance to touch Brecht’s ultimate creation can be put down to a number of factors—the difficulties of achieving the playwright’s famous “alienation effect” (which uses theatrical techniques to estrange the audience from emotional investment), Brecht’s own alienating effect on almost everyone who met him and particularly on those poor souls who tried to stage his works, lingering distaste over his apologist attitudes toward Stalinist Russia and the East Germans. Not to mention the play’s overt anti-capitalist overtones and its gut-wrenching nihilistic bleakness. Anti-Brechtians charge Mother Courage and its creator with being irritatingly didactic, insufferably self-important, and full of maddening contradictions. It’s all true, of course. And it’s this very spirit—irascible, indomitable—that makes the play (and Mother C.) so irresistible, just as Brecht’s own bullying grandiosity was so very repellent, and so very charismatic.
On some level, Brecht meant for Mother Courage to be an ambivalent figure—he called her “a great living contradiction.” A small-time merchant in the Thirty Years’ War, in which 17th-century Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other at the behest of wealthy noblemen, Anna Fierling (nicknamed Mutter Courage for her reckless drive) sells her canteen wares—boots and booze and moldy bread—to troops on both sides, all the while maneuvering to save her three kinder from annihilation. She’s sharp and resourceful, tenacious and clever. She takes the piss out of pious clergymen (Chaplain: “We’re in God’s hands.” Courage: “I don’t think things are quite that bad yet, but I still can’t sleep at night,”) and can haggle desperate cooks into buying the most scraggly of capons. She’s cynical about war and wooing, martial values and religious loyalties. She longs for quieter times, but when a truce is declared, she yelps, “Don’t tell me peace has broken out, just when I’ve ordered in some new supplies.”
One side advances, one retreats, but the details are mostly irrelevant to Mother Courage. She’s out to scrape a living and to keep her brood close—“my children are not for the war trade,” she snaps at a military recruiter angling for her eldest son. But the war is hungry, and as an officer tells Fierling in the very first scene, “you want to live off the war, you’ll have to give it what for.” One by one, her kids are picked off (no spoiler alerts here—Brecht liked to announce the action on placards in advance, part of his distancing effect) and Courage, though devastated, cannot see how the thing she profits from will ultimately render her and her family, in Brecht’s words, “utterly disfigured and deformed.” And so her talent for survival—thinking quick on her feet, nosing out a good trade—eventually becomes her Achilles’ heel. When her eldest is marched off to his execution, she’s off in town pursuing some hot bargain. The same thing happens when her mute daughter, the sweet Kattrin, is shot as she tries to warn a hamlet of impending slaughter. Even more damnably, Mother Courage has the chance to save her son Swiss Cheese from the firing squad by paying a ransom. At the last minute, she tries to talk his captors down on the price—and loses her boy instead.
“She follows the war and makes it very much into her business,” noted the critic Harold Bloom. “It is certainly not correct to exclusively depict her as an entirely innocent victim.” Brecht himself went further, calling Courage “the hyena of the battlefield” and writing a scene in which she despicably refuses to rip up expensive shirts to help bandage the wounded. Even as we cheer for her stamina, we shrink from her rapacity. Still, despite Fierling’s greed, it’s hard not to pity her by the end of the play. “We are moved by this woman, as, inarguably, Brecht meant us to be,” wrote Tony Kushner, who produced a new translation of the text for The Public Theater’s production. “She’s egotistical because she has almost nothing. She has a vitality and a carnality. Even though her appetites seem obscene, set as they are against widespread carnage, the grinding down of Courage’s ambition and self-possession are devastating to watch.”
The fact that most audiences end up feeling some degree of sympathy for Mother Courage irritated Brecht to no end. At the play’s world premiere in 1941 at the Zürich Schauspielhaus—the only major European theater to stage Brecht’s work during WWII—the war-weary viewers identified with Courage and mourned for her. When the writer finally had the opportunity to direct a production himself in 1949—with his wife, the legendary Helene Weigel, in the title role—his estrangement effect again fell short. Later, Brecht complained, “The [East Berliner] audiences of 1949 and the ensuing years did not see Mother Courage’s crimes, her participation, her desire to share in the profits of the war business; they saw only her failure, her sufferings.” They were missing the point of his Verfremdungseffekt, that breaking of the fourth wall which was supposed to make the masses think, not feel, in order to nudge them in a revolutionary direction. (The legacy of this alienation effect is now pervasive in American art—every time you see a Matthew Weiner anti-hero, you can thank Brecht. Whether Don Draper is moving anyone in a revolutionary direction is another question entirely.)
Brecht must have had intimations that the bourgeoisie might miss his points about war and capitalism, for he rewrote parts of Scenes 1 and 5 to make Mother Courage more execrable. This was not meant to be Aristotelian drama, with its climactic emotional catharsis, nor Stanislavskian method acting, which Brecht found to be weak and soppy. In his notes on Mother Courage, Brecht observed, “when the title role is played in the usual way, so as to communicate empathy, the spectator (according to numerous witnesses) experiences an extraordinary pleasure: the indestructible vitality of this woman beset by the hardships of war leaves him with a sense of triumph. Mother Courage’s active participation in the war is not taken seriously.” Instead, he wanted viewers to grasp that “this spring from which Mother Courage drank death was a polluted one.”
But that’s the tricky thing about art—it continually escapes the creator’s intentions, even a creator as controlling and domineering as Brecht. And anyway, if Brecht did not want us to feel for Mother Courage, why did he make her so richly shaded and humanly fallible? Take the scene where Fierling hears the gunfire signaling Swiss Cheese’s death—an execution she may have been able to prevent. Under Brecht’s direction, Helene Weigel had Courage emit a silent scream over her child’s demise, an existential cry like something out of Picasso’s “Guernica.” Later, when Courage sings her Eia popeia lullaby to Kattrin’s corpse, it is a scene of real power and tenderness.
Brecht placed his merchant-mother in a dark universe of impossible choices. Is it worse to let your family starve or profit off the carnage? Is it worse to exploit the soldiers or to let them exploit you? Should Courage give up her war profiteering and settle down to run an honest pub—even if it means abandoning her mute girl? (In one of her more commendable moments, she refuses this offer.) Should Courage stop selling her bullets to the troops, even if it means she might one day have to sell herself instead, like the play’s prostitute, Yvette? The particulars of Courage’s historical epoch, and of her socioeconomic status, leave her stranded before any number of devastating paths, each more destructive than the last—a Catch-22 that Brecht and many of his fellow Europeans also faced themselves.
In a 1937 poem, Brecht wrote, ““They won’t say: the times were dark/Rather: why were their poets silent?” Elsewhere, his poems asked, “In the dark times, Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” When Brecht penned these lines, his continent hovered on the precipice of a journey into hell. It was not the first time Brecht’s generation had watched war descend—the playwright had been drafted into the medical corps in World War I, a battle of empire that decimated Europe in much the same way as the Thirty Years’ War. (Before entering the service, a 20-year-old Brecht composed the cynical “Legend of the Dead Soldier,” in which armies “even dig out the dead for service in war.”) When the fighting subsided, Brecht quickly became a darling of the Weimar set for his collaborations with Kurt Weill, including Threepenny Opera, about that lumpenproletariat lowlife Mack the Knife. Germany’s artistic scene pulsed with energy and anarchy—some of Brecht’s plays nearly set off riots—and the theater existed to rattle civilization and embolden its discontents. These entre-deux-guerres years were the headiest times of Brecht’s life, and he would never recapture that sense of youthful glory. In 1933, with the Third Reich ascendant—a line from another poem: “I hear the victory bulletins of the scum of the earth”—Brecht fled his homeland into a 15-year exile.
Wherever he went—Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Hollywood—Brecht managed to win over scores of women and exasperate practically everyone else. He was opportunistic, impatient, despotic. He loved cigars and detective fiction and hated to bathe. He was intellectually arrogant—in his journal, he wrote things like, “now and again I have a glimmering of the agonies of the untalented”—and obsessed with his own sense of importance. According to the director Joseph Losey—who staged the first English-language production of Life of Galileo—Brecht “ate very little, drank very little, and fornicated a great deal.” He referred to his harem of lovers as his “means of production” (though he never gave the women credit for the many plays they helped him write). Once, he remarked of his own offspring, “there’s so little one can do with children, except to be photographed with them.” He was dictatorial to underlings—during a brief sojourn in New York in 1935, he was so arrogant and uncompromising toward the actors of the New York Theatre Union that they threw him out of rehearsals—and often sabotaged his own collaborations. As Marieluise Fleisser, one of his protégées and mistresses, observed, “In the final goal he wanted to help human beings. But in daily practice he was a despiser of humankind.” The poet W.H. Auden, who worked with Brecht on a Broadway adaptation of The Duchess of Malfi, described him as one of the few people who deserved the death sentence—“in fact, I can imagine doing it to him myself.”
Brecht liked to fancy himself a provocateur, a champion of the underdog, a gadfly who skewered the corrupt values of capitalist overlords. “I am by nature a difficult person to control,” he said. “I reject angrily authority that exists without my respect.” He always sought the contrarian view. If he hated Nazi Germany, he also loathed his time in America—Southern California was a “tundra,” a land of “cheap prettiness [that] depraves everything,” where “one is forever buying or selling—one sells, one might say, one’s urine to the urinal.” Brecht’s attempts to launch Mother Courage in America fell flat, mostly due to his unbending opinions on how his work should be staged. When a popular and pretty actress wanted to play the title part, he replied, “over my dead body.” He was a disaster at Hollywood hobnobbing, and the most triumphant moment of his American sojourn came arguably right at the end, with his cheekily evasive testimony before the House Committee On Un-American Activities. (“Have many of your writings been based on the philosophy of Lenin, Marx?” “No, I don’t think that is quite correct.” “Did you write that [suspicious poem], Mr. Brecht? “No, I wrote a German poem, but that is very different from this thing.”)
As the FBI must have known, Brecht was in fact a lifelong fan of socialism—already in 1926, he’d seen fit to declare that Marx “was the only spectator for my plays I’d ever come across.” But for a man who delighted in exposing hypocrisies, his relationship to Communism was riddled with duplicity. Even as he churned out works decrying the evils of capital, he was extremely entrepreneurial and owned a fair amount of property. He played at being a prole (the philosopher Theodor Adorno quipped that Brecht spent two hours a day pushing dirt under his fingernails) but he’d been born into a pampered existence and had little appetite for physical labor. He was an avid supporter of Stalin—of the dictator’s critics, he declared, “The swine has to be shot,”—and played down Soviet abuses of power, even as his friends in Russia were being herded off to the gulag. Yet while he praised the USSR publicly, he was making plans in secret to escape to America by way of Vladivostok. En route to California, he reportedly tossed his works of Lenin overboard, to avoid trouble from the U.S. authorities.
Brecht’s relationship to East Germany was even more inconsistent. Though he settled there in 1948, he quietly kept his Austrian citizenship and a bank account in Switzerland, into which he deposited the money he won from the Stalin Peace Prize. (Was there ever a more Brechtian name for an award?) Indeed, most scholars agree that Brecht would have preferred to stay in Zurich or Vienna, like his nemesis Thomas Mann, if he’d been able to find a theater to support him. Once back in East Berlin, Brecht showed little support for the working classes, backing the suppression of the 1953 workers’ revolt. For its part, the East German government spied on him and monitored his scripts. Brecht had intended for his time in Berlin to be spent on “the scientific manufacture of scandal,” but instead he lived out the rest of his life in an uneasy relationship with the GDR. The British author James Fenton delivered perhaps the best assessment of Brecht’s political dissembling: “To offer your art in vocal support of the Party is one thing. To do so and still keep a bolt-hole and nest-egg is quite another…From the moment of his espousal of Communism, Brecht stood on the sidelines, cheering on a party he most emphatically did not wish to join, recommending that others submit to a discipline which he himself refused.”
In other words, if Mother Courage was no hero during the dark times—well, neither was Bertolt Brecht.
Still, Brecht did manage to do some courageous things during the war—one of them being the writing of Mother Courage. Stalin-worship aside, he had the temerity to tell truths about Hitler and his war machine that many others preferred to ignore. As the writer Yale Kramer noted, when Brecht wrote Courage, “[he] was bitterly resentful and preoccupied with those who played along with the Nazis and enabled them to achieve power in Germany—the war profiteers—the rich and powerful industrialists in Germany and the Swedish steel-makers who sold much needed steel to Hitler. That is what the play is about. Therefore the warning in Scene 8 … ‘whoever sups with the devil needs a long spoon,’ which may be taken as the moral of the play.” Later, when Brecht returned to a divided Berlin, he was dismayed to find that the Germans, like Mother Courage herself, did not fully understand their role in the war they’d just survived. “That was [the audience’s] view of Hitler’s war in which they had participated: it had been a bad war and now they were suffering,” he wrote. “They were all convinced that they had learned something from the war; what they failed to grasp was that, in the playwright’s view, Mother Courage was meant to have learned nothing from her war.”
Mother Courage was composed before World War II had unfurled the full scope of its horrific arc, and its universe is a quasi-Marxist one, in which conflicts are fought over material riches rather than to stop a spreading evil. In Fierling’s world, both sides are equally rapacious and both need her wares to buy. War is “a business and it’s just like all the rest,” one in which “they don’t ask a trader about their faith, only the prices they charge.” In such a war, everything—including justice—is for sale. (“Corruptibility is our only hope,” Courage pants as she sends off the blood money to barter for Swiss Cheese’s life.) In such a war, officers take bribes to stop troops from plundering (but will claim they spared a village “to show some humanity”), and leaders invoke religion as an excuse to stop paying their armies. In such a war, values like patriotism, honor, and duty are ruses to sucker the little guys into fighting battles that benefit other, richer men. In such a war, the qualities that get a fellow like Eilif, Courage’s eldest son, rewarded in battle—ruthlessness, rage—get him shot during peacetime.
Let the play’s Chaplain declare, “To lose one’s life in the war is a kindness and not an inconvenience, and why? This is a war of religion…a special war”—but Courage knows better. “To hear the bigwigs talk,” she observes, “you’d think they only went to war from piety and high-minded reasons like that. But if you look more closely, they’re not so stupid as that—they’re in it for themselves.” Mother Courage, and the play, and Brecht, are all pessimistic about the material motives of any war and the odds that the commoners, or peasants, or proletariat, will survive unscathed. “Poor people need courage,” Fierling tells the Chaplain. “The reason is, they’re doomed.” The horrors of conflict—the pillaging, the sieges, the starvation (Courage hears rumors that “in Pomerania, the villagers have started eating their children”), the internments and the massacres—are tactics wreaked upon those too powerless or too impoverished to flee.
Of course, Fierling isn’t looking to flee. At the play’s brutal conclusion, Mother Courage—a mother no more—hauls up her battered wagon and heads off toward the next front, yelling to the soldiers, “Hey! Take me with you.” “Even at the end she does not understand,” Brecht wrote. “Few [who saw the play] realized that this was the bitterest and most meaningful lesson.” Here, we see a side of Brecht that is less like the revolutionary agitprop of a Clifford Odets and more like the absurdist despair of a Samuel Beckett. If anything, the ending of Mother Courage is even more desolate than that of Godot—at least Vladimir and Estragon had each other. Courage just has her cart, and some sort of Job-ian life force that won’t let her curl up and die. “The thaw sets in. The dead remain,” the play’s chorus intones. “Wherever life has not died out, it staggers to its feet again.”
For a work that wants people to think, not feel, Mother Courage is deeply cynical about the limits of Fierling’s cleverness. For a work that dabbles in Marxist leitmotifs, it makes no move to depict the people uniting in revolt and marching toward a brighter future. Brecht may have liked to hammer home the point about Courage’s agency and her culpability, but by the end, there’s a haunting feeling that all of the characters—all the lovers and fighters and innocents and crooks traipsing across the stage—are playthings at the whim of remote and possibly malevolent forces, ones far more unyielding and powerful than an emperor or a king. There’s a bit of Brueghel in Brecht here—the painter preceded the Thirty Years’ War by half a century—with the mercantile bustle, the Rabelaisian peasants, the self-seeking and the folly, the indifference of the ploughmen as, way off in the corner, the godhead crashes into the sea.
This sense of the ultimate futility and insignificance of human effort—Courage’s quintessence of dust—finds its culmination in the Song of the Great Capitulation, which Fierling sings to a young soldier in Scene 4. It’s a ballad about how youthful dreams die off, about the inexorable passage of time, and about how no one is the master of her own fate. “The song was awkward for Marxist critics because of its apathetic character,” the scholar Franz Mennemeier noted. "A ‘Biblical’ sadness wells up, which again and again thwarted [Brecht’s] stubbornly maintained faith in progress.” Vanity of vanities, Mother Courage tells the youth—all is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? This sense of melancholy—“God’s mill grinds exceedingly slow”—pervades Brecht at his most miserable and his most majestic: in Courage, in Galileo, in his Svendborg poems, with their caliginous brooding on temporality and impermanence. “I came into the cities in a time of disorder/As hunger reigned/I came among men in a time of turmoil/And I rose up with them/And so passed/The time given to me on earth./I ate my food between slaughters./I laid down to sleep among murderers./I tended to love with abandon…And so passed/The time given to me on earth.”
Mother Courage drags her cart behind her; Brecht dragged his poems and plays behind him during a decade of havoc and ruin that drove him to the far corners of the world. That both the play and its creator maintained a sense of mordant humor in the middle of all that annihilation is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, the same one that Brecht despaired over when his audiences found it in Fierling. As another German exile with a taste for the klieg lights says, “I laugh, because I will cry if I don’t.” Brecht didn’t want us to forgive Courage, just as critics on the left and right don’t want us to forgive Brecht. And yet, as the playwright wrote in a poem entitled “To Those Who Follow In Our Wake”: “You, who shall resurface following the flood/In which we have perished/Contemplate—/When you speak of our weaknesses/Also the dark time/That you have escaped.”