Mother Courage and Her Children | Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht

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Bertolt Brecht | Biography

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Early Life

German playwright and poet Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht, who shortened his name to Bertolt Brecht as an adult, lived a quiet, middle-class life in Bavaria from his birth in Augsburg on February 10, 1898, until the outbreak of World War I (1914–18) when he became an outspoken opponent of it. At age 16, Brecht watched as many of his classmates were sent to battle. His scathing essay, calling those willing to die for their country "fools," nearly got him expelled from school. In 1917 Brecht studied medicine at the University of Munich with the hope of avoiding the draft, but he ended up performing military medical service a month before the war ended. While at university, Brecht also studied theater, which would become his life's vocation.

Famous Works

As a teenager Brecht worked as a journalist and theater critic, but his real interest was playwriting. His first work, Baal (1918), details the debauched life of a drunken, womanizing poet shunned by bourgeois society and forced to live, and die, on its outskirts. It was first produced four years later, after Brecht won the Kleist Prize for his play Drums in the Night (1922) about the German Revolution (1918–19). Common themes even in his earliest works are strong opposition to war and disdain for capitalism, or private industry based on a free market. These themes are clear as well in In the Jungle of Cities (1923), The Threepenny Opera (1928), and Mother Courage and Her Children (1939). Most of Brecht's works are heavily influenced by the ideas of German revolutionary socialist Karl Marx (1818–83). As a Marxist, Brecht believed capitalism caused the downfall of society. Therefore, for him socialism—the theory communities should own and regulate their economies not based solely on the motivation for profit—was the best way to organize society.

Years in Exile

When German dictator Adolf Hitler rose to power in the interwar period, Brecht, a staunch socialist and anti-Nazi, escaped first to Switzerland (1933), then to Denmark (1935), and then to Sweden (1939), where he wrote Mother Courage and Her Children. Still feeling unsafe in neutral Sweden, Brecht fled to the United States in 1941, where he lived among many other refugees throughout the war. During his years in exile, Brecht wrote prolifically, completing Mother Courage and Her Children (produced in 1941 and published in 1949), Life of Galileo (1943), The Good Person of Szechwan (1943), Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (1944), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948). While living in the United States and proposing his radical ideas, Brecht was called for questioning by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Testifying on October 30, 1947, he claimed he had never been a member of the Communist Party. On the following day he departed for Europe. After a year in Switzerland, Brecht returned home to Germany, where he settled in East Berlin, under Communist rule, and started the Berliner Ensemble, which became a famous theatrical company, with his wife Helene Weigel (1900–71).

Mother Courage

Mother Courage and Her Children has been performed since 1941 in German as well as in many other languages. Productions often feature important actresses who take on the demanding leading role. These actresses are onstage throughout most of the play in steady involvement with the other characters. Feeling endangered and insecure in Sweden with the Nazi troops overrunning Europe in all directions, Brecht turned back to the historical events of the 17th century when the German states and other countries were embroiled in never-ending struggles over religion and political dominance. He had learned much from the events of World War I and feared similar atrocities were in store for the conflict that was impending. The play remains one of the strongest anti-war denunciations of human brutality, greed, and indifference written in the last century. Being set not in the modern age but 300 years before, it explores the timeless exploitation of the common man by those in power, and it attempts to leave its audiences and readers with the hope significant political and economic change might occur one day.

The audience reaction to the play was often an emotional one, with people feeling pity or compassion for the beleaguered woman who suffers the deaths of each of her children. However, Brecht disagreed with this response and tried to direct the interpretations toward a more removed association with Mother Courage. He wanted audiences to see in her raw determination to survive and profit from the war proof she would have been better not becoming involved at all. He disapproved of traditional emotional reactions to literature as detracting from its revolutionary potential to spark change. Some critics sympathetic to his radical politics understood the special reformative aims he had for drama, while audiences often continued to associate the events onstage with what they could see as tragedy in a more common sense, not the larger issues that motivated Brecht.

Death and Legacy

Brecht died of a heart attack on August 14, 1956, at age 58, during the tensions of the Cold War (1947–91). The Cold War was an ideological battle between the USSR and the United States over the spread of communism and nuclear proliferation. Weigel ran the Berliner Ensemble according to his principles until her own death. The theater continues focused largely on the production of Brecht's works and other plays he inspired politically. His views on the role of theater and of production techniques, such as originally composed modern music and headlines and other uses of mass media to add to and interrupt the stage action, are seen widely in performances today. His strong anti-war and anti-capitalist sentiments have remained relevant throughout the years, and his plays continue to attract performers and audiences worldwide.

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