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Mother Courage and Her Children | Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht

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Mother Courage and Her Children | Context


Thirty Years' War

The Thirty Years' War (1618–48) was an on-again, off-again religious conflict fought between Protestant and Catholic forces in central Europe. The war began when Holy Roman (and thereby Catholic) emperor Ferdinand II of Bohemia began curtailing religious freedom for Protestants under his rule who then asked for help from Protestants in other European countries, including Sweden, France, Spain, and Austria. Ferdinand, along with Catholic forces from Spain, Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands, fought back. Most of the fighting occurred in Germany, whose depleted resources over the long destructive war quickly left soldiers and peasants struggling to survive.

Stories of great atrocities were recorded, similar to Eilif's "heroic" act in Mother Courage and Her Children. The audience sees, for example, Mother Courage cover Kattrin's face with soot in Scene 3 to make her less desirable to incoming forces, and in Scene 8 soldiers complain about missing their chance to pillage. Mother Courage implies soldiers gagged and raped Kattrin, causing her to lose the power of speech. Numerous real-life events create the play's historical backdrop, including General Tilly's bloody massacre in Magdeburg (1631)—mentioned in Scene 5—and King Gustavus Adolphus's death (1632)—mentioned in Scene 8. In the midst of the long and bloody war, Mother Courage takes advantage in every way she can to peddle her goods and eke out a profit from the needs of those who want more and the deprivations of those who have too little.

History Repeats Itself in Wartime

Although Bertolt Brecht uses the Thirty Years' War as his historical context, the play illuminates on World War I and its aftermath leading to World War II, which Brecht saw coming and feared greatly. The Nazi rise to power forced Brecht, an enemy of Nazism, into exile, during which time he speedily wrote the first drafts of Mother Courage and Her Children. Because of war, many characters in Mother Courage live in fear and must compromise their morals to survive. This behavioral shift is clear in actions of the chaplain, who literally hides his religion. It is hinted at in the characters of Yvette, the cook, and Mother Courage herself, who in Scene 4 sings her satiric "Song of the Grand Capitulation" about valuing survival over justice. The abandonment of morality to survive will mirror, for example, the "blind eye" many Germans turned to the plight and persecution of the Jews before and during the war which Brecht foresaw. Having witnessed it in its early stages as Nazism grew, he also condemned the fierce nationalism preached by Adolf Hitler, returning to his teenage critique of those willing to die for their country in World War I as "fools."

Although the play criticizes the king and generals who sacrifice soldiers for their own financial gain during the the Thirty Years' War, Brecht's words clearly criticize the European governments that entered into a long, bloody war that resulted in the deaths of 15 million soldiers and 45 million civilians in their pursuit of economic power over Europe.

Within this argument is an equally strong critique of capitalism, which, Brecht argues, creates a situation in which people like Mother Courage must fight for their survival. She returns to the war again and again because wartime capitalism is her only means of survival as she continues to compete, barter, haggle, and sell. She has, in a sense, sacrificed her children's lives by involving them in it to eke out a living rather than face an existence of economic ruin caused by the system. The play does not solve this question of how people are to live; it only presents it. It intends to stimulate and provoke a raised consciousness.


Brecht's works are clearly influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx. The most prominent Marxist theme appearing in Mother Courage and Her Children is the power struggle between society's rich and poor. Marxists believe a society cannot reach its potential until the ruling bourgeoisie, or materialistic middle class, is destroyed. The bourgeoisie, Marxists believe, use their money to enslave the lower classes whose labor increases the bourgeoisie's own wealth. This power struggle surfaces in Mother Courage as leaders exploit their power and steal money intended as a reward for bravery. After robbing the poor, the officers spend their ill-gotten gains on "whores" and booze. As generals dine on fattened chickens, their starving soldiers suck on leather straps, and mothers must choose between one child's life and their entire family's starvation. Marxists strongly believe social and economic change comes only from action, not ideas. The audience sees Kattrin embrace this belief in Scene 11 as she takes action while the other characters helplessly pray. This scene also embodies Brecht's disdain for religion. As a lifelong atheist, Brecht believed religion served no purpose in war. Throughout the play the audience sees Brecht's religious characters using spirituality to hide their cowardice, or to forgive their inaction, as the villagers do in Scene 11—silently praying for help rather than actively providing it.

Brechtian Theater

Modern theater owes much to Brecht, who transformed the theatrical landscape. In response to events of the time, Brecht and others, including German director and producer Erwin Piscator and Russian Soviet playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky, saw theater as a political as well as an artistic platform. Rather than offer audiences escapist entertainment or traditional, realistic drama following Aristotelian principles of the Greek philosopher, Brecht wanted to force audiences to think about contemporary ideas and events they were witnessing at the time—keep in mind their own lives and leave the theater with a better understanding of themselves and their world. He used the German term verfremdungseffekt, or "alienation effect," a term he coined, to remind audiences continually they were in a theater and to distance themselves: to avoid sympathizing or identifying with characters and events onstage because they were not real and were important only insofar as representatives of ideas.

The term epic theater, first used by Piscator and closely related to Brecht's theories, reflects the didactic purposes of this kind of theater: to create distance from psychologically realistic theater and to emphasize ideas rather than individual situations. Rather than traditional plots, character development, and realistic settings, epic theater employed other elements for its purposes. Now often found—but uncommon during the first half of the 20th century and infrequently used together—were original new music, projected headlines, choruses, political songs, and newspaper-inspired reportage. In short, this multimedia approach distanced audiences from sympathizing with characters and their problems and moved the focus instead onto political and other broader issues. Thus the characters in Mother Courage are insignificant as compared with the ideas they represent and their functions.

In Mother Courage Brecht employs some of these techniques to create an "alienation effect." In early productions, he had headers projected onto the stage so audiences could read the summaries before the action occurred. Brecht believed this ensured audiences didn't become emotionally involved and could focus on the message rather than any emotional surprise. Brecht also used multi-role casting, whereby one actor would play multiple parts, and split-role casting, whereby more than one actor would play the same part. Both techniques, he believed, would further distance audiences from emotion and force them to focus on the impact of the words and ideas, not the actors whose importance, however great, could distract from the content of the work. Finally, Brecht frequently used songs—most of them satiric—and music to break audiences from emotional reactions toward thought. This device is used in nearly every scene of Mother Courage.

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