Mother Courage and Her Children | Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht

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Mother Courage and Her Children | Scene 1 | Summary



It is spring 1624. An army recruiter and sergeant stand shivering on the road. Dejected about his failing numbers, the recruiter admits to considering suicide. He has only days to recruit four companies of soldiers, but the young men don't have the same sense of morality or duty as previous generations. The sergeant agrees, adding war is the only way to ensure order in society. In the distance the men see a cart approaching. In it are Anna Fierling, known as Mother Courage, and her three children: Eilif, Swiss Cheese, and Kattrin. Mother Courage is a provisioner who travels from battle site to battle site singing songs and convincing the soldiers to buy her wares. She admits to earning a living from the war but cannot provide the proper vending paperwork when the sergeant requests it. She gives the officers details about her three children's backgrounds, as all were conceived with men from different nationalities: French, Swiss, and German.

Immediately, the recruiter notices Eilif and tries to convince him to join the army. Mother Courage at first tries to change the conversation and convince the recruiter Eilif would make a terrible soldier, but when the recruiter continues, she pulls out a knife and warns him to leave her son alone. Claiming to have "second sight," Mother Courage draws a black cross on a piece of parchment and places it in the sergeant's helmet, together with a blank piece of parchment. She tells the sergeant to draw a slip to see into his future. The sergeant draws the black cross, which frightens him. She adds more pieces of parchment with black crosses, and one by one, each of Mother Courage's children draws the black cross, which appears to startle Mother Courage. Unrelenting, the recruiter invites Eilif to join him for a drink while the sergeant haggles with Mother Courage over the price of a belt buckle. Kattrin, who cannot speak, tries to warn her mother, but by the time Mother Courage notices the danger, Eilif has gone.


From the beginning the recruiter's callous view of finding young soldiers informs audiences according to the play war is a profit-making machine. The recruiter himself is poor, shivering, and hungry, but he won't get paid until he finds new recruits. The recruiter feels dejected because this generation has "no loyalty ... no trust, no faith, no sense of honor." He clings to the old-school idea dying for one's country is a glorious sacrifice, a mentality Brecht himself fought against since he was a teenager during World War I. Immediately, Mother Courage calls the recruiter on his game: "You want to take him to the slaughterhouse ... They'll give you five florins for him." She recognizes the absurdity of trading a young man's life for money but is guilty herself of profiteering. Mother Courage makes her living exploiting soldiers' needs, selling them supplies, including alcohol, at an inflated cost to make money. If there isn't a war, Mother Courage can't make a living. The sergeant mocks Mother Courage's living, warning she'll have to "feed" the war if she continues to take from it.

The scene highlights the playwright's well-known and vocal opposition to war. Brecht satirizes what many consider the glory of war and dying for a cause. The recruiter's difficulty in finding people certainly indicates young men have no desire to risk their lives fighting for someone else's gain. Instead, they would take from him what they can get and leave. The sergeant, instead, uses verbal and dramatic irony to state his cause. When he makes statements like "takes a war to make order" and like "all good things, it's a job to get a war going," audiences know the author is not advocating fighting.

The scene with the black crosses acts as foreshadowing for the deaths of Mother Courage's children. Although it appears Mother Courage's assertion of "second sight" is merely a ploy to get the recruiter to leave them alone—it is never referred to again in the play—the trick foreshadows the deaths of all the children. The recruiter pulls Eilif away while Mother Courage haggles over the price of a belt, showing readers despite the danger the recruiter posed only moments before, Mother Courage is more concerned with making money than she is in keeping her family safe.

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