In 1939, on the eve of the Nazi Holocaust, the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote Mother Courage and Her Children. For the setting of his play, he chose the Thirty Years’ War, the senseless 17th century European conflict that pitted Protestants against Catholics and laid waste to whole lands and peoples. Spanning the years 1618-1648, it was the most destructive war in European history until modern times. It was a war which seemingly no one wanted but which no one could stop once it had gained its brutal momentum.
The play came too late to be of consequence in World War Two, but it has played to great effect on the world stage ever since, becoming Brecht’s most popular work after The Threepenny Opera. Mother Courage herself has become a theatre archetype of the indomitable, irrepressible human spirit. For all its epic scope–rolling through Sweden, Poland, Saxony, Bavaria and Alsace–the play is an intensely personal journey. It centers on a woman, Mother Courage, who owns a rolling canteen wagon and who follows the war selling victuals and sundries to its troops. She is an earthy peasant, a hearty cynic who profits from slaughter, and who actually fears that peace may break out. Mother Courage knows no loyalty but to her business and to her family whom she tries to protect from the ravages of the carnage.
Eventually, the war exacts its pound of flesh, its payment for her long feeding upon it. One by one, all her children become fodder for the ravenous maw of the conflict, victims of the very virtues which she has instilled in them for survival. This is a deeply human play. Mother Courage embodies the best, and worst, of all of us in similar circumstances. With a single mindedness that produces real heroism, she negotiates the wake of the war. Ruthless, fiercely selfish, clever and conniving in defense of her small moveable turf, she is completely understandable.
In her bawdy humor, tenderness and rue, she is utterly human and sympathetic. In the end, like in any tragedy, it is her great will and indomitable spirit which is both her ruin and her triumph.Bibliography: