Mother Courage

By Bertolt Brecht, Eric Bentley

16,396 ratings - 3.65* vote

Complete and unabridged English version of Brecht's play. The drama, set during the Thirty Years' War, follows Mother Courage, a woman who tries to make war serve her own ends. Brecht uses his characters to make impassioned statements against war. This is part of Grove Press' Works of Bertolt Brecht, and is listed as "An Evergreen Black Cat Book BC-108". Complete and unabridged English version of Brecht's play. The drama, set during the Thirty Years' War, follows

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Book details

Paperback, 126 pages
December 1st 1963 by Grove/Atlantic

(first published April 19th 1941)

Original Title
Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder
ISBN
0394171063 (ISBN13: 9780394171067)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Steven Godin

And if you feel your forces fading
You won't be there to share the fruits
But what is war but private trading
That deals with blood instead of boots?

Mother Courage, with cart in tow is a wheeler and a dealer, travelling across Europe during the 'Thirty Years War'(1618 – 1648) she has found a way to use the conflict for her own gains, ferociously protective of her children is she, but apart from family values, doesn't have morals for much else, and is all too happy to exploit the various regiments of battle. Her existence is under scrutiny from those around her, but her philosophy is to survive at all costs. There is an inner strength and determination that is admirable, regardless of Courage's actions. She endeavours over the years, even after losing some of her children still remains defiant.

"Sometimes I sees myself driving through hell with me cart selling brimstone, or across heaven with packed lunches for hungry souls"

Mother Courage (1939) is one of a number of plays Brecht wrote in resistance to Nazism during the invasion of Poland, and the theme of devastation and war are captured with honour and integrity, and expresses the idea that virtues are not rewarded in corrupt and difficult times.
I have to admit I have never been a big lover of reading plays, as you simply can't see the whole picture unless seen with your own eyes on stage. Having said that, within the first scene the scene is set for something epic, that had me completely engrossed. I say epic, even though it's compressed into 100 pages or so, the story spans many years, but never feels rushed or clichéd, picking out moments from her life that are at times deeply heartfelt but also scathing in detestation.

The family as a whole, including Eilif (the oldest son who goes of to war) and daughter Kattrin (who is mute), are used in the story well, where indignation is never far away. But it's Courage who takes centre stage, a woman with a spirit that will not be crushed by the onslaught of the world around her. I didn't always like Courage, but applaud her valour nonetheless. As for the ending, as in war, there are no happy ones.

Lisa

We read Mother Courage in school, and I didn't like it. I thought it was exaggerated, even from the perspective of the raging wars that Brecht could refer to. Which parents would sacrifice their children first?

And now I sadly have to announce that I understand Mother Courage. The generation born immediately after the Second World War seems to have forgotten or maybe never known the longterm effects of irresponsible egocentrism, and they are happily sacrificing a whole planet to keep their prestige and their riches and their "revenge" if anybody dares insulting their fragile egos. If you recognise any particular world leader in this description, it is pure coincidence. The Mother Courages of our times are legion.

And they don't have the excuse that they are starving or in danger themselves. They are just in their narcissistic bubbles, and want to live their lives safely inside. Après eux, le déluge. Or the bonfire. Quite literally both.

Brecht, I hate when you are right.

Fergus

I hate to give a compliantly communist play the full five stars, but boy, does Brecht deserve them! Communist or not, the play has a takeaway message we can all buy: DO YOUR BEST - AND ENDURE TILL THE END.

Though the plot is unsavoury - Mother Courage is a plain dealing, foul talking Camp Follower in a grisly modern war - this old toothless hag persuades us to Do Our Utmost for the Highest, whatever your most shining high ideal may be.

And hers, though simply her family's survival in an environment of bullets, shrapnel, and bloody chaos, inspires in SPITE of the dirt and vulgarity.

It's never easy, thought Brecht, to get humans to dig in and start constructing a socialist golden age...

(Or rather police state, as it turned out, but Brecht was a little pig-headed.)

So Courage is no quitter, even In such hopeless straits. And that's what stuck in MY head for so many years.

In '68, my Dad had to visit Dartmouth College in New Hampshire for a scientific symposium. I decided to tag along, to immerse myself in a uni environment - I myself was college bound within weeks...

That was a halcyon summer, and as we cruised through the rolling Adirondacks - and lush well-tended farm acreage - I memorized some Baudelaire at conversational hiatuses.

Ah, to be eighteen again!

The cultural life at Dartmouth was to die for, too.

We arrived smack-dab in the middle of a music and drama festival. Mother Courage was the first play I saw. Life was good.

And the weather was the same. I even attended a lecture by Dad's revered thesis advisor, though I understood little of it.

But Brecht's stubborn pig-headedness?

You know, W.H.Auden once remarked pithily to a table-mate, "Brecht shoulda been shot!"

Though I may sympathize, I would then have missed my inspiring memories of Brecht back when the Age of Woodstock was in beautiful bloom!

Czarny Pies

As I am writing this review, I am reading the Good Reads description above which is a stunning masterpiece of misstatement:

"Widely considered one of the great dramatic creations of the modern stage, "Mother Courage and Her Children" is Bertolt Brecht's most passionate and profound statement against war."

Now for the truth. Bertolt Brecht was a communist who wrote parodies to show the workers what is a not to be done. Mother Courage is a vile lower middle class shopkeeper whose obsession with her own selfish petty bourgeois concerns brings ruin down upon her family and allows an intolerable environment in which the rich exploit the poor to perpetrate itself.

Mother Courage is not a passionate and profound statement against war. It is a call to arms for the oppressed proletariat.

Now on to this foul piece of Marxist propaganda which does indeed stage well if misinterpreted as the tragedy of a brave woman trying to fend for family during the 30 years war.

Brecht always felt that stereotypes and clichés should be exploited to the maximum. His Mother Courage belongs to the hated category of camp follower; that is to say she was an itinerant peddler who followed armies on their campaigns. Armies on the move needed food, clothing, tobacco, alcohol and whores in order to make life bearable. Consequently multitudes of goods and service providers (as they are called in ECON 100) followed the armies peddling their wares.

The camp followers did not see themselves as war profiteers. Rather given that the kings had grabbed all the wealth in the kingdoms to pay for their military campaigns, the poor camp followers had no other way to make a living. Unfortunately, military campaigning was as dangerous for the camp followers as it was for the soldiers who tended to rob and murder the camp followers whenever they lacked the means or the desire to pay for whatever it was they wanted.

In highly predictable fashion, Mother Courage's children are killed in this play. At the end, Mother Courage quite alone departs with her peddler's wagon in search of another military campaign. As conventionally staged, Mother Courage is a pathetic and tragic figure. In Brecht's view she simply played a mug's game and lost. She ought to have joined the workers movement and constructed a socialist paradise on earth.

This play is tons of fun in a class room as it typically sparks lively debate. I advise theatre goers to take a pass on this one. Bertolt Brecht wrote his best work in a collaboration with Kurt Weill which produced the Rise and Fall of the Empire of Mahagony, the Happy Ending and the Threepenny Opera all of which are absolutely delightful on stage,

Sookie

War is an addiction. War is business. War is necessity.

Brecht uses various voices in this play to reiterate these slogans over and over again. Sometimes by the same character. Written during the times when Nazism and fascism was becoming prominent in Europe, Brecht uses an older European war as a setting to voice his point of view on the growing political crisis during '30s. On one hand Mother Courage is a war profiteer which isn't all that new. She finds a way to keep her family fed by peddling food and alcohol to military camps. She follows military camps for years selling things that are hard to come by in a war zone. She, her family and even her business is always at risk of looting or getting killed. Of course she could have simply stayed put in her town and tried to make a living. But that wouldn't have worked out well for a poor woman since the society she lived in was always advantageous for the rich. War would have only made her poorer with all the resources being directed towards war and she followed what basic economics directed her. Follow the war, use war as a client and provide services.

Through the course of play, Mother Courage shares her perception on war, morals, virtue, loyalty etc which is almost Brecht talking to people under Nazi regimen. When her eldest son is recruited by the General, she says-
"Because he's got to have men of courage, that's why. If he knew how to plan a proper campaign what would he be needing men of courage for? Ordinary ones would do. It's always the same; whenever there's a load of special virtues around it means something stinks."


I am on fence on this one. It is hard to ascertain whether Brecht is implying war with a radical propaganda requires what Mother Courage here is talking about or war in general is pointless. Calling out for courage and virtue is propaganda speech while insisting on morality and loyalty is borderline communism. Its quite difficult to understand if Brecht is anti-war or its something else entirely. The irony lies in Mother Courage's view on men fighting the war reducing war to a job provider and soldiers to employees. She adds-

"In decent countries folk don't have to have virtues, the whole lot can be perfectly ordinary, average intelligence, and for all I know cowards."


Brecht detaches country and its people or more specifically he puts an added responsibility on the leader/king/government. It isn't a system that would hold up or work for a long time and Brecht knows it. It is a throwback to growing number of Nazi supporters and changing mental constitution of the nation itself. Its very tongue in cheek and blatantly disregards '30s propaganda. He wasn't entirely wrong with his argument about choosing the right leader. Along the same line he further says-

"The war will always find an outlet, mark my words. Why should it ever stop?"


Really, why should it? Conflicts have always existed and a war is always on in some part of the globe. It just changes route, gives birth to a newer war and a bunch of newer conflicts. In our lifetime we have already seen this happening and right now as I write this review I hear a news anchor talk about the continuing attacks on Europe.

Mother Courage loses her children to war or by products of war. Its the final scene that makes the entire play truly tragic. Mother Courage's daughter, only living child of hers, dies. Mother Courage asks the village folk to take care of the corpse as she has to move on with her business to find another camp. This, for me, negated the entire experience that Brecht had so carefully fulfilled till then. Brecht makes her bow to the only life that she has ever known and continue to be a part of a system that she truly abhors. It is hard to feel sympathy for this character and reconcile with the fact that she moves on with peddling. It is evident Brecht wanted her to be a victim of war just how her children were. In her case, in any moment, she could have stopped. But she didn't.

Maybe that's what Brecht's intentions were. One cannot really stop being part of war just because one wants to. Too sad.

michelle

No. Just no.

Jill Mackin

Brilliant.

Alan

I've read (in the Manheim trans*) and taught this play, set in the Thirty Years War, and some others by Brecht, while attending performances of Galileo (at the Schubert Theater, Boston), BAAL (at Trinity Rep, Providence), the Threepenny Opera (at my own Bristol Comm College, directed by Brenner) and two at American Rep, Cambridge, and Brandeis.** Arguably, Brecht's best plays, like this one and Galileo, were written in the US, 1938-39. Prior, as a Marxist pacifist in Berlin until 1938, he mostly translated Moliere's Don Juan and Shakespeare's Corialanus, left Berlin just before Hitler destroyed all intellectuals. He also left the US the day after he was hauled before the House Un-American Activites Comm, 1947.

Brecht's theatrical ideas almost block the good actor by undermining the illusion created on stage, and even the audience's sympathetic participation in the drama. He urges in his "epic" theater the "alienation effect," such as actors speaking in the third person, masks used for wicked people, and other artificiality to discourage audience identification with stage characeters, or belief in the plot. Moreover, Brecht contradicts the best literature with open didacticism, lessons on capitalism and war: which is simply a continuation of business by other means. (War, military items, surely keep the US economy going.)
Even in translation, Brecht wields a hefty proverb. When the Recruiter complains in the first lines, that there's no honor, no loyalty, The Sergeant says:
"It's easy to see these people have gone too long without a war."
"Like all good things, a war is hard to get started."
He later denies there's any religion in the Swedish army camp, as if to be religious is an insult. The Sergeant also confesses, "I always stay in the rear" (just as the German army did behind the Hungarians who were put in the Front against the Russians in Austria (half immediately killed, another section sent to Russian POW camps in caves--my neighbor was there, who surrendered to the G.I's, said they looked well dressed.
As for proverbs, Mother Courage says,
"Oh, won't you come fishing with me? said the fisherman to his worm"
She had just sung:
O Captains, don't expect to send them
To death with nothing in their crops.
First you must let Mother courage mend them
In mind and body with her schnapps. [Ger., wein]


Mother Courage gives all her kids different last names:
"This one, for instance, his name is Eilif Nojocki. Because his father always claimed to be called Kojocki or Mojocki. The boy remembers hims well, except the one he remembers was somebody else, a Frenchman with a gotee. But aside from that, he inherited his father's intelligence, the man could strip the pants off a peasant's ass without his knowing it."

Clearly, anti-sentimental, hard-headed, good Courage a rampant capitalist who only values her own kids, rather like the US leader, though her kids lose out because of their honesty and pity.
Brechtian paradox, "Whenever you find a lot of virtues, it shows something is wrong," Cook, "No, something is all right." "No, if stupid leader leads his men up shit creek, they need courage, and that's avirtue....You don't need virtues in a decent country, the people cn all be perfectly ordinary, medium-brought, and cowards too for my money"(scene 2 of 11).
In 3, on war of religion, "He had one thing in his favor, the word of God, which was lucky, for otherwise people would have said he was doing it all for himself." Defeat is good for Mother Courage, "One time in Livonia our general got such a shellacking from the enemy that in the confusion I laid hands on a beautiful white horse from the baggage train. That horse pulled my wagon for seven months, until we had a victory and they checked up"
The Chaplain likes war, "War meets every need, everythings's taken care of..." He tells Courage, "I'm a shepard of souls," and she answers, Sure. But I have no sould and I need firewood." Someone says the war turned the chaplain into a godless bum. He, "Being a bum has made me a better man.

In 9, the Thirty Years War has been going on tfor 16 years, killing half the poepl in Germany, those left laid low by epidemics. Countrysides filled with famine, wolves prowling through the cities.
In 11, Mother Courage is pulling her own cart, having lost her last alive. She hears from the rear, "The Spring is come, And if by chance you're still alive,/ It's time to rise and shake a leg.


* The only major writer since Homer that I've read just in translation. A serious gap for a Comp Lit student: the head of Comp Lit at UCal Berkeley, Blake Spahr, asked me why I took Russian instead of German. Oh, Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Griboyedev, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Bunin...

** Pirandello says seeing a play one cannot judge it, becuase so many others have a hand in a given production. See my Review of Sei Personaggi. But I surely feel I can judge Galileo having seen it at the Schubert.

Rhys

A play of devastating power and unbearable structural symmetry, as Mother Courage, a small time war profiteer fails to learn anything from a sequence of tragedies and continues onwards hoping to find business opportunities, whereas in fact it's only the rich who can make a profit from such misery. Morality and politics and truth are all identical in this magnificent work.

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