Mother Courage and her Children

Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder; Mother Courage and her Children (written 1939, performed 1941)

Co-author: Margarete Steffin

Music: Paul Dessau

The play was written mainly from September-November 1939 in Stockholm. It was first performed 19 April 1941 in Zürich. The 1949 production in East Berlin, with Helene Weigel as Mother Courage, marked the foundation of the Berliner Ensemble. The play is subtitled ‘Eine Chronik aus dem Dreißigjährigen Krieg’; ‘A Chronicle of the Thirty Years’ War’. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) began as a war of religion between Catholics and Protestants, but gradually transformed into a territorial struggle between the nations of Europe. In the course of the war, much of central Europe was devastated.

The play is influenced by Schiller’s depiction of life in an army camp in Wallensteins Lager; Wallenstein’s Camp (1798). Schiller’s drama depicts the life of the common people primarly as a prelude to the drama of the great man, the world-historical individual, Wallenstein. In contrast, Brecht’s play focuses almost entirely on the lives of common people whose lives are perverted and ruined by war. Mother Courage and her Children also draws on the work of the 17th century writer Grimmelshausen, who produced a series of picaresque novels set in the Thirty Years’ War. Grimmelhausen’s texts show the world from below, from the perspective of the lowest ranks of society; it is a brutal world, but it is not without humour. Brecht’s heroine is named after Grimmelshausen’s Courasche (original title: Trutz Simplex; circa 1669), a short novel about a woman who becomes a soldier’s wife and a prostitute, but these two texts are very different. Grimmelshausen’s Courasche and Brecht’s Courage and are both picaresque rogues, but Courasche has no children and sells her body in order to live, whereas Courage is a mother who trades food, weapons and supplies. The character in Brecht’s play who most resembles Grimmelshausen’s Courasche is the camp prostitute Yvette Pottier.

Another influence on this play is Jaroslav Hašek’s picaresque novel The Good Soldier Švejk (1923; original title in Czech: Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války). On this point, see reading list below, Schonfield (p. 71).

Breugel’s painting Dulle Griet (‘Mad Meg’) (1562) served as a visual source for Mother Courage. The painting is held in Antwerp, in the Musée Mayer van den Bergh. It shows a woman bearing a sword, helmet and breastplate, wandering through an apocalyptic, nightmarish wasteland, and loaded down with bags of supplies.

The essence of the play is already implied by the Sergeant (Feldwebel) at the end of Scene 1: Mother Courage chooses to makes a living from the war, but she will pay dearly for this. As the play progresses she loses all three of her children to the war: Eilif is doomed by his cleverness, Schweizerkas (‘Swiss Cheese’) by his honesty, and Kattrin by her pity.

The action of the play spans the period 1624-1635, but the parallels with 1939, the year in which Brecht wrote the play, are clear. For example, in Scene 3, Mother Courage says ironically that the Poles should not have ‘interfered with their own affairs’ when their country was invaded.

In Scene 1 the play opens with a conversation between an army recruiter (Werber) and a sergeant (Feldwebel). The recruiter says he has lost his faith in human nature because nobody wants to join the army. Mother Courage and her children arrive and she introduces them all. Then she draws lots to see who will die: the sergeant, Eilif, Schweizerkas and Kattrin all draw black crosses, meaning death. The recruiter persuades Eilif to leave with him, whilst the sergeant distracts Mother Courage.

In Scene 2 Mother Courage is selling a caper to the Cook when her son Eilif arrives the together with the colonel (Feldhauptmann). Eilif tells how he captured twenty oxen from some farmers. Mother Courage slaps him for risking his life.

In Scene 3 Mother Courage talks politics with the Cook and the Army Chaplain (Feldprediger) when the camp is overrun by the Catholic army. Kattrin takes Yvette’s hat and red shoes. Mother Courage covers Kattrin’s face with ash so the soldiers won’t look at her. Schweizerkas tries to hide his regiment’s cash box by the river but he is caught and sentenced to death. Mother Courage is prepared to sell her wagon to Yvette so that she can raise some bribe money to free Schweizerkas, but she hesitates over the deal, and Schweizerkas is shot.

In Scene 4 Mother Courage plans to complain to a Captain (Rittmeister) about her wagon being vandalised. A young officer arrives; he is angry because he has rescued his superior’s horse and has not been given a tip. Mother Courage tells him that his anger is too short-lived. If he wants to fight injustice then he will need a long-lasting anger. She sings ‘Das Lied von der großen Kapitulation’; ‘The Song of the Great Capitulation’. Then both of them change their minds and decide not to complain to the Captain after all.

In Scene 5 a family of peasants is wounded when their house is shot up. Mother Courage refuses to give her linen to the Chaplain so that he can bind the wounds, until Kattrin threatens her with a plank of wood. Then Kattrin rescues a baby from the ruined house, and cradles it in her arms.

In Scene 6 the funeral of Field Marshal Tilly takes place in the background. The Chaplain asks Courage if she would like to team up with him but she refuses. Kattrin arrives, she has been assaulted and facially disfigured. Mother Courage tries to cheer her up with Yvette’s red shoes but Kattrin creeps into the wagon. Mother Courage curses the war.

In Scene 7 Mother Courage has just made a lot of money and so she sings a song in praise of war. She even claims that people who settle down peacefully are usually the first to die.

In Scene 8 it is 1632: Gustavus Adolphus, the King of Sweden, has just died after defeating Wallenstein at the battle of Lützen. Peace breaks out. The Cook arrives and turns out to be Yvette’s old boyfriend Pieter. Mother Courage complains that the peace will ruin her because she has just bought a load of new supplies. The Chaplain calls her a hyena and reminds her of the old saying: ‘Wer mitn Teufel frühstücken will, muß ein langen Löffel haben’; ‘He who sups with the devil needs a long spoon’. Mother Courage goes to market and while she is gone, Eilif appears under armed guard. He has been sentenced to death for robbery with violence. The Chaplain goes with him and asks the Cook not to tell Mother Courage. Mother Courage appears with the news that war has broken out again: ‘Gott sei Dank!’; ‘thank God!’.

In Scene 9 the Cook tells Mother Courage he has inherited his mother’s inn in Utrecht, and asks her if she would like to come to Utrecht with him. But he insists that Kattrin cannot come with them – with her scar she would only upset the customers. Kattrin hears this; she packs her things and is about to leave when Mother Courage stops her. Instead, Mother Courage and Kattrin leave the Cook behind.

In Scene 10 Mother Courage and Kattrin pause on a country road and listen to a song.

In Scene 11, in the middle of the night, Catholic troops arrive at a farmhouse outside the Protestant city of Halle. They are planning to launch a surprise assault on the city. The troops tell the farmer and his family to keep quiet. The farmer’s wife prays for her brother-in-law and his four children who may die in the assault. When Kattrin hears this she climbs onto the room of the farmhouse and bangs her drum in order to alert the townspeople. The troops shoot her down, but she succeeds in raising the alarm.

In Scene 12 Mother Courage squats by Kattrin’s corpse and sings her a lullaby. Then she pulls her wagon away and joins the next passing regiment, hoping to do another deal.

The play shows that war is just another way of doing business, but only the people at the very top profit from it. For most other people it means death and disaster. Mother Courage wants to do the best for her children, but instead she unwittingly paves the way for their deaths. This contradiction is encapsulated in the lullaby which she sings in Scene 12. Here, motherly love is subjected to an estrangement effect (Verfremdungseffekt). Courage wants her own daughter to have the best of everything, while her neighbours’ children starve. She does not see that this mentality also informs the war which destroys her own children. Her great cunning only makes things worse.

English Translations

Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children, trans. by John Willett (London and New York: Methuen, 1980)

Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children, trans. by Tom Leonard (Middlesbrough: Smokestack Books, 2014)

Further Reading in English

Roland Barthes, ‘Seven Photo Models of Mother Courage’, trans. by Hella Freud Bernays, TDR: The Drama Review 12:1 (1967), 44-55

Claire Gleitman, ‘All in the Family: Mother Courage and the Ideology in the Gestus’, Comparative Drama 25:2 (1991), 147-67

Gita Honegger, ‘Gossip, Ghosts and Memory: Mother Courage and the Forging of the Berliner Ensemble’, TDR: The Drama Review 52:4 (2008), 98-117

Robert Leach, ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’, in The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, ed. by Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 132-142

André Lefevere, ‘Mother Courage’s Cucumbers: Text, System and Refraction in a Theory of Literature’, Modern Language Studies 12:4 (1982), 3-20

Franz Norbert Mennemeier, ‘Mother Courage and her Children’, in Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Peter Demetz (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), pp. 138-50

Jan Needle and Peter Thomson, Brecht (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), Chapter Seven

Robert Potter, ‘Writing Mother Courage’, Brecht Yearbook 24 (1999), 14-23

Ernest Schonfield, ‘Brecht and the Modern Picaresque’, in Verwisch die Spuren. Bertolt Brecht’s Work and Legacy. A Reassessment, ed. by Robert Gillett and Godela Weiss-Sussex (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), pp. 57-75

Ronald Speirs, ‘Brecht, Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder’, in Landmarks in German Drama, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2002)

Peter Thomson, Brecht: Mother Courage and Her Children, Plays in Production 5 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Further Reading in German

Klaus-Detlev Müller (ed.), Brechts Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982)

Web Link in English

Six Songs from Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, translated by Tom Leonard

Web Link in German

Deutschlandfunk Kultur, Radio broadcast (2019): 70 years since the German premiere of Mutter Courage