Mother Courage: Characters
The Chaplain is the Protestant minister for the Swedish troops. He does not condone Eilif’s murder of the peasants in Scene Two, but when Eilif goes to his execution in Scene Eight, the Chaplain offers to go with him as a minister. The Chaplain takes refuge with Mother Courage behind Catholic lines, taking off his religious habit to disguise himself as her barman. He is conventionally religious, praising the war as a necessary religious conflict. He tells her the war will go on forever, and encourages her to buy goods and keep selling. He claims he is an orator who can motivate the troops to throw away their lives for a cause. As he travels and works as a barman in the canteen, he decides he would like to be Mother Courage’s boyfriend, but she refuses him for the cook.
Swiss Cheese is Mother Courage’s lovable, stupid but honest middle child. She taught him to be honest because she thought it would protect him. Instead, it is his downfall, for he is made paymaster in charge of the regimental cash box, a responsibility he takes seriously. He makes stupid moves with the box, however, when the Catholics attack, trying to hide the money, thereby implicating himself as a thief. He is framed by One Eye and court martialled. Swiss Cheese nobly protects his mother by refusing to recognize her, but she fumbles in trying to save him from execution because she is afraid of losing her canteen wagon. He is the sacrificial victim in Scene Three.
Anna Fierling, “Mother Courage”
Anna Fierling, the main character of the play, tells how she got her name “Mother Courage” by driving her cart through a siege at Riga to sell her loaves of bread. An intrepid canteen woman during the Thirty Years’ War, she is fiercely independent, a survivor, able to serve clients on both sides of the war by adapting to circumstances. She calls adapting the “great capitulation” in her cynical song, telling how early in life she learned to let go of ideals in favor of getting along in the world. Mother Courage has three grown children traveling with her at the beginning of the play. It is a family business. Mother Courage openly relates how her children had different fathers from her promiscuous love affairs. She does not remember if Eilif’s father’s name was Noyocki, Koyocki, or Moyocki. She is not shy to sleep with the Cook later on. Anna Fierling is selfish, witty, wise, and her commentary on the war and life in general is hilarious, priceless, and jaded. We are not told her birthplace. She is a wanderer, and seems to be Protestant, though she declares she has no soul.
The critic Eric Bentley points out she is a difficult character to play on the stage. The tendency is to make her sympathetic and a tragic figure for losing her three children in the war. She repeatedly states her goal of getting her children through the war safely, though she is unable to do so. When Brecht saw her being played as sympathetic, he changed the script to make her into a harder woman. She has many traits that are not admirable. She tends to put business before her children, for she is always haggling while their lives are at stake. She will not give aid to wounded peasants. She seems to undervalue her daughter as a weight around her neck. On the other hand, she understands her daughter’s yearnings and does not desert her to go with the Cook. Bentley points out that Brecht has made her realistic; she has two sides to her, as most people do. An actress has to be subtle enough to include all of her contradictions, as Brecht’s wife, Helene Weigel, was able to do.
Mother Courage’s children symbolize parts of her. Eilif is the immoral opportunist in her; Swiss Cheese is her honesty; Kattrin is the tender woman in herself that she has suppressed. What is memorable is her indomitable spirit, making her a symbol of humanity’s ability to survive under the worst circumstances. She stands out in the company of such celebrated opportunist females as Moll Flanders, the English criminal, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, who does not mind doing business with Yankees if it will make her rich, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.
KattrinHaupt is Mother Courage’s youngest child, half German. She is dumb from some trauma in childhood. Mother Courage acts as if she is a burden, because she is not really marriageable, but Kattrin works hard in her mother’s business. Her mother is always trying to keep Kattrin out of sight of the soldiers and tries to make her unattractive. Kattrin has excessive pity and compassion for others. She risks her life to save a baby in a ruined building and wants to keep it. She desperately wants to marry and have children. Her mother is both angry and glad when Kattrin is disfigured by a saber cut in the face. She feels Kattrin’s sorrow, but she tells her the men will leave her alone. Kattrin dies saving a village by beating a drum when the enemy army comes.
Peter Lamb, the Cook
Peter Lamb is the cook for the Swedish Commander. He haggles with Mother Courage when purchasing meat in Scene Two. His views are even more cynical than hers. She meets him again after King GustavusAdolphus dies in Scene Eight. He hitches up with her, working for her and becoming her lover, even after the prostitute Yvette identifies him as “Peter Piper” the Dutch soldier who ruined her. She calls him that because he always has a pipe in his mouth. He has a reputation as a Don Juan. He offers Mother Courage a chance to escape the war and be his partner at an inn he inherits from his mother in Utrecht. When he disallows Kattrin to come, she refuses to abandon her daughter.
EilifNoyocki is Mother Courage’s eldest child. She brags that he is the clever one of her children. He takes after her and is an ambitious without moral restraint. He becomes a hero rewarded by the Swedish Commander for butchering peasants to steal their cattle so the regiment can eat. He is executed as a criminal when he does the same act during peacetime as a hungry unpaid veteran. Mother Courage never finds out about his death but believes she will be reunited with him to the end.
One Eye is the man with a patch on his eye, the informer in Scene Three who steals the regimental cash box and throws it in the river, framing Swiss Cheese who is shot for this.
Yvette Pottier is the regimental prostitute in Scene Three. She tells her story of being seduced by “Peter Piper,” an enemy soldier, to Mother Courage who uses it to warn Kattrin to stay away from men. Kattrin instead tries to imitate Yvette’s sexy walk and steals her red boots. Yvette becomes the negotiator for the life of Swiss Cheese in Scene Three by finding a colonel with money who will buy Mother Courage’s canteen so she can bribe the soldiers to let Swiss Cheese go. The deal is set, but Mother Courage ruins it by haggling over the price. Later, in Scene Eight Yvette returns as the rich widow, Madame Colonel Starhemberg, fat and dressed in black. She is the only character who does well in the war.
Swedish Recruiting Officer
The Swedish recruiting officer in Scene One recruits soldiers for King GustavusAdolphus’s campaign in Poland and literally buys Eilif out from under his mother’s nose with money and promises.
The Swedish sergeant in Scene One makes many positive comments on how necessary war is. He distracts Mother Courage while the recruiting officer takes Eilif. She was unsuccessful in stopping him with her fortune telling prediction that he would die in the war. He points out the paradox that she is against war but makes her living from it.