Mother Courage: Essay Questions
1. What was the Thirty Years’ War?
The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) was a series of wars fought in central Europe between Catholics and Protestants. It was one of the longest conflicts in European history, killing half the population, and involving Germany, Bavaria, Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark. Though a religious war, the causes were complex and political as well as religious. It became a wider and wider war involving all the great countries to determine the balance of power in what was then the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire was a collection of independent states and duchies that once unified Europe under one ruler called the Emperor, usually from the Habsburg dynasty of Germany. With the spread of Lutheranism and then Calvinism from Germany, tension was high between Catholics and Protestants. Religion was a state matter, with the citizens having to convert to their rulers’ preferences. Therefore, the major powers fought for control of territory within the Holy Roman Empire, and the minor duchies and states were drawn in as allies. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Rhinelands and lands south of the Danube were Catholic, while Lutherans dominated the north and Calvinists were found in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. The Protestant Habsburg Emperors originally kept the peace by allowing princes to choose their own state religions. The Holy Roman Emperor became Ferdinand II in 1617, an intolerant Catholic who also became King of Bavaria, pushing the balance of power toward Catholic rule. This helped trigger the Thirty Years’ War.
The war had four phases: The Bohemian Revolt, the Danish Intervention, the Swedish Intervention, and the French Intervention. Bohemian Protestants revolted at the ascent of Emperor Ferdinand. They elected Frederick as their Protestant king. The Catholic League (including the armies of the Count of Tilly, mentioned in Scene Six), defeated the Protestant Frederick at White Mountain in 1620. Frederick then went to the Protestant countries of Sweden and Denmark for support.
Christian IV of Denmark led an army against the Catholic Empire. He was defeated by Tilly. Sweden was led by King Gustavus Adolphus, who invaded Poland and Germany. Mother Courage discusses the ambitious Swedish king in Scene Three. His forces drove the Catholics back from 1630-1634, regaining Protestant territory. He defeated the Catholic League led by Tilly. Tilly died in these conflicts with the Swedes, noted in Scene Six of the play. Gustavus Adolphus was killed in 1632 during a victory at Lützen, mentioned in Scene Eight.
Now France entered the final period, bolstering the Swedish forces. In 1648, when the Swedes won the Battle of Prague, the war ended. The power structure of Europe had changed. Spain became weaker; the Dutch gained independence; and Sweden became a power in Europe. Mother Courage began her trek with the Protestant Swedish forces, then got behind the Catholic lines with Tilly’s army where Swiss Cheese was killed. At that time she pretended to be Catholic. After the war resumed after the death of the Swedish king, she went back to the Protestant side.
2. What is Brecht’s concept of epic theater?
Because Brecht was a Marxist, he did not like the classical Aristotelian concept of theater as a drama focusing on the story of individual characters. In traditional drama, the audience has a vicarious experience through identification with certain characters that ends with an emotional catharsis. The audience leaves with its personal experience of the drama and does not think about society as a whole. Epic theater hopes to do the opposite—it increases the scope to let the audience witness, rather than identify with, the forces of history, and thereby creates a rational reflection on social conditions. Brecht wanted a critical response that would make spectators want to change the world. Theater should be a teaching and political forum.
In order to create this new theater, Brecht broke the dramatic illusion of reality. The spectators are reminded they are watching a constructed play, because they should understand that all reality is a human construct, and thus, can be changed. One way to break the dramatic illusion is through the “alienation” or “defamiliarization” effect. The event portrayed is made strange in different ways, such as having characters address the audience directly, or by the use of harsh lighting, by having songs comment on the action, by using camera projections and signs, by speaking the stage directions aloud, or by having a narrator on stage. In “Mother Courage” songs disturb the idea of the reality of a battlefield. The sets and props are minimal and suggestive. The language is poetic, rather than conversational. The action consists of vignettes over twelve years and is not connected as a single event. Brecht also uses what he called “separation of the elements,” in which the words, music, and sets are self-contained artistic expressions, combining to produce an overlapping montage rather than a unified effect. Brecht learned the techniques of avant-garde theater from his mentor, Erwin Piscator.
In addition, his epic theater expressed Marxist ideals by being a theater collective rather than the work of individuals. The playwright exchanged ideas with composers, artists, singers, and actors. Brecht wrote the text with such collaborators as Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, Ruth Berlau, and Emil Burri. Brecht’s techniques have influenced other writers and filmmakers such as Peter Brook, Peter Weiss, Robert Bolt, Jean-Luc Godard, Nagisa Oshima, and Lars von Trier.
3. What is the philosophy of Marxism?
Brecht was a Marxist, and his work reflects this philosophy, formulated by Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), the most famous statement of which is The Communist Manifesto (1848). Marxism is a materialist philosophy that denies any supernatural forces shaping human life. History is therefore a struggle between classes for the means of production and distribution of goods. Marx criticized capitalism as exploiting the workers, because ownership was in the hands of the few. The laborers have to sell their services to capitalists and are not given a fair share of what they themselves produce. The soldiers fight for the political agendas of King, Pope, and Emperor in “Mother Courage” and are never properly paid. Mother Courage admits little people like her support the ruling class to get a share of the money. They are turned into capitalists without sympathy for those beneath them, as Mother Courage refuses to help the peasants. The peasants grow the crops and beef that are destroyed or confiscated by the rulers. They do not have the rights to their own labor but are used by others, mere pawns.
Private ownership, Marx felt, must be abolished to create a fair society. Marx advocated revolution by the proletariat or workers against the bourgeoisie, or capitalists, to advance to the next stage of civilization in which the workers would dominate. He saw civilization evolving in stages (the historical dialectic): first came tribes; then slavery with an aristocracy; next, feudalism with peasants and lords; next, capitalism with middle class and workers; next, socialism where private property was abolished; and finally, true communism would come someday when there would be no property and no government. Inequality would be abolished for good.
Mother Courage comments on the exploitation of the poor in Scene Six when she says that the poor need courage just to get up in the morning or to plough a field “for they have no prospects” (Scene 6, p. 77). The common people appear more human, however, in Brecht’s plays, while the rulers seem monstrously selfish and insensitive. When Kattrin is attacked and wounded in the head, the Chaplain comments that at home the soldiers never did such things. The leaders are to blame for encouraging the worst in people. The peasants take care of each other, on the other hand. Mother Courage and Kattrin are taken into a peasant farmhouse in Scenes Eleven and Twelve, and Kattrin, in turn helps them by saving the town.
4. Was Brecht influenced by existentialism?
Brecht was influenced by existentialism before he became a Marxist, and his plays still retain the flavor of existential despair about the human condition. Absurdism, existentialism, nihilism, and anarchism are all related philosophies popular during the twentieth century. They trace their origin to the nineteenth century philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), especially in his The Sickness Unto Death (1849), which first confronted the human inability to find any meaning in the universe through rational efforts.
The philosophy of existentialism, found for instance in French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), was not officially endorsed by Brecht, but the ideas had been used by artists for years, because of the disillusionment felt after World War I. Existentialism speaks of the indifference of the universe to human concerns. Life has no inherent meaning except the meaning the individual constructs for him or herself. Despite the fact they are all supposed to be Christians, each character in “Mother Courage” has a different take on life, with most of them opting for opportunism.
Life is not rational and appears absurd or arbitrary, as for instance, in this play, when the war goes on at the whim of certain commanders. The characters never know exactly when peace or war is declared and cancelled. They base their actions on rumors. They think it is peace and get attacked, as when Kattrin goes into town for supplies and is cut up by a soldier because the war is suddenly on again. Eilif is a hero one minute for butchering peasants, and the next, he is executed as a criminal for the same act. Christians who believe in forgiveness brutally fight each other to the death performing all sorts of atrocities in the name of Jesus. Brecht points out hypocrisy, absurdity, and irony like this in every scene.
This arbitrary nature of life produces anxiety. People feel isolated, life is chaotic, and communication is impossible. Kattrin’s dumbness signifies isolation and lack of connection with others. Mother Courage endlessly pulling her cart on the road of life is an existential symbol for the plight of humanity, as powerful as Albert Camus’s symbol in Myth of Sisyphus (1942), where the mythic character, Sisyphus, is punished in hell by constantly rolling a stone to the top of the hill only to have it fall down again to the bottom.
5. What are some other anti-war plays and novels?
Lysistrata by Aristophanes was performed in Athens in 411 BCE about women protesting and stopping the prolonged Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from their husbands. Brecht admired playwright George Bernard Shaw, a socialist, whose witty plays presented the drama of ideas in much the way Brecht liked to do, with characters discussing philosophical points. Major Barbara (1905) by Shaw makes a satiric correlation between religion, war, and business much as Brecht does in Mother Courage, but in a lighter, more humorous vein.
Many books have been written criticizing World War I, a war that killed fifteen million people and destroyed a whole generation, as Erich Maria Remarque depicts in All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), a book banned by Nazi Germany as it was fueling the war machine for the next devastating war. The Good Soldier Schweik (1923) by Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek is a famous absurd satire on World War, I set in Austria-Hungary, a popular tale retold over and over in Europe, depicting a bumbling soldier who subverts the war effort. Brecht used the character of Schweik for his own play, “Schweik in the Second World War” produced in 1943 as a statement against the Nazis.
Ernest Hemingway became established as an author with his anti-World War I novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929) about a tragic love affair tangled up in the brutality of war. The hero and heroine try to walk away from war, but it catches up with them. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) has become a classic statement against World War II in which it is set, and against the irrational nature of war in general. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is an autobiographical remembrance of the horror of the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II, and his novel, Cat’s Cradle (1963) is a black comedy about the Cold War. Hair, the Musical (1967), by Jerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt McDermot is the popular musical against the Vietnam War showing New York hippies luring military recruits away from war and into their culture of love and celebration. As long as there has been war, there have been attempts in art to show its futility. Brecht’s play is among the most brilliant of these efforts.