Mother Courage: Theme
War Destroys Everything
War devours everything, even the victor. The great Gustavus Adolphus died before the height of his career. All the major governments fighting this war became bankrupt, including Sweden that came out to be a greater power afterwards. In the play, the Protestant Chaplain for the Swedish army insists it is a war of religion and therefore pleasing to God. The Cook reminds that “it’s a war because there’s fleecing, bribing, plundering, not to mention a little raping” (Scene 3, p. 46). There may be religion thrown into the mix; that, however, makes little difference. A war is total violence.
This war was particularly devastating in destroying towns, crops, people, and the countryside because most of the soldiers were mercenaries, as was the custom at this time, instead of having a standing national army. Rulers usually recruited mercenaries as the recruiting officer is doing in Scene One by promising the men all sorts of things, including giving them the power to plunder any territory captured. The commanders did not have complete control of these lawless troops of mixed backgrounds who were often hungry and underpaid. The Count of Tilly, the Catholic Commander mentioned in Scene Six, for instance, did not have control of his troops in the Sack of Magdeburg, a Protestant town in Germany, in which 25,000 of the 30,000 inhabitants were massacred in 1631. “Magdeburgization” became a term for total pillage, murder, and destruction of a place. This act is referred to in Scene Five when Mother Courage’s wagon is outside Magdeburg after the sack. A mercenary soldier wearing a plundered woman’s fur coat is drinking at her canteen. Another soldier complains he got to the plunder too late and has no money. This is the scene where the Chaplain is begging bandages for the wounded, and Mother Courage does not want to give her linen until Kattrin saves a baby from a ruined farmhouse. It turns out the bombardment had hit a Catholic farmhouse, and the soldiers explain that in a siege it is impossible to tell Catholic from Protestant. Ultimately, there is no difference in being killed from friendly fire or hostile fire.
The victor of the battle, the Count of Tilly, is killed in battle the same year, 1631. Mother Courage describes in Scene Six how he was hit by a bullet in a fog over the battleground. The fog is an apt metaphor for the confusion and chaos of war. The Count will not have church bells for his funeral because he destroyed the churches. The soldiers are not at the funeral; they drink at Mother Courage’s canteen. She calls them “riffraff” because they only fight for money and not a cause (Scene 6, p.74). In the next year, the victor of the war, Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus dies in the Battle of Lützen. Everyone expects peace, because there is nothing left—nothing for the troops to live on, or the people, whose land and crops are destroyed. Half the population has perished from the sword, plague, or hunger. Yet the war continues. Mother Courage reflects this destructive nature of war as her wagon becomes more and more beat up. By the end, she and Kattrin have lice and are in rags, though they still pull the canteen cart around. The wagon is in shreds, and there are no customers.
Politics, Religion, and Business Are Interconnected
The Chaplain says, “war satisfies all needs” (Scene 6, p.76). It satisfies those who want power and territory; those who want their religion to dominate; and those who want profit. The war serves the Catholic Church, the Protestant sects, the many governments involved , and those who sell supplies. As a businesswoman, Mother Courage needs the war. Profit drives her, as it does many of the characters, such as the soldiers, her son Eilif and the prostitute, Yvette. She got her name by driving through a siege at Riga to sell her bread to the people, not out of patriotism, but because the bread would get moldy. Mother Courage sings after the war starts up again, “War is a business proposition” (Scene 7, p. 82). She cares only if she is on top of her business, not which side is winning, for she serves either side, depending on how things are going. This makes her criticism of the mercenary soldiers ironic, for she is nothing, if not a mercenary.
The Chaplain helps Mother Courage decide whether to speculate for war or peace in purchasing her goods. He thinks the war could go on forever, but sometimes there is a sudden lull in the fighting. Don’t worry, he comments: there is always someone to pull the war out of the hole—“The someone is the Emperor or the King or the Pope. They’re such friends in need, the war has really nothing to worry about” (Scene 6, p.75). Historically, the war seemed over at several points, but no victory was conclusive because someone’s agenda was not being served. It is the rulers who revived it, not because of religion, but because of the balance of power issues in Europe. Catholic France kept the war going an extra ten years or so, allying itself with Protestant Sweden because of its desire to thwart the Habsburgs in Germany.
The religious issue is therefore tied up with politics. Religion at this time was not a matter of private conscience, but a state matter. When the Emperor was Catholic, it meant the Protestants and Protestant governments were not safe. Yet the Swedish King had territorial motives for “helping” the German Protestants. Sweden won power and territory by being a good Protestant friend, as Mother Courage ironically notes in Scene Three.
The Cook tells the Chaplain he can leave and be a chaplain again. After the war there will be no need for cooks because there is no food; there will always be a need for chaplains, because people need something to believe in (Scene 8, p. 88). Religion will always be big business or an excuse for business, and for politics and for war.
Virtue Is Unrewarded
When the Cook sings “The Song of the Great Souls of the Earth” he points out that Solomon (wisdom), Julius Caesar (bravery), Socrates (honesty), and Saint Martin (unselfishness) came to a bad end because of their virtues. He concludes, “For the virtues are dangerous in this world” (Scene 9, p. 98). Mother Courage makes a similar point when she overhears the Swedish Commander telling her son Eilif that he needs brave soldiers like him. She points out “Whenever there are great virtues, it’s a sure sign something’s wrong” (Scene 2, p. 39). It means the general or king is stupid and does not know how to lead. If he did, the citizens could be ordinary. When he is in trouble he needs heroism, bravery, and loyalty, with the soldiers ending up dead. Her own children illustrate this point. They have outstanding qualities. Eilif is clever and fearless. Swiss Cheese is honest, and Kattrin is compassionate and self-sacrificing. They all die, and Mother Courage, who is not particularly admirable, survives.
She sings “The Song of the Great Capitulation” to the angry soldier who wants to make a complaint against injustice. In her rebellious youth she had to learn to “march in lockstep with the rest” (Scene 4, p. 68). She says the law of survival is “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” (Scene 4, p. 68). Mother Courage haggles over selling her cart to save her own future, even when Swiss Cheese is in danger of losing his life: “I must hold on to something, or any passer-by can kick me in the ditch” (Scene 3, p. 62). Survival is the measure of success in this world. Yvette the prostitute is another survivor who sings “The Fraternization Song” about having sex with the enemy soldiers. She ends up winning a colonel and becoming a rich widow.
In the scene where the Swedish Commander rewards Eilif for bravery, Eilif explains how he killed the peasants to get their cattle and concludes, “Necessity knows no law, huh?” (Scene 2, p. 38). The Chaplain points out that the Bible has a different paradigm about loving one’s neighbors. Christ made five hundred loaves out of five so everyone would have enough, but things have changed apparently, and it is every man for himself now. The cynical view of the world constantly put forward in this play by various characters is an existential description of a world without spiritual meaning. People talk about God and virtue, but that is not the reality. Mother Courage is the existential anti-hero of the play. She does not buy into conventional stories about how the world is or should be. She makes her own rules based on her experience, and that is why her street wisdom has a certain satiric appeal. When trying to save Swiss Cheese by bribing the army to let him go, Mother Courage expresses the paradox: “God is merciful, and men are bribable, that’s how His will is done on earth” (Scene 3, p. 61).