Note from Mother Courage and Her Children Director Brian Kulick
A POET IN EXILE
On February 28, 1933, the day after the infamous Reichstag Fire, Brecht left Germany along with his wife, Helen Weigel, and their son, Stefan. They would not return until 1949. During this peripatetic period Brecht would pen his greatest masterpieces: Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person Of Szechwan, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, along with poetic musings such as ‘Spring 1938’.
These were what Brecht called “the Dark Times” and he became their designated chronicler, dutifully filling page after page with sobering journal entries, providing an almost day-by-day sense of these most turbulent years. Intriguingly, from September 21 to November 7 of 1939, his otherwise vociferous diary goes silent. It was during this seven-week interlude that Mother Courage and Her Children was written. This was quite unusual for Brecht; almost all of his other plays went through long and protracted gestation processes, followed by equally torturous bouts of revision that often went on for years and continued even after the plays had been performed. It was not so with Mother Courage. It seems to have been miraculously birthed in those seven weeks and remained, for the most part, unrevised through the years leading up to its famous 1949 stagings.
Mother Courage also displayed a more classical approach to diction and action, something relatively new for Brecht. Gone was the bold, modernist experimentation found in Brecht’s learning plays, like He Who Says Yes, He Who Says No; The Decision; and The Exception and the Rule. Suddenly, character and story returned with strong influence from Renaissance theatre models. This began in Brecht’s early drafts of Galileo and reached its fullest articulation in Mother Courage. At first, Brecht worried about this reliance on a more classical, normative dramaturgy. He wondered what his younger self would make of this: would the younger Brecht see this as a pathetic recapitulation of everything that mattered or as a new and fruitful chapter in the life of a maturing dramatist?
Somewhere in Brecht’s unconscious there seemed to be the understanding that he must think about writing for a time beyond his own or, even more daringly, for “all time”. This slow and brutal realization changed the nature and dynamic of his work. Brecht, in many ways, went from modernist to classicist without completely losing his hard-earned contemporary stance. Underneath the more recognizable characters and situations in Mother Courage, we still find the sly, political agitator and experimenter. Through this “black market” dramaturgy, Brecht became something of a theatrical smuggler, hiding a subversive core beneath otherwise normative story telling. We feel this transformation at the heart of all of Brecht’s works during these years of exile. It is with this shift that Brecht entered his greatest period and penned the works which now make him part of the theatrical pantheon, sitting between other modern masters such as Chekhov and Beckett.
While the conception, style, and execution of Mother Courage are unique among Brecht’s writings, the main character is no stranger to his dramatic canon. Brecht has three great types of heroines; the absolute innocents like Shen Tei in Good Person and Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle; the visionary, Joan of Arc figures featured prominently in plays like Saint Joan of the Stockyards, The Visions of Simone Machard, and Joan at Rouen; and the ever-shrewd, ever-hard-hearted, steely business mavens who can be found at the center of two of Brecht’s earliest plays, the Widow Begbick in A Man’s A Man and Begbick in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Heroines of this last type are the ultimate, clear-eyed, unsentimental survivors and I often think of them as Brecht in drag, complete with his ever-present cigar. Mother Courage shares an important part of her dramatic DNA with Widow Begbick. The beautiful variation in this latest iteration of the character is that she is both a businesswoman and a mother. This fundamental contradiction gives Mother Courage her unique dimensionality and is key to Brecht’s larger critique of how difficult it is to be both a human being and a capitalist at the same time. The inherent contradiction ultimately undoes characters such as Mother Courage or leads to a schizophrenic breakdown (think of the innocent Shen Tei in Good Person, who must create the evil alter ego, Shui Ta, in order to survive the cutthroat mercantile world of Szechuan).
Brecht would have to wait until after the war for Mother Courage to finds its way back to its intended German audiences. It was an immediate success and became the centerpiece of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. Yet Brecht was surprised to find that most of the original audiences found Mother Courage heroic just for carrying on, missing the deeper critique of the play and the character. Those audiences that did understand what Brecht was up to were appalled that Mother Courage seemed to have learned nothing from her suffering. This is perhaps, in many ways, Brecht’s most radical move, a move that strikes right at the heart of Aristotelian poetics. For two thousand or so years, audiences have believed in what Aristotle defines as anagnorisis or recognition; the idea that we gain knowledge through suffering. In other words, at the end of the play, the tragic character has a moment – an epiphany of sorts – where he or she has “seen the light” and “learned their lesson”. For Brecht, there is no such moment of recognition. Brecht, in his famous essay on Mother Courage renounces this venerated view, insisting, “Misfortune in itself is a poor teacher. Its pupils learn hunger and thirst, but seldom hunger for truth or thirst for knowledge. Suffering does not transform a sick man into a physician. Neither what he sees from a distance nor what he sees face to face is enough to turn an eyewitness into an expert”. Mother Courage was meant to have learned nothing from her war. The audience did not see what the playwright was driving at: that war teaches people nothing. In other notes Brecht admittedly insists, “Observers of catastrophes are wrong to imagine the victims will learn from these … they learn no more from the catastrophe than a guinea pig learns from biology”. He is ultimately not interested in opening the eyes of Mother Courage but rather the eyes of his audience.
But what is it that Brecht wants us to see? That war is bad? We know that, don’t we? Yes, and Brecht never shies away from showing us. But amidst this familiar portrait of the horror of war is a keen understanding that no one escapes its impact. We allow our country to go to war, we reap its benefits, and we think that the war will not reach us. That is what Mother Courage believes. The Sergeant she encounters in the first scene attempts to dissuade her of this naive belief: “Oh, you’d like war to eat the pips but spit out the apple? It’s to fatten up your kids, but you won’t invest in it. Got to look after itself, eh? And you called Courage…Scared of the war that keeps you going?” Later the Sergeant shares a little epigrammatic insight with Courage, “Like the war to nourish you? Have to feed it something too”. And we do – we feed it not only tangible things like our sons and daughters but also ineffables such as our sense of morality; war takes both and happily devours them. At one point Mother Courage is reminded, “he who would sup with the devil must have a long spoon”. Brecht’s dramatic injunction is that there is no spoon long enough to protect us from the deeply corrosive effects of this devil called war and so he patiently shows us all the ways that war contaminates everyone, even those who are the furthest from fighting. In this age of drone warfare and surgical strikes, we cannot help but stop and wonder if our spoon is finally long enough or if the ethical ramifications of our choices will come back to haunt us?
And what about our avoidances; what about those wars which we believe we have nothing to do with, like Congo? Is the prolongation of this war the consequence of ancient antagonisms or is it fueled by our modern need for Coltan, a rare mineral that keeps our cell phones, lap tops, and game consoles humming. Tear open your latest iPhone and you will find a labyrinth of little green beads; break those open and you will be holding a bit of the Congo in your hand. We carry a piece of the Congo with us everyday and yet we remain blind to our inadvertent involvement with its continued devastation. Perhaps the problem today is that our spoon is finally too long and we no longer the see the devil, allowing him to happily go on supping on others.