By Bertolt Brecht
English book by Eric Bentley
New York: Groves Press, 1955
126 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett November 2012

The play is set in The Thirty Years War. The actual historical war itself was fought between 1618-1648. It was in part an international war in Europe and a religious war. Bertolt Brecht’s play focuses on the religious was between the Catholic house of Hapsburg and the Protestants of Germany, primarily Lutherans and Calvinists. It provided an environment that served Brecht’s purposes.

In Eric Bentley’s introduction he explains that Mother Courage, a woman who follows the soldiers selling rum, clothing and other goods from her cart. Bentley claims, and rightly I think that she is actually a philosopher; not of the Plato, Aristotle, Kant sort, but a common sense one of the people, and represent Brecht on Bentley’s account:

What is the philosophy of this philosopher? Reduced to a single proposition, it is that if you concede defeat on the larger issue, you can achieve some nice victories in smaller ways. The larger issue is whether the world can be changed. It can’t. But brandy is still drunk, and can be sold. One can survive, and one can help one’s children to survive by teaching each to make appropriate use of the qualities God gave him.

Mother Courage has a small cart of good to sell. She can hitch it to either herself or her children. She follows the warring parties selling rum and various necessities, making her living and trying to stay out of harms way. However by 1624 there is a short moment of peace and this deeply threatens her way of life. Peace is bad for business. She complains:

“What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization. And when you get organization? In a war.”

Mother Courage sees life as a struggle to survive and get by. She can’t control the larger forces so she works out how to survive for herself and children, at least as best she can. Two of her sons, nearly grown, are taken into the war, and she is left with her mute daughter, who is not only mute but not very good looking. Mother Courage needs to survive herself, but also has some hopes of marrying off her daughter to help protect her future.

Her three children, Eilif, Swiss Cheese and Katrin, each has a different father, none of whom Mother Courage ever had much to do with. She’s a loner, but a caring mother nonetheless. She has to have the courage she does to survive, but cunning too. However, she is convinced that were there a safe society one wouldn’t need heroic courage:

“When a general or a king is stupid and leads his soldiers into a trap, they need this virtue of courage. When he’s tightfisted and hasn’t enough soldiers, the few he does have need the heroism of Hercules – another virtue. And if he’s slovenly and doesn’t give a damn about anything, they have to be a wise as serpents or they’re finished. Loyalty’s another virtue and you need plenty of it if the king’s always asking too much of you. All virtues which a well-regulated country with of good king or a good general wouldn’t need. In a good country virtues wouldn’t be necessary. Everybody could be quiet ordinary, middling, and for all I care, cowards.”

As best she can she tries to operate her own family as a tiny country which she runs in a well-regulated manner. The dilemma she faces is that she may be a tiny country that is somewhat succeeding as she describes, but her tiny country is also incorporated into a larger country that, on her definition, is not well-regulated.

There is an irony too, that this is a religious war, nonetheless, a war that is bringing about great cruelty, death and mayhem. The chaplain defends the war as good since it is a war of religion where each soldier is fighting for God. However the cook replies:

“In one sense it’s a war because there’s fleecing, bribing, plundering, not to mention a little raping, but it’s a war of religion, that’s clear. All the same it makes you thirsty.”

The cook is much like Mother Courage in this regard. The larger issues are not things he has control of. He can simply strive for survival given his environment and seek the few pleasures available to him. Like the cook Mother Courage has absolutely no idealism. She lives pragmatically in a very difficult world, expects little and tries to survive:

“God is merciful, and men a bribable, that how His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Her very name, Mother Courage, points to the necessity of courage (as she understands it) to survive in a world totally beyond her control.

“The poor need courage. Why? They’re lost. That they even get up in the morning is something – in their plight. Or that they plough a field – in war time. Even their bring children into the world shows they have courage, for they have no prospects. They have to hang each other one by one and slaughter each other in the lump, so if they want to look each other in the face once in a while, well, it takes courage. That they have to put up with an Emperor and a Pope, that takes an unnatural amount of courage, for they cost you your life.”

Both the generals with their belief in war and the chaplain with his belief in God are quite contrary to Mother Courage’s earthy belief is survival of the fittest by very practical manners. Because she tries to prepare against threats and dangers the chaplain gives his own description of her, only to be cut down by her hard-nosed practicality.

“Chaplain: Mother Courage, I have often thought that – under a veil of plain speech – you conceal a heart. You're human, you need warmth.

She replies:

The best way of warming this tent is to chop plenty of firewood.”

The larger world is hard on her. She loses her favorite son, Swiss Cheese and her daughter. She can only do what she can do, but she goes on doing it without complaint and trying always to create that tiny space of peace and security which is so hard to do in a world so much more powerful that oneself.

Brecht’s message is harsh but extremely well presented in this powerful character, Mother Courage. The play is a good read and lays out the conditions of survival which so many of the poor and middle classes of the world have always faced.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett