What does the 30 Years’ War — which involved most of 17th century Europe — have in common with contemporary society, particularly one viewed through the lens of Marxism? If you were to answer, “Not much,” you would be correct up to a point; that point being the moment Bertolt Brecht gets involved in the analysis.
Brecht wrote Mother Courage and Her Children in a little over a month in response to Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. But the play itself takes place over 12 years of the 30 Years’ War.
Various characters in the play announce the commencement of each of its 14 acts. This is one of Brecht’s disorienting, alienating effects used to alert the audience that they should not become too involved in the action, as this is, after all, just a play.
Prior to the start of the play, the audience is entertained by recordings of German cabaret songs, sung by a Marlene Dietrich sound-alike and probably written by Kurt Weill. It opens with a wooden cart being drawn onto the stage by two male actors — one black (Eilif, played by Michael Blake), one white (Swiss Cheese, played by Matt Miwa) — who are the sons of Mother Courage (Tanja Jacobs). Mother Courage and her mute daughter, Kattrin (Waneta Storms), are riding in the cart.
Brecht uses bit actors to play a variety of roles throughout, a consideration which keeps costs under control, and destabilizes the audience. Principal players, on the other hand, play just their roles. Thus, Miwa also plays a wounded man, a young man and a young peasant in various parts of the play whereas Blake, Jacobs and Storms play only one role. Of particular note is Jacobs who is exceptional as Mother Courage, a role which has been played over the years by such as Meryl Streep.
While Mother Courage is engaged in negotiating a deal with a sergeant, a recruitment officer makes off with Eilif, who is tricked into joining the army. Act two begins two years later when Mother Courage negotiates with an army cook (Geordie Johnson — another principal player) over a capon. Meanwhile, Eilif is congratulated by an officer for killing a group of peasants and slaughtering their cattle. Mother Courage overhears the congratulations and scolds her son for taking an action that might have gotten him killed.
Here lies the clearest manifestation of Brecht’s Marxist orientation. Mother Courage represents capitalism. As such, she readily profits from war. In fact, in a later act, she is relieved that rumours of peace breaking out are short-lived. Meanwhile, she seeks to protect her own from the ravages of war.
Slowly, over various acts, all of Mother Courage’s children are killed. Swiss Cheese, who has become a paymaster, attempts to protect the payroll for which he is responsible. As a result of this virtuous act, he is caught by the other side, tortured and executed.
Kattrin, left alone by Mother Courage who travels to a nearby town to negotiate the purchase of some goods, learns that the town is to be attacked surreptitiously. When she bravely attempts to warn the town about this by climbing a tower and repeatedly banging on a drum, she is shot and killed.
Eilif is executed for killing a family of peasants and slaughtering their cattle. Although he was congratulated for this same act earlier in the play, the problem is that this time he does it in peacetime, failing to understand that it is alright to do so in times of war, but not in times of peace.
Mother Courage and Her Children is, in sum, a complex and often heavy piece of theatre. Yet, it remains engaging throughout, thanks in part to a stellar cast that keeps things believable in a uniformly five-star performance.
Mother Courage and Her Children runs until March 6 at The Manitoba Theatre Centre’s John Hirsch Theatre (Mainstage).