Mother Courage and Her Children: More Than Just a War Play

More than any other play, I think, Mother Courage and Her Children shows the deeply troubling social blindness caused by war. That’s why I was so stunned when I opened up the program for the university production I saw this weekend and read a Director’s Note that said, “This is not an anti-war play; it’s just a war play.” Sent reeling by this declaration, I spent the last few minutes before the cast took the stage wondering if I had completely misread the script years ago. How could anyone encounter the journeys of Mother Courage, The Chaplain, Eilif, or any of the other characters, and confidently conclude that this mortifying tragedy is “not anti-war”? As with any work of art, the viewer is permitted to give their subjective opinion, but this statement seemed, to me, an utter misrepresentation of the material. And even if the director had found certainty in her assessment, in spite of it being considered by most dramatists as one of the greatest anti-war plays of all time, isn’t that a conclusion that theatre patrons should be making for themselves? Stirred by this note in the program, I set the goal to try and uncover why the director felt that way, based on the elements of her particular production choices.

Mother Courage is, for all intents-and-purposes, the hero of the story, although her actions do not fall squarely into what would normally be defined as heroic. In the play, she and her children are trekking across Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. Courage’s plan is to support her family by profiting from the war itself, selling an assortment of supplies and provisions to soldiers, peasants, and anyone else with money to spend. Giving the audience a snapshot of events taking place through twelve years of continuous war, we witness a relentless string of tragic events and worst-case-scenarios. In the end, Mother Courage loses her entire family to death at the hands of the war that supported them.

Mother Courage and Her Children
Photo by Pietro De Grandi on Unsplash

Bertolt Brecht’s plot is hypnotic and mystifying. Many of the major characters, including Courage herself, betray all systems of morality, choosing profits and self-preservation above all else. Brecht clearly intended to illustrate how the business of war corrupts society, leading ethical, respectable people down a road of destruction, symbolized by an actual road flanked by continual destruction. From barbarous soldiers to corrupted clergy, nearly every single character compromises their integrity at least once, overcome by the ruthless nature of war.

Offering an open mind to the director’s suggestion, I watched the events unfurl before me, but never caught a glimpse of anything that seemed to say, “This is just how war is, people. Let’s not rush to judgment!” To the contrary, every word in Tony Kushner’s beautiful translation seemed to stitch more evidence into the fabric of the play that war is merciless and corrupting. I suppose there are people out there with a callous view of life that believe senseless killings and violence in the name of religion are a necessary and just part of reality, but I do not believe that Bertolt Brecht was one of them.

Mother Courage and Her Children is, in fact, an anti-war play, written as a direct critique of the cutthroat nature of fascism. That being said, the production I watched was simple and enthralling, leaving me with a deeper understanding of the pressures ordinary people face under the threat of war.


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