What an honor it is to present Mother Courage, arguably the best play by one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights, Bertolt Brecht.
Brimming with irony, anger, humor and a critique of war that bristles with life, Mother Courage refuses to be easily categorized. By turns a tragedy, a comedy and a musical(!), the play uses an astonishing number of techniques to tell its epic story of one woman’s journey through the Thirty Years’ War. But Brecht is interested in engaging not only our emotions but our minds, not only our spirits but our intellects; he demands our full attention while we watch his plays and frees us to constantly reconsider their content. It is not enough for him to express the simple truism that war is hell, or that life is hard, or that people act irrationally during wartime. It is not enough for him to say that people are capable of acting bravely, or heroically. Brecht is interested in the more complex issue of how societies create a war narrative substantial enough to justify monstrous actions, how war permeates our economic and psychological appetites, how surviving war creates collective amnesia.
Mother Courage is full of individual acts of surprising heroism and poignant scenes of empathy; it portrays otherwise likable people capable of betrayal and terror. But all behavior is contextualized by war, by the cost of serving the war.
To further subvert our expectations, Brecht adds humor and music to the proceedings. A fan of vaudeville and the music hall, he peppers the action with songs and jokes of the “low” variety to create his very own circus. Lisa Peterson and her intrepid group of designers have embraced Brecht’s original vision, creating emendations for the purposes of clarity, illumination and dynamism. Gina Leishman, who in another life was undoubtedly weaned in a German beer garden, adds her wonderful score to the new translation by the eminent British playwright, David Hare.
One might well ponder why we have chosen to open the season with Mother Courage, a challenging play describing less than heart-warming events. We believe that the goal of the theatre is catharsis, release, liberation; that this experience is not always achieved by distracting ourselves from suffering but by going to the heart of the world. As war correspondent Chris Hedges says in his remarkable book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning: “Reconciliation, self-awareness and finally the humility that makes peace possible come only when the culture no longer serves a cause or a myth but the most precious and elusive of all human narratives—truth.”
Welcome to the season,
The first child of Friedrich Brecht, chief clerk in a paper factory, and Wilhelmine Friederike Sophie Brezing, the daughter of a civil servant, Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht was born on February 10, 1898 in the medieval city of Augsburg, Germany. A sickly child with a congenital heart condition, he suffered a heart attack at age 12. He soon recovered and continued his Latin, history and humanities education in private school, where he co-founded and co-edited a magazine. By age 16, Brecht was writing for a local newspaper and had completed the first of his 40 plays, The Bible, about a girl who must choose to live or to die in order to save others.
Brecht’s political thinking was already well-established by the time the First World War broke out. While in high school, he was almost expelled for expressing pacificist views in an essay about not defending his country in wartime. At 19, he was drafted and placed as a medical orderly in an emergency hospital. Deeply affected by what he witnessed there, he wrote Legend of the Dead Soldier, an anti-war ballad that the Nazi regime would later cite as the reason to deprive him of his citizenship.
While studying medicine and science at the Universität in Munich in 1917, he attended seminars on the theatre, started to write a new play, Baal, and found work as a theatre critic for a local newspaper. By 1921 he had become a serious writer, penning poems, ballads, short stories, one-act and full-length plays, and also had begun directing. In 1922 his play Drums in the Night opened at Kammerspiele Theatre, turning Brecht into an overnight success. He won the prestigious Kleist Prize and became a dramaturg for the theatre. In 1923, his plays Jungle of the Cities and Baal were both produced.
After moving to Berlin in 1924, Brecht worked as a dramaturg for Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theatre where he met Helene Weigel—a Viennese actress in his production of A Man’s a Man—in whom he found a theatrical muse and life partner. By the late 1920s, Brecht had read Das Kapital and befriended Karl Korsch, a prominent Communist thinker and theoretician who taught him the essential principles of Marxism.
The burning of the Reichstag took place on February 27, 1933. The next day, Brecht and his family fled to Vienna and later Denmark. The Nazis, who had been persecuting Brecht for besmirching the honor of the German soldier in his Legend of the Dead Soldier, revoked his German citizenship in 1935 and burned his books.
Fearing mounting pressure on Denmark to extradite him to Germany, Brecht moved to Sweden in 1939. When the Nazis invaded Poland, he abandoned his work on The Good Woman of Setzuan to write Mother Courage, his response to the rise of fascism and the threat of a second world war.
To further distance themselves from the encroaching war, the Brecht family fled to Finland in 1940, and the following year traveled, via Moscow and Vladivostok, to San Pedro, California. Brecht was unsuccessful in finding work in Los Angeles, writing in his diary, “For the first time in ten years, I am not working seriously on anything.” Nevertheless, in the six years Brecht lived in Hollywood, he wrote the screenplay for Hangmen Also Die for director Fritz Lang, and the plays The Visions of Simone Machard and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. He also collaborated on a Beverly Hills production of Galileo with Charles Laughton, which was slated for Broadway.
Brecht was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in October 1947 to testify on his “subversion” of Hollywood and Communist infiltration of the movie industry. Managing to evade answering the Committee’s questions, he left the United States the following day for Paris where he told a friend, “When they accused me of wanting to steal the Empire State Building, I thought it was high time for me to leave.” Later, in Switzerland where Mother Courage had premiered in 1941, he resumed his work, setting down his thoughts, observations and theories in A Short Organum for the Theatre, which influenced theatremakers all over the world.
In 1948, having been refused entry into the American zone of occupied Germany, Brecht and Weigel went to the Soviet sector of Berlin. On January 11, 1949, he directed his own production of Mother Courage at the Deutsches Theatre with Weigel in the title role. With the establishment of his own company, the Berliner Ensemble, in 1949, Brecht’s theatrical future was secured with full support from the Communist regime.
With the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht was able to put into practice his “epic theatre” techniques which distinguished the company’s dynamic theatrical approach with often-innovative stagings of contemporary and classical plays, including Shakespeare, where underlying themes of social and class conflict could be emphasized.
Brecht died of a heart attack on August 14, 1956 while working on a response to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. He was buried, as he had requested, in the old Huguenot cemetery beneath the window of his last apartment in Berlin.
Bertolt Brecht wrote Mother Courage in the autumn of 1939 during his Swedish exile on Lidingö Island, finishing the play in just five weeks. Written in response to Germany’s invasion of Poland, he had originally hoped to see the play presented in Scandinavia as a warning not to be drawn into what was to become World War II; but Hitler had designs on Sweden, and it proved too politically inflammatory to produce Mother Courage in Stockholm.
Two years later, on April 19, 1941, the play was triumphantly staged at Zurich’s Schauspielhaus with German actress Therese Giehse as Mother Courage. Brecht was then in Finland planning his escape to America and did not see the production. He did, however, read reviews and heard reports that the public was moved to tears by Giehse’s performance. Brecht was enraged. Brecht had memorialized his theories on “epic theatre” in A Short Organum for the Theatre. Among them was that audiences not be lulled into passivity by naturalistic and sentimental productions that diminished the audience’s capacity to be intellectually engaged by the events of the play. Instead, with his highly theatrical presentational style, he wanted them to be aware of the artifice of theatre, be entirely purged of empathy for the characters and to think about the play’s social and political implications. With Mother Courage, Brecht had two particular objectives in mind: that audiences see Anna Fierling (Mother Courage) as emblematic of an unholy alliance of war and commerce in which the pursuit of profit leads to irrevocable loss, and that audiences become indignant at the pointlessness of war and take action to stop its progress. Instead, they saw Anna Fierling as a tragic heroine with a fierce instinct for survival.
In 1949, Brecht produced and directed the play himself with his own company, the Berliner Ensemble, at the Deutsches Theatre in East Berlin. He rewrote the play, making alterations to ensure that Mother Courage would not be interpreted in a sentimental manner. Helene Weigel played the title role in a portrayal that would define all others to come, and the production launched Brecht’s reputation as the most important director of his time.
The Mother Courage Model Book, a compilation and photographic archive of his staging, detailed Brecht’s rehearsal notes and commentary on every aspect of the show. The Model Book has served as an invaluable resource for future productions of the play, but Brecht did not expect productions to adhere slavishly to his own. He wrote, “Anyone who deserves the name of artist is unique; he can neither be perfectly imitated nor give a perfect imitation. The use of models is a particular kind of art, and just so much can be learned from it. The aim must be neither to copy the pattern exactly nor to break away from it at once.”
Despite Brecht’s efforts to shape audiences’ responses to Mother Courage, the play has continued to emotionally engage as well as intellectually challenge and entertain audiences worldwide.
The first time I saw a Brecht play was at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival—I can’t remember whether it was Happy End or Threepenny Opera. At the time, I was studying piano and music theory with the idea of becoming a concert pianist. The Brecht/Weill music struck me as being very different—amazingly rich, yet full of danger.
I then got hold of the first English translation of Brecht’s songbook in collaboration with Hanns Eisler, and the music hit me between the eyes—I even formed a theatre company in an abandoned taxi meter factory in London to perform it. It was carnival and circus music mixed with early 20th century dissonance. In Munich in the 1920s, Brecht had been friendly with Karl Valentin, a famous German beer hall and circus clown who influenced Brecht’s writing and musical style. He became a member of Valentin’s political cabaret and played clarinet to Valentin’s tuba. My theatrical endeavor didn’t last long, and I moved on to other things, but from then on Brecht’s harmonic musical language informed much of my writing and became an indelible part of my own vocabulary.
In 1998, I was asked to mark the occasion of Brecht’s centenary by P.S. 122 in New York, and I pulled together a group of friends to make a band. The Mister Wau Wa band took on a life of its own and is still going, dedicated to the songs of Brecht, featuring pump organ, accordion, sax, clarinet, guitar, tuba and drums. Lisa Peterson, with whom I first worked in 1984, would often come to hear us play.
When Lisa asked me to compose the score for Mother Courage, I asked myself how I could do this when a wonderful score already exists—that of Paul Dessau (who composed the music for Brecht’s 1949 production)—and how I could work with a theatre company to do this work.
In theatre, the needs of a piece are dictated by the time and place in which it is being created. Given this place and time and Brecht’s Mother Courage, I decided to compose for two musicians playing piano, accordion and tuba—the meeting point redux of circus, military and cabaret music.
Brecht’s aesthetic in terms of music was one of constant surprise, another manifestation of his theory of Verfremdungseffekt, or what’s come to be known as the alienation effect. He is saying, “Here’s a moment when you can have fun—but also think.” In the play, he takes us on a journey that is realistic for a while and then says, “Now it’s time for something completely different.” Lights come on, music breaks the action, the tone completely changes and the play becomes a presentation in cabaret style.
There are 12 scenes in Mother Courage and 12 songs, each distinctly different from the other. For example, Courage sings a lullabye to her dead daughter, the Chaplain sings a brutal song about the Passion of Christ, the Cook sings The Song of Solomon about moral dilemmas while he’s facing one of his own and a woman sings of home as Courage and Kattrin wander homeless through the battlefield. All of them have tremendous dramatic power—and irony.
“The [Thirty Years’] war solved no problems. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict. The overwhelming majority in Europe, the overwhelming majority in Germany, wanted no war; powerless and voiceless, there was no need even to persuade them that they did. The decision was made without thought of them. Yet of those who, one by one, let themselves be drawn into the conflict, few were irresponsible and nearly all were genuinely anxious for an ultimate and better peace…They wanted peace and they fought for 30 years to be sure of it. They did not learn then, and have not since, that war breeds only war.”—From The Thirty Years’ War, by C.V. Wedgwood, 1938
In 1618, the Hapsburg dynasty was the greatest power in Europe, ruling over Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Spain, Portugal and large sections of France and Italy, as well as Mexico, Peru and Brazil.
The war began with the revolt of Protestant nobles in Bohemia against the Catholic King Ferdinand (later Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II) and involved issues of territory, religion and succession. In the ensuing three decades, it spread throughout Europe due to the constitutional frailty of the Holy Roman Empire, the inability of the interdependent German states to act together and the ambitions of other European powers. Because the German states were the geographical and political center of Europe, their territory became the primary battleground. The result was a tremendous decrease in German population, devastation of German agriculture and the ruin of German commerce and industry.
As Mother Courage follows the soldiers from region to region and from city to city, she perseveres in the shifting sands of political and religious fealty with cunning and sheer force of will. She could not be a stranger to the devastation of towns and cities as the war progressed and she followed the armies, selling her goods.
With the onslaught of sieges and military campaigns, the war brought with it the miseries of plague, famine and slaughter to the population. The Swedish armies alone destroyed 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages and 1,500 towns, mostly on German soil. Urban areas in Germany lost one-third of their population as marauders burned, plundered, tortured and murdered villagers in search of booty. Throughout, the largely mercenary armies had to be supported at the expense of the inhabitants. In reality, the Thirty Years’ War was not one war but a series of small wars, and the victories usually went to the generals who kept their troops best provisioned.
Bertolt Brecht’s birth city of Augsburg did not escape the brutality of the Thirty Years’ War. In 1629, Emperor Ferdinand II installed a Catholic government in Augsburg that curtailed the rights of local Protestants. In 1632, the Protestant Swedish army took the city without resistance, but when the Swedish army was routed to a nearby city in 1634, Catholic troops surrounded Augsburg. The Swedish garrison refused to surrender and a disastrous siege ensued, during which thousands died of hunger and disease. Although the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ended this era of conflict and was an important step toward religious toleration, the incredible sufferings of the German peasantry were remembered for centuries.
Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic by John Willet
The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht
Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by David Hare