Study Guide

Mother Courage and Her Children

By Bertolt Brecht

Mother Courage and Her Children Introduction

There are people out there who think Mother Courage and Her Children is, hands down, the best play of the last hundred years. We know, we know—you loved Mamma Mia! Don't worry, you can still love Mamma Mia! All we're saying is: give this mama a chance. She might change your mind in more ways than one.

Written in Sweden in 1939 at the height of World War II by exiled German playwright Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage has an important thing or two to say about war. And if that doesn't sound like fun, well that's the point. Brecht isn't interested in making us feel all warm and fuzzy. Brecht's motto is, "war teaches people nothing" (source). There are no heroes in Mother Courage.

The play follows the adventures of Anna Fierling, a.k.a. Mother Courage, who runs a canteen business during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). She tours Europe with a covered wagon of wares for sale, booze for soldiers and her three children in tow. Though determined to make money off the war and keep her children out of harm's way, she ends up alone and penniless before the whole thing is over.

With its weird language, off-kilter songs (did we mention it's a musical?), and truly abrasive protagonist, Mother Courage makes no excuses for not being your typical war drama. It's hard not to leave Mother Courage with an image of war as an ultimately meaningless venture, in which no one ever wins. But in the end, that's why Mother Courage is one of the best anti-war plays we can think of. And let's face it: war is not exactly a minor character in our lives.

What is Mother Courage and Her Children About and Why Should I Care?

Looking for a great way to make a statement with your Subaru? Well, then check out this bumper sticker. It reads "Endless War," only the "less" is crossed out and replaced with "this," so "Endless War" also reads as "End this War." Clever, right?

C'mon. Being anti-war is in.

We've all heard a lot about opposing a war that seems to have no end in sight. Well, guess what: it turns out it isn't a new thing. For Germans like Brecht, who witnessed the rise of Nazism in Germany, the threat of permanent war was keenly felt. No one knew when or if World War II would ever stop. Many were terrified to know what would happen if it ever did. In fact, the fear that war could become an endless part of our lives was as present throughout the twentieth century as it is in the twenty-first.

As the quintessential play about endless war, written during World War II, Mother Courage very much belongs to this era. Sure, some of the themes in this play, like the idea that war is more about profit than principles, don't sound all that new. But we can still learn something about the way Brecht provokes his audience to agree or disagree with him.

Brecht mixes up comedy with tragedy, poetry, and musical theater, not worrying too much if he contradicts himself along the way. These quirks and contradictions are there to amuse, puzzle, or even frustrate us. But most of all, not unlike that clever bumper sticker, it's all there to make us stop and think: will the war outlive us all?

Mother Courage and Her Children Resources

Websites

The International Brecht Society (IBS)
This is the website of the IBS, where you can find further information about Brecht and his plays.

Bertolt.com
Just about everything you ever wanted to know about BB.

Movie or TV Productions

The 1961 Film Version of Mother Courage (in German)
Check this film out, if you want to see Mother Courage played by the awesome German actress and second wife of Brecht, Helene Weigel.You can find the info below at IMDb.

Articles and Interviews

New York Times Review
A New York Times review of the Public Theater's 2006 production of Mother Courage, starring Meryl Streep in the title role. The play was performed in New York City's Central Park.

Tony Kushner on Mother Courage
Here's an article on Mother Courage by the playwright Tony Kushner, who has also translated the play into English. It appeared in The Guardian in 2009.

Video

Clips from the 2006 Public Theater Production
A few clips of Meryl Streep performing as Mother Courage.

"Introduction to Brechtian Theater"
Check out this video about a production of Mother Courage at the Royal National Theater in London. You can see some fun photos and hear someone reading Brecht's theoretical texts. If this particular video doesn't tickle your fancy, you can easily find a lot more videos about this production on YouTube.

"Brecht in Theory: Helene Weigel on Epic Theater"
Watch this to hear German actress (and Brecht's second wife) Helene Weigel talk about epic theater. You can also see some footage of her performing as Mother Courage (unknown year).

Brecht Speaks Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities
In 1947/48, during his time in the US, Brecht was interviewed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, on the suspicion that he was a Communist.

Audio

Brecht-ing Into Song
Listen to this recording of Brecht singing a song from another one of his plays, The Threepenney Opera.

The Song of the Grand Capitulation (Sung in German)
Here you can listen to the German actress, Judith Keller, sing The Song of The Grand Capitulation in the original German.

Clips from the 2006 Public Theater Production
A few clips of Meryl Streep singing in the title role of Mother Courage.

German Poet Reads Brecht (in German)
Check out the links on this page to hear German poet Durs Grünbein reading Brecht (in German).

Images

Bruegel's Dulle Griet (1562)
Mother Courage is sometimes compared to the image of Dulle Griet in Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel's painting of the same name. (See the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Mother Courage, xxix.) The painting depicts a figure from Flemish folklore, also known as "Mad Meg," who leads an army to pillage Hell.

That's Our Boy
Looking good, Bert.

BB at the Berliner Ensemble
Here's Bert with his wife, German actress Helene Weigel, at the theater company they founded in 1949 in East Berlin.

Brecht's 1949 Staging of Mother Courage
Here's a shot from Brecht's staging of Mother Courage in 1949 at the Berliner Ensemble. You can see some supertitle action here ("Polen" = Poland).

The First Production of Mother Courage—Ever
A photo from the first production of Mother Courage, in 1941 in Zurich, Switzerland. Yes, that's during World War II. The actress Therese Giehse is in the title role.

Helene Weigel as Mother Courage
The classic image of a classic Mother Courage.

The "Silent Scream"
Helene Weigel is particularly famous for the "silent scream" she performed while playing the role of Mother Courage. The scream happens when Mother Courage hears the shots from Swiss Cheese's execution. We see her scream, but its silence blocks us from accessing her pain.

Brecht Statue Outside the Berliner Ensemble
Check out this statue of BB outside the Berliner Ensemble in Berlin, Germany.