Get Ready, Because This is Important
Brecht is known for creating a very particular style of theater. He calls it epic theater. Here, "epic" is in contrast to "dramatic," including the traditional genres of tragedy and comedy. Brecht wants to get away from dramas that absorb audiences in fictional worlds, and create a new kind of theater that puts an emotional distance between the audience and what's on stage.
In German, Brecht refers to this distancing as the Verfremdungseffekt, often translated as the "alienation effect," or the effect of "making strange." We'll say more about this soon, and how it relates to Mother Courage. But first, let's break it down.
Forget the Greeks
As Aristotle describes it in his Poetics, a tragedy should ideally focus on an individual who has disobeyed the norms of society and divine order. The tragedy invariably ends with the lone hero's tragic downfall. (Check out Oedipus the King for a classic example of Greek tragedy.) But Brecht isn't interested in divine orders or social norms. He wants to write plays that will get people to reconsider all those ingrained rules. He wants to be revolutionary, you see.
Marx it Up
Brecht is a committed Marxist at the time he writes Mother Courage. As a Marxist, he believes the only way to create a just society is to reverse the capitalist order, giving workers direct ownership of the means of production. He believes that the drive to make a profit is the source of all bad things in society, including war and class conflict.
As a playwright, he believes that theater shouldn't just entertain audiences with predictable plotlines, but that it should call attention to contradictions in the capitalist set-up, and ultimately, spur the audience on to revolutionize society. By alienating his audiences with "strange" plays, he hopes to prevent them from getting swept up in the drama, making them more receptive to his revolutionary messages.
Feel the Verfremdung
So, how does Brecht go about making Mother Courage "strange"? For starters, his characters speak a weird, made-up dialect. Most translators try to approximate this one way or another. Second, he places his characters in a historical time period not many of us are familiar with, in order to comment indirectly on events occurring in the present. And let's not forget: there is no plot resolution. Mother Courage leaves the stage seemingly unchanged, not mourning her tragic fate.
Mother Courage also uses a number of strategies to break up the flow of the story. In papers published separately, Brecht instructs that parts of the scene titles are to be printed and appear above the stage before each scene begins, as supertitles. This purposefully interrupts the theatrical performance with elements of the written text. And let's not forget all those songs. Musicals always require some suspension of disbelief, but they just seem especially out of place here. On purpose. Like the scene titles, the songs disrupt the illusion that what's appearing on stage could be a "real" situation.
All of these techniques are there to make us feel an emotional distance from the otherwise tragic events that occur in Mother Courage. That's why Brecht calls it epic theater; we become so alienated from the actions on stage that they seem to happen in an epic past, a kind of timelessness usually associated with legends and epic poetry.
At the same time, though, Mother Courage is very specific about its time and place. This contradiction between historical specificity and timeless distance is fundamental to epic theater. Ultimately, it's also there to provoke us, to encourage us to step back and take a critical look at contradictions in our own historical moment.