Study Guide

Mother Courage and Her Children Power

By Bertolt Brecht


RECRUITER: How can you muster a unit in a place like this? I've been thinking about suicide, sergeant. Here am I, got to find our commander four companies before the twelfth of the month, and people round here are so nasty I can't sleep nights. S'pose I get hold of some bloke and shut my eye to his pigeon chest and varicose veins, I get him proper drunk, he signs on the line, I'm just settling up, he goes for a piss, I follow him to the door because I smell a rat; bob's your uncle, he's off like a flea with the itch. No notion of word of honour, loyalty, faith, sense of duty. This place has shsattered my confidence in the human race, sergeant. (I, 3-13)

How's that for an opening line? The recruiter not only expresses an extreme dislike for the lower classes, from which he's supposed to recruit new soldiers; his story about getting tricked by a potential recruit demonstrates the military's lack of power to control the local populace completely.

SERGEANT: You pulling my leg? I'll knock that sauce out of you. S'pose you know you got to have a licence.

When Eilif claims he's part of the Finnish regiment in Scene 1, the sergeant doesn't buy it. He's pretty sure Eilif doesn't have the papers to prove it. But what's more important here is the threat of violence. Following up rules with a threat of violence is the prerogative of military power in Mother Courage.

RECRUITER has taken Eilif by the arm and is leading him away up stage: Ten florins bounty money, then you're a gallant fellow fighting for the king and women'll be after you like flies. (I, 323-325)

It's not all about guns and tanks, folks. Military power is portrayed here not just in terms of force, but also in terms of economic power and the ability to bestow prestige. Maybe that's why Mother Courage calls war a "trade" (I, 158); soldiers are trading their lives for the promise of things like money and women.

MOTHER COURAGE: […] Finest plans get bolloxed up by the pettiness of them as should be carrying them out, because emperors can't do nowt themselves, they just counts on soldiers and people to back 'em up whatever happens, am I right? (VI, 46-50)

Here's a tip from our very own Mother Courage: the ones in power actually don't have any power. Sure, they get to say what happens, and wage wars against one another. But really, it all comes down to the "little folk," the ones doing the dirty work, and often things don't go so well as they should.

THE CHAPLAIN: […] There've always been people going round saying 'the war can't go on for ever'. I tell you there's nothing to stop it going on for ever. Of course there can be a bit of a breathing space. The war may need to get its second wind, it may even have an accident so to speak. […] It can suddenly come to a standstill for some quite unforeseen reason, you can't allow for everything. A slight case of negligence, and it's bogged down up to the axles. And then it's a matter of hauling the war out of the mud again. But emperor and kings and popes will come to its rescue. […] (VI, 63-75)

While Mother Courage likes to point out that leaders don't have any actual power, the chaplain is convinced they're the ones at the wheel. In fact, he really does see the war as a kind of machine, one that can be driven indefinitely by those with the power to do so.

THE CHAPLAIN: I told you I'm not a woodcutter by trade. I studied to be a pastor of souls. My talents and abilities are being abused in this place, by manual labour. My god-diven endowments are denied expression. It's a sin. One sermon of mine can put a regiment in such a frame of mind it'll treat the enemy like a flock of sheep. Life to them is a smelly old foot-cloth which they fling away in a vision of final victory. God has given me the gift of speech. I can preach so you'll lose all sense of sight and hearing. (VI, 197-202)

Maybe Chap missed the day they talked about humility back in chaplain training school. The chaplain isn't just complaining about having to waste his talents by performing manual labor for Mother Courage. He's also saying something important about his power as a man of God. The main feature of his "god-given endowments" is not the ability to communicate the word of God, but to put soldiers into a hypnotic state and prepare them for battle. He suggests that religious power has been enlisted by the military to increase its sway over soldiers.

THE CHAPLAIN: It's not them I blame. They never went raping back home. The fault lies with those that start wars, it brings humanity's lowest instincts to the surface. (VI, 241-243)

The chaplain excuses the violence of soldiers as an effect of the war. He doesn't blame them; he blames their leaders, the ones he thinks have total control of the war. Here, he sees the power of war in terms of its capacity to dehumanize, driving normal people to do terrible things.

Enter Yvette Pottier in black, dressed up to the nines, carrying a cane. She is much older and fatter, and heavily powdered. She is followed by a manservant. (VIII, 179-181)

Check out Yvette's makeover. She has jumped the social ladder, going from army prostitute to wealthy widow. Everything about this description—the fact that she's "dressed up to the nines" and has a servant with her—suggests that she has money and more importantly, that she has power. She even gets a noble title, "Countess Starhemberg." Yvette represents one of the only routes to success for people in Mother Courage: making it in a world organized by social and military power.

THE ENSIGN: Look at her laughing at us. I'm not having that. I'll shoot her down, and damn the consequences. Fetch the harquebus. (XI, 168-170)

Laughing at someone with a gun might not be the best idea. Here, Kattrin's murder becomes an expression of the military's power to silence resistance. But there's more to it than that. What the ensign says here also demonstrates that this power is not just with the military as a whole, but also occurs on the individual level. The ensign is not following orders when he shoots Kattrin, and he acknowledges that there might even be consequences for him.

But Kattrin's last drumbeats are taken up by the town's cannon.
In the distance can be heard confused noise of tocsins and gunfire.
FIRST SOLDIER: She's made it. (XI, 202-206)

Who has the power? Kattrin has the power. She risks (and loses) her life in order to save others. Her resistance works, and she is able to defy military might and have a say in her world.