Don't be fooled by the covered wagon. Mother Courage, whose real name is Anna Fierling, might own one of these, but you definitely won't find her in Little House on the Prairie. This isn't Minnesota, folks. Our play starts way back in seventeenth-century Sweden, with Courage running a canteen business during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).
Itching to learn more about the Thirty Years' War? Good thing we have plenty to say about that in our "Setting" section. For now, we'll keep it simple. The Thirty Years' War was long, very long, lasting—you guessed it—thirty years. In this war, European countries fought to make each other either Protestant or Catholic. Mother Courage takes place after the war has already started, and ends before the war has concluded, so war is basically everywhere in this play.
Let's move on to Mother Courage's business. Start by imagining a restaurant, a bar, and a general store, all rolled into one covered wagon. Add war and soldiers, and you should have a pretty good idea what a war canteen was like in the seventeenth century. Courage follows around armies, trying to buy up stuff and sell it to the locals, all while keeping the brandy flowing. She's assisted by her children: Eilif (eldest son), Swiss Cheese (second son), and Kattrin (only daughter). Kattrin doesn't speak, after a serious incident with a soldier left her mute as a child.
Now, back to the storyline. We meet Mother Courage when she's stopped on the road by a sergeant and a recruiter for the Swedish army. It turns out she's traveled all the way from Germany to profit off the war up north. We also learn that she hopes to keep her children out of harm's way by keeping them involved with the business. But before the scene is over, Eilif, her oldest son, leaves the stage as the Swedish army's newest recruit. So much for that.
Trailing the Swedish army through Poland, Courage runs into Eilif again. He's getting all sorts of kudos from a Swedish general, who praises him for tricking the local peasantry and stealing their cattle. It's a brief reunion, and soon she's back on the road.
Roll on, Mother Courage, roll on. The trek continues with the Swedish army. Her second son, Swiss Cheese, becomes a paymaster, carrying around the army's cash in a moneybox, and we also meet Yvette, Courage's friend as well as an army prostitute. Mother Courage spends some time shooting the breeze and discussing politics with the general's cook and the army chaplain.
The peace—er, war—is disturbed when the Catholics invade and take them all prisoner. Mother Courage and her friends decide to pretend they're Catholics and join the other side, but Swiss Cheese worries he'll be found out if they catch him with his Protestant moneybox. So, he decides to hide it by the river.
Bad idea, S.C. Catholic spies capture Swiss Cheese in the act and arrest him. Courage tries to sell Yvette her wagon, in order to get enough money to bribe the Catholics for Swiss Cheese's release, but she gets cold feet when she realizes it'll leave her with nothing to live on. She delays too long and misses her window of opportunity. The Catholics shoot Swiss Cheese eleven times. When they bring her his body for identification, she tells the soldiers she doesn't know him.
To make matters even worse, the Catholics trash Mother Courage's wagon and charge her a fine. She decides to file a complaint with a Catholic colonel, but gives up after telling a young soldier that there's no point to standing up against injustice.
Let's see. Mother Courage has lost one son to the war. Her wagon has been trashed. So, what does she do? She gets back on the road and follows the Catholics into Germany. Tough lady, huh?
She and her friends come across some injured peasants along the way, and Courage reluctantly gives away some of her shirts to be used as bandages. Later, during a Catholic general's funeral, the chaplain hooks her into believing the war will go on forever. He tells her that her best bet is to stock up on more supplies while prices are low. So, Courage sends her daughter Kattrin into town to pick up some stuff. On the way back, Kattrin gets attacked by soldiers, leaving a nasty gash on her face.
Looks like Chap knew what he was talking about. After stocking up, Courage reaches the height of her canteening career. But just then, the Swedish king goes and gets himself killed. Peace is declared. Courage fears her business is ruined—after all, who needs a canteen lady during peacetime? On the bright side, Yvette returns after a long absence, and boy, have things changed for her. Now she's the wealthy widow of a count. She recognizes the cook as her long-lost lover and she's not exactly happy to see him.
Turns out peace really isn't all it's cracked up to be. Mother Courage has to rush to sell off her surplus goods. In the meantime, Eilif tries to pull another fast one with the peasants, but since it's peacetime now, this means he gets in trouble for committing a crime. As he's taken off to execution, the chaplain goes with him to lend his support. Mother Courage, who's still away on business, doesn't find out about Eilif's death.
The chaplain is gone now, but the cook's still hanging around with Mother Courage. They have to beg for food. But the cook has news; he's inherited an inn from his mother, and wants Mother Courage to come settle down and run it with him. The catch? She has to leave Kattrin behind. No way, cooky; Courage turns him down.
Courage and Kattrin park their wagon on a peasant farm. The Catholics start a secret, nighttime attack on the town, when Courage is off doing business there. But that doesn't stop our girl Kattrin. She figures out what's up, takes a drum from the wagon and bangs on it until the townspeople are alerted. Catholic soldiers threaten and plead with her to stop drumming, and eventually, they shoot her. Dead.
That's three children Mother Courage has lost to the war. She definitely must be ready to give up the canteening lifestyle, right? Wrong. Courage sings a lullaby for Kattrin, pays the peasants for Kattrin's burial and then she's off, ready to get right back into business. What a…trooper?