SPRING 1624. THE SWEDISH COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF COUNT OXENSTIERNA IS RAISING TROOPS IN DALECARLIA FOR THE POLISH CAMPAIGN. THE CANTEEN WOMAN ANNA FIERLING, KNOWN UNDER THE NAME OF MOTHER COURAGE, LOSES ONE SON.
A country road in the Swedish province Dalecarlia. A sergeant and a recruiter are talking out in the cold. Even though it's spring it's still cold because, well, it's Sweden.
They talk about recruiting soldiers for the Swedish army.
The recruiter says he's supposed to recruit four companies by his deadline, but he's fed up with the shenanigans of the local population.
No kidding, the sergeant says. These people have known peace for so long that they've forgotten what order and respect are all about. Seriously, what gives? These people need some war in their lives to spice things up.
Enter Mother Courage (MC) with her covered wagon, pulled by her two boys. She and Kattrin are sitting on top. We hear the sound of a jew's harp.
They're stopped by the sergeant, who asks for their IDs.
We said this is a musical, right? MC answers with a song about her canteen business.
The song is basically about how MC's business helps keep soldiers happy when they're heading off to get themselves killed in war.
Here's a little snippet: The new year's come. The watchmen shout. The thaw sets in. The dead remain Wherever life has not died out It staggers to its feet again.
The sergeant asks MC's older son (Eilif) which regiment he belongs to, and Eilif tells him he's part of the Second Finnish Regiment
Eilif can't believe the sergeant hasn't heard of his mom, MC.
Then the sergeant asks where she got her name.
So, MC tells the story. It was during the bombardment of Riga, a city in Latvia. The city was blocked off by the advancing army. MC was nearly broke, so she took some molding bread and broke through the blockade to sell it to the entrapped city-dwellers. I guess you'd call that courage, right? Anything for a buck.
The sergeant is still after Eilif's license with the regiment.
MC pulls a bunch of random papers out of a box and gets off the wagon. She has all sorts of papers, but no license.
When the sergeant accuses her of lying, she gets mad and admits she has no papers other than her "honest face."
The sergeant wants to know her real name, and she tells him: Anna Fierling. Her children don't share her last name.
Eilif Nojocki is her the oldest son. She isn't sure what his father's last name was, but at least it sounded like Nojocki. Eilif remembers someone he thinks is his father, but that was just some French guy.
The sergeant asks about the other son. "S'pose he's a Chinaman?"
Her second son is named Fejos, but she calls him Swiss Cheese. His father was a Swiss engineer and a drunkard. But the name Fejos actually comes from a Hungarian guy she was with when Swiss Cheese was born.
Her daughter's name is Kattrin Haupt. MC says Kattrin is half German.
Sergeant writes this all down. He asks MC what she's doing in Sweden, since she's actually from Bamberg, a city in Germany.
She says she wanted to get to the war first instead of waiting until it came to her.
The recruiter mocks Eilif and Swiss Cheese for having to pull around the wagon, calling them Jacob Ox and Esau Ox, after the biblical twins Jacob and Esau.
Eilif is ready to fight this point, but MC tells him to calm down.
She tries to change the subject by offering the officers some wares from her wagon.
But the sergeant is interested in only one thing: her boys. They look strong and healthy, like perfect recruits for the Swedish army.
The recruiter continues to give Eilif a hard time, asking to feel his muscles to see whether he's strong or whether he's a "chicken."
He's a chicken, MC says. She tells them to leave Eilif alone.
Since Eilif threatened to beat him up, the recruiter wants to settle it "man to man."
According to MC, Eilif has a knife in his boot. The recruiter should watch himself, or else…
The recruiter will "draw it out like a milk tooth." (That's another term for "baby tooth," for those of us in the US of A.)
But MC's daughter, Kattrin, is dating the lieutenant. She'll tell the colonel.
What's her beef with the military? Eilif's father died a soldier, right?
MC ignores the sergeant. Eilif is still a child and she won't let him be taken off to the "slaughterhouse."
Eilif would at least get some new clothes, says the recruiter.
MC thinks Eilif will get himself killed. She sends Swiss Cheese off to tell everyone that his brother's being kidnapped. MC herself takes out a knife and threatens the officers. She says they're peaceful business people and don't want to get mixed up in the war.
She doesn't look all that peaceful now, the sergeant remarks. She can't have it both ways; she can't make a living off the war if the war doesn't have new soldiers.
MC doesn't disagree with that, she just doesn't want it to be her children.
The sergeant says she's just scared of the war, despite her name. But her children don't seem scared.
Eilif pipes up, "Take more than a war to scare me."
The sergeant joined the army at seventeen and is doing just fine.
But he still has yet to make it to seventy, MC retorts.
An exchange follows in which MC claims she can see the mark of death on people and know that they are going to die. Swiss Cheese backs her up. Spooky.
The recruiter asks her to tell the sergeant's fortune, then. The sergeant thinks it's all a joke.
First MC asks for the soldier's helmet. Then she takes out a piece of paper and tears it up. She tells her children that their family will be torn up just like her piece of paper, if they happen to get involved in the war. Then she turns back to the sergeant. She marks a black cross on one of the pieces, puts them all back in the helmet, and shakes them. If the sergeant picks the one with a cross, then that's a sign he's going to die.
In the meantime, the recruiter is talking to Eilif, telling him that he doesn't just pick anyone, that Eilif is special. Uh huh, sure he's special.
The sergeant pulls out the piece of paper with the black cross. He seems bothered by this.
MC tries to head off again. The sergeant insists on taking Eilif.
Now Eilif says his brother also wants to be a soldier.
MC decides to make her children draw from the helmet. She goes to the back of the wagon to make more slips.
The recruiter talks to Eilif again. It isn't all "holy-holy" in the Swedish camp. They have fun there, too.
MC returns with the slips, telling the sergeant that she's scared her children won't make it through the war. She hands the helmet to Eilif. He draws the cross. MC flips out, asking him if he's going to be sensible.
Eilif says sure, he'll be sensible.
The sensible thing to do is to stay with his mother and ignore the officer that called him a chicken, says MC.
The recruiter says he'll have to take Swiss Cheese if Eilif is too scared.
MC gives the helmet to Swiss Cheese and makes him draw, too. He draws the black cross. Maybe it's because Swiss Cheese isn't exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. She reminds him to be honest; otherwise his stupidity will get him into trouble.
The sergeant is still bothered by his black cross. He doesn't get it. He always tries to stay out of danger during battle.
MC gives the helmet to Kattrin, but she takes the slip out for her. Another black cross. MC supposes it isn't so bad, since Kattrin can't talk.
MC tries to leave again.
The recruiter pretends the sergeant is interested in one of the belt buckles MC is selling. That gets her attention.
Supposedly to get a better look at the buckle, the sergeant heads behind the wagon with MC.
The recruiter tells Eilif he'll give him money for enlisting.
Meanwhile, the sergeant isn't sure he can stomach dinner after the news about his impending death. MC gives him some brandy and tells him to relax.
Eilif is led away by the recruiter, with promises of money and women.
Kattrin makes some noises to warn her mother.
The sergeant buys the belt buckle. MC bites the coin to make sure it's real. She calls herself a "burnt child," saying she has no faith in money. Then she finally notices that Eilif is gone.
Swiss Cheese tells her what happened.
MC calls Swiss Cheese a "simpleton." She tells Kattrin she did nothing wrong, since she can't speak.
Maybe she should drink some of her own brandy and calm down, the sergeant suggests. She can't expect to live off the war if she doesn't give something up.
Ignoring the sergeant, MC tells Kattrin to help her brother pull the wagon. The three take off.
The sergeant looks after them and says: "Like the war to nourish you? / Have to feed it something too."