Mother Courage and Her Children
(1939) is the antiwar musical stage-play written by exiled German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Set in seventeenth-century Europe, the play follows Anna Fierling, aka Mother Courage, a woman who operates a rolling canteen business during the Thirty Years War. Along with her three children, Anna travels across Europe in a covered wagon, selling goods to locals and alcohol to soldiers. While Anna vows to keep her children safe from the war, in the end, she finds herself poor, childless, and alone. The play takes place over the course of twelve years, depicted in twelve scenes. The name Mother Courage derives from the German writings of Grimmelshausen, whose novel The Rungate Courage
inspired Brecht’s title. Mother Courage and Her Children
, originally performed on stage in Zurich in 1941, has since been produced sixteen times globally, most recently in 2017.
The play begins in 1624 Dalarna, Sweden. The Sergeant and Recruiting Officer lament the lack of soldiers to join the Swedish effort in Poland. A canteen wagon pulls up with provisions to sell to the soldiers. Inside the wagon are Anna Fierling, aka Mother Courage, her dimwitted daughter, Kattrin, and two sons, Eilif and Swiss Cheese. The Recruiting Officer coaxes Eilif to join the army, but Courage insists he leaves her children alone. Eilif claims he wants to join the army. Courage warns him that his bravery will kill him if he does so. The Sergeant pretends to buy a belt from Courage, allowing the Recruiting Officer time to enlist Eilif away from his mother.
Two years later, Courage is stationed beside a Swedish Commander’s tent. Courage berates a chef over the sale of a chicken, as The Commander and Eilif arrive. The Commander, also a Chaplain, commends Eilif for bravely killing local peasants and slaughtering cattle. Courage senses trouble ahead. She begins singing “Fishwife and the Soldier” with Eilif, before reprimanding her son for imperiling himself.
Three years pass. Swiss Cheese finds work as an army money-collector. The camp prostitute, Yvette Pottier, sings “The Fraternization Song,” which Courage uses to dissuade Kattrin away from romancing soldiers. The Commander discusses politics with The Cook before they deliver a message from Eilif. When the Catholics suddenly invade, Courage and her kin change their logo from Protestant to Catholic to avoid harm. Swiss Cheese stashes the cashbox inside the wagon, away from invading soldiers.
Three days later, Courage and The Chaplain travel into town; Swiss Cheese attempts to return the cashbox. Unaware of the advancing soldiers, Swiss Cheese is captured and tortured by the Catholics. When Courage returns, she and Swiss Cheese pretend not to know each other. Attempting to free her son, Courage has Yvette bribe the army with 200 guilders to let Swiss Cheese go. Courage plans to pawn the canteen-wagon to an old Colonel to pay for her son’s freedom, and then use the money from the cashbox to repurchase the wagon. When Swiss Cheese claims he threw the cashbox in the river, Courage tries to reduce the price from 200 to 120 guilders. The Catholics refuse the offer after initially agreeing, swiftly killing Swiss Cheese. Since Courage pretends not to know the boy, she refuses to identify the body, and is forced to watch as Swiss Cheese’s corpse is cast into the carrion ditch.
Later, Courage rests beside a Colonel’s tent, preparing to file a complaint about the destruction of her goods. A young soldier storms in intending to kill the captain over low wages. Courage sings “Song of Great Capitulation,” which discourages both from lodging a formal complaint. The young soldier leaves; Courage follows suit. Two years later, the wagon appears in a war-torn village. The Chaplain stumbles by, soliciting linens to dress the wounds of a nearby peasant family. Courage refuses, but the Chaplain takes garments from her wagon anyway.
In 1632, as the funeral of Catholic General Tilly nears, The Chaplain informs Courage that the war will persist and insists she stockpile supplies. Courage sends Kattrin into town to gather supplies. The Chaplain proposes marriage to Courage, but Courage declines. Courage vows to oppose any war effort, especially after finding Kattrin brutally raped and injured across the eye and forehead by a drunken soldier. Although she curses the war, Courage soon follows the Protestant army, enriching herself by providing merchandise. Courage goes from cursing the war to celebrating as a war profiteer.
A year later, peacetime is declared with the death of the Swedish king. The cook abruptly arrives, poor and dirty, and flirts with Courage. The Chaplain appears and argues with The Cook. Siding with The Cook, Courage is deemed a “hyena of the battlefield” by The Chaplain. Courage suggests disbanding. Shortly after, while Courage is at the market, Eilif is carried in by soldiers. Eilif is murdered for killing a peasant guilty of stealing livestock, an act that earned him heroic stripes during wartime. Courage never hears of her son’s fate. When she learns the war is continuing, Courage and The Cook press on with the wagon.
As year seventeen of the war commences, there are little food and supplies left. The Cook, inheriting a lodge from his mother in Utrecht, suggests Courage help him operate it. Courage declines when The Cook refuses to keep Kattrin with them. The cook sings “The Song of the Greatest Souls on Earth.” Courage and Kattrin continue on with the wagon alone. While trading among Protestants in Halle city, Courage leaves Kattrin to stay with a peasant family overnight. Catholic soldiers approach the area, planning a sneak attack. Aware of this, Kattrin warns the townsfolk by beating a drum on the rooftop in the morning. Kattrin saves the town but is shot to death. The next morning, Courage singing a lullaby for her daughter’s soul, has the peasants bury her corpse. The play concludes in 1636, with Mother Courage harnessing herself to the canteen-wagon. “I must get back into business,” she claims before resuming course.