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Silencing Violence: Repetition and Revolution in Mother Courage and Her Children

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 31-54 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I. The Stage-Defining Act

Mother Courage and Her Children is frequently listed among Bertolt Brecht's most important plays, though in the English-speaking world it remains less well known than many of Brecht's other major works, and due to its staging challenges, difficult subject material, and large cast it is seldom performed (one notable exception is a 2006 production in New York's Central Park directed by George C. Wolf, with a script adapted by Tony Kushner, featuring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline). The play was Brecht's first major production upon returning to Berlin after World War II, and there its enormous success catapulted Brecht almost instantly to celebrity status. Audiences were deeply moved by the play's depiction of war, which uniquely expressed the historical moment in which it was written. Brecht had authored the play years earlier while he and his family fled across Nazi-menaced Europe, on the edge of a global confrontation the likes of which the world had never before witnessed and could not yet fully imagine, but in its way foreseen in the scope and power of Brecht's script.

On the surface, the clearly given subject matter of the play is the life of the play's title character—Mother Courage and her singular trials, her private suffering, her ultimate failure to thrive, struggling through life as a petty profiteer during the Thirty Years' War—but as the play's title also suggests, Courage's life decisions are framed at all times by the larger context of their devastating effects on the lives of her three children. One by one, the children are initially shown not only persevering through the war but using it to achieve modest success, with each child able to find a way within it to capitalize on his or her greatest human virtues. The eldest son's cleverness and bravery make him a formidable soldier, and enable him eventually to become the favorite of a general. The younger son's steadfast honesty allows him to become a regimental paymaster, which not only affords him a steady source of income but most importantly keeps him out of combat. And the daughter's loving care and kindness make her an attentive and customer-attracting server in her mother's canteen. However, these same virtues ultimately prove to be the agents of the children's tragic deaths. The eldest son mistakenly wages war during an armistice and is executed for murder. The younger son refuses to deliver his cash box when he is captured by the opposing army and is summarily killed. The daughter attempts to warn a town of an imminent attack and in the process is murdered by the attacking troops. All three of the children die while the attention of Mother Courage is engaged elsewhere by some ultimately trivial business transaction. In mirroring scenes, Courage not only proves herself unable to prevent her children's deaths, but demonstrates her deep complicity by profiting from the very acts of war that lead to them. This complicity is made especially obvious in the case of the younger son, who dies because Courage attempts to haggle down his executioner's bribe even though she has enough money to pay the asking price for his life. Courage is less directly culpable for the downfall of her other two children, and yet she is conspicuously absent from the stage during their deaths and the key moments that lead up to them, precluded from interceding on her children's behalf and unable to provide any motherly comfort, once again drawn away by her endless need to take advantage of every trading opportunity. Together, these three instances suggest that beyond their immediate causes the truly fatal responsibility for the deaths lies with Mother Courage, along with the zero-sum game of survival that wholly encompasses her and that ironically leaves her unable or unwilling to avail herself to her children when their lives are truly at stake. Their deaths express Courage's repeated, overarching failure as a parent to protect and preserve her offspring, and they function together in the play as an implicit commentary on Courage, her self-cannibalizing embrace of...



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