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All in the Family: Mother Courage and the Ideology in the Gestus Claire Gleitman Marvin Carlson, in Theories of the Theatre, begins a discussion of Brecht with the following pronouncement: "No other twentieth-century writer has influenced the theatre both as dramatist and theorist as profoundly as Bertolt Brecht."1 Given this hardly disputable fact, it is intriguing to note how much critical effort has been invested in attempts to rescue the dramatist from the theorist—or, to put it another way, to save Brecht from himself. Eric Bentley, writing about Brecht in 1957, helped to initiate what can be seen as a pattern in Brechtian criticism that pervades discussion of his work even to die present day. "The disproof of Brecht's theory," Bentley declares, "is Brecht's practice. His art makes up for his criticism."2 Martin Esslin, in his critical biography, concurs. Throughout Brecht: The Man and His Work, Esslin suggests that Brecht's tiieory is violated by the plays that he wrote—despite Brecht's best intentions, but, according to Esslin, to the greater good of the drama itself. Brecht, he remarks, "always seemed to succeed in doing things he had never intended. . . . The plays he had written as ice-cold intellectual exercises contain far more than he himself consciously put into them." Indeed, the Brecht that emerges from Esslin's portrait seems rather like an idiot savant, blithely creating works of genius without the vaguest understanding of what he is doing—in fact, with the conscious wish to do something quite other than what he is doing. Speaking of Brecht's "blindness towards the real meaning and content of some of his best work," Esslin concludes that, "Brecht was constantly faced with the problem of his characters running CLAIRE GLEITMAN is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at New York University and lecturer in the humanities at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. 147 148Comparative Drama away from him and assuming an independent existence of which he strongly disapproved."3 Over a decade later, the same argument appears in Ronald Hayman's study of Brecht, die same assertion that it was by "failing" that the playwright succeeded. In his analysis of Mother Courage and Her Children (die favored text for readers aiming to "deconstruct" Brecht's theoretical intentions), Hayman notes that Brecht inserted contradictions into Courage's character in order to ensure that the audience would see that her line of action was self-defeating. Fortunately, Brecht's line of action was also self-defeating: the result of admitting so many contradictions is that her individuality emerges more strongly. By trying to discredit her, he makes her unforgettable.4 Even readers less resistant to Brecht's theory, as well as to his Marxism, seem dedicated to a naive portrait of Brecht the theorist. Sarah Bryant-Bertail, in what is generally a shrewd analysis of Brecht's semiotic practices, maintains that the objects or details that Brecht manipulates in Mother Courage "may and often do explode the author's intended didactic framework."5 It is my contention, conversely, tiiat an analysis of Mother Courage through a semiotic lens will reveal that the objects and details, the scenic arrangements, and also the dialogue serve as fitting vessels for Brecht's ideology while also operating within the framework that he outlines in his theoretical writings. Of course, a director may resist Brecht's apparent intentions, as is possible with any dramatic text, and it is not my aim to argue that the play is autocratically limited to one staging or to one reading. And yet I believe tiiat only a limited staging could consign Brecht's theory to the wings, depriving us of tiiat aspect of Mother Courage that instills in us—in Roland Barthes' paraphrase of Horace—profound "edification . . . matched by delight" (p. 35). Admittedly, a term like 'edification' may seem too bloodless for a play with such emotional resonance: Mother Courage is not one of the Lehrstücke. But it is a crude exaggeration to assume that emotion is antithetical to Brecht's epic theater—or that it had to be, as Martin Esslin puts it, "repressed" since it conflicted with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 147-167
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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