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Mother Courage and Her Children

What War Means to a Mother's Eyes

By Bertolt Brecht (translated by David Edgar)
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario
Wednesday, August 27, 2014, Aisle 6, B–5&6, center grandstand of thrust stage
Directed by Martha Henry

To quote Edwin Starr, "WAR! Huh! Good God, y'all! What is it good for? Ab-so-lute-ly…"

Well, lots of things, really. War provides profits for some, employment for others, fame for a few, and laughs for those of us attending Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children at Stratford Festival's Tom Patterson Theatre. Albeit, uncomfortable laughter, for we also see what else war breeds: fear, famine, death, and, of course, a great deal of hypocrisy.

Mother Courage in red coat and looking off to the left behind Kattrin has her arms around the daughter's shoulder, Kattrin in Bohemian peasant dress and red vest looks off to the right, her hands dangling in her lap
Mother Courage (Seana McKenna) comforts Kattrin (Carmen Grant) in Stratford Festival's production of Bertold Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children at the Tom Patterson Theatre. Photo by David Hou, Stratford Festival.

But hypocrisy is not, notably, in Mother Courage herself. "I believe—I haggled too long," she says after hearing, in the distance, gunfire signaling the execution of her son, Swiss Cheese, charged with theft (he had the pay box and was trying to hide it from the enemy) and desertion (he was left behind in his army's rapid retreat). Mother Courage had been trying to bring down the price of a bribe to save her son's life while managing her assets to cover the cost, but she ran out of time. It's more the ultimate defeat of the business person than a mother losing her son, and that might sound shallow except as she sits there, still and silent, the day growing dark and through the night and into the next day, we see in her face…

Well, we're not sure what we see in her face: loss, yes; loneliness, perhaps; frustration at a deal gone wrong, likely; exhaustion, maybe; contemplation on how to continue without Swiss Cheese, probably. We see all of this in the single expression of Seana McKenna as she sits alone on stage for these few minutes—and, it must be said, we see this expression for most of the play. For though McKenna rattles off Mother Courage's lines as a cocktail of stubbornness and resignation with a slice of humor thrown in, her expressions remain consistently enigmatic throughout the play.

Mother Courage, which had its world premiere in 1941 in Zurich but was not fully formed and published until 1950 after a 1949 run in East Berlin, is subtitled "A Chronicle of the 30 Years' War." That war, from 1618–1648, began as religious warfare between Catholic and Protestant states and evolved into rivalries for territorial power among disjointed nations in the crumbling Holy Roman Empire. Through not just warfare but also a military system that required armies to live off the land they conquered and be paid with the spoils of the conquered people, the conflict resulted in famine and destitution along with great destruction of much of Central Europe. It's a perfect setting for a playwright like Brecht to preach against the specious purposes and inane cruelty of war.

Except that he doesn't. His is an intentionally dispassionate view of war, forcing the audience to come to its own terms about the motivations and consequences of what we see on the stage. It's a bare stage in John Pennoyer's design, except for a tree stump near one end of the thrust stage; the primary set is Mother Courage's covered wagon with goods for sale that her children, and then she and her children, and then just she pull around the stage and set up for each scene.

This is not to say the presentation is one of cyborgs and Stepford wives. Director Martha Henry keeps the action sparse, but the actors are undulating landscapes of emotions, starting with the aged-beyond-her-years but ageless aspect of McKenna in the title role, whose performance alone is worth the price of admission. Mother Courage bemoans peace when it comes and rejoices when it lasts less than a few days; yet the war ends up killing her three children. She is motherly in behavior but not in thought, refusing to provide any of the linens in her cart to a wounded family without being paid.

"Kattrin, don't be too kind," she advises her mute daughter (played with heartache and stout courage by Carmen Grant), which sounds un-Christian but, in fact, if Kattrin had followed her mother's advice she might have survived to the end. However, religion is nonexistent territory for Mother Courage, made all the more ironic for the fact that the war is being fought over varying Christian beliefs. Mother Courage changes the flag on her wagon according to which side is currently holding sway in the campaigns. When the Chaplain (Ben Carlson), a refugee who ends up traveling with her, says "We're in God's hands now," Mother Courage replies, "Oh, I hope we're not as desperate as that."

She is ever practical, but it is a practicality that the Chaplain himself adopts, shedding his Protestant robes when the Catholics come and returning to his liturgical role when the Protestants win the day. Meanwhile, the ever-practical Cook (Geraint Wyn Davies) finds a glint of romance in Mother Courage, which he capitalizes on, to the point that he offers to whisk her off to an inn he's inherited. But he refuses to have Kattrin come along, as she now bears the ghastly scars on her face of a knife assault and, he claims, there is no room in the inn for three. Mother Courage refuses. She tells Kattrin it's because she doesn't want to give up the wagon, but we can't be sure whether that's the truth or not.

I'm not giving anything away. Brecht sets each scene and summarizes the action to come, and members of the acting company speak these aloud. Example, preceeding the first scene: "Spring, 1624. In Delarna, the Swedish king Gustavus is recruiting for the campaign in Poland. The canteen woman Anna Fierling, commonly known as Mother Courage, loses a son." That would be her eldest son, Eilif (E.B. Smith), who joins the army. Later, "Three years pass, and Mother Courage, with parts of a Finnish regiment, is taken prisoner. Her daughter is saved, her wagon likewise, but her honest son dies." That is prologue to the scene I described above with the execution of Swiss Cheese (Antoine Yared). And a little later, "2014, intermission." That is not in Brecht's original, by the way.

Knowing what will pass, we yet don't know how it will pass, and so we watch human foibles unfold to inevitable ends. How we, personally, react to what we see and what is said is the real drama of Brecht's play.

"In the years 1625 and 1626 Mother Courage journeys through Poland in the baggage train of the Swedish Army. She meets her brave son again before Wallhof Castle. Of the successful sale of a capon and great days for the brave son." This is the narrative introduction to the play's second scene when Mother Courage overhears Eilif being feted by the Commander (Peter Hutt) as a super human hero. Mother Courage contends the Commander to be a poor leader. "In a well-run country you don't need super humans," she says. Indeed, what makes Eilif a feted hero in war makes him a condemned criminal in peace, and he doesn't understand the difference.

Eilif in long leather vest, cap, and shorts has his arm on the wagon yok, Mother Courage stands on the footboard of the covered wagon with its sides up, she in blue blouse, long brown dress, red coat, Kattrin with kazoo in her mouth and in peasant dress with apron, and Swiss Cheese in stocking cap, brown knee britches with suspenders over white shirt both have left hand on their hips and right spread toward Mother Courage.
Mother Courage and her children with her wagon make their musical entrance at the start of Bertold Brecht's play at Stratford Festival's Tom Patterson Theatre. From left, Eilif (E.B. Smith), Mother Courage (Seana McKenna), Kattrin (Carmen Grant), and Swiss Cheese (Antoine Yared). Photo by David Hou, Stratford Festival.

"January, 1636. Catholic troops threaten the Protestant town of Halle. The stones begin to talk. Mother Courage loses her daughter and journeys onward alone. The war is not yet near its end." For me, this is the play's most instructive scene. If the loss of Eilif illustrates the hypocrisy of war, and the loss of Swiss Cheese illustrates the hypocrisy of business, the loss of Kattrin illustrates the hypocrisy of religion. As the family with whom Mother Courage and Kattrin are harboring watches enemy forces preparing for a surprise assault on Halle, they realize they can do nothing to save the town but pray. And so they do; they get on their knees and pray for their friends, pray for their parents, pray for their grandchildren. This prompts Kattrin to take it upon herself to warn the town, whereupon the praying family prays her to stop, lest the enemy soldiers kill them along with her. Never mind that Kattrin, in fact, is answering their prayers—it's just not on their terms; they wanted a safer kind of miracle without expending more effort than speaking words to folded hands.

Mother Courage was in the town at the time, too, but that fact is not ultimately what inspires Kattrin; instead of daughterly instinct, she is moved by her own mothering instinct. By way of blame, Mother Courage cites only that the family should not have prayed so vehemently for the young children in the town.

And now Mother Courage has no children. She must manage the wagon by herself. McKenna pulls the harness over her shoulder, takes hold of the yoke and, with much physical effort—but still that same expression—she pulls the wagon around the stage and off to the next battlefield.

Eric Minton
September 2, 2014

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