by Mark Bly, Production Dramaturg
“…. You will witness an inexplicable wrestling match between two men and observe the downfall of a family that has moved from the prairies to the jungle of the big city. Don’t worry your heads about the motives for the fight, keep your minds on the stakes. Judge impartially the techniques of the contenders, and be prepared to concentrate on the finish.” — Prologue, In the Jungle of Cities, By Bertolt Brecht
Brecht, like another poet Lord Byron, was drawn to the allure of the “ring,” the boxing and wrestling arenas. He longed for the theater, the stage, to have that exotic atmosphere as well and created an ‘Epic Smoking Theater’ where his audience would be free to drink and smoke as if they were in boxing matches and cabarets. His “advanced” thinking was that this would promote “detached” thinking in the spectator and arouse a capacity for action rather than passive, hypnotic trance-like responses in the audiences that reinforced the existing status quo. Brecht wrote in a call to arms for the theater:
“We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human reactions in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself.”
And yet, while we know Brecht as the great theater revolutionary and theoretician and have encountered the “legendary rules” of the Epic Theater, we must not forget that Brecht was a Theater Worker who never got lost in theory. Brecht never lost sight of the need to entertain and arouse his audiences to meaningful social action, deploying elements from the cabaret, circus, “ring” and film worlds. Brecht’s own absurdly grotesque path toward writing Mother Courage (in one month’s time in 1939 in America) no doubt had its sardonic origins during World War I. Brecht was studying medicine in Munich when he was drafted late in the war to serve at the age of 20 as a medical orderly in a military hospital:
“I dressed wounds, applied iodine, gave enemas, performed blood transfusions. If the doctor ordered me: ‘Amputate a leg, Brecht would answer, ‘Yes, your excellency.’ And cut off the leg. If I was told: ‘Make a trepanning,’ I opened the man’s skull and tinkered with his brains. I saw how they patched people up in order to ship them back to the front as soon as possible.” The Legend of the Soldier is a bitterly satiric poem on the theme, relating how a soldier killed in battle is dug up from his grave, reoutfitted, and marched in triumph through his hometown on his way to the front again.” — The Making of Modern Drama by Richard Gilman, 1972
With the Reichstag Fire in 1933, Brecht fled Germany and, in fleeing an oncoming war, mirrored in reverse Mother Courage’s own relentless pursuit with her wagon and children of the Thirty Year’s War that Brecht dramatized in his play in 1939. Even though he was in the midst of the latest Thirty Year Germanic War, he sensed the connection to the war that had crippled Europe three centuries before, leaving eight million casualties in its wake. How many of us in the late 1970’s knew what was ahead of us in the Middle East? How many could anticipate a Thirty Year Conflict? Brecht, in a kind of prescient reverse prophecy, wrote Mother Courage echoing his own past and his own future simultaneously.
The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Germany’s Thirty Years War and Peace (1914-1945) and The United States of America’s own contemporary version of the Thirty Years War in the Middle East beginning in 1979 … All three conflicts were triggered by different contemporary currencies of its era. Peter H. Wilson in his comprehensive book The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy,argues that, contrary to popular belief, it was not simply religion that triggered the 17th Century conflagration: “Religion certainly provided a powerful focus for identity, but it had to compete with political, social, linguistic, gender, and other distinctions. Most contemporary observers spoke of Imperial, Bavarian, Swedish, or Bohemian Troops, not Catholic or Protestant, which are anachronistic labels used for convenience since the Nineteenth Century to simplify accounts. The war was religious only to the extent that faith guided all early modern public policy and private behavior.” Germany’s modern Thirty Years War and Peace was sparked most certainly by modern nationalism in World War I and territorial disputes. But World War II was precipitated by Germany’s dream of land expansion, Lebensraum, in Nazi ideology which allowed them to deal with an overpopulation problem with those they deemed inferior races and to acquire colonies and natural raw resources. Finally, in our era, oil emerged as the currency that triggered our Thirty Years ongoing conflict. While polarizing religion has been a factor and the West being characterized as “The Great Satan,” our War at its core has always been about oil, a kind of future survival based on “energy independence.” It is a need for a newfound “independence” for our country never imagined by Thomas Paine when he wrote “The Crisis” nearly 250 years ago.
Brecht decided to write Mother Courage in the aftermath of learning the inconceivable news that Communist Stalin and Fascist leader Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact in August, 1939. He wrote in his journal:
“the fact is that the russo-german pact makes the air-clearer. what we have is a war between imperialist states. we have germany as the aggressor and warmonger. we have aggressive capitalism against defensive capitalism. the central powers need the war for conquest, the western powers need the war to defend their conquests. there is enough barbarism to maintain a barbaric situation.”
In the light of where Brecht started the play, it might be easy to view the play simply as an “anti-war” play, or as an “anti-business” play, or to perceive Mother Courage as a “hero or a villain.” But that is to see the world of the play in polarities. The play is not called Mother Courage and the Thirty Years War, or even Mother Courage the Merchant Mother which Brecht might certainly have been tempted in this often sardonic, modern day stage reinvention of the Medieval Morality Play to call it. But no, Brecht named it Mother Courage and Her Children.Anna Fierling, Mother Courage, loves her children. As Molly Smith, the director for the Arena Stage production of Mother Courage in a conversation with me said, “We must not miss that key fact as many productions have.” Mother Courage loves her children deeply and loves her coins too. She just makes the mistake of thinking she can have both…often at the same time. A fatal error. In this mad, Hieronymus Bosch-blasted landscape of the Thirty Years War that Mother Courage and her children wander following the latest “break out” of war or peace, the competition is sharp and she keeps thinking she has a better hand than she actually does. For the love of her children and their survival, Mother Courage believes she can manipulate the valueless system and that she will win in the end but ultimately, as George Bernard Shaw, a writer who at 94 years old lived to witness two world wars to end all wars, once said, “War does not decide who is right, but who is left…”