Issue 192 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Mother Courage and her Children
by Bertolt Brecht
As soon as Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Bertolt Brecht, a Marxist playwright already famous for his Threepenny Opera (1928), fled to Denmark. His works were instantly banned by the Nazis, and, a few weeks after his flight, his books were ordered to be burned. In 1939, as the Second World War started, he wrote Mother Courage and her Children. He wrote it initially to persuade Scandinavians not to be tempted into the war but it soon developed into an assault on all wars, and is now by common consent one of the greatest anti-war plays ever written.
The central figure is no standard heroine. As so often in his work, Brecht tells his story through the experiences of people to whose ideas he is opposed. Mother Courage and her children travel through the war zone, first in Scandinavia during the war between Poland and Denmark, and then throughout what is now Germany in the Thirty Years War.
She is a travelling merchant, a camp-follower of the war, forever buying and selling from a cart which she and her children drag through the battlefields. Her attitude to war, politics and religion is entirely sceptical. The only things which matter to her are making money and protecting her children. Her cynicism is lit up with a heavy sense of humour--the play is full of her dry jokes about men, generals and gods.
The point of the play is simple. War devours everybody except those at the very top. Even Mother Courage, who tries to play by its rules, is struck down by it. Both her main aims are viciously frustrated. She ends the play with nothing--except her indomitable spirit.
The programme for this production includes a paragraph from the former Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson, 'The poverty of British productions of Brecht, heavy, sententious and void of life, was exposed by the Berliner Ensemble...' The Berliner Ensemble, Hobson went on, had discovered 'a truth hidden from their British rivals, namely that Brecht and entertainment are synonymous.' The criticism applies rather cruelly to this National Theatre production. Diana Rigg, of course, cannot ever be described as heavy or sententious. But the production around her is surprisingly devoid of life.
Brecht was always keen that his audiences should be startled into political consciousness. Even though this production is based on an adaptation by a modern radical playwright--David Hare--it seems to make enormous efforts to keep its audience firmly fixed in the Dark Ages. There are innumerable occasions in the play where Brecht himself would surely have included a prop or a backdrop, or a reference or a joke, which would remind a modern audience, say, of the Falklands, the Gulf War or Bosnia.
I found the performance a little disappointing. But other socialists who've seen it don't agree, and I don't want to frighten anyone off. Brecht's play is hardly ever worth missing. The National Theatre have excelled themselves with some glorious sets, costumes and music. And Geoffrey Hutchings does a marvellous performance of the famous 'Song of Solomon'.
Mother Courage and her Children plays at the Olivier Theatre, London