Mother Courage and Her Children (German: Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder) was a play written in 1939 by the German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898 - 1956) with significant contributions from his mistress at the time, Margarete Steffin. It has subsequently been filmed.
It is one of nine plays that he wrote in an attempt to counter the rise of Fascism and Nazism. Following Brecht's own principles for political drama, the play is not set in modern times but during the Thirty Years' War of 1618-1648. It follows the fortunes of Anna Frieling, nicknamed "Mother Courage," —a wily canteen woman with the Swedish Army who is determined to make her living from the war. Over the course of the play, she loses all three of her children, Swiss Cheese, Eilif, and Katrin, to the same war from which she sought to profit.
The play is an example of Brecht's concepts of Epic Theatre and Verfremdungseffekt or "alienation". ("Alienation", however, is something of a misleading translation, for it suggests that the audience are actively cut off from the performance. A more accurate translation of Verfremdungseffekt is "distancing effect" or "to make strange", since Brecht's intention was to set the audience apart from familiar situations so that they may think about them objectively). Verfremdungseffekt is achieved through the use of placards which reveal the events of each scene, juxtaposition, actors changing characters and costume on stage, the use of narration, simple props and scenery. For instance, a single tree would be used to convey a whole forest, and the stage is usually flooded with bright white light whether it's a winter's night or a summer's day. Several songs are used to underscore the themes of the play. The action of the play takes place over the course of 12 years —1624 - 1636 —represented in 12 short scenes. One is given a sense of Courage's career without being given enough time to develop sentimental feelings and empathize with any of the characters. Meanwhile, Mother Courage is not depicted as a noble character—here the Brechtian epic theatre sets itself apart from the ancient Greek tragedies in which the heroes are far above the average. With the same alienating effect, the ending of Brecht's play does not arouse our desire to imitate the main character, Mother Courage.
Brecht and Steffin wrote this play in only five weeks, and it is amongst his most famous plays. His work attempts to show the dreadfulness of war. He used an epic structure to do this so that the audience focused on the issues being displayed rather than getting involved with the characters and emotions. Epic plays are of a very distinct genre and are typical of Brecht; in fact, a strong case could be made that he invented the form.
The play was originally produced in Zurich at the Schauspielhaus, produced by Leopold Lindtberg in 1941. Music was written by Paul Dessau. The musicians were placed in view of the audience so that they could be seen—this is one of Brecht's many techniques in Epic Theatre. Helene Weigel (a well-known actress at the time) took the title role.
This production would highly influence the formation of the Berliner Ensemble, which would provide Brecht a venue to direct many of his plays. Brecht died directing Galileo for the Ensemble.
Most recently Mother Courage and Her Children has been produced by the Public Theatre in New York City (August-September 2006). The plays enjoys a new translation by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America). This production includes new music by composer Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change) and is directed by George C. Wolfe. The critically acclaimed production stars Meryl Streep as "Mother Courage" with a supporting cast that includes Kevin Kline and Austin Pendleton. This rare production of Mother Courage and Her Children played to sold out crowds at the Public Theatre's Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. It was regarded as the hottest ticket in New York during its four week-run.
Willett, John. (1964) Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 0-8090-3100-0.