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Mother Courage and Her Children: A Chronicle of the Thirty Years' War By Bertolt Brecht

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What is Epic Theater?

The term "Epic Theatre" is now widely use to describe the style and techniques popularized in Germany after World War I by directors like Max Reinhardt, Erwin Piscator, and (most especially) Bertolt Brecht. This style flourished in the left-wing theatres and cabarets of Berlin during the ill-fated German "Weimar Republic" of the 1920's and early 30's; although the rise of Hitler's Nazi Regime choked off its development after 1933, when Brecht and other epic theatre practitioners were forced to flee persecution and arrest by the Gestapo, the style spread to the U.S. and Great Britain, and returned to Central and Eastern European theatre after the end of World War II.

Influenced by the horror of World War I's human cost, by the suffering of the middle and lower classes during the postwar recessions of the 1920's and the Great Depression of the 1930's and by the teaching of Marxism, Brecht and his fellow epic theatre artists devised a set of staging and acting techniques meant to teach their audience to criticize the injustices and inequalities of modern life. Two keys to their technique are the notion of "theatricalism" and the concept of the "distancing" or "alienation" effect.

The first, theatricalism, simply means the audience aware that they are in a theatre watching a play. Brecht believed that "seducing" the audience into believing they were watching "real life" led to an uncritical acceptance of society's values. He thought that by keeping stage sets simple, showing exposed lighting instruments, breaking the action into open-ended episodes, projecting labels or photographs during scenes, or using a narrator or actors to directly address the audience, a production would allow an audience to maintain the emotional objectivity necessary to learn the truth about their society.

The second key to epic theatre, the "distancing" or "alienation" effect in acting style, has these same goals. Brecht wanted actors to strike a balance between "being" their character onstage and "showing the audience that the character is being performed." The use of "quotable gesture," (the employment of a stance, mannerism, or repeated action to sum up a character), the sudden shift from one behavior to another to put the audience off-balance, and the suggestion of the "roads not taken" in each moment of a character's decision-making are all the means to the didactic end of teaching us to criticize the society we see onstage in Epic Theatre.

Brechtian Theatre

Lecture: Which Brecht?

2 August, 2001

Kurt Weill music to begin



Bertolt Brecht is one of the most influential figures in Twentieth century theatre — changing forever the way we do theatre.

Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsburg, Germany, on 10 February, 1898. He started writing and publishing by the age of 16 (news commentary, poems and short stories). And had his first plays published in 1922 at the age of 24. Was married to the famous actress Helene Weigel, who was his life-long companion and co-writer/director. They set up their own company, the state-funded Berliner Ensemble in 1949. (Overhead 2 & 3) He died on 14 August at home in East Berlin. The BE continues to exist.

Brecht the man, his theatre, his plays and his legacy remains the subject of much heated debate more than 50 years after his death, for reasons that I hope to make clear over the next 12 weeks. Throughout the course which will cover his acting theories, a selection of his plays and the arguments about Brecht will run the question of Brecht today. Must Brecht be relevant today in order to read and perform his theatre? How useful is his style of theatre? How radical and so on.

In the Prologue to Fredric Jameson’s Brecht and method (1998) he writes,

Brecht would have been delighted, I like to think, at an argument, not for his greatness. . . as rather for his usefulness . . . right now . . .


I’m not so sure brecht has to be useful. I rather think we are distant enough from Brecht as to be able to see him in his own context and thereby understand something about theatre’s recent history that has affected the way we do theatre today.

I suggest that one of the key aspects of brecht for us today is that his theatre gives us an insight into a period in which there was a passionate commitment to theatre as an agent of social change. This was a time, the first half of the twentieth century, the pre-television era, when theatre played a much more vital social role than it does today. In a sense we can study Brecht like we do classical Greek theatre and Shakespeare as one of theatre’s high points, at one of its most intensive periods of change.

Popular conceptions of brecht

Brecht is best known for the creation of a new kind of theatre which he called Epic Theatre and for the plays that continue to be studied and performed today. He is famous for reading and absorbing Karl marx’s Das Kapital for being a communist who never actually joined the party, for developing a political theatre that was designed to change society by changing the way people thought. He is famous for going into exile when the nazis came to power and spending the war in America. He is famous for his glasses and his cigar. He is famous for writing songs with Kurt Weill, and poetry. More recently he has been denounced as a sexist pig who used hios female collaborators but failed to give them due credit for their labour. He is famous for his multiple affairs, his marriage to Helene Weigel, his broken promises to heartbroken lovers and his early death.


In the early days of his career in the theatre Brecht was motivated by a desire to modernise German theatre - to free it from virtually everything that came before him. This was the stolid classicism of Schiller and Goethe, Romanticism, Naturalism and Expressionism. He experimented with the formal aspects of theatre, drawing on avant garde techniques of collage, montage, titles, the documentary and photo-journalism. He set about creating a theatre for the modern age which would represent the modern age and its subjects in a much more vital and realistic way than the stupefying dramas of byegone eras.

Brecht called his modern theatre the EpicTheatre and this was to be the theatre for the modern, scientific era. It was to be analytical and be primarily concerned with analysing the social relations that determine action in bourgeois society. It was to be the ‘theatrical style of our time’, the dramatic form which corresponded to ‘the whole radical transformation of the mentality of our time’ Brecht 1884, 23). It was not located in an idealised future, but the gritty present where the enemy was the military, the church and the bourgeoisie. It would be a theatre that was addressed to reason rather than empathy and to the common man. For Brecht, the radical transformation was from a nineteenth century bourgeois world view to a twentieth century scientific one, from which perspective the artefacts and philosophical tenets of the past appeared old and in decline. The belief in the progress of history, fuelled by the Marxist notion of the march of history, is evident throughout Brecht’s writing. He is in this sense a man of his times. The modernist belief in progress went something like this ,

This idea of progress as possible, probable or necessary was rooted in the certainty that the development of the arts, technology, knowledge and liberty would be profitable to mankind as a whole. (Lyotard 1986, 6)

From his position on the left of politics, Brecht’s dramatic theory reflected this certainty at the same time as it set as its goal, that the proletariat would enjoy the profits of progress. Theatre would be at the forefront of social and political life, the privileged scene of the social life of the period. It would represent the political consciousness of the age and its social conditions. The ideal ‘conscious experience’ for Brecht was class consciousness and he later nominated one of his actors, Ernst Busch, as ‘the first great characterization on the German stage of a class-conscious proletarian’ (Eddershaw 1996, 27) Rather than the classical or romantic hero, the actor would now depict the proletarian subject who was the anti-romantic, comic hero of epic theatre.

Approaches to Brecht

A number of ways of approaching Brecht. He was a dramatist, a director, a dramaturg, a poet and a theorist as well as an engaged and committed intellectual who had a wide circle of artistic and intellectual friends :

There is Brecht the dramatist, who wrote plays:

Beginning in 1922 with Baal and Drums in the Night at the age of 24. Followed by Man is Man in 1926, Mahogonny , a musical collaboration with Kurt Weill in 1927 and his first great success The Threepenny Opera in 1928. His most famous plays were written in exile: Mother Courage, 1941 in Scandanavia, The Good Person of Szechwan and Galileo in 1943, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1948

Video Mahogonny: ‘Moon of Alabama’

Brecht the practitioner, who directed his own and others’ plays for the Munich playhouse and later the Berliner Ensemble.

He directed his first play at the age of 26 at the Munich Kammerspiele.

Brecht was a critic of the German classical theatre from the time of his university days in Munich. On leaving university he became a dramaturg at the small theatre known as the Kammerspiele and two years later, he directed Marlowe's Edward 11 with Casper Naher as the designer.

O/H 4 He wrote,

we wished to make possible a production which would break with the Shakespearean tradition common to German theatres: that lumpy monumental style . . .

O/H. The Berliner Ensemble was established in 1949 at the Deutsches Theater with a production of Herr Puntila und sein Knecht. They moved to the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm as an independent state theatre in 1954 and took Mother Courage to the International Theatre festival in Paris in the same year, followed by The Caucasian Chalk Circle in 1955.

German dramatist Marieluise Fleisser said of his style,

He did not analyse the characters; he set them at a distance . . He called for a report on the events. He insisted on simple gestures. He compelled a clear and cool manner of speaking . No emotional tricks were allowed. That ensured the objective ‘epic’ style.


Brecht the dramaturg, and theorist who documented his theatre practice, analysed it and presented it variously as a model of the performance building process, eg. the `Modelbucher', and as a description of acting, a statement about the social and political purpose of theatre and dramaturgical observations of the new style of acting - ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’ (1948)

As a theorist, he is most associated with the creation of a new mode of theatre known as Epic Theatre and the acting techniques of Verfremdungseffekt and Gestus. Epic theatre introduced the parable form to modern theatre, the construction of a tale set in a different time and place that refers to the contemporary situation. The parable is a simple tale that communicates a moral point , as in the Bublical parables, or political point, as in Brecht. Music and titles and the fragmentation of the story or fable into episodes.


o/h 1 List of writings on Theatre and short descriptions

Brecht the myth. Brecht's poetry, the leather coat, the cigar, the short cropped hair..looking like a cross between Groucho Marx and a petty criminal. In a poem ‘Of Poor B.B’ he writes:

I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.

My mother moved me into cities as I lay

Inside her body. And the coldness of the forests

Will be inside me till my dying day.....

o/h 2 `Of Poor B.B.' (Read verses 1, 2,3 and 9)

Brecht the subject of feminist critique - female characters and attitude to women.

Brecht the liar - subject of a book by John Fuegi, The Life and Lies of

Bertolt Brecht (HarperCollins, 1994) in which he argues that the works for which he was most most famous were written by others, namely a group of devoted women who were also his lovers - Elizabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau. For example it was Elizabeth Hauptmann who adapted John Gay's Beggars Opera into The Threepenny Opera, it is said she was responsible for 80 to 90% of the published text and for which she received only 12.5% of the income (Weill 25% and Brecht 62.5%). Margarete Steffin co-wrote Galileo, The Good Person of Sezuan and Mother Courage. (source: Michael Hulse, `A parasite and the women who made him great' review in The European 12-18 August, 1994


Brecht began writing Mother Courage after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the act that precipitated the second world war. He completed the first draft in exile in Sweden.

The immediate inspiration for the story according to Thompson’s account was Johan Runeberg’s Tales of a Subaltern. In one of the tales, a woman called Lotte Svard survives precariously by supplying essential provisions to war-worn soldiers during Sweden’s Thirty Year War. This war involving Sweden, Germany and Poland seemed to provide a precedent for brecht’s own situation in which these three countries were linked. As a german exile in Sweden and germany invades poland these three players were again united in war.

The Thirty Years War

The Thirty Years War began in 1618 as a dispute over the kingship of Bohemia and lasted thirty years ‘with falling and rising intensity’. It finally petered out in 1648. Central to the dispute was a conflict between catholics and protestants. The war was in practice a series ‘small wars’ and it appears that victory usually went to the general whose armies were ‘bet provisioned’. The heroes were Gustavus Adolphus on the Protestant side and Wallenstein for the Catholics.

According to Thompson’s account, cooks were popular, chaplains were liable to persecution by the other side and captured soldiers would join the armies of the better fed enemy.

The historical Thirty years war provided Brecht with a distancing device from where he could launch a critique of nazi militarism and territorialisation of surrounding countries: Poland, Denmark, Russia , France and of war. The Thirty Years War removed in time if not space from the Nazi invasion of Poland and the impending outbreak and acceleration of war in Europe but it was close enough to indicate its referant.

As a critique of war, Mother Courage as the play’s central character is drawn from literary, visual and folk accounts of the misguided women who tried to profit from war. To the case of Lotte Svard mentioned aboce can be added a female adventuress called Courage who features in Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s Simlicissimus, novel whose narrator is embroiled in the Thirty years war. The account of the war included graphic descriptions of atrocities and the blandness with which they were executed and accepted.

Her story: Thomson. P. 5-6

Another german classic informs Mother Courage: Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy. In this tale a canteen-woman in the Thirty Years War named Gussie from Blasewitz follows the war.

Sarah Bryant bertail tells us of Breughal’s Mad Meg as another source for the play.

Images of mad meg.

Bryant Bertail P. 83.

Politcal Context

The atttitude to war in Mother Courage is communicated in the discourse of the mise en scene: Mother Courage’s Wagon, a sign of the dislocation of war, the movement of civilians away from the war zone, their possessions in tractors and wheelbarrows, images most recetly revivied thpugu tv picture of the Bosnian war and again in kosovo in 2000.

Yet brecht’s take on war inversts the movement of civilian families away from the war zone towzrds safe havens. Mother Courage and her Children follow rather than flee the war in a gest which tells us about their economic situation as traders and their politics, a pragmatic one that puts survival at all costs before any national or religilios allegiance.

MC’s cynical attitude to war — it doesn’t matter who wins or loses the little people will always suffer — exposes the situation where in war the bourgoeisie — the ship-building, aircraft-building, armaments and steel factory owners profited from war while the poor suffer no matter what aside they are on.

Read Thomson p. 15 ‘The task. . . relief’.


The Play in Performance

Scene 1: At the play’s opening: a bare stage. Two Soldiers. Mother Courage makes her entrance on the revolving stage sitting on her wagon drawn bu her two sons, their horse having died. The entrance is announced by music,

Scene 2: Mother Courage is in the Swedish camp. The Model Book indicates that a split stage is used for this scene. The actors in one part of the stage ( the General and Eiliff) are unaware that Mother Courage and the Cook on the other side of the stage overhear them. There is also speculation here that the generals advances towards Eilif are sexually motivated.

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