THE CHAPLAIN: I realize you are serious, Mother Courage. Well, there've always been people going around saying some day the war will end. I say, you can't be sure the war will ever end. Of course it may have to pause occasionally-for breath, as it were--it can even meet with an accident-nothing on this earth is perfect. A war of which we could say it left nothing to be desired will probably never exist. A war can come to a sudden halt- -from unforeseen causes--you can't think of everything--a little oversight, and the war's in the hole: and someone's got to pull it out again! The someone is the Emperor or the King or the Pope. They're such friends in need, the war has really nothing to worry about, It can look forward to a prosperous future.The above dialogue is from Berthold Brecht's 1939 play "Mutter Courage und ihre Kinde" (trans. Eric Bentley), which we saw last Friday evening in a performance by the Seattle Shakespeare Company, using a translation by David Hare. I don't know Mr Hare, but his translation is a bit livelier than Mr Bentley's, so I'm assuming it's a more recent work.
MOTHER COURAGE: If I was sure you're right ...
THE CHAPLAIN: Think it out for yourself: how could the war end?
THE CLERK (suddenly): What about peace? Yes, peace. I'm from Bohemia. I'd like to get home once in a while.
THE CHAPLAIN: Oh, you would, would you? Dear old peace! What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?
THE CLERK: In the long run you can't live without peace!
THE CHAPLAIN: Well, I'd say there's peace even in war, war has its islands of peace. For war satisfies all needs, even those of peace, yes, they're provided for, or the war couldn't keep going. In war-as in the very thick of peace-you can take a crap, and between one battle and the next there's always a beer, and even on the march you can snatch a nap--on your elbow maybe, in a gutter--something can always be managed. Of course you can't play cards during an attack, but neither can you while ploughing the fields in peace time: it's when the victory's won that there are possibilities. You have your leg shot off, and at first you raise quite an outcry as if it was something, but soon you calm down or take a swig of brandy, and you end up hopping about, and the war is none the worse for your little misadventure. And can't you be fruitful and multiply in the thick of slaughter-behind a barn or somewhere? Nothing can keep you from it very long in any event. And so the war has your offspring and can carry on. War is like love, it always finds a way. Why should it end?
"Mother Courage and Her Children" was written, apparently in about a month of "white hot" inspiration (or anger, if you will), as a response to Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland. Brecht set the play not in the 1930s, but rather over the course of 12 years (1624 to 1636) during the 30-Year's War. The name "Mother Courage" comes from a play by Grimmelshausen, who was a witness to the War. It is a rattling, blackly-comic antiwar statement, with some dandy vaudeville-style songs. Typical Brecht, in other words.
I want to focus on the central theme of the play, the central irony Brecht introduces in the work. Early on, Mother Courage makes a speech about the so-called courage of generals and the men who fight under their command, pointing out that in a well-run army, the men wouldn't need to be courageous: if generals didn't go into battle with too few men, or if they were actually competent tacticians and the troops didn't have to improvise on the field, courage would be unnecessary. It's just like, Mother Courage goes on to say, the idea of virtue: in a well-ordered society, citizens would not have to struggle to be virtuous, because the society itself would be built upon virtue and virtuous behavior. We only have to force ourselves to be courageous and virtuous when society is corrupt.
This idea, repeated throughout the play, seems awfully bleak. But what is shown (rather than what is said) in "Mother Courage" are people being courageous and virtuous. Brecht claims, then, that despite war and corruption and violence and death, people do force themselves to be good, and kind, and loving. Despite it all, and this struggle which goes on in the face of endless war and indifference to suffering, is how humanity survives. Mother Courage is no hero, but two of her children are, and Courage loves even her non-heroic son (another terrible irony at the end of the play is Courage's longing to see Eilif again if she can locate the army in which he is a soldier; she has no idea Eilif's been executed for brutally murdering a family of civilians--which act was quite legal only a week before when there wasn't a cease-fire in effect, as Eilif points out to no avail).