Sunday, November 15, 2015

"Mother Courage and Her Children"

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.

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?
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 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).

19 comments:

  1. kind of a zen point of view, wherein reality takes place in an unmeasurable instant, the future is unknown, and the past is nonexistent. or maybe i should say, a quantum perspective. but i feel it doesn't say very much; life is. no causality, no ethics, rather boneless one might say...

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  2. this computer thing is a bit tricky sometimes. i think the above post was for some other place, it doesn't seem to match what you wrote. oh well, the older i get, the more life resembles slapstick comedy(maybe that's what i wanted to say about your post?)

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    1. You replied to just the quoted text; I hadn't written the junk below it. Tom from Wuthering Expectations once suggested that I should edit posts after the fact to make commenters look like they are crazy. I should've just written a new post for the new material, but I am lazy sometimes. It's a character flaw I should address.

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  3. i think tom has a point. i'm in favor of unorganized mayhem craziness so long as it doesn't get too out of hand; but it's difficult to pull off without hurting someone's feelers, so best not experimented with, he said as he looked back over sixty years of uncontrolled zaniness.

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    1. looking at the way our august leaders carry on, it's the status quo.

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    2. any damage from the storm? we lost a couple of big trees, i heard them go down but haven't dared to go out and check; tomorrow and tomorrow creeps this petty pace-nono, i mean tomorrow i'll go out and survey the losses.

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    3. High winds, some flickering lights, but no damage so far. When I got home from work there was the winds had all died down and the rain had stopped. It had even warmed up, so I put on my Adidas and Nike togs and went forth for a run. I got about 3/4 of a mile from the house and suddenly it was hailing and I was taking shelter under a tree. When the hail stopped, I ran home through a whole lot of rain. If that's as bad as it gets, that's fine with me.

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    4. we didn't lose any trees after all; just an alder that knocked some limbs off of one of the cedars. glad that's over-wind storms are the worst for people with big trees they love...

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  4. I remember seeing this play on stage some 25 years ago now, with Glenda Jackson as Mother Courage.

    There always seems to me a great discrepancy between Brecht's stated artistic aims, and what he actually achieves. For me, this is a tremendously moving piece- one of the great tragic dramas that highlights human compassion and virtue, and, above all, sheer animal suffering. The image at the very end of Mother Courage pulling the cart on her own (after her daughter's self-sacrifice) is among the most heartbreaking of images. Did Brecht mean it to be so emotional? I don't see how he could have achieved it if he didn't.

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  5. Did they do the silent scream, by the way, in the production you saw? Apparently, that wasn't Brecht's idea: it was Helene Weigel, who first played the part on stage. After Mther Courage is shown the bloodied corpse of her son, but is forced to deny that she ever knew him, Helene Weigel apparently walked slowly to one is f te stage, contorted her face as if to scream, but instead of the expected howl, the audience heard only silence. It's not in the stage directions, but many actresses since have done that- including Glenda Jackson.


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  6. Oh and one more thing ... (I feel like Columbo here...)

    David Hare wrote his version some 15?or so years ago for the National Theatre London, for a production featuring Diana Rigg. Our children were quite small then, and we didn't get to see that production.

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  7. discrepancy between Brecht's stated artistic aims, and what he actually achieves

    In my experience, most artist's stated aims look different from the art they actually produce, unless those aims are very modest! I agree that "Mother Courage" is a moving, tragic work, at the level of the Greek tragedies, just heart rending stuff. I am certain he wanted it to hurt; from what I've read about it, he was nearly blind with rage at the German government.

    After the corpse of Swiss Cheese (what a name!) is carried offstage, Jeanne Paulsen (the absolutely wonderful actress playing Courage) climbed into the wagon and let loose a burst of the most terrifying screams I've ever heard. I can imagine the silent scream being effective, too, but in this production, I found the silence between and after the screams painful. How can anyone go on after that? And yet. Which is part of Brecht's purpose, I think.

    The thought of Diana Rigg playing Courage gave me a chill. That must've been some performance.

    Here's a link to Seattle Shakespeare's web page about their run, in case anyone's interested.

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  8. Scott, your fine posting is sending me back to reading Brecht. Thanks!

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  9. Postscript: Scott, my memory (when I studied Brecht in school) tells me that he was more interested in theatrical effects than audience empathy (poorly translated as "alienation effect"), and any production that taps into audience empathy would be a violation of Brecht's aesthetics; I think audiences should walk away "feeling" the strangeness of the theatrical experience (artificiality of settings, lighting, acting, and directing) rather than any "suspension of disbelief." And if I were directing Brecht, the audience what walk away with a big WTF reaction rather than any "connections" with or concerns with characters (as if they were representations of real people). But that is enough from my Swiss cheese memory.

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    1. Yeah, I don't know. I've read Brecht's "Short Organum" on art and the theater, written in 1948, and he's pretty explicit that theater is a vehicle for entertainment ("Let us therefore cause general dismay by revoking our decision to emigrate from the realm of the merely enjoyable, and even more general dismay by announcing our decision to take up lodging there. Let us treat the theater as a place of entertainment[...] and try to discover which type of entertainment suits us best."), but that the traditional forms of entertainment no longer connect with people because our aesthetics have changed over time, and that people feel a "difference" when viewing his plays because they are more true than the old plays (and therefore more properly entertaining) and the "alienation" is between the audience's expectation of the commonplaces of theater, and what Brecht gives them, which is something more like real truth. This is the same argument, more or less, that the Modernists used when defending their literature, and I think it's a valid one.

      Brecht says (in the Organum, anyway) that he thinks audiences should understand and empathize with what happens on stage. "Stylization should not remove the natural element but should heighten it." All of theater is "artificial," and Brecht was drawn toward a different form of artifice, that's all. Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment, says Mr Brecht. Snacks are available in the lobby during intermission.

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    2. I forgot to say that since Brecht felt such a clear need in 1948 to "revoke" his earlier decisions, he had obviously held a contrary opinion to that of the Organum for a long time prior to writing it. So the question becomes, as with so many other artists, "Which Berthold Brecht?"

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  10. A second tidbit just to muddy the waters (apropos of nothing) is the widely accepted notion that Brecht's "girlfriend" (whose name I forget) was the real author behind much of his playwriting. As I say, it adds nothing to the conversation other than underscoring the notion that "which Brecht" is a provocative problem. In any case, the playwright's intent (whatever it might have been) -- as you have suggested -- might be irrelevant to any production (including my notions of the production's aesthetics), so I somewhat back off from my babbling about "alienation" and embrace/ponder your POV. (Postscript: Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!)

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