Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mother Courage


Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children. New York: The Penguin Group, 2007.

In his epic theater, Brecht proposes a theater of ideas, where people shouldn’t be distracted by their emotions but instead using the play as an instrument of analysis. Mother Courage is a monumental piece of epic theater but it’s also a tragedy.
Brecht removed from his play some of the elements that would lead the audience to emotional reactions to the story—he turned on white lights and he created the “alienating effect”, to keep the audience away from suspense, remaining at all times awake and rational. Paradoxically what we call the horrors of war: carnage and destruction, awakes a strong emotional response in all of us. He successfully tears off many of the meanings attached to war: Heroism, patriotism, and the unavoidable necessity of it, but he can’t dissolve our emotional reaction it.
Our thinking of war cannot exist without the emotional component that is so inherent to it. Our reaction to war cannot be only analytical because it’s embedded with the emotional reaction to death and carnage. Our sentiment and understanding of war is based on our emotional reaction to it.
In Mother Courage Brecht emphasizes war-profiteering to prove his point. Mother Courage makes a living during the 30 years war selling goods from her cart. She is a single mother— her life revolves around survival and her family. So in the end, the tragedy is the story of a mother seeing her children die, one by one.
No distancing effect can takes us away from the pain of Mother Courage having to see the dead body of her son, and say that she didn’t know him to save herself, her daughter and her business, knowing that if nobody claimed his body, it will be thrown into a pit (38). Neither can we be indifferent to her pain when she sings a lullaby to her dead daughter Katrin, after she saved the village with her drumming (81).
Mother Courage represents a behavior that Breach intends to condemn—she makes a profit selling goods during war times. The fact that during the epic she loses her three children, feels like a punishment for her wrong behavior. At the end we are left with a moral of punishment that resembles more a religious lesson than a Marxist one. The concept that we’ll be punished for our wrongdoings, or that wrongdoings will have at the end a bad ending suggests some kind of religious moral that takes away the principle that would sustain a more ethical behavior per se , without seeking recompense or fearing punishment.
In his introduction to the work Norman Roessler writes, “Brecht understood, that all performative discourse on war, even the most antiwar, never rises above “pornography” (xx). Mother Courage is a monumental anti-war play that refrains from romanticizing the war, or making it into a spectacle that will trigger positive feelings.
In Marxist thinking, war, poverty and unemployment are inherent to capitalism, so Mother Courage is herself a victim of the system, even if she takes advantage of its most painful expression, war and death.
“All theater is necessarily political, says Augusto Boal, in his Theatre of the Oppressed, “those who try to separate theater from politics try to lead us into error—and this is a political attitude”. I would argue that we can’t remove politics from theater but we can’t remove emotions from theater either.
Even a cold documentary, journalistic, academic or any kind of non-theatrical public presentation of stories of the war will cause an emotional reaction in the audience— we can’t escape the feelings attached to the concept of war.
Theater as a place for thinking is still theater. Even if we remove the dreamy and cathartic elements of some forms, the ritual is still intact. Even if we turn on the lights and tell the audience what will be happening in each scene, they are still sitting, watching a story that will unfold in front of their eyes. Every theater story deals with representation and some level negotiates with emotions.
Bertolt Brecht successfully guides our emotions towards the political ideas that he wants to convey, but he also fails to make the audience a complete objective witness of pain and death. Even in a sober and analytical state we are witnessing a painful tragedy of loss, death and the horrors of war.