Mother Courage opens in Dalarna, in spring of 1624. A Sergeant and Recruiting Officer are recruiting soldiers for the Swedish campaign in Poland. They stand shivering on a highway outside a town. The Officer complains of the difficulty in recruiting soldiers from the untrustworthy townspeople. The Sergeant declares that the people could use a good war. Without war, there is no organization.
A harmonica is heard, and a canteen wagon appears on stage. The infamous Mother Courage sits on it with her dumb daughter, Kattrin, and her sons, Eilif and Swiss Cheese pull it along. Introducing herself to the officers, she sings her trademark song. A "sales pitch" of sorts, it markets the wares that will help the soldiers march to their deaths. She calls the soldiers to wake: "Let all of you who still survive/ Get out of bed and look alive!"
The Sergeant demands to see her license. Fishing out a number of papers, Courage mocks his request. He again bemoans the lack of discipline in the army and asks the group's names. Courage reveals her family's rather colorful lineage, each of her children being the offspring of a different, and perhaps forgotten, father of a different nationality. The two officers deride her, and Eilif threatens to punch them out. Courage silences him and offers the men her wares.
The Recruiting Officer reveals his intentions and attempts to seduce Eilif into the army. Courage demands that he leave her children alone, ultimately drawing her knife. The Sergeant protests, saying that since Courage lives off the war, the war should not ask something of her in return. The war has not done him any harm. Looking into the future, Courage disagrees. To her, the Sergeant is a corpse on furlough.
To confirm her prophecy, she has the Sergeant choose his fortune. Courage puts two strips of parchment in his helmet, drawing a black cross on one of them. She mixes them, and he draws. To his horror, the Sergeant has chosen his death.
Unbeknown to Courage, the Recruiting Officer has continued his pursuit of Eilif. When Eilif admits that he would like to sign up, Courage similarly foretells the fate of her children. Each draw the black cross as well. She laments their fate. Eilif will die for his excessive bravery, Swiss Cheese for his honesty, and Kattrin for her kindness. Sorrowfully, she readies to leave.
The Recruiting Officer presses the Sergeant to stop them. The Sergeant examines one of Courage's belts, taking her behind the wagon. Simultaneously the Recruiting Officer takes Eilif off for a drink. A horrified Kattrin leaps from the wagon and starts screaming. Courage emerges and stands still, realizing she has lost her child. Bitterly the family departs. Looking after them, the Sergeant delivers his own epigrammatic prophecy: "When a war gives you all you earn/ One day it may claim something in return!"
Despite all of Brecht's efforts, many critics received initial productions of Mother Courage as a tragedy bemoaning how people have little control over their fate and find themselves powerless before the forces of war. But no interpretation is further from Brecht's text.
As Brecht was fond of noting, Mother Courage is a "business play." War is not some fatidic entity but the "sum of everyone's business transactions," it is the continuation of business "by other means." Courage is all too aware of war as a set of business practices. For example, she charges that the Recruiting Officer only seeks her son for his five-guilder commission. Courage also makes explicit the brutality in these circuits of exchange—circuits involving the purchase and payment of blood and flesh. As she sings: "The blood they spill for you is red, sir,/What fires that blood is my red meat." Courage makes her living off this economy. As the sergeant notes, the war is her "breadwinner." Similarly, her participation in the business of war causes her to lose "blood and flesh."
Note that this "demystification" of the war's social underpinnings does not exclude war from what the mystifications of rhetoric. The war is anthropomorphized. For example, the Sergeant refers to a "poor war," who must ask nothing in return and look after itself. This anthropomorphism is necessary to the play's allegory of war as business. War is Courage's deadly partner.
War does not figure as an interruption of "business as usual": instead, it is both its precondition and consequence. Thus the Sergeant will declare that there is "no organization" without war. In his fantasy of peace, people eat what they will, leave their possessions uncounted, and even come to have no names. In war, "everyone registers," and all the goods are counted for the army to take away. He then concludes: "That's the story: no organization, no war!" War and organization are mutually constitutive. In other words, war brings the organization of society, and, more provocatively, perhaps, the organization of society brings war. Initially the wandering Courage appears to elude this system of organization. For example, note her derision at the Sergeant's request for her papers and the account of her children's uncertain lineages. At the same time, as the theft of Eilif indicates, she is also its victim.
This scene proceeds through a number of other allegories as well. Take, for example, the telling of the children's destinies, a sequence prefigured by the metaphor of war as a deadly gambler. In this sequence, Mother Courage plays seer, holding a helmet, metonymically evoking a skull, from which each of her children draws lots. As she tears the parchment for these lots, she cries that her family will be torn in two if they involve themselves too deeply in the war. These lots are in turn mixed together just as we are in the womb. The allegory seems clear enough, that the parchment represents the renting of the family, and each child's selection of his fate tearing him from the mother.
Courage then narrates the fatal flaws that will lead the children to their demise: bravery, honesty, and kindness. Thus, Mother Courage announces how war will make virtues fatal to those who exercise them. Brecht clearly has the tradition of the morality play—which featured an Everyman as its protagonist and various characters personifying Vices and Virtues—in mind. There is obviously a reason why the heroine's name is Courage.
Mother Courage is no morality play. First, its heroine is not an Everyman, nor will Courage offer a "universal figure" with which the audience can immediately identify. Second, the play finds irony in its personifications. Courage, for example, becomes Courage for her mercenary nature when she drove through a bombardment to keep a cart full of bread. Similarly, Mother Courage subjects its allegories to alienation by exploiting allegory's most irritating features: its heavy-handedness and the apparently arbitrary relationship between its terms. Brecht makes the arbitrariness in an allegory evident. Kattrin is a "cross in herself," war is a dice player. This revelation of the gap between allegory's terms functions to alienate or distance the spectator from the spectacle in hopes of generating his critical reflection.
The other major "distanciation effects" in this opening scene lie in Brecht's stage techniques. Again, recall that Mother Courage in large part offers a model for the epic theater. A key device in this scene is the emptiness of the stage. Brecht understood the void produced in this first scene as a horizon lying open to the enterprising family that prefigures the space of measureless devastation in which the play ends. Moreover, the spectator was to understand the void as the actors' tabula rasa. In seeing this void take shape, the spectator would in turn subject the actors' interpretations to scrutiny.