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Mother Courage

Bertolt Brecht

Scene Two

Scene One

Scene Three—Part I

Summary

In 1625–1626, Mother Courage journeys through Poland with the Swedish army. The scene begins in the tent of the Swedish Commander and the adjacent kitchen outside the besieged town of Wallhof. Courage is arguing with the Cook over the sale of a capon, a castrated rooster. She cries that the soldiers are starving, chasing after field rats and drooling over boiled leather—no food is left. If the Cook does not buy the capon, the Commander will take his head. Nonplussed, the Cook begins to prepare an old cut of beef.

The Commander, a Chaplain, and Eilif enter the tent, the Commander lauding the young man for a recent raid on the local peasants. Angrily he calls for meat. Having overheard the conversation, Courage rejoices at finding her son again and forces the capon on the Cook for a pretty penny.

Eilif recounts the raid. Upon learning that the peasants had hidden their oxen, he began to deprive his men of their meat rations to make them desperate for food. When his company attacked, however, they found that the peasants outnumbered them. Four cornered Eilif. Laughing, he bid on the oxen to confuse them and then he retrieved his sword and chopped them to pieces. "Necessity knows no law, huh?" he chuckles.

The Commander asks the Chaplain what he thinks of the tale. Cynically, the Chaplain notes that Jesus told men to love their neighbor at a time when their bellies were full, but this is no longer the case. The Commander remarks that Eilif got his men meat, and any act done for the least of God's children is done for God. He celebrates Eilif's bravery, calling him Julius Caesar, and declares that he should be presented to the king. In the kitchen, Courage remarks that trouble must be afoot. If the Commander's campaign were any good, he would not need brave soldiers. Indeed, great virtues always signal that something is amiss.

The Commander declares that Eilif's father must have been a great warrior. The boy concurs and sings a song of warning Courage taught him called "The Song of the Wise Woman and the Soldier." It tells of a soldier who joins the fight against the advice of a wise woman and dies, vanishing like smoke and leaving nothing but glorious deeds that cannot console the living. Courage picks up the song from the kitchen, beating on a pan with a spoon. Eilif enters and embraces her. She boxes him on the ear for failing to back down when the peasants attacked him.

Analysis

Scene Two continues to elaborate the brutal business of war. Simply put, the people are starving—to put it otherwise would probably contravene Brecht's dark antiwar humor. Note the trope of meat: the Commander screams for meat; for the Commander, the peasants stuff their priests with beef at both ends; the farmers want to make mincemeat out of Eilif. Everyone is out for flesh and the depravity of war is clear. Eilif's glorious deeds, told in the barest terms, are theft and murder. His ostensible bravery, the virtue that supposedly does him in, is more brutal than heroic. All too quickly in this war waged in the name of God does the Commander's religious sophistry justifies his crimes, though certainly the Chaplain disapproves of the young murderer. Mother Courage exploits the situation to gain an extra buck.

Along with appearing as the opportunist ever bent on her survival, Courage figures anew as the wise woman, taking up her voice in Eilif's song as she foretells the soldier's death. Like much of the play's music, this song functions autonomously as a "plot within the plot" that once again foreshadows the son's demise. The Frankfurt School theorist Walter Benjamin notes the profusion of such thinkers and wise men in Brecht's plays, characters he describes as "untragic heroes." For Benjamin, these thinkers evoke an uncharted tradition of attaching a third party observer to the action. Such device generally remains artificial according to most standards of dramaturgy but appears consistent with the principles of epic form—in particular, with pedagogical intentions and its decomposition of the theatrical illusion.

In this scene, the thinker is an eavesdropper, commenting on the conversation in the adjacent playing space. Courage's reflections are once again on virtues during wartime. Here virtues serve as evidence that soldiers are unwittingly under the thumb of incompetent officers. The soldier's bravery can only cover over a leadership that needs it. In a well-regulated country, everyone could be ordinary, middling, and even cowardly.

Key staging elements include the use of the half-curtain, back projection, and poster. First, Brecht's famous half curtains serve to create various playing spaces on stage. This scene reveals one of its uses in its construction of eavesdropping. As we will see, the multiplication of playing spaces will allow for dialectical confrontations between events on-stage. As noted in the Courage Model Book, the Berlin production set the stage for these confrontations by attempting to eliminate all romantic remnants of atmosphere. It primarily did so by replacing background projections, traditionally used to convey certain locales, with the countries' names in stark, black letters. This anti-illusion device would at once locate the action in its historical context and force the spectator to become the action's critical observer.

Also of note is the introductory poster sketching the scene. Mother Courage meets her son, successfully sells a capon, and learns of Eilif's exploits. For Benjamin, these posters exemplify the epic progression of the play. By emphasizing individual events, the epic "loosens the joints" of the linear plot and allows itself to cover vast spans of time. Suspense lies not in outcome but in the events themselves. Thus, for Benjamin, the epic puts itself in league with the true and decidedly non-linear movement of history.

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