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Mother Courage

Bertolt Brecht

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Define the Verfremdungseffekt, the alienation or "distanciation" effect. Discuss an example of this effect in Mother Courage.

The Verfremdungseffekt is the primary innovation of Brecht's epic theater. By alienating spectator's from the spectacle, the devices producing this effect would reveal the social gestus underlying every incident on- stage. Brecht defined this gestus, meaning gist as well as gesture, as the mimetic expression of the social relationships prevailing between people in a given historical moment.

Often times alienation also means making the workings of the spectacle visible and decomposing the unity of the theatrical illusion. Brecht calls for the spectator's alienation from the mystifying tendencies of the conventional stage, tendencies that reduced its audience to passive, trance-like states. Particularly insidious among them was the mechanism of identification.

A good example of Brechtian alienation comes from Scene Three, where Mother Courage, the Cook, and the Chaplain discuss the politics of the Thirty Years War. Already the Cook functions here as a critical voice and finds the irony in the opinions of the Chaplain. The Swedish King is fortunate he can invoke the word of God; otherwise it might seem that he has undertaken the war for profit. Notably, the Cook is also aware of his social position, his awareness militating against his ostensible duty to his monarch. The Cook notes that he does not eat the king's bread, he just bakes it. The element of alienation in this scene, however, involves a spatial device, Brecht placing the three characters behind the wagon. Simultaneously, Kattrin tries on Yvette's red boots. By moving the characters behind the cart, the play would hinder the spectator's identification with their debate. Thus it opens a critical distance enabling the audience to reflect on the spectacle.

Discuss the role of detail in the Brechtian theater. Illustrate your argument with an example from Mother Courage.

In contrast to conventional "dramatic theater," Brecht dictated the undue emphasis on detail, whether in speech, gesture, costume, or otherwise, as essential to his epic form. For Brecht, detail helps decompose the unity of the theatrical illusion, keeping with the epic form's principle of "one after another." Detail also often reveals some social gestus underlying a given scene.

An oft-quoted example of such detail in Mother Courage comes from the final scene as staged in Brecht's famous production with the Berliner Ensemble. Entrusting her daughter's corpse to the local peasants, Courage counts out the coins for the burial, removes one, and then pays. This injection of realism breaks the unity of the spectacle, in this case being an image of maternal grief. The detail reveals Courage's persistent capacity to "reckon," a capacity she necessarily developed under her particular social conditions, even in the midst of her grief.

Discuss Brecht's staging of music in Mother Courage. What are some of its effects?

Rather than accompany the action or integrate itself into dramatic illusion, music in Brecht's theater assumes an independent reality, at times standing autonomous from the other elements of the play. In Brecht's production of Mother Courage, stagehands would lower a musical emblem whenever a song that remained separate from the action would arise. This elevation of music to its own reality breaks the dramatic illusion, helping to decompose it into its constitutive elements. For Brecht, this decomposition renders the audience an observer and forces it into a relation of critical spectatorship. For example, "The Song of the Great Souls of the Earth" recounts how various great figures meet dark fates on account of their respective virtues. Rehearsing Mother Courage's fortune telling in Scene One, the song is a thinly veiled allegory for herself and her children: Courage is Solomon and Eilif is Caesar. The separation of the music from the action might facilitate the spectator interrogation of the terms of the allegory.

Suggested Essay Topics

Discuss the trope of maternity in Mother Courage. How do various characters conceive of motherhood? What is the role of children in the play? What is the relation between maternity and war?

Mother Courage runs her business throughout the play. Discuss one example of her business practice, for instance, the sale of the capon, the purchase of the ammunition. How does it function in the plot? What might it reveal about character? What is its relation to war?

Consider the trope of disfigurement in the play (i.e. Yvette's obesity, the One- Eyed Man, and Kattrin's wound). What does disfigurement suggest about character? What is the relation between disfigurement and war?

What is the relation between virtue and allegory in the play?

What is the role of religion in Mother Courage? Isolate two or three examples for comparison.

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