Bertolt Brecht’s modernist play, Mother Courage and Her Children, defies certain expectations of drama, focusing less on action and events than on delivering its messages about war, human conflict, and human nature. The play comprises what might be considered a set of allegorical tales lifted over a thirty-year span, describing behaviors and beliefs Brecht would have an audience avoid, and the characters and actions of the play, unlike those of most dramas, are designed to minimize levels of excitement and degrees of audience sympathy.

The lead character, for example, although she is named Courage, does not display conventional bravery or anticipated heroic values. Mother Courage instead fails to function as a mother an audience might expect; she is forced to attend solely to profit and to her own survival, ignoring the need to protect her children. In turn, those children—Eilif, Kattrin, and Swiss Cheese—do what they must, contradicting expectations by falling victim to behaviors spawned in wartime cruelty and the vices of society. In the course of the drama, Eilif will turn on peasants, Swiss Cheese will become a thief, and Kattrin will sacrifice herself trying to save a town. 

The play does not seek to entertain in the conventional sense. It provides little spectacle to invoke an audience’s emotional response, and Brecht purposely eschews the conventions of typical plot development. He avoids including a distinct inciting incident, rising action, a climax, and falling action across the play’s scenes. Instead, each scene is intended to be played by itself alone. Each scene includes points of action that form what may appear to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, yet Brecht’s thrust is to break up the illusion of structure, forcing the audience to address the analysis, arguments, and philosophical points he presents through dialogue and the fates of the characters.

As a champion of Marxist thinking in the 1920s, Brecht presented social issues through characters who cope with real life struggles from which his audience could learn. This is the case with Mother Courage and Her Children, although Brecht wrote the play much later, in 1939. Across the play’s twelve scenes, he crafts an argument to show why members of the audience should change their behaviors and those of their governments to create a more just, peaceful world. His overall message, played out in every scene, is that war is a capitalist product, little more than a transaction exploited for gain.

Each of the play’s characters, even the unseen monarchs who wage war from offstage, stands to make money through conflict. Mother Courage herself serves as an archetypal symbol of profit; she has been employed directly in the cruel business of supplying armies, ignoring the mayhem inflicted on populations as well as on opposing troops. She may be a simple peasant, but her decisions are always governed by the effect they may have on her business, like every good warmonger. Brecht’s lesson is reinforced by the fact that she remains poor even after she sacrifices her children, innocent peasants, and herself to the cause.

Brecht interjects songs throughout the scenes, not as musical entertainment, but often as a Greek chorus might use them, as additional means of (often ironic) commentary. Brecht would lower a musical symbol during these songs to set them off as political messaging and highlight his point. In Courage’s “The Song of the Great Capitulation,” for example, her song includes shades of meaning to indicate that surrender might be viewed from two very different perspectives: one positive and one negative, with neither necessarily being the best choice.

As Brecht’s play concludes, it offers a lesson that audience members can apply to their peacetime lives. They may not be suffering the ravages of war, but, according to Brecht, capitalist ideas force them to make the same cruel choices Mother Courage and her children had to make, placing the security of capitalist gains over human need. The play’s goal, perhaps, is simply to convince the audience that—in contrast with Mother Courage’s final reflections after the death of her last child—the point of existence and life is not solely to “get back into business.”