Mother Courage

by: Bertolt Brecht

Scene One

Summary Scene One

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!"

Analysis

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.