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One night in January 1636, the wagon stands near a farmhouse outside the Protestant town of Halle. Out of the woods come a Catholic Lieutenant and three soldiers in full armor. They have come from a guide to the town and the Lieutenant orders to kill anyone who makes a sound.
They knock and seize the Old Peasant Woman who answers. The soldiers bring out an Old Peasant and his son. Kattrin appears on the wagon and her mother has gone to town to buy supplies because the shopkeepers are fleeing and selling cheap. The soldiers demand a guide; the son refuses, even upon the threat of death. The soldiers then threaten to destroy their cattle. The son complies and exits with the soldiers.
The Old Peasant climbs on the roof and spies a Catholic regiment, which has killed the watchman and readies for a surprise attack on the town. Convinced there is nothing they can do, the Peasant Woman begins to pray, asking God to protect their family members in the town.
When she learns of the Peasant Woman's grandchildren in town, Kattrin quietly climbs on the roof. She withdraws a drum from under her apron and begins to beat it. The peasants command her to stop, threatening to stone her. The soldiers return, threatening to kill them all. Craftily, the First Soldier promises Kattrin that they will spare her mother if she stops and accompanies them to town. She ignores them, as the young man notes, and she does not beat for her mother alone. The Old Peasant begins maniacally chopping wood to conceal her drumming with an innocent peacetime noise. The soldiers consider setting the farm on fire.
Kattrin listens and laughs. Enraged, the Lieutenant orders his men to bring a musket. The Peasant Woman suggests that they smash the wagon. The Young Peasant deal it a few blows; Kattrin pauses in distress but continues. Suddenly he cheers her on and the soldier beats him with his pike. The second soldier returns and shoots the weeping Kattrin. Her final drum-beats mingle with the thunder of a cannon. She has saved the town.
Toward morning, Mother Courage sits by Kattrin's body in front of the wagon. The drums and pipes of the marching troops are heard. The peasants order the parasite away and Courage must follow her regiment. Courage responds that Kattrin has perhaps fallen asleep and sings her a lullaby. The peasants bring her to her senses. Courage fetches a sheet from the wagon to cover the body. She plans to go to Eilif. The peasants offer to bury her. Courage pays them and harnesses herself to the wagon. She is confident she can manage: "I must get back into business" she resolves. As she calls to the passing regiment, the soldiers sing her signature song.
As the poster introducing the scene indicates, here the "stone begins to speak." Contrary to the consolations Courage offers throughout the play, Kattrin's muteness does not save her from involving herself in the war. She intervenes in spite of her silence, acting where those around her will not. The scene underscores her resolve. Unlike the hostile peasants, she will sacrifice her material possessions and life to rescue the town. Notably, Kattrin again appears as a "good mother" in this respect, saving the children while her mother is off once more haggling for supplies.
Read more about the theme of capitulation.
In the Courage Model Book, Brecht emphasizes the importance of alienation in this one of the more conventionally "dramatic" scenes of the play, insisting that the director stage it without allowing the audience to be so easily taken up in its pathos. For example, the peasants carefully justify their failure to intervene, supporting each other in the belief that there is nothing they can do. Ultimately, the only action they can divine is prayer. The Peasant Woman's appeal to God and analogous groveling before the Captain can only recall the "Song of the Great Capitulation." Not only do the peasant capitulate but conspire in Kattrin's murder, readily informing on her and participating in the attempts to bring her from the roof. For Brecht, the actors playing the peasants must underscore the ritual character of despair. In other words, the ways in which the years of wartime suffering have frozen them into fixed forms of begging, informing, and lamentation. This ritualization is the deeper horror underlying this episode.
Read more about how alienation is the primary innovation of Brecht’s epic theater.
The final scene is similarly unrecognizable without Brecht's techniques of alienation. Contrary to immediate appearances, Courage's lullaby resists sentimentality. Instead, she sings it murderously. By promising her child the extraordinary, she argues that this mother's child must fare better than all others. For Brecht, the lullaby to the corpse would reveal her persistent, treacherous hope of bringing her child and her child alone through the war.
Similarly does the staging demand rigorously realist details. In Brecht's production, for example, Courage mechanically subtracts a coin from the sum she gives the peasants for Kattrin's burial. This "realist discovery" would reveal how Courage retains her capacity to reckon in all her grief. Along with this revelation about the contradictions and conditions of human nature, the undo emphasis on such detail would decompose the theatrical illusion for the spectator, critically breaking it into pieces according to the dominant narrative principle of the epic theater: "one thing after another."
Read more about the significance of Mother Courage counting out the coins for her daughter’s burial.
Such techniques of alienation are paramount to the play's conclusion, a denouement that would illustrate how Courage has effectively learned nothing. Having lost another child while haggling and then initially denying her daughter's death, she quickly disposes of her corpse to return to the march: "I must get back into business." Thus, she takes up the wagon, hauling it across an empty stage recalling Scene 1. Courage comes full circle, remaining a "damned soul" who works endlessly at the business of war.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mother Courage and Her Children!