Mother Courage and Her Children, a Play by Bertolt Brech

Context and Characters

performance of Mother Courage play
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Mother Courage and her Children mixes dark humor, social commentary, and tragedy. The title character, Mother Courage, travels across war-weary Europe selling alcohol, food, clothing, and supplies to soldiers on both sides. As she struggles to improve her fledgling business, Mother Courage loses her adult children, one after another.

About the Playwright Bertolt Brech

Bertolt (sometimes spelled "Berthold") Brecht lived from 1898 to 1956. He was raised by a middle-class German family, despite some of his claims that he had an impoverished childhood. Early in his youth, he discovered a love for the theater that would become his means of creative expression as well as a form of political activism. Brecht fled Nazi Germany before the onset of World War II. In 1941, his anti-war play Mother Courage and Her Children was performed for the first time, premiering in Switzerland. After the war, Brecht moved to Soviet-occupied East Germany, where he directed a revised production of the same play in 1949.

The Setting of the Play

Set in Poland, Germany, and other parts of Europe, Mother Courage and her Children spans between he years 1624 to 1636, during the Thirty Years' War, a conflict that pitted Protestant armies against Catholic forces, resulting in an enormous loss of life. 

Main Characters

Although many characters come and go, each with their own interesting quirks, personalities, and social commentaries, this overview will provide details about the central figures in Brecht's play.

Mother Courage - The Title Character

Anna Fierling (AKA Mother Courage) has been enduring for a long time, traveling with nothing except a supply wagon pulled along by her adult children: Eilif, Swiss Cheese, and Kattrin. Throughout the play, though she does show concern for her children, she seems more interested in profit and financial security, rather than the safety and well-being of her offspring. She has a love/hate relationship with war. She loves war because of its potential economic benefits. She hates war because of its destructive, unpredictable nature. She has the nature of a gambler, always trying to guess just how long the war will last so that she can take a risk and buy more supplies to sell.

She fails dreadfully as a parent whenever she is focused on her business. When she fails to keep track of her eldest son, Eilif, he joins the army. When Mother Courage tries to haggle for the life of her second son (Swiss Cheese), she offers a low payment in exchange for his freedom; her stinginess results in his execution. Eilif is also executed, and although his death is not a direct result of her choices, she misses her only chance to visit with him because she is at the market working her business instead of at church, where Eilif expects her to be. Near the play's conclusion, Mother Courage is again absent when her daughter Kattrin martyrs herself in order to save innocent townspeople.

Despite losing all of her children by the end of the play, it is arguable that Mother Courage never learns anything, thus never experiences an epiphany or transformation. In his editorial notes, Brecht explains that "It is not incumbent on the playwright to give Mother Courage insight at the end" (120). Rather, Brecht's protagonist catches a glimpse of social awareness in Scene Six, but it is quickly lost, never to be regained, as the war wears on, year after year.

Eilif - The "Brave" Son

The eldest and most independent of Anna's children, Eilif is persuaded by a recruiting officer, lured by talk of glory and adventure. Despite his mother's protests, Eilif enlists. Two years later the audience sees him again, thriving as a soldier who slaughters peasants and loots civilian farms to support his army's cause. He rationalizes his actions by saying: "Necessity knows no law" (Brecht 38).

However, in Scene Eight, during a brief peace time, Eilif steals from a peasant household, murdering a woman in the process. He does not understand the difference between killing during war time (which his peers consider an act of bravery) and killing during peace time (which his peers consider a crime punishable by death). Mother Courage's friends, the Chaplain and the Cook, do not tell her about Eilif's execution; therefore, by the end of the play, she still believes she has one child left alive.

Swiss Cheese - The "Honest" Son

Why is he named Swiss Cheese? "Because he's good at pulling wagons." That's Brecht's humor for you! Mother Courage claims that her second son has a fatal flaw: honesty. However, this good-natured character's real downfall might be his indecision. When he is hired to be a paymaster for the Protestant army, his duty is torn between the rules of his superiors and his loyalty to his mother. Because he cannot successfully negotiate those two opposing forces, he is ultimately captured and executed.

Kattrin - Mother Courage's Daughter

By far the most sympathetic character in the play, Kattrin is unable to speak. According to her mother, she is in constant danger of being physically and sexually abused by soldiers. Mother Courage often insists that Kattrin wear unseemly clothes and be covered in dirt to draw attention away from her feminine charms. When Kattrin is injured, receiving a scar on her face, Mother Courage considers it a blessing for now Kattrin is less likely to be assaulted.

Kattrin wants to find a husband; however, her mother keeps putting it off, insisting that they must wait until peace time (which never arrives during her adult life). Kattrin desperately wants a child of her own, and when she learns that children might be murdered by soldiers, she sacrifices her life by drumming loudly, waking up the townspeople so that they are not caught by surprise. Although she perishes, the children (and many other civilians) are saved. Therefore, even without children of her own, Kattrin proves to be far more motherly than the title character.