War-torn Germany at the height of the Thirty Years’ War will be the scene for next month’s Tower Players’ production of “Mother Courage and her Children,” opening at Markel Auditorium on Feb. 24, but themes found in the play also apply to today’s political landscape.
Written by German communist playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht in 1939, while Brecht was living in Sweden avoiding Nazi persecution, the play tells the story of a woman’s experiences during the series of religious conflicts in Europe from 1618 – 1648.
“She is a war profiteer,” Associate Professor of German Fred Yaniga said. “Mother Courage feeds the fire of war with the bodies of her children. One by one, her children are devoured by this war, and time and again she shows more concern for the loss of business than for the loss of her children.”
The Thirty Years’ War was a wave of destruction over Europe, occurring concurrently with the plague, Assistant Professor of German Stephen Naumann explained.
“Germany was the battlefield,” Naumann said. “In the Thirty Years’ War, there were entire villages that were wiped out. Parts of Central Germany lost more than half the population.”
In “Mother Courage,” Brecht addresses the capitalist nature of war, showing how war feeds itself through profiteers and ultimately leads to complete destruction.
“It was in a sense a total war,” German Department Chairman Eberhard Geyer said. “The war fed itself. Soldiers took food stock, livestock, and girls from the land. Wherever they came in, they were taking.”
Brecht’s message in “Mother Courage” is attacks the destruction and profiteering inherent in war.
“In wartime, there are always people who don’t care which side wins as long as they’re making money,” Yaniga said. “When greed gets in the middle of that, it becomes the accelerant which allows that fire to burn.”
“It is, in a sense, a plea to stop pointless, senseless wars,” Geyer added.
Though Brecht set his drama during a war which had ravaged Germany during the 1600s, the themes found in “Mother Courage” also demonstrate a clear reaction to the contemporary political situation of the 1930s and ’40s.
Brecht wrote during his self-imposed exile from his German homeland after the Nazi rise to power in 1933.
“It was in response to the Nazis’ march into Poland in 1939,” Naumann said. “Sept. 1 was the start of World War II with that attack. Brecht wrote this play in a couple of months.”
According to Naumann, Brecht’s personal experience was also influenced by the last great war which had ravaged Europe: World War I.
“It was a devastating war,” Naumann said. “It was fought all over Europe. Germany was trying to recover from that psychologically, politically, and economically.”
Themes found in “Mother Courage” are still relevant today.
“I’ve wanted to do this show for a long time,” Professor of Theatre James Brandon said. “I also thought the show is very political, so it would be great to do during an election year.”
Elections aren’t the only current situation in which Brechtian themes can be found. Yaniga points to the international conflict with the Islamic State in the Middle East as a war-torn area similar to that of “Mother Courage.”
“There are a lot of hands in the pot in Syria right now,” Yaniga said. “The Russians are in there making money; the Turks have vested interests which are not just ideological but territorial; the Americans have a sphere of historical and political interests there which are not always neutral. There are proxy wars being fought all over that region right now.”
“The idea that people are not always fighting for ideological truths, but for their own selfish interests is timeless — that’s what makes good theater and good literature,” he added.
The name “Mother Courage” comes from another work of German literature set during the Thirty Years’ war: “Simplicius Simplicissimus,” written by Hans Jakob Christoffel in 1668 — just 20 years after the end of the conflict.
“He’s a soldier in the Thirty Years’ War,” Yaniga said of the novel’s main character, Simplicissimus. “He has absolutely no idea what he’s fighting for. He’s fighting for both sides half the time. He’s fighting so he can get plunder from both sides.”
In the theater world, the signature attribute of Brecht’s works is the Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect — a tactic to disengage the audience from emotional connection with events taking place on the stage.
“The audience is supposed to be reminded not to get emotionally involved but to learn a lesson from it,” Geyer said.
The Verfremdungseffekt had audiences throughout Europe in tears at the conclusion of “Mother Courage” on its premier tour.
“Aristotle thought that the end of the theater was the emotional experience, the cathartic experience,” Brandon explained. “Brecht thought that you should get into the story and feel for the characters, but then he also wants to draw you out of that from time to time.”
Ultimately, “Mother Courage” is a tragic depiction of the effect greed can have on family and society.
“In German literature, I often ask ‘Was ist der Mensch?’ — what does it mean to be a human being?” Yaniga explains. “Brecht shows us a kind of human being here, and he asks this question very purposefully: is this what the human being is? A greedy, selfish, morally disinterested being?”
“Kafka says, ‘a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,’” he added. “Brecht certainly has an axe, and he’s going to be chopping some holes in the ice with this play.”