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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.”