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Gareth Jenkins


The business of war

(January 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Mother Courage and her Children
by Bertolt Brecht

The two world wars this century have sometimes been seen as one continuous war, a struggle over conflicting imperialist aims which the 1919 Treaty of Versailles failed to resolve. The outbreak of fighting in 1939 (the year in which Brecht wrote Mother Courage) was merely the resumption of unfinished business after a 20 year truce.

There is a parallel with the Thirty Years War in Germany in the early 17th century, which Brecht used for his play. A series of struggles between marauding Protestant and Catholic armies, which drew in all the major European powers, plunged the heart of the continent into an era of unprecedented savagery.

Brecht created Mother Courage as an ‘ordinary’ character trying to make ends meet. With her canteen wagon she wanders across the ruined continent selling drink, food and other vital supplies to the rival armies so that she can support herself and her three children.

As such she invites our compassion. But Brecht doesn’t want us to ignore her other side. She survives as a business woman who makes a living out of the war. In her small way she does what the marauding armies do: survive at the expense of others.

The terrible irony of her situation is that what starts as a way of protecting those she loves ends by killing them.

Mother Courage loses her elder son, Eilif, to the army while she is haggling over a belt. She loses her second son, Swiss Cheese, who is killed because she cannot resist haggling over the price of his ransom. There is a further twist to the agony. Courage has to deny that the body of her son is hers in order to avoid further retribution. Finally, she loses her daughter, who is shot, because she is off trading in the city.

So the action of the play is designed to bring judgement to our sympathy. People may be victims of larger historical processes that crush them but what they do, or don’t do, contributes to that process.

Commonsense slogans, which pepper the play, are precisely what tie ordinary people to perpetuating the misery that the great and the powerful let loose on the world. We need to respond to the horror of what we see, not by wallowing in facile emotions of pity but by using our minds to think beyond commonsense slogans. We should be distanced from the events on the stage so that we leave the play better able to change the world.

This new version by Hanif Kureishi is lively and racy, the acting is good, and Ellie Haddington as Mother Courage is excellent. So too is the staging. But it’s not sharp enough. Mother Courage is a touch too loveable; not enough of the battlefield vulture comes across.

Perhaps this connects with one feature of the funding that would have amused Brecht. A programme slip proudly announces that the production is sponsored by British Petroleum and could not have been mounted without their funding. For a play that looks at the theme of exploitation I can’t help wondering whether Brecht or BP is the winner.

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Last updated: 25 February 2017