Text: Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children. English version by Eric Bentley. New York: Random House, 1955.
The play is in twelve scenes with no division into acts. At the beginning of the scenes are stage instructions explaining the time, place, and situation.
Summary of Scene One
The headnote says it is spring of 1624 outside the town of Dalarna, Sweden, where a recruiting officer and sergeant are trying to round up troops for Swedish Commander Oxenstierna for the upcoming war against the Polish Catholics. Anna Fierling, who is known to the soldiers as Mother Courage, is on the highway with her canteen cart. With her three grown children, she follows the troops and sells goods to them.
The recruiting officer complains he has a tough time getting men to enlist. The people are hostile. He says he can’t “take a man’s word any more” (p. 23). The sergeant answers that what they need around here is a good war. Peace is a problem, because no one cares and there is no organization. The people are well fed, fat and lazy. On the other hand, he says, once war gets going, it is hard to stop. People are then scared of peace, because they will have to pay up.
Just then Mother Courage’s wagon rolls by with her two sons pulling it. Mother Courage is riding on the seat with her dumb daughter, Kattrin. Mother Courage sings her buying and selling song, telling the soldiers their men need the goods she has for the coming battle. The wagon just came from the Second Finnish Regiment. When the soldiers ask for identification papers or a license, she says she got her name Mother Courage in the bombardment of Riga when she drove through it in her cart to sell her fifty loaves of bread. They insist on a license; she replies her license to the Protestant troops is her honest face. She is Anna Fierling.
They ask if the children are all Fierlings, and she boasts they all had different fathers: Eilif Noyocki; Swiss Cheese Feyos, and dumb daughter, Kattrin Haupt. They have seen the world together in that wagon. She can’t wait for the war to come. As the recruiting officer tries to entice her sons to enlist, she tries to sell them some goods. She tells them to stay away from her sons. They try to tell the sons they are doing woman’s work. They make war sound glamorous: they could be wearing uniforms and attracting women. Mother Courage threatens them with a knife.
She has the power to look into the future, she says, so she has strips of paper put into a helmet with one marked with a black cross for death. The sergeant draws a black cross, and Mother Courage points out he does not have long to live nor does anyone who enlists. By now her sons want to enlist, so she marks lots and puts them in the helmet. Eilif draws a black cross, and Mother Courage begins lamenting. Then Swiss Cheese draws his lot: a black cross, and she tells him he is too honest to live. Kattrin also draws the black cross. She tells the children to get back to the wagon and leave. The sergeant delays her by pretending to buy something. He haggles with Mother Courage while the recruiting officer gets Eilif to enlist by offering him money. Kattrin tries to warn her mother, but she cannot speak, and the mother is busy closing the deal behind the wagon. When she discovers she has lost her son, Mother Courage stoically tells Kattrin now she will have to pull the wagon with her remaining brother.
Commentary on Scene One
The entire play is introduced in a nutshell in Scene One and elaborated on in the following eleven scenes. The topic is war and who profits by it. The action takes place during the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants in Europe (1618-1648). Count Axel Oxenstierna was the Lord High Chancellor of Sweden, a Commander, and regent after the death of King Gustavus Adolphus. The recruiting officer will get money for every man he enlists. The Swedish Commander is starting an invasion of Poland that is called a religious war of Protestants against Catholics, but it will benefit the king politically. The humorous conversation between the sergeant and recruiting officer is very cynical. The recruiting officer says he cannot trust anyone to sign up for the army: “I’m losing my confidence in mankind” (p. 23). The sergeant likewise complains that peace is uncivilized; there is no order, and people are too fat. On the other hand, he confesses that war is addicting, and then, no one wants to stop. The play starts in 1624, but that is not the start of the war, only the start of the Swedish campaign.
The remarks are ironic and satiric, since Brecht’s play shows the true nature of war and the effect on the population. People become cruel in the name of religion, or some other cause. The tone of the play is both humorous and tragic, as we watch humans defeating each other and themselves, destroying the landscape, the towns, the populations, the economy, through a war so politically complicated no one knows how to stop it until everything is gone. The message is lightened however, by Brecht’s lyric storytelling through dialogue and song. Mother Courage’s song to get the soldiers to buy from her points out “it’s to their death they’re marching for you/ And so they need good boots to wear!” (p, 25) Her witty wisdom makes her and the audience think she is in control, but even in the first scene she loses a child to war, and will lose everything, despite her savvy.
The character of Mother Courage is introduced. She runs a canteen behind the lines to make a living. The sergeant points out the contradiction at the end of the scene: she wants to make money off the war but does not want to give her children or contribute anything from her side. As she is busy making a deal, her son is stolen away. She is a tough street-wise person who tries to trick the soldiers with her fortune telling. She is horrified when it gets out of hand, and her own children draw omens of death. She believes in these omens, for she begins to grieve, and yet she does not stop her hardheaded business deals as Eilif is taken away. She takes her losses and moves on; she is a survivor.
Mother Courage makes light of her non-married status and sexual freedom. She is fiercely protective of the children, who have different qualities. Eilif is clever and ambitious but not moral. Swiss Cheese is not very bright, but his mother has taught him the only way he will make it through life is to be honest. Kattrin is dumb but very alert to what is going on. She is full of feeling and compassion.