Mother Courage and Her Children
Over the course of the season, our assistant directors and student dramaturgs will be compiling dramaturgical resources relating to each production as it develops. Below are some links to websites which relate to the history of the play, the biography of the playwright, and sites that contextualize and, we hope, shed light on the directorial approach to the dramatic material.
We hope you find these resources of interest.
Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1956)
Bertolt Brecht was a German playwright, poet, director, and dramatic theorist regarded as one of the most influential theatrical artists of the 20th century. Some of his more well-known works include The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Life of Galileo, and The Threepenny Opera.
Born in Ausberg, Brecht spent the first part of his life in Bavaria until he moved to Berlin, where he lived during the Weimar Republic. Being a Marxist, he left Germany in 1933 to avoid being one of the leftist intellectuals persecuted under Hitler’s regime. During this time he wrote and developed his theatre theories in Scandinavia, the United States, and Switzerland.
His communist opinions got him blacklisted while working in Hollywood. In 1949, Brecht returned to Berlin and formed the Berliner Ensemble, a theatre company where he directed many of his own plays. He died in East Berlin in 1956.
While many of Brecht’s plays are regarded as classics, he is as well-known for his dramatic theories, including his belief that theatre should be an agent of social change. He argued that theatre could only lead to change if audiences were actively critical of what was happening onstage. In order for audiences to remain detached, anything that could get audiences lost in a story (such as suspense, emotional manipulation, and the illusion that whatever is onstage is real life) needed to be eliminated.
Brecht formulated the Verfremdungseffekt, or the alienation effect, which would remind people that the theatre is indeed a theatre and keep them thinking about how events are unfolding onstage, not just what those events are. He felt this was the way to keep the audience intellectually engaged, and ideally move them to action.
Some alienation techniques include setting his plays in distant locations and times, breaking the fourth wall, and beginning a scene by announcing what will happen at the end of the scene. One of Brecht’s more popular alienation techniques is the inclusion of music. As opposed to the American musical theater tradition, where the song advances the plot, songs in Brecht plays generally halt the action and act as a commentary.
Brecht collaborated with composer Kurt Weill on several shows, including The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of Mahagony. One of their most famous songs, used in both The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage, is Solomon Song, performed here by the legendary Lotte Lenya.
Click here for a bibliography of Brecht’s works in translated English.
About the Play
Mother Courage and Her Children (in its original German, called Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder) was written while Brecht was in exile in Scandinavia, having had his German citizenship withdrawn. His play about the effect war has on individual morality was a response to World War II and Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland.
True to his goal to distance the audience from the action, the play is set in Sweden, Poland, and Germany during the Thirty Years War. Each scene begins with a description of what will happen (including “spoilers”, like the deaths of major characters). Although he wanted to avoid emotional manipulation (a tool he saw misused by the Nazis), many audiences have been moved by Mother Courage's daughter, Kattrin’s death and have sympathized with Mother Courage.
The play may have been written with considerable assistance from Margarete Steffin, one of Brecht’s lovers and an often uncredited collaborator.
The show was first produced in Zurich in 1941. In 1949, Brecht returned to Berlin to stage Mother Courage and Her Children with his wife, Helene Weigel in the title role at the Deutsches Theater. The role became inextricably linked to Weigel's performance. A few years after Brecht’s death, Helene Weigel starred in a movie adaptation of the play.
Mother Courage and Her Children is considered one of the greatest plays in 20th century with Mother Courage being regarded as one of the greatest, most challenging women’s roles of all time (sometimes seen as the female King Lear). Actresses who have played her include Meryl Streep and Dame Judi Dench.
The play recently gained attention when Tonya Pinkins dropped out of a New York City production set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, criticizing the way the largely white creative team dismissed the Black Perspective. Read her statement for a fascinating look at the way Mother Courage enters a dialogue with the Black Lives Matter movement and diversity in theatre.
About this Production
Brecht is not new to Todd Theatre—in 1997, Mother Courage director, Nigel Maister, directed Brecht’s first play, Baal. In addition, the program has also produced Man is Man (directed by Itamar Kubovy). However, this is the first time the International Theatre Program has commissioned a new musical (or at least, a play with substantial new music).
The UR International Theatre Program's production will have a new score and settings of the play's songs, composed by Matt Marks, a prolific composer of works varying from the operatic to electronic. Marks is an alumnus of the Eastman School of Music. He cites an interest in polystylism, and the Mother Courage score features music written specifically for the cast’s voices in styles including musical theater, rock, folk, country, pop, and beyond.