Mother Courage and Her Children
Mother Courage and Her Children is a play written in 1939 by the German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht was a German poet, playwright, and theatre director.An influential theatre practitioner of the 20th century, Brecht made equally significant contributions to dramaturgy and theatrical production, the latter particularly through the seismic impact of the tours undertaken by the...

 (1898–1956) with significant contributions from Margarete Steffin
Margarete Steffin
Margarete Emilie Charlotte Steffin was a German actress and writer, one of Bertold Brecht's closest collaborators, as well as a prolific translator from Russian and Scandinavian languages....

. After four very important theatrical productions in Switzerland and Germany from 1941 to 1952—the last three supervised and/or directed by Brecht—the play was filmed several years after Brecht's death in 1959/1960 with Brecht's widow and leading actress, Helene Weigel
Helene Weigel
Helene Weigel was a distinguished German actress. She was the second wife of Bertolt Brecht, and together they had a son Stefan Brecht and daughter Barbara Brecht-Schall .The daughter of a Jewish lawyer, she became a Communist Party member from 1930 and Artistic Director of the...


Mother Courage is considered by some to be the greatest play of the 20th century, and perhaps also the greatest anti-war play of all time.


Mother Courage is one of nine plays that Brecht wrote in an attempt to counter the rise of Fascism
Fascism is a radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology. Fascists seek to rejuvenate their nation based on commitment to the national community as an organic entity, in which individuals are bound together in national identity by suprapersonal connections of ancestry, culture, and blood...

 and Nazism
Nazism, the common short form name of National Socialism was the ideology and practice of the Nazi Party and of Nazi Germany...

. Written largely in response to the invasion of Poland (1939)
Invasion of Poland (1939)
The Invasion of Poland, also known as the September Campaign or 1939 Defensive War in Poland and the Poland Campaign in Germany, was an invasion of Poland by Germany, the Soviet Union, and a small Slovak contingent that marked the start of World War II in Europe...

 by the German armies of Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

, Brecht wrote Mother Courage in what writers call a "white heat"—in a little over a month. As leading Brecht scholars Ralph Manheim
Ralph Manheim
Ralph Frederick Manheim was an American translator of German and French literature, as well as occasional works from Dutch, Polish and Hungarian...

 and John Willett
John Willett
John Willett was a British translator and a scholar who is remembered for translating the work of Bertolt Brecht into English.-Early life:Willett was educated at Winchester and Christ Church, Oxford...

Mother Courage, with its theme of the devastating effects of a European war and the blindness of anyone hoping to profit by it, is said to have been written in a month; judging by the almost complete absence of drafts or any other evidence of preliminary studies, it must have been an exceptionally direct piece of inspiration.

"Brecht's genius was to mix humor in the great tragedies
- not always, but as a contrast."
Therese Giehse, 1968.
Following Brecht's own principles for political drama
Political drama
A political drama can describe a play, film or TV program that has a political component, whether reflecting the author's political opinion, or describing a politician or series of political events. Dramatists who have written political dramas include Aaron Sorkin, Robert Penn Warren, Sergei...

, the play is not set in modern times but during the Thirty Years' War
Thirty Years' War
The Thirty Years' War was fought primarily in what is now Germany, and at various points involved most countries in Europe. It was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history....

 of 1618–1648. It follows the fortunes of Anna Fierling, nicknamed "Mother Courage
Mother Courage
Mother Courage is a character from a Grimmelshausen novel Lebensbeschreibung der Ertzbetrügerin und Landstörtzerin Courasche dating from around 1670...

", a wily canteen woman with the Swedish Army
Swedish Army
The Swedish Army is one of the oldest standing armies in the world and a branch of the Swedish Armed Forces; it is in charge of land operations. General Sverker Göranson is the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Army.- Organization :...

 who is determined to make her living from the war. Over the course of the play, she loses all three of her children, Swiss Cheese, Eilif, and Kattrin, to the same war from which she sought to profit.


The name of the central character, Mother Courage, is drawn from the picaresque
Picaresque novel
The picaresque novel is a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts, in realistic and often humorous detail, the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society...

 writings of the 17th-century German writer, Grimmelshausen
Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen
Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen was a German author.-Biography:Grimmelshausen was born at Gelnhausen. At the age of ten he was kidnapped by Hessian soldiery, and in their midst tasted the adventures of military life in the Thirty Years' War...

, whose central character in the early short novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

, The Runagate Courage, also struggles and connives her way through the Thirty Years' War in Germany and Poland, but otherwise the story is mostly Brecht's, in collaboration with Steffin.

The action of the play takes place over the course of 12 years (1624 to 1636), represented in 12 scenes. Some give a sense of Courage's career without being given enough time to develop sentimental
Sentimentality originally indicated the reliance on feelings as a guide to truth, but current usage defines it as an appeal to shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason....

 feelings and empathize
Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion. The English word was coined in 1909 by E.B...

 with any of the characters. Meanwhile, Mother Courage is not depicted as a noble character – here the Brechtian epic theatre sets itself apart from the ancient Greek tragedies in which the heroes are far above the average. With the same alienating effect, the ending of Brecht's play does not arouse our desire to imitate the main character, Mother Courage.

Mother Courage is among Brecht's most famous plays, and has been considered by some to be the greatest play of the 20th century. His work attempts to show the dreadfulness of war and the idea that virtues are not rewarded in corrupt times. He used an epic structure so that the audience focuses on the issues being displayed rather than getting involved with the characters and emotions. Epic plays are of a very distinct genre and are typical of Brecht; a strong case could be made that he invented the form.

Mother Courage as Epic Theatre

Mother Courage is an example of Brecht's concepts of Epic Theatre
Epic theatre
Epic theatre was a theatrical movement arising in the early to mid-20th century from the theories and practice of a number of theatre practitioners, including Erwin Piscator, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold and, most famously, Bertolt Brecht...

 and Verfremdungseffekt or "estrangement effect". Verfremdungseffekt is achieved through the use of placards which reveal the events of each scene, juxtaposition, actors changing characters and costume on stage, the use of narration, simple props and scenery. For instance, a single tree would be used to convey a whole forest, and the stage is usually flooded with bright white light whether it's a winter's night or a summer's day. Several songs, interspersed throughout the play, are used to underscore the themes of the play, while making the audience think about what the playwright is saying.


  • Mother Courage (also known as "Canteen Anna")
  • Kattrin, (Catherine) her mute daughter
  • Eilif, her oldest son
  • Swiss Cheese, (also mentioned as Feyos) her youngest son
  • Recruiting Officer
  • Sergeant
  • Cook
  • Swedish Commander
  • Chaplain
  • Ordinance Officer
  • Yvette Pottier
  • Man with the Bandage
  • Another Sergeant
  • Old Colonel
  • Clerk
  • Young Soldier
  • Older Soldier
  • Peasant
  • Peasant Woman
  • Young Man
  • Old Woman
  • Another Peasant
  • Another Peasant Woman
  • Young Peasant
  • Lieutenant
  • Voice


The play is set in the 17th century in Europe during the Thirty Years' War. The Recruiting Officer and Sergeant are introduced, both complaining about the difficulty of recruiting soldiers to the war. A canteen woman named Mother Courage enters pulling a cart that she uses to trade with soldiers and make profits from the war. She has three children, Eilif, Kattrin, and Swiss Cheese. The sergeant negotiates a deal with Mother Courage while Eilif is led off by the recruiting officer. One of her children is now gone.

Two years from then, Mother Courage argues with a Protestant General's cook over a capon
A capon is a rooster that has been castrated to improve the quality of its flesh for food.-History:The Romans are credited with inventing the capon. The Lex Faunia of 162 BC forbade fattening hens in order to conserve grain rations. In order to get around this the Romans castrated roosters, which...

, or chicken. At the same time, Eilif is congratulated by the General for killing peasants and slaughtering their cattle. Eilif and his mother sing "The Song of the Girl and the Soldier". Mother Courage scolds her son for taking risks that could have got him killed and slaps him across the face.

Three years later, Swiss Cheese works as an army paymaster. The camp prostitute, Yvette Pottier, sings "The Fraternization Song". Mother Courage uses this song to warn Kattrin about involving herself with soldiers. Before the Catholic troops arrive, the Cook and Chaplain bring a message from Eilif. Swiss Cheese hides the regiment's paybox. Mother Courage & co. hurriedly switch their insignia from Protestant to Catholic. Swiss Cheese is captured by the Catholics while attempting to return the paybox to his General. Mother Courage deals her cart to get money to try and barter with the soldiers to free her son. Swiss Cheese is shot anyway. To acknowledge the body could be fatal, so Mother Courage does not acknowledge it and it is thrown into a pit.

Later, Mother Courage waits outside of the General's tent in order to register a complaint and sings the "Song of Great Capitulation" to a young soldier waiting for the General as well. The soldier is angry that he has not been paid and also wishes to complain. The song persuades the soldier that complaining would be unwise, and Mother Courage (reaching the same conclusion) decides she also does not want to complain.

When Catholic General Tilly's funeral approaches, Mother Courage discusses with the Chaplain about whether the war will continue. The Chaplain then suggests to Mother Courage that she marry him, but she rejects his proposal. Mother Courage curses the war because she finds Kattrin disfigured after collecting more merchandise.

At some point about here Mother Courage is again following the Protestant army.

Two peasants wake Mother Courage up and try to sell merchandise to her while they find out that peace has broken out. The Cook appears and creates an argument between Mother Courage and the Chaplain. Mother Courage departs for the town while Eilif enters, dragged in by soldiers. Eilif is executed for killing peasants but his mother never finds out. When the war begins again, the Cook and Mother Courage start their own business.

The seventeenth year of the war marks a point where there is no food and no supplies. The Cook inherits an inn in Utrecht and suggests to Mother Courage that she operate it with him, but he refuses to harbour Kattrin. It is a very small inn. Mother Courage will not leave her daughter and they part ways with the Cook. Mother Courage and Kattrin pull the wagon by themselves.

The Catholic army attacks the small Protestant town of Halle while Mother Courage is away from town, trading. Kattrin is woken up by a search party that is taking peasants as guides. Kattrin fetches a drum from the cart, climbs onto the roof, and beats it in an attempt to awake the townspeople. Though the soldiers shoot Kattrin, she succeeds in waking up the town.

Early in the morning, Mother Courage sings to her daughter's corpse, has the peasants bury her and hitches herself to the cart. The cart rolls lighter now because there are no more children and very little merchandise left.


The play was originally produced at the Schauspielhaus Zürich
Schauspielhaus Zürich
The Schauspielhaus Zürich is one of the most prominent and important theatres in the German-speaking world. It is also known as "Pfauenbühne" after its location on the Pfauen Square in Zürich, Switzerland. The large theatre has 750 seats...

, produced by Leopold Lindtberg in 1941. Music was written by Paul Dessau
Paul Dessau
Paul Dessau was a German composer and conductor.- Biography :Dessau was born in Hamburg into a musical family...

. The musicians were placed in view of the audience so that they could be seen, one of Brecht's many techniques in Epic Theatre. Therese Giehse
Therese Giehse
Therese Giehse , born Therese Gift, was a distinguished German actress. Born in Munich to German-Jewish parents, she first appeared on the stage in 1920. She became a major star on stage, in films, and in political cabaret...

, (a well-known actress at the time) took the title role.

The second production of Mother Courage took place in then East Berlin
East Berlin
East Berlin was the name given to the eastern part of Berlin between 1949 and 1990. It consisted of the Soviet sector of Berlin that was established in 1945. The American, British and French sectors became West Berlin, a part strongly associated with West Germany but a free city...

 in 1949, with Brecht's (second) wife Helene Weigel
Helene Weigel
Helene Weigel was a distinguished German actress. She was the second wife of Bertolt Brecht, and together they had a son Stefan Brecht and daughter Barbara Brecht-Schall .The daughter of a Jewish lawyer, she became a Communist Party member from 1930 and Artistic Director of the...

, his main actress and later also director, as Mother Courage. This production would highly influence the formation of Brecht's company, the Berliner Ensemble
Berliner Ensemble
The Berliner Ensemble is a German theatre company established by playwright Bertolt Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel in January 1949 in East Berlin...

, which would provide him a venue to direct many of his plays. Brecht died directing Galileo for the Ensemble. Brecht revised the play for this production in reaction to the reviews of the Zürich production, which empathized with the "heart-rending vitality of all maternal creatures." Even so, he wrote that the Berlin audience failed to see Mother Courage's crimes and participation in the war and focused on her suffering instead.

The next production (and second production in Germany), was directed by Brecht at the Munich Kammerspiele
Munich Kammerspiele
The Munich Kammerspiele is a successful German language theatre in Munich. The Schauspielhaus in the Maximilianstrasse is the major stage.-History:...

 in 1950, with the original Mother Courage, Therese Giehse, with a set designed by Theo Otto (see photo, above.)

In Spanish, it was premiered in 1954 in Buenos Aires with Alejandra Boero and in 1958 in Montevideo with China Zorrilla
China Zorrilla
China Zorrilla is an award-winning Uruguayan theater, film and television actress....


In 1955, Joan Littlewood
Joan Littlewood
Joan Maud Littlewood was a British theatre director, noted for her work in developing the left-wing Theatre Workshop...

's Theatre Workshop
Theatre Workshop
Theatre Workshop is a theatre group noted for their director, Joan Littlewood. Many actors of the 1950s and 1960s received their training and first exposure with the company...

 gave the play its London première, with Littlewood performing the title role. In 1995/6, Diana Rigg
Diana Rigg
Dame Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg, DBE is an English actress. She is probably best known for her portrayals of Emma Peel in The Avengers and Countess Teresa di Vicenzo in the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service....

 was awarded an Evening Standard
Evening Standard
The Evening Standard, now styled the London Evening Standard, is a free local daily newspaper, published Monday–Friday in tabloid format in London. It is the dominant regional evening paper for London and the surrounding area, with coverage of national and international news and City of London...

 Theatre Award for her performance as Mother Courage, directed by Jonathan Kent
Jonathan Kent (director)
Jonathan Kent is an English theatre director and opera director. He is best known as a director/producer partner of Ian McDiarmid at the Almeida Theatre from 1990 to 2002.-Early life:...

, at the Royal National Theatre
Royal National Theatre
The Royal National Theatre in London is one of the United Kingdom's two most prominent publicly funded theatre companies, alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company...


From August to September 2006, Mother Courage and Her Children was produced by The Public Theatre in New York City with a new translation by playwright Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner
Anthony Robert "Tony" Kushner is an American playwright and screenwriter. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 for his play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, and co-authored with Eric Roth the screenplay for the 2005 film, Munich.-Life and career:Kushner was born...

. This production included new music by composer Jeanine Tesori
Jeanine Tesori
Jeanine Tesori is an American musical arranger and composer who won the 1999 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music in a Play for Nicholas Hytner's production of Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center and the 2004 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music for Caroline, or Change.Tesori made her Broadway...

 and was directed by George C. Wolfe
George C. Wolfe
George Costello Wolfe is an American playwright and director of theater and film. He won a Tony Award in 1993 for directing Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and another Tony Award in 1996 for his direction of the musical, Bring in 'da Noise/Bring in 'da Funk.-Early life and...

. Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep
Mary Louise "Meryl" Streep is an American actress who has worked in theatre, television and film.Streep made her professional stage debut in 1971's The Playboy of Seville, before her screen debut in the television movie The Deadliest Season in 1977. In that same year, she made her film debut with...

 played Mother Courage with a supporting cast that included Kevin Kline
Kevin Kline
Kevin Delaney Kline is an American theatre, voice, film actor and comedian. He has won an Academy Award and two Tony Awards, and has been nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, two BAFTA Awards and an Emmy Award.- Early life :...

 and Austin Pendleton
Austin Pendleton
Austin Pendleton is an American film, television, and stage actor, a playwright, and a theatre director and instructor.-Life and career:...

. This production was free to the public and played to full houses at the Public Theatre's Delacorte Theater
Delacorte Theater
The Delacorte Theater, established in 1962, is an open-air theater located in Manhattan's Central Park and has a seating capacity of 1,800. The Delacorte is owned by the City of New York and operated by The Public Theater. It is an open-air amphitheater, with the Turtle Pond and Belvedere Castle...

 in Central Park. It ran for four weeks.

This same Tony Kushner translation was performed in a new production at London's Royal National Theatre
Royal National Theatre
The Royal National Theatre in London is one of the United Kingdom's two most prominent publicly funded theatre companies, alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company...

 between September and December 2009, with Fiona Shaw
Fiona Shaw
Fiona Shaw, CBE is an Irish actress and theatre director. Although to international audiences she is probably most familiar for her minor role as Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter films, she is an accomplished classical actress...

 in the title role, directed by Deborah Warner
Deborah Warner
Deborah Warner CBE is a British director of theatre and opera known for her interpretations of the works of Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, Georg Büchner, and Henrik Ibsen, and for her long-term working relationship with the Irish actress Fiona Shaw.-Early years:Warner was born in Oxfordshire,...

 and with new songs performed live by Duke Special
Duke Special
Duke Special, real name Peter Wilson, is a songwriter and performer based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A piano-based songwriter with a romantic style and a warm, distinctly accented voice, he has a distinctive look, with his long dreadlocks, eyeliner and outfits he describes as "hobo chic"...


IN 1971 Joachim Tenschert directed a staging of Bertolt Brecht's original Berliner Ensemble production for the Melbourne Theatre Company. Hugh Colman supervised the original costume designs. The rigidity of Tenschert's direction caused some tenion in the rehearsal room; however, it was a first-rate production by the time it opened at the Princess Theatre. Gloria Dawn played Mother Courage; Wendy Hughes, John Wood and Tony Llellwyn-Jones her children; Frank Thring the Chaplain; Frederick Parslow the cook; Jennifer Hagan played Yvette. Roland Rocchiccioli was the stage manager and musical director for the Paul Dessau score.

Popular culture

In the Tony Award
Tony Award
The Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre, more commonly known as a Tony Award, recognizes achievement in live Broadway theatre. The awards are presented by the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League at an annual ceremony in New York City. The awards are given for Broadway...

-winning musical Urinetown
Urinetown: The Musical is a satirical comedy musical, with music by Mark Hollmann, lyrics by Hollmann and Greg Kotis, and book by Kotis. It satirizes the legal system, capitalism, social irresponsibility, populism, bureaucracy, corporate mismanagement, and municipal politics...

, the character of Penelope Pennywise is roughly based on Mother Courage.

The rock band My Chemical Romance
My Chemical Romance
My Chemical Romance is an American alternative rock band from New Jersey, formed in 2001. The band consists of lead vocalist Gerard Way, guitarists Ray Toro and Frank Iero, and bassist Mikey Way and have a diverse sound incorporating elements of punk, emo, glam metal, and progressive rock...

 created the character Mother War for their third album The Black Parade
The Black Parade
The Black Parade is the third studio album by American rock band My Chemical Romance. Released on October 23, 2006 through Reprise Records, it was produced by Rob Cavallo, who has also produced albums for Green Day. The album is the first on which Bob Bryar plays drums. It is a rock opera centering...

. Mother War's song, "Mama", is influenced by themes from Mother Courage and Her Children, including the effect of war on personal morals.

Mother Courage also has similarities to the popular musical, Fiddler on the Roof
Fiddler on the Roof
Fiddler on the Roof is a musical with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein, set in Tsarist Russia in 1905. It is based on Tevye and his Daughters by Sholem Aleichem...

. As Matthew Gurewitsch wrote in The New York Sun, "Deep down, Mother Courage has a lot in common with Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof. Like him, she's a mother hen helpless to protect the brood."

Mother Courage was the inspiration for Lynn Nottage
Lynn Nottage
Lynn Nottage is an American playwright whose work often deals with the lives of women of African descent, African Americans and women. She was born in Brooklyn and is a graduate of Brown University and the Yale School of Drama. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005, and a MacArthur Genius...

's Pulitzer winning play Ruined
Ruined (play)
Ruined is a play by Lynn Nottage. The play won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.The play involves the plight of women in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.-Production history:...

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