Analysis of Bertolt Brecht’s Plays

Bertolt Brecht’s (10 February 1898 – 14 August 1956) early dramas are anarchic, nihilistic, and antibourgeois. In them, he glorifies antisocial outsiders such as adventurers, pirates, and prostitutes; the tone of these works is often cynical. In the years after his conversion to Marxism, Brecht wrote didactic plays, similar in many respects to late medieval morality plays, whose style is austere and functional. These plays were intended to be performed in schools and factories by nonprofessional actors. In his later plays, Brecht combined the vitality of his early period with his Marxist beliefs to create plays that are dramatically effective, socially committed, and peopled with realistic characters. To the end of his life, Brecht thought of the theater as both a place of entertainment and of learning. By making people aware of social abuses, he believed, literature can help make the world a better place; it can help bring the Marxist goal of a classless Utopia closer to realization.


Epic Theater

Brecht is well known for his theories on epic theater. Although this concept did not originate with Brecht, he developed it into a revolutionary form of drama. (Toward the end of his life, Brecht wanted to change the name of his theater from “epic” to “dialectical,” to stress the central role of argument in his plays.) Brecht summarizes his theories of epic theater in his notes to Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny; he later recapitulated and revised his theories in Kleines Organon für das Theater (1948; A Little Organum for the Theater, 1951) and in other theoretical writings.

In his notes to Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Brecht lists the differences he perceives between his epic theater and the Aristotelian (or dramatic) theater. Unlike dramatic theater, in which the tightly constructed plot creates suspense, epic theater uses loosely connected scenes that are set off against one another. The loose narrative structure helps to break the suspense and makes the audience focus on the course of the play, not on how the play will be resolved at the end. Brecht is extremely critical of dramatic theater: According to him, it is static; it shows universally human, that is, fixed and unchangeable, traits. Epic theater depicts the world as it changes and shows how it can be changed. It shows that human behavior can be altered. Therefore, epic theater should make people aware of social abuses and provoke them to change social evils.

Instead of activating its spectators, dramatic theater, in Brecht’s view, numbs the audience by making it identify with the characters and become involved in the action. When spectators attend such plays, he remarks caustically, they hang up their brains with their coats. Brecht satirically describes the typical audience at a dramatic play, sunk into a peculiarly drugged state, wholly passive. Brecht comments that the worst gangster film shows more respect for its audience as thinking beings than does the conventional dramatic play. If people are to learn from the theater, they should be alert, rational, and socially concerned. Instead of identifying with the characters, they should remain critically aloof—certainly a necessary attitude if they are to come to grips with the ideas that Brecht presents. In his notes to The Threepenny Opera, Brecht expresses his wish to create a theater full of experts like those in sporting arenas. To prevent empathy, he says, theaters should allow people to smoke: He suggests that people who are puffing on cigars (Brecht himself was an inveterate cigar smoker) would be less easily carried away by events onstage.

Nevertheless, while epic theater stresses reason, it does not dispense with all emotions. In a discussion with playwright FriedrichWolf in 1949, Brecht noted that his theater actually tries to reinforce certain emotions such as a sense of justice, the urge for freedom, and righteous anger. Although Brecht believed that the theater should teach, he stressed that it should be entertaining as well. This emphasis is apparent in his early theoretical writings such as in “Mehr guten Sport” (1926; “Emphasis on Sport”), but it becomes even more pronounced in later writings such as A Little Organum for the Theater, in which he notes that if the theater were turned into a purveyor of morality, it would run the risk of being debased. The function of epic theater is not to moralize but to observe and to entertain the “children of the scientific age.”

Brecht uses many so-called alienation devices to prevent the audience from becoming involved in the action. Verfremdung (alienation) is a term that Brecht probably borrowed from Viktor Shklovsky, the leader of the Russian formalists. Alienation makes familiar things strange. In A Little Organum for the Theater, Brecht describes why alienation is important: Alienation effects are designed to free socially conditioned phenomena from the stamp of familiarity that protects them from being grasped. Brecht argues that when conditions have not been changed for a long time, they begin to seem impossible to change. One must therefore present the status quo in a new light in order to provoke understanding and change.

Brecht admired the Chinese theater, with its stylized acting, masks, and antiillusionist staging; his theater is similarly anti-illusionist. Narrators, film projections, and titles comment on the action and break the suspense by indicating what is going to occur in each scene. Brecht stresses that the titles must include the social point of a particular scene. The songs that Brecht includes in his plays are not an integral part of the action, as in an opera; rather, they comment on the action. When a character is about to sing, he steps forward to the front of the stage and the lighting changes. The songs thus interrupt the course of the action and change the mood of the play. The music itself serves as an alienation device, featuring jazz rhythms and ballad forms that are not congruent with the stage action. In epic theater, the sources of lighting and scene changes are visible to the audience, and scenes are often played simultaneously to heighten the audience’s awareness that it is watching a play.

The use of historical material also plays an important part in Brecht’s epic theater. Brecht believed that the distancing effect of history (or geography) can make the audience more aware of the modern world: It can show that there are no universal values, that life is impermanent, that the world can be changed. Brecht notes that historical events are unique and transitory. The conduct of people in them is not fixed and universal; rather, it includes elements that have been or may be overtaken by the course of history, and it is subject to criticism from the viewpoint of the period immediately following. As a Marxist, Brecht believed in the ultimate goal of a classless Utopia, however far in the future it may be, and this belief made him optimistic about humankind’s potential and about the possibility of changing society.

Brecht also focused attention on the most effective way of acting in epic theater. He rejected Konstantin Stanislavsky’s method of having the actor identify with the character that he is portraying. Brecht likens the actor to a witness at an accident: The witness explains to passersby what has happened; he does not try to cast a spell but demonstrates; he alternates imitation and commentary and acts so that the bystanders can form an opinion about the accident. The actor should be a teacher; he should make the audience understand. Brecht writes that for a scene to qualify as epic, it must have socially practical significance. Through gestic acting, social attitudes can be conveyed.

Brecht’s theater is realistic, although not in conventional terms. Realism, Brecht writes, lays bare society’s causal network. The realistic writer shows that the dominant viewpoint is the viewpoint of the dominators; he writes from the standpoint of the class that has prepared the broadest solutions for the most pressing problems afflicting human society—that is, from the standpoint of the proletariat. Realism, as Brecht understands it, is a Marxist critique of society. His anti-illusionist theater depicts the social problems of his age. Brecht argues that literature should give the working masses a truthful representation of life.

Indeed, the notion that art should appeal to wide audiences, rather than solely to an intellectual elite, is central to Brecht’s theater. For Brecht, to be popular means to be intelligible to the masses, which can be accomplished by taking over their forms of expression and enriching them. For this reason, Brecht uses folk sayings, parables, street ballads, and other folk forms in his plays. Brecht’s plays also abound in biblical allusions— Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible, he confesses, was the single most important influence on his work; he admired Luther’s vigorous prose.

Many of Brecht’s plays were either stimulated by existing plays or parody them. Through his parodies of classical works, Brecht hoped to make his audience question middle-class values. Brecht did not believe that classical works were sacrosanct; he wanted to reshape classical works to make them relevant to present-day society, taking over verbatim what he thought was useful and then rewriting the remainder of the play. An example of such an adaptation is Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (pr. c. 1607-1608), which Brecht changed from a personal tragedy to a history play that reflected the viewpoint of the common individual—a change of focus that he accomplished mostly by giving the plebeians a larger role.

Brecht’s dramatic theories were not intended to be dogmatic. They evolved out of his practical work in the theater, and he constantly tested them, discarding them if they were not workable. This method was typical of Brecht’s writing: He was always prepared to change, to adapt, to incorporate suggestions from others—even from stagehands— into his plays. The actual staging of his plays always made Brecht aware of changes that were needed to make his works dramatically effective.


Life of Galileo

Brecht’s use of historical materials to illuminate contemporary problems is exemplified in one of his finest plays, Life of Galileo. When Brecht first became interested in Galileo, he was concerned about the fate of friends and comrades who remained in Nazi Germany and who nevertheless managed somehow to continue working. Brecht wrote three versions of the play: The first was written in 1938-1939; the second, which was an English version for the actor Charles Laughton, was written in 1945-1947; and the third was written in 1955-1956. The major difference is between the first and second versions, during which time Brecht’s attitude toward Galileo changed. As in his other plays, Brecht uses many alienation devices to ensure that the audience does not identify with Galileo. He uses titles at the beginning of each scene to comment on the action. The plot is not tightly constructed. Instead, Brecht shows typical scenes in Galileo’s life, beginning when Galileo is middle-aged and ending when he is an old man. Brecht’s treatment of this celebrated historical figure (he sees Galileo as a pioneer of the scientific age) is intended to make his spectators see the modern world, their own world, from a critical perspective.

Like many of Brecht’s characters, Galileo is a contradictory figure: He is a great scientist with a passion for the truth as well as a man with human frailties. Galileo cherishes the consolations of the flesh. He loves eating, drinking, and living a comfortable life, and he defends these habits by saying that he cannot help it if he gets his best ideas over a good meal and a bottle of wine. The pope later says that Galileo cannot refuse an old wine or a new thought. In A Little Organum for the Theater, Brecht remarks that Galileo thinks out of self-indulgence.

Galileo’s love of good living contributes to his subsequent problems. At the beginning of the play, he is living in Venice, which pays its scientists badly but leaves them free to conduct research. To earn money, Galileo must take rich private pupils, most of whom are not intelligent. Ludovico, for example, only wants to learn about science because his mother thinks that such knowledge is necessary for conversation. Teaching such students takes away valuable time from Galileo’s research. Because Galileo’s request for money for his work has been refused (the Venice republic values only practical inventions), he tries to fool the government.

Ludovico tells Galileo about a new invention, a telescope, that he has seen in Holland, and Galileo then pretends that the device is his own invention. Members of the government of Venice are immediately interested in the telescope because of its military implications. Galileo soon forgets about the financial rewards for his “invention” because he suddenly grasps the value it will have for his own research in astronomy. Galileo decides to move to Florence, where scientists are better paid, but where, because of the Inquisition, he will not have the freedom to publish his findings.

Galileo is excited about the dawn of a new age that, he believes, his research will make possible. For centuries, people had believed that the Sun revolved around the earth; now Galileo can tell them the truth. His new cosmology will, however, have farreaching social effects: It will destroy the old hierarchy of power. The old cosmology, as interpreted by the Church (which, in the play, represents authority in general), taught that people had to be satisfied with their destined places in society. The stars can no longer be used to justify some people exploiting others. Galileo predicts that astronomy will become the gossip of the marketplaces, and the sons of fishwives will pack the schools. To make his findings accessible to the common people, Galileo writes in the vernacular, not in the Latin of the elite. Because the Church recognized the revolutionary nature of Galileo’s work, it banned his research.

In the first version of the play, Galileo is seen more positively than in the later versions. After he has recanted, he still manages to continue working. He outsmarts his inquisitors by pretending to be blind and works secretly on his major work, the Discorsi, which his disciple Andrea later smuggles out of the country under his coat: For Brecht, cunning is necessary for disseminating the truth in repressive societies. Through his cunning, Galileo has defended the truth and caused light to dawn in an era of superstition.

As Brecht was working on the second version of the play, the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and this event radically changed Brecht’s attitude toward Galileo. He no longer viewed Galileo’s recantation as a cunning plan to defend the truth but as a betrayal, as a shameful capitulation to reactionary forces. In his notes to the second version, Brecht describes Galileo as practicing his science secretly, like a vice, without any obligation to society. Instead of ushering in a new age, science has become allied with the forces of oppression. According to Brecht, Galileo’s crime was the original sin of modern science. Out of a new astronomy that had revolutionary implications, he made a sharply limited special science, a pure science, and he was not concerned about the practical applications of his findings.

The atom bomb, Brecht notes, as a technical and social phenomenon, is the result of Galileo’s social failings and his scientific accomplishment. In the second version of the play, when Andrea praises Galileo for deceiving those who perpetrated the Inquisition, Galileo denounces himself. He insists that he recanted only because he was afraid of physical pain (he was threatened with torture). Now, he says, he sees that he has betrayed his profession. He argues that in his day astronomy emerged into the marketplaces. If someone had stood and fought then, that stand could have had wide repercussions. Instead, Galileo surrendered his knowledge to the authorities—to use, or rather misuse, as they saw fit.

The revolutionary impact of Galileo’s teachings is particularly evident in the carnival scene. In this scene, the ballad singer relates how Galileo’s work will destroy the social hierarchy and free people. The last scene of the play, however, contrasts with the hope and excitement of the carnival scene and shows the consequences of Galileo’s cowardice. Andrea is smuggling the Discorsi across the border. Some children are pointing to a house where they see a grotesque shadow that looks like a witch stirring something in a cauldron. They sing “Old Marina is a witch.” Andrea lifts up a boy so that he can look through the window and see that the “witch” is only an old woman cooking porridge. He tries to teach him, as Galileo had taught Andrea, to rely on observation, not superstition. Nevertheless, superstition proves to be stronger; the boy cries out that Marina is a witch, even after he has seen her with his own eyes. This scene shows that the dark ages of superstition, which Galileo’s science could have changed, will be difficult to overthrow. Galileo’s recantation has delayed the dawn of a new age.

Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children also took its inspiration from contemporary events, seen from the perspective of history. Brecht finished this play in 1939 just before the outbreak of World War II. The play was loosely based on the seventeenth century novelist Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s depiction of the Thirty Years’ War, Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus (1669; The Adventurous Simplicissimus, 1912). One of Grimmelshausen’s characters is also called Courage, and Brecht takes from him Courage’s name, her numerous husbands and lovers, and her business dealings. The play criticizes both war and business. Brecht meant to show that war is a continuation of business by other means and that it makes human virtues deadly; therefore, no sacrifice is too great to fight against war.

As her name indicates, the protagonist, Anna Fierling, is both mother and businesswoman. She is named Courage not because of an act of real courage but because she drove through the bombardment at Riga. She had to do this because she had fifty loaves of bread that she needed to sell quickly because they were becoming moldy. Mother Courage tries unsuccessfully to protect her three children, Eilif, Swiss Cheese, and Kattrin (each of whom has a different father), from the war, but her motherly instincts often conflict with her business instincts—her wagon, which is both a home and refuge for herself and her children, as well as her place of business, shows how inextricably her roles of businesswoman and mother are intertwined. Yet she does not always consider profit first. Toward the end of the play, when her fortunes are at a low point, she refuses the cook’s offer to escape from the war to a small inn that he has inherited because he will not let her take her daughter Kattrin with her. In this case, Mother Courage acts against her own best interests.

One by one, Mother Courage loses her children. In the first scene, her oldest son, Eilif, is taken away by the recruiting officer, who tempts him with tales of the glory of war while Mother Courage’s attention is diverted by the sergeant, who says that he wants to buy a buckle. When Swiss Cheese is arrested by the Roman Catholic soldiers, who try to make him surrender the regimental cash box entrusted to him by the Protestants, Mother Courage bargains to free him. She is willing to pawn her wagon, hoping to find the cash box and redeem it. After she discovers that Swiss Cheese has thrown it into the river, she is faced with a dilemma: How can she and Kattrin survive without the wagon? She is actually prepared to sacrifice her wagon, but she haggles too long, and Swiss Cheese is shot. When Eilif is arrested, she is away on business and cannot help him. Kattrin is sent into town to fetch supplies for her mother and is attacked on the way back. When Kattrin is killed,Mother Courage is away at the market, taking advantage of those who are fleeing and selling their possessions cheaply. In each of these cases, she loses her children because she is involved in business activities.

Although Brecht intends the audience to be critical of Mother Courage, she is still, in many respects, a sympathetic figure, despite her negative qualities. She is cunning and tenacious and has an earthy sense of humor. Throughout the play, she debunks heroism. When Eilif is praised by his commander for his heroic deed of stealing cattle, she boxes Eilif’s ears: She tells him that he should have surrendered and not exposed himself to danger, as the peasants who owned the cattle were in the majority. Later, she argues that only poor commanders need to demand heroism of their men: Good commanders can manage without it. To survive in this world, she believes, one must be unobtrusive, not heroic. Mother Courage also sees clearly why the war is being fought. The commanders speak as though they are fighting for religion, but Mother Courage remarks that they are not so stupid; they are actually fighting only for profit.

Mother Courage and Her Children Guide

Mother Courage’s wagon symbolizes her waning fortunes: At the beginning of the play, the wagon looks prosperous and is pulled by Eilif and Swiss Cheese; at the end, it is dilapidated and pulled by Mother Courage alone. Brecht emphasizes that Mother Courage does not learn from her experiences. Only in the scene in which Kattrin is attacked does she curse the war. Usually, however, she is worried that the war could end when she has just bought supplies, which would bring about her financial ruin. After the Zurich premiere in 1941, Brecht changed parts of the play to make Mother Courage’s disagreeable traits more emphatic, since the Zurich audience had seen her as a tragic figure who was simply trying to survive.

In a conversation with the playwright FriedrichWolf, Brecht defended his portrayal of Mother Courage. (He had been criticized for depicting her as unable to learn from her mistakes.) Brecht toldWolf that he was a realist, that he was not convinced that people would learn from the war he saw coming when he was writing the play. He hoped, however, that the audience could learn from watching Mother Courage. According to Brecht,Mother Courage is free to choose whether to take part in the war, yet the scope of the war, which seems to fill the whole world, suggests that she really has no viable alternative— she can either wait for the war to reach her, or she can try to earn her living from it. There seems to be no place where she could be safe to lead a peaceful life.

The deaths of her children show that virtue is dangerous. The heroic Eilif is executed for stealing cattle and killing, deeds for which he was praised in wartime. Ironically, he is executed when the war has broken out again and when his action would again have been considered heroic, but the soldiers who execute him are unaware that the war is on again. Swiss Cheese is executed for his honesty in trying to save the cash box. Kattrin is killed because she is humane. Even though Kattrin is dumb, according to Brecht she should not be played as though she were an idiot. She is perfectly normal; it is the world that surrounds her that is abnormal. Kattrin desperately wants children but will never be able to marry because of the disfiguring scar that remains from her having been attacked. The war also made her dumb, since a soldier shoved something in her mouth when she was a child. Because of her motherliness, she is in constant danger.

In the scene in which “the stone begins to speak,” soldiers are preparing to attack a town where people are asleep and unaware of danger. To save the children in the town, Kattrin takes a drum and climbs up onto a roof where she beats the drum loudly to alert the town to the danger. She is shot, but she saves the town. Her positive action is contrasted with the futile actions of the peasants, whose only thought is to pray to God for help.

Brecht did not choose WorldWar I for his setting—he thought that the war was still too recent for an audience to observe the events on the stage dispassionately and to learn from the play. The Thirty Years’ War was the most destructive war in German history beforeWorldWar I; in his notes to the play, Brecht writes that this was the first large-scale war that capitalism had brought to Europe. Brecht was not interested in the history of “important” people such as kings, princes, and generals (no historical character appears on the stage) but in the perspective of the common person, whom history usually ignores. Throughout the play, Brecht satirizes those who are in charge of conducting the war. The commander Tilly, who is given a hero’s funeral, actually died, Mother Courage says, because he lost his way in the mist and went to the front by mistake. Brecht also shows that victory and defeat for the commanders does not always mean victory and defeat for the common people—for example, Tilly’s victory at Magdeburg costs Mother Courage four shirts.

In addition to the historical setting, Brecht used several other alienation devices in the play. The titles before each scene break the suspense and are intended to encourage a critical attitude in the audience. As in The Life of Galileo, the scenes are loosely connected and the time span is long (twelve years). Brecht includes songs to comment on the action: The song that Mother Courage sings at the beginning and at the end of the play is an ironic commentary on this war of “religion,” while her “Song of the Great Capitulation” describes life as full of broken hopes and dreams.

The mood of the play is basically pessimistic. Even after she has lost her family, Mother Courage still believes in the war: Neither she nor anyone else has learned anything by the play’s end. Instead, the war continues, people continue to be killed, and some (though not Mother Courage) make profits.

Mother Courage and Her Children brilliantly illustrates both Brecht’s dramatic method and its achievement. Composed of 12 scenes set in numerous locations in Sweden, Poland, and Germany between 1624 and 1636, the play dramatizes the central ironic contradiction between Mother Courage’s struggles to provide for and protect her children and her business that insures their loss. Each scene is introduced by a summary of setting and situation, including outcomes that undermine dramatic suspense in favor of the audience’s critique of characters and action. As the play opens Mother Courage and her wagon—the two constants in the succession of scenes—appear on stage being drawn by her two sons, Eilif and Swiss Cheese. Kattrin, her mute, traumatized daughter, rides in the wagon with her mother. Encountering Swedish recruiting soldiers, Anna tells how she got her nickname by intrepidly driving her cart through the bombardment of Riga to sell 50 loaves of bread that were going moldy and sings the first of several songs that ironically comment on the play’s themes:

Captains, how can you make them face it—
Marching to death without a brew?
Courage has rum with which to lace it
And boil their souls and bodies through.
Their musket primed, their stomach hollow—
Captains, you men don’t look so well.
So feed them up and let them follow
While you command them into hell.
The new year’s come. The watchmen shout.
The thaw sets in. The dead remain.
Whatever life has not died out
It staggers to its feet again.

Mother Courage’s clear-eyed awareness of the horrors and stupidity of war, sounded in the song, is also evident as she distracts efforts to recruit Eilif by fortune-telling in which the recruiting officers and all her children draw the black cross of death. However, while she is busy haggling with the sergeant over the sale of a belt, Eilif is led away to join the army. The scene closes as the sergeant sings in parting to Mother Courage and her remaining two children: “Like the war to nourish you? / Have to feed it something too.”

Two years later while still following the Swedish army on their Polish campaign, the reduced family is briefly reunited as Eilif has achieved acclaim for having slaughtered peasants and stolen their oxen. Three years later Swiss Cheese has become paymaster of the Second Protestant Regiment, which is being overrun by Catholic forces. Mother Courage remains convinced of the superiority of the Protestant side, observing, “To go by what the big shots say, they’re waging war for almighty God and in the name of everything that’s good and lovely. But look closer, they ain’t so silly, they’re waging it for what they can get. Else little folk like me wouldn’t be in it at all.” The cost for the “little folk” is made clear when Mother Courage attempts to ransom her captured son. Willing to part with her wagon for 200 guilders, she reserves some of the money to live on, and the offered sum proves insufficient to save Swiss Cheese, who is executed. Mother Courage, therefore, loses a son a second time when her commercial practicality comes in conflict with her love and duty to her children. In one of the most intense moments of the play, the scene closes as Mother Courage is shown the dead body of her son but must show no recognition to save herself. “Know him?” the sergeant asks. “What, never seen him before he had that meal here? Pick him up. Chuck him in the pit. He’s got nobody knows him.”

In scene 5, two years have passed and the war has widened, taking Mother Courage and her wagon to Italy and Bavaria where she resists an appeal to convert the officer’s shirts she is planning to sell into bandages for dying peasants unable to pay. By showing Mother Courage carrying on business as usual amid the carnage of the war, Brecht seeks to offset some of the sympathy the audience may feel for her as a war victim. War and capitalism are conjoined, each an aspect of the other, with greed and exploitation warping Mother Courage into a “hyena of the battlefield.” This is made especially clear as peace momentarily breaks out in scene 8, and Mother Courage’s first response is to lament the armistice’s impact on her trade (“Peace’ll wring my neck”). In her absence the condemned Eilif is led onto stage to be executed for continuing to kill and rob peasants during peacetime, the same actions that formerly brought him commendation. The scene closes with Mother Courage announcing that the war has resumed, and she encourages it and her trade in song:

From Ulm to Metz, from Metz to Munich
Courage will see the war gets fed.
The war will show a well-filled tunic
Given its daily shot of lead.
But lead alone can hardly nourish
It must have soldiers to subsist.
It’s you it needs to make it flourish.
The war’s still hungry. So enlist!

Now down to her final child Mother Courage in scene 11 is outside the Protestant village of Halle. Unprotected when Mother Courage goes for supplies to sell, Kattrin is captured along with several peasants who fear that the Catholic forces will strike the village without warning. In what has been called by critic Eric Bentley, “possibly the most powerful scene, emotionally, in twentieth century drama,” Kattrin climbs onto a roof and sounds the alarm with a drum before she is shot. In the play’s final scene Mother Courage sings a lullaby to her dead daughter, trying to convince herself that her child is only sleeping. Eventually realizing the truth, but still unaware that Eilif has been killed, Mother Courage, paying the peasants to bury Kattrin, follows the army, hitching herself to her wagon and closing the play with a final song:

With all its luck and all its danger
The war is dragging on a bit
Another hundred years or longer
The common man won’t benefit.
Filthy his food, no soap to shave him
The regiment steals half his pay.
But still a miracle may save him:
Tomorrow is another day!
The new year’s come.
The watchmen shout.
The thaw sets in.
The dead remain.
Wherever life has not died out
It staggers to its feet again.

Strategically, with its antirealist staging, its choral songs, soliloquies, and narrative structure that proceeds by repetition, contrast, and juxtaposition of scenes and images, Mother Courage reaches a level of mythic resonance that universalizes the human condition. Brecht’s comments and revisions of the play make clear that he was concerned that audiences would overly sympathize with Mother Courage, that her losses, suffering, and indomitable spirit would obscure the play’s thesis that war profits no one, least of all the “little folk,” and that the pursuit of profit dehumanizes and destroys as inexorably as combat. Ultimately Brecht’s efforts to overrule empathy in favor of criticism, reducing the vital complexity of the despicable and admirable Mother Courage down to a political and moral assertion, failed. In a sense audiences have continued to perceive an even greater play than the one Brecht intended by responding to its ambiguous protagonist who is heroic in her endurance and suffering but condemned by her foolish pursuit of profit from the war that has cost her so much. Brecht’s stage innovations make clear both how the theater can dramatize the most profound and complex human and social questions but can never fully dispense with the power of felt experience to communicate, modify, and expand the message.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which was written in 1944-1945, was based on the story of Solomon in the Bible and on a thirteenth century Chinese drama by Li Xingdao, which was adapted as Der Kreidekreis by the playwright Klabund in 1925. As in his other plays, Brecht includes many alienation effects. The play consists of three stories: The first takes place in the twentieth century; the other two stories, those of Grusche and Azdak, take place in medieval Russian Georgia (Grusinia). Brecht also used a singer/narrator to comment on the play-within-a-play, and the actors wear masks.

The first scene takes place in Russian Georgia just after the defeat of Adolf Hitler. The owners of the land, a collective that raises goats, fled from Hitler’s soldiers, while the neighboring collective stayed and fought. The members of this neighboring collective now want the land formerly used for goat-raising; they intend to grow fruit trees there and have designed an irrigation scheme for that purpose. The old owners, however, want the land returned to them. Together, the two collectives discuss the conflict peacefully and rationally and decide that the fruit growers should have the land. Goats can be raised anywhere, but only here is the topography of the land suitable for the irrigation plans. To celebrate this decision, the members of the fruit-growers’ collective act the play of the chalk circle.

The first part of this play-within-a-play tells of the shrewd and good-hearted servant girl Grusche. In medieval Georgia, she works for the governor and his wife, who have an infant son Michel. At first, the mother seems to be overly solicitous about her child’s welfare. She is worried when he coughs or is exposed to drafts, and she is always accompanied by two doctors. When the Revolution breaks out, however, she is so busy deciding which dresses she should take on her flight that she forgets to take her son. At first, Grusche is reluctant to take the baby—it is too dangerous to do so because the soldiers are seeking to kill him. As the singer says, however, she is overcome by the terrible temptation to goodness, and she flees with the child.

Through her work and sacrifice for the child, Grusche gradually becomes more and more a mother to him. In her flight from the soldiers with him, she faces danger and hardship. She seeks refuge in her brother’s house, where she claims that the child is hers and invents a husband who is fighting in the war. When the husband does not arrive to fetch her, her brother’s wife, a “pious” person (always a term of criticism in Brecht’s works), begins to become suspicious that the child is illegitimate; she fears that Grusche will become the object of gossip and shame the family. Grusche’s brother arranges a marriage for her with a supposedly dying man, but once the “deathly ill” man hears that the war is over, he revives—he had pretended to be ill to avoid fighting. For the sake of the child, Grusche is now tied to a disagreeable husband. When Grusche’s fiancé, Simon, returns from the war, Grusche again claims that the child is hers, preferring Simon to believe that she has been unfaithful to him than have the soldiers take away the child.

The Grusche story is interrupted at this point, and the Azdak story is begun. Azdak is a sort of Lord of Misrule, one of Brecht’s cunning rogues. During a time of revolution, he has unwittingly given refuge to a beggar, who turns out to be the fleeing grand duke. Through an improbable series of events, Azdak is made a judge. During his tenure, he proves to be corrupt, licentious, and contemptuous of the law, yet often he turns the law upside down to help the poor. In one case, Azdak acquits a doctor who has operated free of charge on a poor patient: Despite the doctor’s professional incompetence (he operated on the wrong leg), his motives were good. In another case, a landlord brings an action against a stable boy for raping his daughter-in-law. Azdak takes one look at the voluptuous daughter-in-law and declares that the stable boy is innocent— he is the one who has been raped. Another case concerns a poor widow who is accused of receiving stolen goods. She claims that Saint Banditus has given her the goods. Azdak fines the rich farmers who brought the suit against her: They do not believe in miracles; they are impious. It must be a miracle, Azdak reasons, if the poor are helped. In these decisions, Azdak intentionally disregards the actual law in order to administer a rough justice that helps the poor.

The last part of the play brings together the Azdak and the Grusche stories in a trial scene in which both Grusche and the governor’s wife claim to be the mother of the child (Brecht had a predilection for trial scenes because of the central role of argument in them). The governor’s wife has assembled lawyers to fight for her child, and Grusche and Simon represent themselves. It turns out that the governor’s wife is only interested in her child because of what he will inherit.Without him, she is poor. Azdak listens to the arguments on both sides, berates Simon and Grusche for not having money to bribe him, and, finally, draws a chalk circle on the floor. He puts Michel in the middle and orders the two women to hold the child by the hand. The real mother, he tells them, will have the strength to pull the child out of the circle. Both times, Grusche lets go for fear of hurting the child, while the real mother pulls him out of the circle with all her strength. In a reversal of the Solomon story, Azdak decides that Grusche should have the child because she, and not the real mother, actually cares for the child.

In his last action as judge, Azdak decides the case of an old couple who want a divorce. By “mistake” he divorces Grusche from her husband so that she can marry Simon, justifying his action by saying that because the old people have lived together for so long, they would be better to continue living together. Unlike most of Brecht’s plays, this play-within-a-play ends happily. Grusche is reunited with Simon and keeps the child. To be a biological mother alone is not enough, according to Azdak; one must actually love and make sacrifices for a child, as Grusche has done.

In his notes to the play, Brecht mentioned that there is an American expression “sucker,” and that this is what Grusche is when she takes the child: The more she does for the child, the more her own life is endangered. The biblical allusions in the Grusche story (the birth of Christ and the flight into Egypt, for example), together with Azdak’s wise and humane judgments, indicate that a new age is dawning. Azdak’s decision to give Grusche the child because she is good for him brings the play-within-aplay back to the peacefully resolved dispute in the first scene. In a similar manner, the fruit growers are given the land because they will make it more productive. The promise of a new age has been fulfilled in the first scene—a Socialist Utopia has been reached.


Principal Drama
Baal, wr. 1918, pb. 1922, pr. 1923 (English translation, 1963); Trommeln in der Nacht, wr. 1919-1920, pr., pb. 1922 (Drums in the Night, 1961); Die Hochzeit, wr. 1919, pr. 1926, pb. 1953 as Die Keinbürgerhochzeit (The Wedding, 1970); Im Dickicht der Städte, pr. 1923, pb. 1927 (In the Jungle of Cities, 1961); Leben Eduards des Zweiten von England, pr., pb. 1924 (with Lion Feuchtwanger; based on Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II; Edward II, 1966); Mann ist Mann, pr. 1926, pb. 1927 (A Man’s a Man, 1961); Die Dreigroschenoper, pr. 1928, pb. 1929 (libretto; based on John Gay’s play The Beggar’s Opera; The Threepenny Opera, 1949); Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, pb. 1929, pr. 1930 (libretto; Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1957); Das Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis, pr. 1929, pb. 1930 (The Didactic Play of Baden: On Consent, 1960); Happy End, pr. 1929, pb. 1958 (libretto; lyrics with Elisabeth Hauptmann; English translation, 1972); Der Ozeanflug, pr., pb. 1929 (radio play; The Flight of the Lindberghs, 1930); Die Ausnahme und die Regel, wr. 1930, pb. 1937, pr. 1938 (The Exception and the Rule, 1954); Der Jasager, pr. 1930, pb. 1931 (based on the Japanese No play Taniko; He Who Said Yes, 1946); Die Massnahme, pr. 1930, pb. 1931 (libretto; The Measures Taken, 1960); Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe, pb. 1931, pr. 1932 (radio play), pr. 1959 (staged; St. Joan of the Stockyards, 1956); Der Neinsager, pb. 1931 (He Who Said No, 1946); Die Mutter, pr., pb. 1932 (based on Maxim Gorky’s novel Mat; The Mother, 1965); Die Sieben Todsünden der Kleinbürger, pr. 1933, pb. 1959 (cantata; The Seven Deadly Sins, 1961); Die Horatier und die Kuriatier, wr. 1934, pb. 1938, pr. 1958 (The Horatians and the Curatians, 1947); Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe, pr. 1935, pb. 1936 (based on William Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure; The Roundheads and the Peakheads, 1937); Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar, pr., pb. 1937 (Señora Carrar’s Rifles, 1938); Furcht und Elend des dritten Reiches, pr. in French 1938, pr. in English 1945, pb. in German 1945 (The Private Life of the Master Race, 1944); Leben des Galilei, first version wr. 1938-1939, pr. 1943; second version wr. 1945-1947, third version pb. 1955 (The Life of Galileo, 1947, also known as Galileo); Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, wr. 1938-1940, pr. 1943, pb. 1953 (The Good Woman of Setzuan, 1948); Das Verhör des Lukullus, pr. 1940 (radio play), pb. 1940, pr. 1951 (staged; libretto; The Trial of Lucullus, 1943); Herr Puntila und sein Knecht, Matti, wr. 1940, pr. 1948, pb. 1951 (Mr. Puntila and His Hired Man, Matti, 1976); Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, pr. 1941, pb. 1949 (based on Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus; Mother Courage and Her Children, 1941); Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui, wr. 1941, pb. 1957, pr. 1958 (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, 1972); Die Gesichte der Simone Machard, wr. 1941-1943, pb. 1956, pr. 1957 (with Feuchtwanger; The Visions of Simone Machard, 1961); Schweyk im zweiten Weltkrieg, wr. 1941-1943, pr. in Polish 1957, pb. 1957, pr. in German 1958 (based on Jaroslav Hašek’s novel Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka ve sv0tove války; Schweyk in the Second World War, 1975); Der kaukasische Kreidekreis, wr. 1944-1945, pr. in English 1948, pb. 1949, pr. in German 1958 (based on Li Xingdao’s play The Circle of Chalk; The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1948); Die Antigone des Sophokles, pr., pb. 1948 (Sophocles’ Antigone, 1990); Die Tage der Commune, wr. 1948-1949, pr. 1956, pb. 1957 (based on Nordahl Grieg’s Nederlaget; The Days of the Commune, 1971); Der Hofmeister, pr. 1950, pb. 1951 (adaptation of Jacob Lenz’s Der Hofmeister; The Tutor, 1972); Turandot: Oder, Der Kongress der Weisswäscher, wr. 1950- 1954, pr. 1970; Der Prozess der Jeanne d’Arc zu Rouen, 1431, pr. 1952, pb. 1959 (based on Anna Seghers’s radio play; The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc at Rouen, 1431, 1972); Coriolan, wr. 1952-1953, pb. 1959 (adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus; Coriolanus, 1972); Don Juan, pr. 1953, pb. 1959 (based on Molière’s play; English translation, 1972); Pauken und Trompeten, pb. 1956 (adaptation of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer; Trumpets and Drums, 1972)

Other Major Works
Long fiction: Der Dreigroschenroman, 1934 (The Threepenny Novel, 1937, 1956); Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar, 1956.
Short fiction: Geschichten von Herrn Keuner, 1930, 1958 (Stories of Mr. Keuner, 2001); Kalendergeschichten, 1948 (Tales from the Calendar, 1961); Me-ti: Buch derWendungen, 1965; Prosa, 1965 (5 volumes); Collected Stories, 1998.
Poetry: Hauspostille, 1927, 1951 (Manual of Piety, 1966); Lieder, Gedichte, Chöre, 1934 (Songs, Poems, Choruses, 1976); Svendborger Gedichte, 1939 (Svendborg Poems, 1976); Selected Poems, 1947; Hundert Gedichte, 1951 (A Hundred Poems, 1976); Gedichte und Lieder, 1956 (Poems and Songs, 1976); Gedichte, 1960-1965 (9 volumes); Bertolt Brecht: Poems, 1913- 1956, 1976 (includes Buckower Elegies); Bad Time for Poetry: 152 Poems and Songs, 1995.
Screenplays: Kuhle Wampe, 1932 (English translation, 1933); Hangmen Also Die, 1943; Das Lied der Ströme, 1954; Herr Puntila und sein Knecht, Matti, 1955.
Nonfiction: Der Messingkauf, 1937-1951 (The Messingkauf Dialogues, 1965); Kleines Organon für das Theater, 1948 (A Little Organum for the Theater, 1951); Schriften zum Theater, 1963-1964 (7 volumes); Brecht on Theatre, 1964; Arbeitsjournal, 1938-1955, 1973 (3 volumes; Bertolt Brecht Journals, 1993); Tagebucher, 1920-1922, 1975 (Diaries, 1920-1922, 1979); Letters, 1990; Brecht on Film and Radio, 2000.

Bodek, Richard. Proletarian Performance in Weimar Berlin: Agitprop, Chorus, and Brecht. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1997.
Fuegi, John. Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama. New York: Grove, 1994.
Giles, Steve, and Rodney Livingstone, eds. Bertolt Brecht: Centenary Essays. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1998.
Jameson, Fredric. Brecht and Method. New York: Verso, 1998.
Thomson, Peter. Brecht: “Mother Courage and Her Children.” Plays in Production series. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Thomson, Peter, and Glendyr Sacks, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. Cambridge Companions to Literature series. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Willett, John. Brecht in Context: Comparative Approaches. Rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1998.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Modernism, Theatre Studies

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