Bertolt Brecht’s view on the function of theatre was that it should provoke its audience to change. The epic theatre, Karl Marx and German directors Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator were all inspiration for Brecht’s theory on the social function of theatre. (??? 2004: 709)
Brecht’s essays ‘Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction’ and ‘The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre’ clearly outline his understanding of what epic theatre is and how it should be used in practice. In both essays, Brecht explains what makes the epic theatre different from modern and dramatic theatre and discusses the techniques available with epic theatre and the effects they can have on the audience. When comparing his play Mother Courage and Her Children to the two essays, it is clear that Brecht has used the essays almost as guidelines to write the play and put his theories on epic theatre into practice. Mother Courage and Her Children is an extremely typical Brechtian play as it contains all the elements that Brecht wanted to include in his plays in order to present his new form of theatre which he believed had a greater social function.
One of the most obvious examples of Brecht’s essays being put into practice in Mother Courage and Her Children is Brecht’s use of narrative instead of the plot. Each scene begins with a narrative description of what will happen in that scene, and the play itself starts with a prologue which introduces the central character (Mother Courage) and reveals what the play is about. Despite the fact that there is a storyline running through the play, the narrative style ties in with Brecht’s aim of not giving the audience the chance to become emotionally attached to the characters. The way in which the play jumps with each scene keeps the storyline general and tied more to the greater social events running throughout the play rather than single, individual events in a particular scene.
Having spent much of his life in Germany and experiencing two world wars, it should come as no surprise that many of Brecht’s plays, including Mother Courage and Her Children, feature war as the overriding theme of the play. Brecht believed that war was ‘a continuation of business by other means.’
Brecht’s theory on theatre meant that he did not want his audience to emotionally empathise with the characters on stage. In fact, Brecht deliberately created characters which would be subject to criticism from the audience. In order to invite this active rather than passive response from the audience, to provoke a reaction, Brecht instils traits in his characters which tend to make the audience not identify with them, but criticise them. Mother Courage is portrayed as a strong, witty, formidable woman whose sole purpose is to provide a living for both herself and her children. She is a sacrificial character and her love for her children draws an audience to like her. What prevents the audience from empathising with her is her extremely contradictory nature. Whilst pulling out a knife at the Sergeant and Recruiting Officer to protect her children, Courage calls refers to herself and her children as ‘peaceable sorts’. The Sergeant’s cool reply of ‘your knife shows the sort you are’ further displays Courage’s contradictions. (Brecht 2004: 715) When sending her daughter Kattrin into town with the Clerk, Courage tells her not to worry and that ‘nothing will happen’, but upon Kattrin’s return where she is wounded, Courage claims she should never have let her go. When arguing with the Cook over a possible move to Utrecht, Courage tries to end the conversation with ‘that’s enough’, only to continue it herself moments later. In the same scene, Courage encourages Kattrin for the two to go with the Cook to run his pub in Utrecht because ‘life on the road is no sort of life’, but after she sees Kattrin trying to run away she quickly turns on the Cook and questions what she and Kattrin would ever do in a pub. Of course the greatest contradiction of all throughout the play is Courage’s constant criticism of the war off of which she makes her living. It is this contradictory nature of Courage’s which constantly reminds the audience to view the character from a distance, analyse her so to speak, and not empathise with her situation. Had Mother Courage been presented as a fully-rounded character, the audience would have been tempted to empathise; but her presentation as a paradoxical character helps to ‘jolt the audience into some kind of reaction.’ (Leach 1994: 136)
Mother Courage is not the only character in the play that is given a specific trait to keep the audience empathising and becoming emotionally involved with her. Her sons – Eilif and Swiss Cheese – are both killed in the play, and it is because of their flaws that they are killed. Her eldest son, Eilif, is strong and intelligent, but his boldness costs him his life. Her younger son, Swiss Cheese, is simple and honest, but he too is led to his death because of his stupidity. The audience are constantly reminded throughout the play by Mother Courage that her children have these traits. ‘I have another who is foolish but honest’ is just one example of Brecht giving Mother Courage a specific line for two reasons: both to remind the audience of the paradoxes each character possesses, to stop them from being empathised with, and to support the epic idea of the play that each scene should be its own. It is frequently seen in Brecht’s plays for an off-stage character’s absence to be explained through an on-stage character’s dialogue. (ref)
Robert Leach argues that for Brecht, ‘character is only of interest in so far as it illuminates the fleeting event which provides the writer, or the actor, with a usable gesture.’ What Leach is saying is that for Brecht, the character is only a function to the greater social and economical forces which control and shape the world (within the constructed reality that are his plays), and that the actors, whilst portraying characters, can use them as tools to show the effect of these greater social implications. This can be linked to Brecht’s observation in the essay ‘Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction’ that ‘actors too refrained from going over wholly into their role…’ in the sense that not only did actors do so to invite criticism from the audience of their characters, not only to draw attention away from the individual and place it on the social, but to also show that the characters are simply functional to the social.
Another one of Brecht’s main aims was to not focus on the individual emotions of the character, but to explore and show the importance of the greater social implications. In Mother Courage and Her Children, emphasis is not put on the decisions the characters make but the social events which dictate the action of the play. War, religion and family are three main themes which run through Mother Courage and Her Children, and ultimately the fate of each character is determined by these themes. Unlike naturalistic plays where emphasis is usually placed on the individual, in Mother Courage and Her Children Brecht focuses on the relationship between the social implications and the characters of the play. All of the characters in the play are linked together by these themes, and their inability to change their individual (or in the case of Courage and her children, combined) situations. (Examples) Brecht has created Mother Courage as the central character of the play, but because it is not only her, but all the characters that are affected by the war, the spectator’s focus is neither on the central character Mother Courage nor any of the character. The spectator’s focus is drawn, by linking the characters and making them unable to change their situations, to the superseding social themes presented in the play.
Brecht liked the notion that epic theatre allowed for jumps in time, and this is reflected in Mother Courage and Her Children. There is a jump in time between each scene of the play, usually a year or two, and the constant curves and jumps in the play – the dialectic approach – allow for Brecht to show a process and effects over time rather than one particular point of time and its individual effect on characters. (Brooker 1994: 189) These jumps in time also allow the play to be ‘epic’ in the sense that they allow each scene to stand independently. The jumps in time also go hand-in-hand with Brecht’s idea that with epic theatre, the audience should be looking with ‘eyes on the course’ rather than ‘eyes on the finish’. Swiss Cheese’s death and Mother Courage’s refusal to admit the body is his is one of the most intense moments of the entire play, but it comes as early as Scene Three. Also, the jumps in time show ‘man as a process’ rather than ‘man as a fixed point’. Rather than focusing on the central character (Mother Courage) at one particular point, Brecht draws out the play so that the audience view Courage’s ‘process’ and development as a character subject to the social and political circumstances. The end of the play sees Mother Courage, now completely alone; walk with soldiers who are singing the same song that is sung in the prologue, reminding the audience of the process that has begun from the very beginning of the play and the effect it has had throughout. The jumps in time between each scene of Mother Courage and Her Children are typical of Brecht’s aim to get the audience to look at the events that have taken place from a more general period of time rather than a specific point.
One of the key parts of Brecht’s theory on theatre was that the audience should constantly know that what they are watching is not reality but a construction being presented on stage. By doing so, Brecht could show to his audience that what they were watching was not reality but a presented image of reality, and that could inspire change. To this end Brecht used several techniques in many of his plays (including Mother Courage and Her Children) which allowed him to reveal that the play was indeed a construction. A typical Brechtian technique used in the play is the use of stage directions at the start of each scene, which then reveal what is going to happen in that scene. By using these stage directions (either spoken aloud or displayed with placards on stage) Brecht is able to both remind his audience that what they are watching is a construction. Also, by telling the audience what will happen before it happens, Brecht can eliminate the shock factor, thus keeping the audience away from having an experience and focused on learning from the action on stage. Openly revealing that the play is not real allows Brecht to prevent any sense of emotional attachment to the piece. This can be linked to Brecht’s essay ‘The Modern Theatre is The Epic Theatre’ where he says: ‘…once illusion is sacrificed to free discussion, and once the spectator, instead of being enabled to have an experience, is forced as it were to cast his vote; then a change has been launched which goes far beyond formal matters and begins for the first time to affect the theatre’s social function.’
Brecht states in his essay ‘The Modern Theatre is Epic Theatre’ that ‘words, music and setting must become more independent of one another.’ (reference) This statement is echoed in Mother Courage and Her Children as Brecht uses not only dialogue and stage directions but songs and music in the play, and makes sure that the songs used are seen on an equal level to the other elements such as words. In fact, Scene Ten of the play is constructed entirely of only a few stage directions and song. By giving the songs such importance in the play, on the same level as stage directions and dialogue, Brecht implements his idea into practice, showing that he has used his two essays almost as guidelines for writing Mother Courage and Her Children. Songs are also used in the play to fit in with Brecht’s theory that plays should not be presented to the audience as reality, but as a construction. The direct delivery of a song from a character to the audience, thus breaking the fourth wall, is one of the ways in which the audience is reminded that they are indeed watching a play. The songs also tend to reflect the social and political themes of the play and inspire the audience to think about what they are watching.
Looking at ‘Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction’ and ‘The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre’ in comparison with Mother Courage and Her Children, it is clear to see that the play falls into all of the categories that Brecht lists in his two essays for his theory on the function of theatre. Throughout the play the focus is taken away from the characters’ individual emotions and drawn to the greater social and political forces which affect the characters. The play is used as a discussion forum of sorts for some of the common Brechtian themes such as war, religion and family. The use of non-naturalist techniques such as placards and songs helps to break the illusion that the audience creates and prevents them from developing empathy for and emotional attachment to the characters. The jumps in time between each scene of the play keep the audience’s focus on the process over time and not at a fixed point. Mother Courage and Her Children is without question of Brecht’s most typical plays and it is clear to see his essays ‘Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction’ and ‘The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre’ have been put into practice to create the play and inspire the audience to change, rather than experience.