Here is your first look at Mother Courage and Her Children in rehearsal.
So…How’d She Get the Name?
Mother Courage was a nickname given to business woman Anna Fierling when she ran through a battle in order to sell loaves of bread before they spoiled. Brecht and his collaborators drew upon the writings of a 17th short novel, The Rungate Courage, which had a character similar to Mother Courage.
In 1933 Bertolt Brecht fled Nazi Germany and ended up in Sweden. In a flurry of month-long creativity, he and collaborator Margarete Steffin wrote the play in response to Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland. First produced in 1941 in Switzerland, the play premiered in Germany in 1949 with Brecht directing his wife, Helene Weigel, in the title role. Since then it has been performed the world over and is considered one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.
Musical Theatre Connections
Brecht originally had Ethel Merman in mind for the American premiere of the play in 1963. Director, choreographer, and producer Jerome Robbins, known primarily for staging musicals, directed the play’s Broadway debut that featured Anne Bancroft, Barbara Harris, and Gene Wilder.
The Thirty Years War
The play is set in Sweden, Poland, and Germany during the Thirty Years War that lasted from 1618 to 1648. It began as a civil war between Catholic and Protestant groups. Over time it grew to involve most of Europe, and became an international war of territory and trade. Interestingly enough, the war started just two years after Shakespeare’s death.
On the Road with a Cart Strapped to My Back
Mother Courage and Her Children takes place over 12 years represented by 12 unconnected scenes. Mother Courage pulls her cart along with her three children following the Protestant army, trading with soldiers, and trying to eke out a living from the war. During the course of the play she travels over 1,900 miles.
So…Why is Brecht Important?
Bertolt Brecht is one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. At the time of creative output, he was seeking a new kind of theatre that reflected the times in which he lived and sought to replace “old-fashioned” theatre styles and techniques with a modern approach that attempted to replace sentiment. His ideas about art permeate Western culture and can be seen in the works of artists today, although they may not even be aware of Brecht’s influence.
Mother Courage – An entrepreneur who follows armies with her canteen wagon.
Eilif –Her eldest son
Swiss Cheese– Her youngest son
Kattrin – Her teenage mute daughter
Recruiting Officer and Sergeant – Both conspire to recruit Eilif into the army
Cook – Prepares food for the Swedish Commander
Commander – The head of the Swedish Regiment
Chaplain – Religious leader for the army
Armourer – Sells bullets to Mother Courage
Yvette Pottier – A prostitute who follows the army
Old Colonel – Elderly commander who acts as Yvette’s “financial advisor”
Regimental Clerk – In charge of recording complaints
Peasant Man and Woman – Victims of an attack on their farm
Old Woman and Son – Try to sell goods to Mother Courage
Sing Me a Song
The music in a Brecht play is not like the music you’ll hear in a musical. He intended the music to jar the audience and take them out of the action of the play. The music in the show is often used as a commentary or to express a character’s feelings.
Brecht was part of an artistic movement called Epic Theatre. The intention behind it was to provoke the audience into critical thinking rather than getting emotionally invested. Many of the techniques he and others created (actors in multiple roles, episodic scenes, props and costumes visible on stage, etc.…) have been adopted by modern theatre productions, but were cutting edge at the time.
Want More Brecht?
Although Bertolt Brecht was prolific in his output of plays, screenplays, poems and commentary, there are four other plays that you might want to check out as they are more frequently produced: The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Threepenny Opera, The Good Person of Szechwan, and The Life of Galileo.
Brecht’s Mother Courage is now more than 75 years old. It is a daunting and captivating play with a once-in-a-lifetime role that many actresses would give their eye-teeth to play.
At the Daily Beast in September of 2014 for the 75th Anniversary of Mother Courage, writer Katie Baker took an in-depth but highly readable look into this great play and its creator, and its history.
The article is not a quick read, but it’s totally worth your time.
Did you know that Mother Courage and Her Children is filled with songs? If you’re like most folks, you may not have heard the songs in the show since none of them are quite as famous as “Mac the Knife” from Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. We’ve compiled a Spotify playlist of artists covering songs from Brecht’s works. We’ve include the songs (sung by the artist) from the production of Mother Courage and Her Children that were created for the National Theatre production in London. Take a listen, familiarize yourself with the tunes, and get in the mood to see the show.
Following armies from battle to battle, one tough-as-nails matriarch is at the center of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children. Rehearsals for the play began on September 30.
“As a result of our country’s long involvement in conflict, we are still feeling the ramifications, as a nation and populace, of living with war,” said Artistic Director George Mount at the first rehearsal for Mother Courage and Her Children. “This play does an amazingly powerful and poignant job of bringing us closer to the world of war, reminding us that it has always been with us. I wish I could say it is not worth doing, this play in 2015, but it still is.”
“As far as I’m concerned, Brecht is one of the great writers of 20th century,” said the play’s director Jeff Steitzer. “He created characters that are, in their own way, every bit as memorable as many of the characters in Shakespeare.” Mother Courage has been referred to as the female King Lear encompassing a range that runs from bar room bawdy to fierce venality. With a sly talent for survival, Anna Fierling, strives to keep her family and her business together while she follows the war from battle to battle selling here wares. But while she profits from the war, the war also exacts its price. Shot through with song and peppered with satire, Mother Courage and Her Children hard-eyed look at the war machine.
Director Jeff Steitzer returns to Seattle Shakespeare Company after having directed Pygmalion for the company in 2012. A veteran theatre artist, Steitzer has directed 180 professional stage productions and appeared on Broadway and in regional theaters across the country.
Actress Jeanne Paulsen (Pygmalion) will play the title role of Anna Fierling a.k.a. Mother Courage. Her real-life husband Larry Paulsen (Cymbeline) will play the Chaplain and R. Hamilton Wright (Tartuffe) will play Cook. In the roles of Mother Courage’s children are Trick Danneker (Othello) as Eilif, Spencer Hamp (The Comedy of Errors) as Swiss Cheese, and Chesa Greene as Kattrin. They lead a cast that totals 13 actors. This is the first time Seattle Shakespeare Company has produced Mother Courage and Her Children.
Mother Courage and Her Children runs October 27 through November 22, 2015.