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Bertolt Brecht Among the most inventive and influential of modern playwrights, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) has left a legacy of important plays and theories about how those plays should be produced, Throughout most of his career he felt that drama should inform and awaken sensibilities, not just entertain or anes~ thetize an audience. Most of his plays concern philosophical and political issues, and some of them so threatene¢ the Nazi regime that his works were burned publicly in Germany during the Third Reich. ‘At nineteen, Brecht worked as an orderly in a hospital during the last months of World War I. Seeing so much carnage and misery in the medical ‘wards made him a lifelong pacifist. After the war he began writing plays while a student in Munich, His first successes in the Munich theater took the form of commentary on returned war veterans and on the questions of duty and hero ism— which he treated negatively. His rejection of spiritual concepts was influenced by his readings ot Hegel and the doctrines of Marx’s dialectical materialism. Marx’s theories predicted class struggles and based most social values in economic realities. Brecht eventually moved to Berlin, the theatrical center of Germany, and by 1926 was or his way to becoming a Communist. Finding the political pressures in ea:ly Nazi Germany too frightening and dangerous for his writing, Brecht went into exile in 1933, He lived for a time in Scandinavia and later in the United States. After World War II Brecht and his wife returned to Berlin where, in 1949, he founded the Berliner Ensemble, which produced most of his later work. Brecht chose East Berlin as his home, in part because he felt his work could kest be understood in a Communist see ting. One icony is that his work has been even more widely appreciated and accepted in the West than in the former Communist eastern bloc. Brecht wrote his most popular play ia 1928, a musical in collaboration with the German composer Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera. The model for this play, the English writer John Gay's 1728 ballad opera The Beggar's Opera, provided Brecht with a perfect platforn on which to comment satirically on the political and economic circumstances in Germany two hundred years after Gay wrote. The success of the Brecht-Weill collaboration — the work is still performed regularly — is due in part to Brecht’s capacity to create appealing underworld characters such as Polly Peachum and Macheath, known as Mack the Knife. Brecht’s wife, Helene Weige!, played Mrs. Peachum, the madam of the brothel in which the action takes place. Kurt Weill’s second wife, Lotte Lenya, was an overnight sensation ir. the part of Jenny. She had a highly acclaimed reprise in New York almost twenty-five years later. Brecht’s most successful plays are Galileo (1938-1939), Mother Courage (1939), The Good Woman of Setzuan 1943), The Private Lives of the Master Race (1945), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948). But these represent only a tiny fraction of a mass of work, including plays, poetry, criticism, and fiction. 621 622 BRECHT * MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN His output is extraordinary in volume and quality. It includes plays borro not only from Gay but also from Sophocles, Molitre, Gorky, Shakespeare, ang John Webster, among others. Brecht developed a number of theories regarding drama. He used the term epic theater to distinguish his own theater from traditional Aristotelian dra Brecht expected his audience to observe critically, to draw conclusions, and tg participate in an intellectual argument with the work at hand. The confronta. tional relationship he intended was designed to engage the audience in analyz ing what they saw rather than in identifying with the main characters or in enjoying a wash of sentimentality or emotion. ‘One of the ways Brecht achieved his ends was by making the theatricality 9 the production’s props, lights, sets, and equipment visible, thereby remind the members of the audience that they were seeing a play. He used the term ALIENATION to define the effect he wanted his theater to have on an audience He hoped that by alienating his audience from the drama he would keep them emotionally detached and intellectually alert. Brecht’s theater was political. He saw a connection between an audience that could analyze theater critically and ‘an audience that could analyze reality critically — and see that social, political and economic conditions were not “natural” or fixed immutably but could {and should) be changed. Brecht’s theories produced interesting results and helped stimulate audi ences that expected to be entertained by realistic or sentimental plays. His style: spread rapidly throughout the world of theater, and itis still being used and developed by contemporary playwrights such as Heiner Miiller and performers such as Pina Bausch. MOTHER COURAGE Since Mother Courage was first produced in 1941 in Zurich, it has becomea classic of modern theater, performed successfully in the United States and most other Western countries. Brecht conceived of the drama as a powerful antiwar play. He set it in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War, in which the German Protestants, supported by countries such as France, Denmark, and England, fought against the Hapsburg empire, which was allied with the Holy Rot Empire and the German Catholic princes. ‘The war was actually a combination of many wars fought during the period of thirty years. It was bloody and seen ingly interminable, devastating Germany's towns. and citizenry as well as its agriculture and commerce. The armies fought to control territory, economi¢ ‘markets, and the religious differences between German Lutherans and Romaa Catholics. Brecht was not interested in the immediate causes underlying the Thirty ‘Years’ Wat. He was making a case against war entirely, regardless ofits caus To do this, he deliberately avoided making his play realistic. The stage settings BRECHT + MCTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN 623 essentially barren; and the play is structured in scenes that are very intense but that avoid any sense of continuity of action. Audiences cannot become involved in unfolding action; they must always remain conscious of themselves, as audience. Moreover, the lighting is high intensity, almost cruel at times, spotlighting the action in a way that iscompletely unnatural In the early pro- ductions, Brecht included slide projections of the headings that accompany teach of the twelve scenes so that the audience was always reminded of the pres- ence of the playwright and the fact that they were seeing a play. These headings provided yet another break in the cont nuity of the action, "Although the printed text does not convey it, the play as Brecht produced it employed long silences, some of which were unsettling to the audience. When Swiss Cheese, Mother Courage’s “honest” son, has a moment of rest in scene 3, he is in an intense ring of stage light as he comments on sitting in the sun in his shirtsleeves. As Swiss Cheese relaxcs for the last time, the intense light becomes an ironic device: it seems to expose him as a thief, and he is dragged off to his death. While he is Mother Courage’s “honest son,” circumstances ‘make it seem that he has been corrupted by the war, like everyone else. “Mother Courage herself lives off the war by selling goods to the soldiers. She and her children haul their wagon across the battlefields with no concern for who is winning, who is losing, or even where they are. Her only ambition is to stock her wagon, sell her goods, and make sure she does not get stuck with any useless inventory. When the chaplain tells her that peace has broken out, she laments their condition because without war the family has no livelihood. ‘As Mother Courage continues to pall her wagon across field after field, she learns how to survive. But she also loses her children, one by one, to the war. ilif, seduced into joining the army by a recruitment officer, is led into battle thinking that war is a heroic adventure, Swiss Cheese thinks he found a good deal in a paymaster’s uniform, Both are wrong: there is no security in war, and they eventually perish Katerin, the daughter, is likewise a vietim of the violence of war. Having been violated by a Swedish soldier, she becomes mute. Near the end of the play she is treated violently again, and the terrible scar on her face leaves her unmarriageable, At the end Katerin cies while sounding an alarm to give the sleeping town warning of an imminent attack. Finally, Mother Courage is left alone. She picks up her wagon and finds that she can maneuver it herself. The play ends as she circles the stage, with every- ‘thing around her consumed by war. Breche’s stated intentions were somewhat thwarted by the reactions of the play's frst audiences, They were struck by the power of Brecht’s characteriza tion of Mother Courage and treated her with immense sympathy. They saw her as an indomitable woman whose streagth in the face of adversity was so great that she could not be overwhelmed. 3ut Brecht intended the audience to ana- lyze Mother Courage further and to sce in her a reflection of society's wrong, values. She conducts business on the field of battle, paying no attention to the ‘moral question of war itself. She makes her living from the war but cannot see that it is the war that causes her anguish. In response to the audiences’ sympathetic reactions, Brecht revised the play, adding new lines to help audiences see the venality of Mother Courage’s ‘motives. But subsequent audiences have continued to treat her as a survivor —