Bertolt Brecht as innovative writer

Question: Consider Bertolt Brecht as innovative writer playwright with special reference to “Mother Courage and Her Children”. Or, in the light of his theory of the epic theatre, examine Brecht’s achievement in “Mother Courage and Her Children”. Or, Discuss “Mother Courage and Her Children” in relation to Brecht’s dramaturgic principles. Or, To what extent do the dramaturgic techniques of Brecht’s epic theatre shape our understanding of the issues dealt with in “Mother Courage and Her Children”?


Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) wrote his play in accordance with certain principles of drama on the basis of the concept of the epic theatre which had been initiated by a German theater director and producer, Erwin Piscator. Brecht took hold of this concept and enlarged it into a full-fledged theory. His unique play “Mother Courage and Her Children” offers a broad historical sweep of events, and at the same time, it focuses our attention upon the fortune and the misfortunes of an ordinary, lower-middle-class family and a few other characters of the same class and some even from amongst the common people.

The finest specimen of the epic of theater

In fact, Brecht’s epic theater did not have a single theory, it had several theories. In accordance with the leading principle of his concept of the epic theatre, the action of the play “Mother Courage and Her Children” covers a span of about twelve years (1624-1636), depicting European life in the thirties of the twentieth century. In contrast to the tradition of the Aristotelian drama, Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” consists of a number of loosely connected episodes. In accordance with the same concept, Brecht makes use of songs that are scattered throughout the play. He also uses the technique “distancing” or “alienation” or “estrangement” to enable his audience to view events and characters in isolation and with a critical mind.

The historical characters

The first and foremost principle here is that an epic drama should present a broad historical sweep of events. The play “Mother Courage and Her Children” fully meets the seventeenth-century of which the most striking historical event was the thirty years war that took place between 1618 and 1648, which is a long enough period for Brecht’s purposes. Brecht’s chief purpose in writing this play was to examine the contemporary German social system from the stand-point of the German social system prevailing in the seventeenth century and especially during the years of the Thirty Years War. Brecht wanted to show that the Germany of his own day was on a vast scale comparable to the destruction caused in Germany during the Thirty Years War. Some of the most crucial incidents of that historical war took place during the years by this play. These events included a victory by General Tilly of the Catholic forces at Magdeburg in the year 1631 and the plunder of the Protestant city by his soldiers; the death and the funeral of General Tilly himself in 1632; the death, in the same year, of the Swedish King, Gustavus; and the devastation of Germany which followed. Thus it is transparent that Brecht’s characters are historical.

An episodic play

Brecht inaugurates an episodic play violating all the classical unities. His concept of epic theatre stresses the importance of the narrative element in a play, often involving a journey. “Mother Courage and Her Children” is certainly an episodic play, loose in structure. In fact, we have a here-string of episodes, each presented in a separate scene by a long period of time ranging from one to three years. There is no continuity in this play that we find in classical plays or in modern well-made plays. The prescribed three dramatic unities, time, place, and action, are missing in the play “Mother Courage and Her Children”.

Passive suffering

The play offers a panoramic view of Europe, at the same time focusing our attention upon each of the dramatic personae who is a kind of victim of the circumstances, and none of them rebels against the prevailing conditions. Mother Courage and the misfortunes which befall her in the course of a number of years. In this respect, Brecht has again succeeded because he has been able to depict convincingly the conditions under which people live. The prevailing conditions determine the thinking of Mother Courage. She is forced to become a canteen woman because she can think of no other means of livelihood, and she desires a continuance of the war because only then she can earn enough money to maintain herself and her family. The chaplain’s thinking is also determined by the prevailing conditions of life. Thus, if the audience were the judge, they would undoubtedly declare that men are helpless against the social and political forces of the time.

The distancing or alienation device

Another important aspect of Brecht’s dramaturgic principles is distancing effects which, according to Brecht, were necessary to enable an audience to form independent opinions. One reason why Brecht chose to split his play into scenes was to provoke an attitude of debate. We do feel alienated from Mother Courage at various points in the play. The contradictions in her character particularly alienate us. She wants the war to continue, and yet she does not want her sons to enlist in the army. She denies that she is a hyena of the battlefield and yet is most callous towards the Protestants who have been wounded in an attack by the Catholics. She is full of maternal anxiety about the safety of her own children but proves hard hearted towards a child whom Kattrin has rescued. So we can say that distancing has been achieved completely.

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There is thus no doubt that Mother Courage and Her Children is a highly innovative play; and this play, like Brecht’s “Life of Galileo” and “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, is a landmark in the history of European drama in the opinion of the most critics. “Mother Courage and Her Children” is Brecht’s masterpiece.

SR Sarker
SR Sarker
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