A Scalding Look at the Thirty Years' War

Culture Watch
tags: play reviews, Shakespeare and Company, Thirty Years' War, Mother Courage


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Mother Courage and Her Children
Shakespeare & Company
70 Kemble Avenue
Lenox, Massachusetts

You think our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq lasted a long time? In Europe three hundred years ago, they had wars.

Bertolt Brecht wrote Mother Courage and Her Children about the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a dragged out conflict that started in Bohemia and soon involved the rest of Germany, Sweden, Austria, Poland, Spain, Denmark, France and England. It was about a religious dispute between German Catholic and Protestant Princes in the waning years of the old Holy Roman Empire. As the conflict continued, the purpose of the war changed to include overall power in Europe. It became so costly that countries ran out of money and went bankrupt. Many armies supported themselves by looting towns where they camped. Entire villages and counties were destroyed and never rebuilt in the war. Many of the soldiers in all the armies were mercenaries who really did not care who won. Whole generations grew up knowing nothing but strife. The longer it lasted the wider it spread until much of Europe was drenched in blood (one quarter of the population of the German states was reported to have perished in the war).

Mother Courage is about a small tine war profiteer, Ann Fierling, who, with her three grown children, two men and a mute woman, follows the Swedish army and trudge across enemy lines pulling their canteen wagon to sell food, drink and supplies to soldiers. They are sucked into the middle of the war and quickly discover that everybody likes them – and everybody hates them. It is the story of Anna’s need to make money in a war that leaves her practically bankrupt and threatens the lives of her children. Yet she keeps at it.

Brecht wrote the play in 1939 and it was first staged in 1941, after he had been exiled from Hitler’s Germany. He was trying to show Europeans that World War II was similar to the Thirty Years War and that, really, all wars were the same (Winston Churchill called World War II “the second Thirty Years War”). There is a line in a song near the end of the play where people ask what did they get for thirty years of fighting and tens of thousands of deaths? Not much. It was, Brecht thought, a lesson for all.

It was a lesson for nobody.

After World War II, America plunged into the Korean War, The Vietnam War, the Iraqi War, the Afghanistan War and slugged it out with the Soviets for more than four decades in the Cold War. What did we get for all this war?

Courage’s war profiteering? That never ended. In our recent war in Iraq there were dozens of charges of profiteering by Americana companies hired by the government to assist Iraqis during the war. Billions of dollars were spent on construction projects that were shoddy or never completed and billions more were unaccounted for.

The theme of useless war is hammered at throughout the Mother Courage in addition to numerous other themes. Brecht howls that in war, all governments and armies become corrupt. He argues that wars should never be fought over religious beliefs and jokes that since the Thirty Years War was over religious principles, the soldiers should have fought for free.

The sons of Mother Courage and dragged into situations not of their making that they cannot get out of them. Helpless daughter Kattrin is beaten, raped and disfigured for life. One son is taken to fight with an army and another winds up arrested. Mother Courage? She just gets older and no matter what she does cannot find a man because of the war.

Director Tony Simotes has staged a dramatic play, a searing search for truth on the battlefield, any battlefield. He has soldiers and townspeople streaming through the aisles of the theater and choruses singing sad songs about death and calamity.

And he has Olympia Dukakis. Dukakis, an Academy Award winner, has played Mother Courage several times in her long and illustrious career (I saw her in the play thirty years ago). Now, though, at age 80, she is not only a mother to children on stage, but an older woman with far more wisdom about life and conflict than she had at 50. She gives a moving, emotional, downright riveting performance as Mother Courage. There is a scene near the end of the play, when the elderly Mother Courage has to pull her supply wagon through a battlefield all by herself, straining to drag it along, that is heartbreaking.

Best of all, she never plays Mother Courage as some sort of anti-war symbol. She is a gruff, practical woman trying to make some money and keep her family together under the worst of circumstances. She is in the end, just like all of us.

Simotes also gets a wonderful performance from Apollo Dukakis as the chaplain who travels with Mother Courage and gets off some wonderful anti-war zingers and savages all armies and governments. There is also fine work from Brooke Parks, the mute daughter, whose body shakes and arms flail when she tries to express herself, John Douglas Thompson as the commander’s cook and Ryan Winkle and Josh Aaron McCabe as her sons. Paula Langton is solid as Yvette Pottier, Mother Courage’s distraught friend.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Shakespeare & Company. The translation is by Eric Bentley and songs by Paul Dessau, Scott Killian and Jan Sturges Milliken. Sets: Patrick Brennan, Costumes: Arthur Oliver, Lighting: Matthew E. Adelson, Sound: Scott Killian, Choreographer: Barbara Allen, Fight Choreographer: Tony Simotes. The play is directed by Tony Simotes. Through August 25.

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