Brecht set Mother Courage and Her Children in central Europe during the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century. After World War I, some Europeans (including H.G. Wells in England) feared the next world war would itself last 20 years or more, and destroy western civilization.
While the unfolding second world war was on Brecht’s mind when he wrote the play, the continuing war in Iraq is much on the minds of those doing the play now, and inevitably on the audiences.
Brecht uses plain language and dark humor to tell the story of a woman trying to eke out an existence selling goods from her cart to armies on the road, while protecting her three grown children from the very war that feeds them. The basic story is fairly simple, and is foretold early in the play by a kind of oracle, like a Greek tragedy. The three children of Mother Courage all die: first, her second son whose execution is partly his mother’s doing; second, her eldest son who is executed for the same acts that had him proclaimed a hero (though by the end of the play she still doesn’t know he’s dead) and lastly, her daughter, who wakens a sleeping town by banging a drum, to warn them of the approaching army.
Commenting on this play’s theme, Brecht said: “War is a continuation of business by other means, making the human virtues fatal even to those who exercise them.” For John Heckel, director of the HSU production, the core question Mother Courage faces is: “How do you remain soulful, how do you retain a sense of nurturance?” in this situation of endless war, feeding and fed by endless greed.