Mother Courage And Her Children, by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Tony Kushner
If this play is the best known of Brecht’s works at present, there is a good reason for that. This play is a deeply tragic one that depends on an understanding of the horrors of the Thirty Year’s War, when the play is set, and that contains the author’s usual cynicism towards Christianity as well as his general political hostility to merchants and middle classes. Yet even if one does not share the author’s cynical views of religion and politics, or his leftist perspective, this play does achieve some real emotional depth that raises it from the general level of the author’s writing to something that can be genuinely appreciated by a wide variety of people. This is a play that speaks to the horrors of war, the way that many Germans during the time (similar to the behavior of many during the Cold War) wavered from one side to the other in the face of the stark conflict between two sides, and the price of war that is paid by those who see war profits and do not always see the cost of being close to soldiers and becoming enmeshed in their affairs as a single mother with a set of doomed children.
This play is a diglot version with Brecht’s original German on the left page and Kushner’s translation on the right side of the book. The total length of the book is a bit more than 200 pages and there are twelve scenes in the book, with the shorter ones more towards the end of the play and the longer ones at the beginning. Mother courage enters the play with a reputation having been gained as a seller of food and other goods to the Swedish army during the siege of Riga who was reputed to be particularly courageous. During the course of the play her children fall prey to the horrors of the Thirty Year’s War, with her oldest son being put to death for pillaging during a truce period, her second son absconding with the regiment’s cash box, and her daughter being killed while trying to inform a nearby town of approaching soldiers. As a result, Mother Courage ends up having made a living throughout the war, but ends up bereft of her family and in great mourning at the way that the war has wrecked her family even as it destroyed a great deal in Germany as a whole.
It is a shame that the emotional resonance of the play comes at the expense of a great deal of crudity in the translation. The translator of this play thought it was necessary to sex up the plot a little to make it relevant for contemporary readers, and so there are a lot of places where Brecht’s hints and insinuations are turned into bawdy jokes that would have made Shakespeare’s groundlings happy. And do these additions work? It depends. The play certainly has a strong sense of verve, but in many ways the emotional resonance of the play exists in those places where Brecht’s original vision of a tragic mother doomed to be bereft through her war profiteering shines through despite the efforts of the translator to be hip and modern. And if the author was likely intending to promote a leftist message, the play itself reminds us that war is sometimes necessary and that its costs are severe, and when wars drag on for decades they will leave a lot of misery and destruction in their wake. Those who try to profit in such circumstances are putting themselves and their loved ones at risk, with predictable if lamentable consequences.