Monday, November 30, 2020

Brecht's great cowards, Mother Courage and Galileo - For war satisfies all needs, even those of peace

One last gesture towards German Literature Month: Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1941) and Galileo (1947), both read in those great Grove Press editions Eric Bentley edited.  Mother Courage is in his translation, while Galileo is by “Charles Laughton,” which in this case means a composite figure including the actor, the author, and apparently several more people.

Both plays have great central characters who are cowards.  Both plays were written in the 1930s but rewritten to make the characters less sympathetic.  The poor audiences, they so badly want to sympathize, and in this sense Brecht still fails.  They are great parts, big parts – Mother Courage is especially Falstaffian – and actors love them.

Mother Courage and Her Children wander through half of the Thirty Years’ War, dragging a supply wagon around central Europe, buying and selling, following the armies that will one way or another kill half the population of the region.  The characters in the play do not do any better, statistically.

The massive cart, which always dominates the stage, is a literal symbol of capitalism, a long-term investment, a capital good that is both a source of income and a curse.  Mother Courage, scene by scene, struggles to choose between human values (the lives of her children) and maximizing the return on her investment.  She would have been better off if the cart had been burned up early in the war.  Or, she and her family would have starved to death.  Who knows.  At least trade is honest work, unlike what everyone else is doing.

MOTHER COURAGE: Thanks be to God they’re corruptible.  They’re not wolves, they’re human and after money.  God is merciful, and men are bribable, that’s how His will is done on earth as it is in Heaven.  Corruption is our only hope.  As long as there’s corruption, there’ll be merciful judges and even the innocent may get off.  (Scene 3, p. 61)

Mother Courage is full of outstanding satire:

CHAPLAIN: Well, I’d say there’s peace even in war, war has its islands of peace.  For war satisfies all needs, even those of peace, yes, they’re provided form or the war couldn’t keep going…  War is like love, it always finds a way.  Why should it end?  (Scene 6, 76)

That chaplain gets a surprising number of the best lines.

The strange thing is, despite the obvious Marxist and satirical purpose, the effect of the play, the feeling, is humanist, or so I found both when I saw a Steppenwolf production years ago and when I read the play recently.  Mother Courage’s story is tragic and full of pathos.  It is all so sad.

Brecht first wrote Galileo as a defense of reason against the Nazis, and but he rewrote it to be more skeptical – more skeptical of science and reason – in response to the atomic bomb.  Maybe Galileo was write to give in to the Inquisition, maybe.  Robert Musil, in the first volume of The Man Without Qualities (1930), argues that the Church should have gone ahead and murdered Galileo, thus halting science and progress right there.  Was it the narrator in Musil, or a character?  I don’t have the book handy.  Musil was known to employ irony at times.  See p. 325, maybe, or the Burton-Pike translation.  I have a note, but not the book. 

Anyways, Brecht does not go that far.  I have trouble imaging a viewer or reader who is not cheering, quietly, when near the end of the play we find that Galileo has been doing his research, secretly and illegally, all along and gives his completed Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences to a former student, to be smuggled to and published in Holland in 1638.

GALILEO: Somebody who knows me sent me a goose.  I still enjoy eating.

ANDREA:  And your opinion is now that the “new age” was an illusion?

GALILEO:  Well.  This age of ours turned out to be a whore, spattered with blood.  Maybe new ages look like blood-spattered whores.  Take care of yourself.  (Scene 13, 124)

The author, the audience, any readers, we all live in one of those new ages.  So Galileo was not much of a hero; who is?  I’d love to see a performance of Galileo someday.

Thanks, as usual, to Caroline and Lizzy for all of the German Literature.


  1. Laughton as Galileo... and directed by Joseph Losey, too. That must have been something. The film Losey later directed with Topol (!) just doesn't have the same allure. I haven't read the play for 20 years.

    I saw 'Mother Courage' a couple of years ago in Manchester, set in some sort of futuristic, post-EU war-zone. Julie Hesmondhalgh in the title role was superb - and, as you say, a tragic figure full of pathos. Would it take a less talented performer to shut out that pathos and keep audience sympathy at bay? But who would want to watch that?

  2. Yeah, that would have been a show to see. One to brag about later.

    Lois Smith starred in Steppenwolf production, which it just occurred to me I could look up and link. David Hare did the adaptation, which is likely quite different Bentley's version.

    For all of Brecht's talk about alienation, he sure wrote roles that did anything but.

  3. I've never read or seen Mother Courage but I have seen Galileo on stage last year, with Philippe Torreton as Galileo and it was one of the best performance & plays I've seen in several years. (billet on my blog)
    But with Torreton, nothing ever goes wrong when he's on stage.

  4. Galileo in the Théâtre des Célestins, now that is a show. Wonderful.

    Maybe Mother Courage will drag her big cart by when the theaters reopen.