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TWELVE NOTES AND A BRIEF ESSAY BY BRECHT
Throughout the writing and subsequent mounting of MOTHER COURAGE, Brecht left behind a veritable archive of copious notes and essays on the meaning and manner of his great play. Here is a brief selection of his thoughts and observations:
Mother Courage recognizes the purely commercial nature of the war; indeed this is what attracts her to it. She believes in the war right to the end. It never even strikes her that in a war you need a big pair of scissors if you are to get your cut.
Observers of catastrophes are wrong to imagine that the victims will learn from these. So long as the people remain the passive object of politics they will never be able to view what happens to them as an experiment, and rather think of it as fate. They learn no more from the catastrophe than a guinea pig learns about biology.
It is not the playwrights job to open Mother Courage’s eyes — his concern is with the eyes of the audience.
That in wartime the big profits are not made by the little people. That war, which is a continuation of business by other means, makes the human virtues fatal even to their possessors.
“Want the war to nourish you?
You must feed it something too.”
It takes intelligence to get a war started. The military are great businessmen.
The fusion of war and business cannot be established too soon.
War emerges as a vast field akin to the fields of modern physics, in which bodies experience peculiar deviations from their courses. Any calculation about the individual based on peacetime experience proves to be unreliable, bravery is no help, nor is caution, nor honesty, nor pity: all are equally fatal. We are left with those same forces that turn peace into war, the ones that can’t be named.
A scene can be socially disastrous if by hypnotic action the actress playing Mother Courage invites the audience to identify with her. This will only increase the spectator’s own tendencies to resignation and capitulation. It will not put him in a position to feel the beauty and attraction of attempting to see a set of social problems.
In giving the peasants the money for Kattrin’s burial, (the actress) Weigel quite mechanically puts back one of the coins she has taken out of her purse. What does this gesture accomplish? It shows that in all her grief the business woman has not wholly forgotten how to reckon — of how hard money is to come by. This little gesture has the power and suddenness of a discovery- a discovery concerning human nature, which is moulded by conditions. To dig out the truth from the rubble of the self-evident, to link the particular strikingly with the universal, to capture the particular that characterizes a general process, that is the art of a realist.
Bad comedians are always laughing
Bad tragedians are always crying.
Concerning these Notes:
It is to be hoped that the present notes, indicating a few of the ideas and devices of various kinds that are necessary for the performance of a play, will not make an impression of misplaced seriousness. It is difficult in writing about these things to convey the carefree lightness that is essential to the theatre. Even in their instructive aspect, the arts belong to the
realm of entertainment.
MISFORTUNE IN ITSELF IS A POOR TEACHER
(on presenting the play to a Berlin Audience in 1949)
The Audience gave off the acrid smell of clothing that had not been properly cleaned, but this did not detract from the festive atmosphere. Those who had come to see the play had come from ruins and would be going back to ruins. There was more light on stage than on any square or in any house.
The wise old stage manager from the days of Max Reinhardt had received me like a king, but what gave the production its hard realism was a bitter experience shared by all. The dressmakers in the workshops realized that the costumes had to be richer in the beginning of the play than at the end. The stage hands knew how the canvas over Mother Courage’s cart had to be white and new at the beginning, then dirty and patched, then somewhat cleaner, but never again really white, and at the end a rag.
A number of people remarked at the time that Mother Courage learns nothing from her misery, that even at the end she does not understand. Few realized that just this was the bitterest and most meaningful lesson of the play.
Undoubtedly the play was a great success; that is, it made a big impression. People pointed out (the actress) Weigel on the street and said: “Mother Courage!” But I do not believe, and I did not believe at the time, that the people of Berlin – or of any other city where the play was shown — understood the play. They were all convinced that they had learned something from the war; what they failed to grasp was that, in the playwright’s view, Mother Courage was meant to have learned nothing from her war. They did not see what the playwright was driving at: that war teaches people nothing.
Misfortune in itself is a poor teacher. Its pupils learn hunger and thirst, but seldom hunger for truth or thirst for knowledge. Suffering does not transform a sick man into a physician. Neither what he sees from a distance nor what he sees face to face is enough to turn an eyewitness into an expert.
The audiences of 1949 and the ensuing years did not see Mother Courage’s crimes, her participation, her desire to share in the profits of the war business; they saw only her failure, her sufferings. War had brought them not only suffering, but also the inability to learn from it.
The production of MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN is now in its sixth year. It is certainly a brilliant production, with great actors. Undoubtedly something has changed. The play is no longer a play that came too late, that is, after a war. Today a new war is threatening with all its horrors. No one speaks of it, but everyone knows. The people are not in favor of war. But life is so full of hardships. Mightn’t war do away with these? Didn’t people make a very good living in the last war, at any rate till just before the end? And aren’t there such things as successful wars?
I am curious to know how many of those who see MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN today understand its warning.
(Written in 1954)