Mother Courage and Her Children opens with a recruiting officer and an army sergeant standing together, talking in the freezing snow. This nondescript picture is made specific only by a placard-heading announcement that the scene is in Dalecarlia. The recruiting officer complains bitterly about the difficulties of recruiting an army. Threatening suicide, he tells the sergeant that his difficulty finding honest, willing men to recruit has led to the loss of his faith in humanity. The sergeant explains, at length, that war is the only way of creating order.
To the sound of a jew's-harp, a covered cart rolls onto the stage. It is pulled by Mother Courage's two sons. Mother Courage is sitting aloft with Kattrin, her daughter, as she sings her opening song (note that in Brecht's 1949 production, the song was transposed to the very beginning of the play). The song advertises Mother Courage's wares to the army. Significantly, both verses of the song end with a chorus that describes whatever "has not died out / getting back to its feet again."
Mother Courage, unable to produce a valid set of papers, explains why she is called Courage (her real name is Anna Fierling): she once drove her cart through the bombardment of Riga in order to sell fifty molding loaves of bread. Mother Courage introduces her children (for the sake of exposition as much as for realistic detail) one by one. Eilif Nojocki is the son of a light-fingered soldier; Swiss Cheese, the son of a Swiss fortifications engineer; and Kattrin Haupt, half-German. Mother Courage immediately attempts to make a sale. The recruiting officer, however, is more interested in her son than the belt buckle she tries to sell him. Mother Courage reacts violently, pulling a knife and insisting that the soldiers keep away from her children.
An argument ensues between Mother Courage and the sergeant about the rights and wrongs of Eilif's signing up for service in the war. The sergeant points out that he has had a good life in the army, having joined at seventeen, but Mother Courage dryly comments that he is yet to reach seventy. Claiming a "second sight" which never reappears, Mother Courage then draws black crosses (signifying death) on slips of paper, and she invites the sergeant to select one. He is shaken when he draws a black cross. When Eilif seems keen to enlist, Mother Courage marks up several more black crosses and has each of her children draw one. She obviously has rigged the slips of paper, but in doing so she proves a prophet. All of her children are to die in the war, and Eilif is about to be taken from her under her nose.
Now distracting her by haggling over a belt buckle, the sergeant occupies Mother Courage while the recruiting officer leads Eilif off into the fields. Dumb Kattrin leaps from the cart, making hoarse noises, but Mother Courage is occupied with her trade and pays no heed. By the time she has pocketed her profits, her son is gone. "You"ll have to help pull now, Kattrin," Mother Courage says. Kattrin and Swiss Cheese, harnessed, pull the cart off into the distance as the sergeant speaks a final couplet:
If the war provides, then you
Have got to give it something too.
Brecht opens his play with a conversation between two ordinary soldiers, the first of many choices emphasizing that this is a play about the war's effect on the little people. The setting is unglamorous, the soldiers are cold, and the issue they face is organizational and pragmatic. Rather than presenting an active battle, Brecht opens with a recruiting officer moaning about how difficult it is to get people involved in the war. Thus, the army is presented from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.
This first scene is also heavily ironic. That is, Brecht expects his audience to be alienated from the sergeant's hyperbolic stories about the villagers who forgot their names due to the absence of war, thus viewing the opening scene with a suitable degree of ironic detachment. The point is not that war really creates order, but that it is a system by which people and civilizations seem to survive--like capitalism with its markets, war is a system that most people not only accept but depend upon.
These nameless soldiers are universal, part of the trope of war's perpetuity, which runs throughout the play. In the 1949 production, the opening image of the cart revolving into view (actualy before the dialogue between the recruiting officer and the sergeant) was reflected at the end of the play when Mother Courage alone pulled it into the distance. War "gets back to its feet again," it continues, and Brecht is not interested in the specific historic details of the war he depicts. What he underlines is war's omnipresence in capitalist civilization.
The conflict between motherhood and business is immediately brought into focus by the cart. It is both home and a place of business. Mother Courage is distracted by business as Eilif is led away, and we see how her trade and her family life are irresolvably at odds: her interests as a mother and her interests as a businesswoman damage each other. Her children, fathered by a string of military men, might be thought of as "children of the war," and it is to the war that they will eventually succumb.
The flippancy with which Mother Courage cheats in making the black crosses ironically reflects her lack of awareness that the deaths she has predicted will indeed come to each of her children. The foreshadowing is not ominous so much as it is obvious: what Brecht wants us to realize is that Mother Courage does not see how she is tempting fate. She saves her children here only to lose one due to a business deal minutes later. Like the black crosses, her fate is in her own hands, but she does not realize this before having paid the price with Eilif.
There are more subtle foreshadowings in this scene. Mother Courage describes Eilif as so scared he'll "fall over like a chicken," and the recruiting officer adds, "and killing a young bull that happens to be in his way." For Eilif, who later will be commended and then executed for stealing cattle, this comment has an ominous resonance. Yet, even at this level, Brecht's larger themes are threaded into the narrative. Cattle, the spoils of war, are also the object of the market. By trying to feed himself, Eilif later feeds himself to the war. And like his mother's actions, his actions express a failure to see the larger picture. Probably, as the officers at the beginning of the scene seem to realize, the only way to be truly saved from the war is to refuse to participate in it in the first place--neither in its fighting nor in its business.
As in this scene, many scenes end with a character getting into the harness, ready to continue with the journey. At the end of Scene One, the yoke is heavy already.