Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children Summary and Analysis of Scene Three

It is three years later. The cart is following a Finnish regiment, and a flagpole flies the regimental flag. The scene begins with another business transaction between Mother Courage and the war. She is trying to haggle down an armorer over the price of a sack of shot. "I'm not buying army goods," she says at the beginning of the scene, before adding, "well, not at that price." She wins the bargaining and pays a florin and a half.

This is one of the play's more domestic scenes. Swiss Cheese, dressed in a paymaster's uniform, has fallen (like his brother) into the employ of the war. We are introduced to Yvette Pottier, an alcoholic prostitute who is drinking brandy, having set aside her red high-heels, and who sings the "Song of Fraternization" to warn Kattrin about the danger of getting involved with men. The song describes the relationship between Yvette and "Peter the Puff" (named thus because he kept his pipe in his mouth during sex) some years earlier, which culminated in Yvette being left behind as the regiment marched on. The play will later reveal "Peter the Puff" to be none other than the General's Cook. Depressed at the close of her song, Yvette exits, leaving her prostitute's garb behind her.

The Chaplain arrives with a message for Mother Courage from Eilif, and the Cook accompanies him (apparently to try his luck at a sexual relationship with Mother Courage). Mother Courage, the Cook and Chaplain discuss the politics of the war. The Kaiser is discussed in depth: he has followed his conscience but caused much bloodshed in doing what he believes is "the right thing." Mother Courage closes the conversation with the central observation that, though the big shots claim to be waging war for "Almighty God and all things bright and beautiful," they are actually "out for all they can get." During their conversation, Kattrin tries on Yvette's boots and hat and struts around, imitating Yvette.

There is a volley of gunfire, drumming, and explosions, and the armorer returns hurriedly to announce that the Catholics have taken over the regiment. A fast change of loyalty ensues with the Chaplain changing his robes and with Mother Courage changing the regimental flag, smearing Kattrin's face in ashes to make her less attractive to the invading soldiers. Swiss Cheese appears on the scene with the regimental cash box, and his mother is horrified to learn he wants to store it in her cart. The cannonfire intensifies, and there is a scene break.

Three days later, Swiss Cheese laments the fact he has not been able to return the cash box to his sergeant. Mother Courage leaves with the Chaplain to purchase meat (feeding the war again) after discovering Yvette's red high-heeled boots in the cart--Kattrin has stolen them during the Catholic raid.

While Swiss Cheese talks to Kattrin, a man with an eyepatch (a spy searching for Swiss Cheese) appears and asks her if she has seen anyone from the Second Finnish Regimental Headquarters. Swiss Cheese, having decided to find his regiment and return the cashbox, ignores Kattrin's desperate attempts to warn him about the spy, takes the box, and leaves the scene.

As Mother Courage arrives back with the Chaplain, Swiss Cheese is dragged back on by two men and questioned about a sergeant--he hid the cashbox by the river, was followed, and was caught. His mother denies knowing him, and he is led off. There is another scene break.

The Chaplain sings to Kattrin the "song of the Hours," which outlines the Passion of Christ in brief quatrains. Yvette enters with an ancient colonel with whom she is sleeping. She haggles with Mother Courage about buying her cart. Mother Courage is forced to agree since she needs money to bribe the soldiers to spare Swiss Cheese's life. Yvette runs offstage to persuade the soldiers to take the bribe.

Mother Courage intends to use the money from the cashbox to buy her cart back from Yvette once Swiss Cheese has returned. As her plan goes, Swiss Cheese will turn over the cashbox to her. Yet, when Yvette returns, it is to tell her that the soldiers will accept her two hundred florins as a bribe--but that Swiss Cheese, under torture, admitted to throwing the cashbox in the river. Mother Courage now has to choose between her business and her son.

She tells Yvette to return offering one hundred twenty florins, so that she has some money left over with which to continue trading. The soldiers refuse, demanding the full two hundred and refusing to wait. Yvette runs back to offer the full amount, but it is too late. Drums are heard in the distance, and the stage lights darken. Swiss Cheese has been executed.

The soldiers return with Swiss Cheese's body on a stretcher. To save herself and her daughter, Mother Courage again denies knowing him, shaking her head in silence. The sergeant commands his men to throw Swiss Cheese's corpse into the pit since "there ain't nobody here who knows him."


As well as being the longest scene, this is one of the key scenes in the play, deserving serious attention. It combines several of the play's key themes and is perhaps the easiest scene to analyze in terms of Brecht's use of dramatic symbolism.

Family vs. business, an irresolvable conflict which is to cost Swiss Cheese his life at the end of the scene, expresses tensions from the start: Mother Courage's washing line is strung from a cannon, a visual symbol of the way Mother Courage's domestic and professional lives are always inextricably linked. Brecht's message is neatly underlined too in the way that Mother Courage attempts to "mortgage," not "sell," her cart to Yvette. But like her own involvement in the war, this bargain too must be an all-or-nothing deal. Even the cart itself, home and business, is caught somewhere between these two poles.

Mother Courage's bargaining for Swiss Cheese's life was much edited by Brecht after the original premiere of the play in order to make Mother Courage seem less sympathetic. From the final text of the play, it is easy to condemn her for, as she herself puts it, "bargaining too long" and thereby bringing about her son's shooting. The paradox here is that Mother Courage herself will starve if she retains no means by which to live--the sale of her cart represents financial ruin for her. Though it is easy to refute, in retrospect, Mother Courage's decision to bargain, Brecht emphasizes that often, for the peasant classes, the choice is often between one dire circumstance and another.

Mother Courage's bargaining highlights what Brecht said was the single most important lesson of the play as a whole: that little people cannot profit from a war which runs only for the profit of the greater authorities. Mother Courage here fails to realize that she will never be able to save Swiss Cheese and keep her cart. There is an opportunity cost either way. According to Brecht, Mother Courage's greatest failing is that although a capitalist, even at the end of the play she remains ignorant of this basic truth about capitalism. (See the section on "Brecht's Intention.")

This scene is also fascinating in terms of its religious symbolism. As well as being the third scene in the play, occurring three years after the second scene, one of its central breaks is for three days. These recurring threes culminate in Mother Courage's denying knowing Swiss Cheese three times. And once we hear the Chaplain's "Song of the Hours," it is hard for anyone with a good education to miss Brecht's comparison of Swiss Cheese's death with the Passion of Jesus. Yet the sergeant's final instruction, to "throw Swiss Cheese in the pit," suggests that Swiss Cheese is no martyr who has died for a good cause. The comparison goes the other way: invoking the suffering and death of Jesus in this way sidelines, in the context of war, the role of religion. The Passion is likened to a minor military execution outside a tiny village--an insignificant act, achieving nothing.

The rejection of a role for religious belief among wartime capitalists is explicit in the scene's action as well. The Chaplain's hypocrisy is clear as day in his bitter line, "All good Catholics here," and it seems not to matter to Mother Courage which religion's flag she flies. The speed with which the Chaplain changes his robes when he learns the Catholics are attacking demonstrates that his religious principles are instantly superseded by his cowardice in the face of danger. At the same time, one might think that the differences between Protestants and Catholics are not so great after all, making it easier for people to switch allegiances for non-religious reasons. "Bribery in humans is like mercy in God," says Mother Courage at one point, and the provocation of this comparison is only one of many points where Brecht forces us to question the value of religious faith in what is, after all, supposed to be a war of religion.

One of Brecht's single most famous pieces of direction, the "silent scream," was included in the first production at the very end of the scene after Swiss Cheese's body is carried away. Helene Weigel, playing Mother Courage, screamed silently. Brecht wrote, "her look of extreme suffering after she has heard the shots, her unscreaming open mouth and backward-bent head probably derived from a press photograph of an Indian woman crouched over the dead body of her son during the shelling of Singapore." Its resonance has indeed proved powerfully timeless, and it is retained in many modern productions (including Stephen Unwin's 2006 ETT staging, which starred Diana Quick). Perhaps it is so powerful because, like Mother Courage herself at that moment, it is painfully ineffective yet intensely personal. A "silent scream" is a paradox understood best by the screamer.

Kattrin's character comes into interesting focus within the spectrum of sexual undercurrents in the relationships in this scene. The Cook, by leaving his pipe (already noted as a sexual symbol by Yvette earlier) with Mother Courage, has thereby declared his sexual interest in her. Yet, though her mother remains sexually desirable, Kattrin's imitation of Yvette's gait and theft of her prostitute's boots is a telling representation of the way her mother represses Kattrin's own burgeoning sexuality. Kattrin's awakening desires in the scene will be another, more subtle, victim of the war.