Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children A Stage History

Brecht, surprisingly, did not direct Mother Courage and Her Children himself in its first production in 1941. Lindtberg directed the premiere production, which played to a largely Swiss and German audience. One of those who saw this original version was Thornton Wilder. The play itself made a great impact, and Therese Giehse played the title role, yet Brecht himself felt that his intentions had been ignored, and he proceeded to work on the text to make its brutal message still clearer.

The play's most famous production to date is Brecht's own 1949 staging, which effectively was the first production of his world-famous Berliner Ensemble. Brecht himself directed this epic staging, which-with the reworked text-starred Helene Weigel in the title role. This was a show lauded by the critics, and it was given over 400 times in Berlin and across Europe. Weigel was the ultimate exponent of the Epic Theater; she embraced the contradictions of the part as well as the opportunity to display her own critical awareness of (and distaste for) some of Courage's behavior. Brecht famously recorded many of his decisions in the Couragemodell, a fascinating resource for anyone studying the play. Paul Dessau composed original music for the songs.

In English, it was not until the mid-1950s that Brecht really came to the notice of the British theater scene. There were two productions staged in 1955, one by Eric Capon at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and one by Joan Littlewood with her Theatre Workshop Company. Neither made a great impact because Beckett's Waiting for Godot was stealing the theatrical limelight of 1955. Littlewood's production, seen by very few people and soon withdrawn from the repertoire, did have an important influence on her and her company, however, leading them later to adopt a markedly Brechtian mode of staging in their signature production Oh! What a Lovely War. It was not until 1956 that the play really came to the attention of the theater world outside Germany.

Brecht's own production came to the Palace Theatre in London in 1956, and it was met there with the famously derisive comments of Kenneth Tynan, who believed that the play was a "morality play" and thus "as tiresome as religion." The theater insiders felt differently. William Gaskill recalled later that "for many of us working in the theatre," Brecht's production "was the most important single production we have ever seen-the most influential." It was to be Gaskill's 1965 National Theatre staging that marked the first large-scale British production of the play, a production that marked, if nothing else, the fact that the play had found its way into the theatrical consciousness.

Howard Davies directed Judi Dench as Courage for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984 in a new version by Hanif Kureishi. This production was a popular success, but it was criticized by scholars for going against the playwright's intentions. The nightly ovations for Dench's performance made clear, it seems, that critical detachment had by no means been achieved. Glenda Jackson played Courage in the Glasgow Citizens Theatre in 1990, directed by Philip Prowse in a production that referred constantly to modern ideas of war (through video projections) and attained a Beckettian bleakness throughout.

Jonathan Kent's production at the Royal National Theatre in 1995 was of a new adaptation by major playwright David Hare, who focused very much on the way Mother Courage herself was the victim of a war that gradually silenced her. His proposed alternate title for the play was "The Silencing of Mother Courage." Diana Rigg played Courage. The production was markedly un-Brechtian, with new settings for the songs, by Jonathan Dove, and with various attempts at realism. The critical reception, thus, was mixed.

In America, Herbert Blau directed the American premiere in 1956 at the Actor's Workshop in San Francisco. Again the play was met with popular indifference and had to be called off early. The Performance Group directed a famous production in New York in 1975 that placed the audience on the stage and foregrounded contemporary references to the Vietnam War.

Recent productions have included one with Meryl Streep in a new translation by Tony Kushner in Central Park, directed by George C. Wolfe in 2006 and, for the first time, a production with a national tour of England in Stephen Unwin's lackluster production, starring Diana Quick as Courage. Unwin's bland reading of the play was slow-moving and rather painfully faithful to Brechtian practice-until, that is, the bizarre intrusion of a modern airplane sound effect came as Courage pulled her cart and the lights went down at the end.