The Human Body in extremis: Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at the Berliner Ensemble
I was in Berlin last October by design. The original plan was to turn up the heat studying German, work on some translations, reconnect with friends, and move deeper into the city’s jagged, darker spaces. By August it was clear the Syrian crisis was changing Germany, Europe, and the rest of the world. Having the opportunity to be there would, I felt, require diverting attention to the Syrians and others entering Germany to escape the horrors of violence at home. After a particularly cold and rainy day interviewing refugees in the compound of Lageso (the Landesamt für Geshundheit und Soziales), I decided at the last minute to see Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder, Bertolt Brecht’s play about an opportunist canteen operator who sells her wares over the course of 17 years during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).
Mother Courage plays in Berlin like the musical Cats in New York — seemingly interminably. But the situation in Germany now, with so many refugees running from sectarian violence and civil war, creates a new urgent context for the play. The Berliner Ensemble, Brecht’s theater house, was only a twenty-minute walk from my flat in Mitte, straight down Friedrichstrasse. The theater lobby was packed, definitely a sold-out show, but I got in line, or what kind of looked like a line in front of the ticket booth inside the lobby. Stereotypes about German order break down when it comes to waiting lines, as Germans often push forward or make end runs to jump on trains or, apparently, get tickets to see a Brecht play. It looked hopeless. A guy standing to the side of the line holding a ticket in his hand like a kind of sign catches my eye – he’s selling. Twenty euros later, I’m in my seat.
The only other production I’ve seen of Mother Courage is the David Hare adaptation that starred Kathleen Turner in the title role (at Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage in 2014). Turner used her aging yet still robust and big-boned physique to good effect; but Carmen-Maja Antoni, who plays Mother Courage in this new Berlin production, is a tough dumpling. The tension between her short physical stature (her stature in Germany as an actor is legendary), her age (she’s ten years older than Turner), and conniving swagger make an immediate impression — her character is fully evident in her first movements, as she hops off the canteen wagon to confront the recruiting officers, one of whom will sign up her son while she tries to close a sale with the other. This is the internal tension in the character of Mother Courage — the maternal instinct for her children constantly plays against her instincts for economic survival and the low-grade opportunity of selling cheap goods to desperate people. Opportunity always takes the upper hand, and one by one she loses her children to the war. Brecht’s intention was for the audience to see this clearly — how necessity distorts the personality; but to his great frustration, the audience always over-identified with Mother Courage. He couldn’t create his desired alienation effect — his technique of disturbing the theatrical illusion by displaying its artifice —strongly enough to counteract the audience’s sympathetic response to Mother Courage’s situation. The character he created was larger than his idea about Epic Theater itself, the scale of singular suffering greater than the apprehension of the social and political structures metaphorically evident in the machinery of the stage. The audience, watching an old woman try to bear up under such terrible circumstances, always felt more sorry for her than critical of her, the implications of her compromise, and the implied assertion about the loss of sovereignty in a system driven by an ideology of God and death. Why? Maybe because the spectacle of seeing an aging human body strain in real space and in real time evokes a sympathy that cannot be intellectually redirected. Consider: Mother Courage is an anti-Mary without a Christ or pietá. When she holds her dead, mute daughter in her arms, it is only for a moment before she pays some farmers to carry her off and bury her. But what’s left for Mother Courage? To put on the harness and put her shoulder to the wagon yoke, and with real effort literally pull the cart off the stage herself — the physical theater of that grim spectacle has an independent power. Even the teenagers sitting next to me, who spent much of the performance bent over their cell phones, were rapt by the play’s final scenes (which they all knew well, they tell me at the intermission, having studied the play in school).
Mother Courage is deluded by the specter of opportunity; her children are seduced by false narratives about heroic adventure (her sons) and sexual adventure (her daughter). There is no enlightenment, no epiphany, no coming into understanding (‘Courage has learnt nothing,’ writes Brecht in a production note) — that is left to the audience; but too often it chooses the sympathy it can safely contain, with asses in seats, rather than an awareness that leads to action once the show is over. (There is no significant conversation or argument in the play about religious or political ideology, the conflict between Protestant and Catholic in the seventeenth century as opaque and seemingly over-nuanced, it often appears to many in the West, as the murderous conflicts now raging between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. By changing the flag on her canteen wagon as needed, Mother Courage saves her skin and lives to make another paltry sale and move on. The two flags are nearly identical: a black cross on white / a white cross on black). A play, in other words, that takes place adjacent to the crisis in Syria. And as much about the internal workings of the audience as they watch the play as the fate of its characters. Well, that is what a play is. But what Brecht wanted it to be was a spur to action in the world – against capitalism, against imperialism, both forces also at work today in Syria and the larger Middle East. His was an ideal, but not a utopian ideal. Poetry may make nothing happen, as Auden maintains; events are, almost by definition, verifiable; but the effects of art are real however they cannot be measured. And it is not a question of eloquence. In the theater, where the bodies of the audience age in real time with the bodies of the actors, the ultimate pathos is in the fate of the body itself. The theater is never, as is film, a spectacle of shadows (and therefore it is never, as is film, quite a projection of our dreams). Watching the real old body of Antoni, the actor, pull the canteen wagon strikes a pathetic chord, no question. And seeing actors pull on cheap, crackly plastic ponchos, as real water simulating rain descends from the rafters, makes a gruesome rhyme with the refugees stuck outside just a few miles away wearing garbage bags against the weather. But the most powerful moment by far was hearing the mute daughter, Kattrin (played by Karla Sengteller) try to scream and shout the news about her brother’s disappearance. It is the one strangled operatic moment of an embodied anti-aestheticism, an ugliness that nonetheless has its role. Her mangled wrenching rasping aborted vocal desperation is a sound I’ll never forget. But what will I do with that memory?
Joshua Weiner is the poetry editor of Tikkun. Read his Berlin Notebook in the Los Angeles Review of Books. And for more, check out B O D Y and read Joshua Weiner’s essay on the modern refugee novel, Transit, by Anna Seghers.
Image is a photograph taken by Joshua Weiner of a page of the program he received at the showing of Mother Courage and Her Children.