By John Quinn
Review: ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’
There’s no business like war business
Bertolt Brecht, good communist that he was, wanted to overthrow the conventional theater and use it as a tool of the revolution. He wanted to do away with Aristotelian drama (you know — empathy, catharsis, all that Lit 101 jazz) and move on to an “epic” theater. The audience was not to identify with the characters, merely learn lessons from their context and employ them in the struggle. The appeal is to reason rather than emotion. Mr. Spock would have loved Brecht.
His “epic” theater is largely a failure. Brecht simply wrote such good characters that, if we don’t necessarily suspend our disbelief, at least we care about what happens to them.
Arguably his most famous work, “Mother Courage And Her Children,” has been dusted off and spruced up by the Hilberry Theatre. The resulting production is poor propaganda but really wonderful drama.
Itinerant trader Anna Fierling, nicknamed “Mother Courage,” is a camp follower of the armies scouring Europe in what is known at the Thirty Years War. “Courage is the name they gave me because I was scared of going broke…” War is strictly business for Courage – no war, no income. She is, in fact, a “damned soul” in Brecht’s eyes – a capitalist war-profiteer. Through 12 years and 12 scenes, we follow the fate of her and of her three grown children. But in all wars there are losses, and a business loss cannot only be calculated in euros and dollars.
Did I mention this was called “epic” theater? Monumental is more like it. The production runs about three hours, not quite as long as the Thirty Years War, and I can’t use the joke about “it just seems that way.” Quite the opposite. The show has a remarkable drive to it; time just melts. Part of the fascination is how very modern this chestnut feels when in the hands of a remarkable ensemble and director.
Blair Anderson anchors his big, talented cast with the formidable stage presence of Carly Germany as Mother Courage. She is not the unredeemed monster that Brecht may have envisioned. She is instead a well of emotional turmoil; by turns a loving yet insensitive mother, an absolute banshee of a businesswoman and an unmovable rock of determination. Her measured performance is a treat to experience.
Brecht wrote “Mother Courage” in the opening days of World War II, but set it in the 17th Century to “alienate” the audience, forcing them to confront War as archetype rather than a specific war. I’ve read we’re to draw our own analogies from the play. But if those first audiences brought the emotional baggage of WWI to the theater, can I be blamed if a ghostly “Halliberton” rings in my ear?
Both timely and ever timeless, Hilberry’s “Mother Courage” stands as a chilling and thought-provoking warning to any culture that thinks of war as a “continuation of business by other means.”
“Mother Courage and Her Children” Performed in Repertory at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit, through Jan. 29. Tickets: $15 – $22. 313- 577-2960. www.theatre.wayne.edu/t_hilberry.html.
The Bottom Line: This classic Brecht (anti)warhorse becomes compelling, provocative entertainment in a polished Hilberry production.