Brecht’s intention when writing Mother Courage was to communicate his beliefs and make people aware of two major issues facing society: war and capitalism. According to Brecht, people deserve the wars they get if they subscribe to a political system which is unfair and favours a specific sector of society, namely capitalism, in which it is up to the individual to secure his own means of survival. In other words, if the system is unjust in any way, war and conflict is inevitable.
For this to be understood, it would be essential that the audience sees the play for what it is, as opposed to becoming involved in its story. This means that they would have to be removed (or alienated) from the play, and consistently made aware of it as a play and nothing more. To do this, Brecht jolted audiences out of their expectations and deliberately avoided theatrical techniques that would make appearances realistic. In this way, people were forced to confront the issues at hand and decipher the meanings behind what they were being shown.
The ‘performance’ being referred to by Brecht is what is clearly seen, what one cannot miss. It does not require reflection and arouses no thought. By alienating the audience in this play, they see that nothing is happening at an obvious level, and can gain true understanding of the characters’ reasons for behaving as they do, and of the background against which they exist. Brecht incorporated alienation techniques in the methods of staging used in performances of Mother Courage, firstly by keeping a very bright white light all over the set.
This eliminated any opportunities for creating an atmosphere; any magical or romantic views of the stage were eradicated, and no attempt was made to define a specific place. A banner was often used to introduce every scene which differed from the preferred narrator. This innovative technique appeared unusual to the audience and differed from the traditional storytelling manner. In addition, scene changes were made in full view of the audience, reminding them of its existence as a play, again alienating them from the impression of a realistic story.
This ‘impression’ was what was intentionally emphasised in other plays of the time, and one method used was to communicate the impression that a fourth wall had been cut off from the scene and that the audience was viewing incidents in the character’s lives, almost as if they were privilege to some kind of hidden situation. In Brecht’s play, however, this effect was removed; spectators were not intended to become involved, so the fact that it was merely a play was constantly enforced.
With regards to acting, actors were not meant to “become” their characters or persuade anyone of a transformation, they were simply to show the character’s behaviour. They did not try to evoke empathy, but tried to jolt the audience into objective thought. All of these methods were used to alienate viewers, so that they had an attitude of inquiry and criticism in addressing the incidents and issues raised by the play, which is what epic theatre concentrated on. Songs are frequently used in this play, and interpret the story in an objective way.
Throughout the play, this is what the songs did, as well as make intelligent observations and address real issues which Brecht wanted the audience to focus their attention on. The appearance of song at unlikely points in the play, when it is least expected is alienating and can confuse an audience. Another alienating characteristic is the fact that the melodic and lyrical singing contrasts with their serious content. In the third scene, for example, the chaplain’s song tells of the horrors of Christ’s story, and yet the song resembles a nursery rhyme.
To differ from the audience’s expectations, is the purpose of the play’s structure. The passing of time which is unseen between the scenes is often great. After a dramatic event has occurred, the reactions of the characters are expected to be portrayed, or at least acknowledged, but instead the audience is shown occurrences of several years later. Thus, dramatic climaxes do not occur. Each scene is barely connected to the next, to the extent that the audience gets the impression that if a scene were removed, it would make little difference. There is no linked sequence of events, defying the characteristics of a traditional story.
I personally think Brecht used the unusual sequence of events to comment on our lives. Most plays use a noted beginning and distinct end, but this is not what reality is. It moves backwards and forwards as we reflect on memories and make decisions about the future before it has even happened. The methods used in ‘Mother Courage and her Children’ produced an alienating effect, and separated itself from the conventional attributes of theatre, which appealed to the audience’s emotions and evoked empathy, causing them to share the characters feelings.
Epic theatre, by definition, resolves to engage people’s thinking and reasoning. Brecht objected to the emotional attitude of audiences and did not want them to submit to passive viewing, instead he challenged them to confront what they saw and analyse it. A significant method of alienation that ensures the audience does not get wrapped up in the suspenseful “what happens next” element of the story, is Brecht’s messages at the beginning of each scene.
It is introduced with a summary of the coming events, which gives a sense of inevitability which removes the audience’s capacity for passively viewing an unfolding plot. This creates a critical attitude, which Brecht believed was the only path to understanding. The problems of individual characters in Mother Courage are unimportant, the play’s purpose as epic theatre is to attract the audience’s attention toward more important social issues. The characters in the play appear hypocritical, which would be particularly alienating to an audience of the conventional theatre.
It is difficult for an audience to relate to the characters and not only would an audience be unable to emotionally become involved, but they would not know how to even understand the characters. Due to the contradictions within the characters, and the fact that an audience member is not given a defined set of emotions with which to draw from, the idea is only accentuated. The greatest example of this is Mother Courage, who is selfish and egocentric in that she subscribes to capitalist principles and is blind to their consequences.
Yet, an admirable trait may be that she keeps on going through hardships and confronts danger, surviving in a man’s world and ignoring her own pain for the sake of her children. Though she disagrees with war in principle, she lacks strength of belief and exploits the war by profiting from it. The fact that she works hard constantly, but for little gain, would lead us to sympathise with her. Although her deeds in the beginning of scene 3, the selling of ammunition to the opposing army, makes us question her morals.
Another example of a contradictory character is the chaplain, who would be expected to condemn war and disapprove of it completely, though he said, “War satisfies all requirements, peaceable ones included, they’re catered for, and it would simply fizzle out if they weren’t. ” The chaplain can be said to have been based on contradiction at first he was cold and formal, then later, on the battlefield, he helps the injured and shows a part of himself that is a victim. What Brecht wanted to do to his audience, was a willingness to change people’s attitudes, their money-centred mindsets which caused confusion in their basic moral values.
According to Marx, whose principles Brecht believed in (although didn’t necessarily subscribe to): unless man has food and shelter, he does not have freedom. This is what Brecht asserts in ‘Mother Courage… ‘ and understanding can only be gained when audiences realise that: “… the obvious is an irrelevance, that this play should be seen not as a tale but as a presenting of issues. ” By using techniques of character, song, structure, style, and set design, Brecht ensures that the audience remains alienated, and ultimately causes them to consider their lives and make them at the least think.