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Steppenwolf ensemble members Robert Breuler (Cook) and Lois Smith (Mother Courage) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by David Hare. Photo: Michael Brosilow

Mother Courage and Her Children

by Bertolt Brecht
adapted by David Hare
directed by Eric Simonson

Through November 4, 2001

Steppenwolf Theatre Company
1650 North Halsted Street
Chicago, Illinois 60614
Box office: (312) 335-1650

In 1958, Bertolt Brecht published the Couragemodell, a book that contains detailed notes of epic theatre devices and photographs of the actual 1949 performance of Mother Courage and Her Children by the Berliner Ensemble. Brecht directed this production and Helene Weigel, Brecht's wife and the co-founder of the Berliner Ensemble, played the role of Mother Courage. Although Brecht intended the model book to be a template for future productions of the play, he acknowledged the importance of artistic freedom: "As it stands Mother Courage can also be staged in the old way. But this would certainly mean doing without the quite specific effects of such a play, and its social function would misfire." Bertolt Brecht, "Does Use of the Model Restrict the Artist's Freedom? [1949]" Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans. John Willett (Hill & Wang, 1966), p. 222.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Mother Courage and Her Children is not staged in the old representational way. It is a handsomely mounted production with a Brechtian look, yet it is strangely unmoving. The production abounds with the visual and auditory devices of Bertolt Brecht's epic theatre--the episodic scenes, the date and place in surtitles, the cyclorama, the songs, the music; but not the aesthetic principles and effects. Steppenwolf's Mother Courage is indeed presentational theatre: any illusion of reality during the performance is dispelled; the audience always knows that we are watching a play. But for Brecht, this realization is only part of the alienation effect of the epic theatre: the audience must also critically reflect upon the message of the play without sentimental identification with the characters. Steppenwolf’s production never allows this reflection: it looks like epic theatre, it sounds like epic theatre, but there is no impetus to contemplate on the meaning of the play, whether or not one accepts Brecht’s political ideology.

Brecht stated that a performance of Mother Courage and Her Children is primarily meant to show that "in wartime big business is not conducted by small people. That war is a continuation of business by other means, making the human virtues fatal even to those who exercise them. That no sacrifice is too great for the struggle against war." Couragemodell 1949. The Steppenwolf production follows the model and presents the action in 12 episodes. Episodic scenes are important in epic theatre because they are separate situations, which are each rounded and complete in themselves, thereby eliminating the suspense and illusion of the well-made play. MOTHER COURAGE opens in Dalarna, a province of Sweden, in 1624 during the sixth year of the Thirty Years' War between the German Catholics and Swedish Lutherans. Anna Fierling, Mother Courage, is an itinerant peddler who sells food and clothing to the Swedish army from her covered wagon with the assistance of her two sons and mute daughter. In the next 12 scenes Mother Courage follows the war--switching sides when necessary--and the brief peace, always running her business. As she has prophesied in the first scene, she loses each one of her children. The Swedish army recruits Eilif, who is honored for killing peasants during war and executed for the same conduct during peace. Mother Courage never knows about his execution. Her other son, Swiss Cheese, becomes the payroll master for the Catholic army, hides the money box from the enemy soldiers in her wagon and is arrested when spies see him trying to move the money. He too is executed. Mother Courage denies knowing him, when his wounded body is shown to her. Her daughter Kattrin returns from a trip into town to buy supplies with both the goods and a nasty scar on her face; she was attacked on the way home. Several years later, while Mother Courage is in town conducting business, Kattrin is shot down by the enemy soldiers when she beats a drum on a rooftop to wake the town, allowing it to defend its walls and to use its cannon. At the end, Mother Courage pays for Kattrin to be buried and sets off pulling her wagon alone to search for Eilif, to follow the soldiers, and to conduct her business. The Steppenwolf production also presents a atmospheric prologue to the play: in charcoal light, modern soldiers in a ceremonial march briefly appear, almost as apparitions. The march can evoke any and all of the rites of war and peace: battle, victory, funeral.

Allen Moyer's automated set is the perfect vehicle for the presentation of these scenes. It is spare, but functional and quite stunning in its simplicity. With the cyclorama and projections, it presents a war-torn country of then and now, there and here. Mother Courage's wagon is at once familiar and innovative. It is a functional moving vehicle of business as well as a home. Moyer's use of the light-weight, almost sheer, muslin to see into the wagon but to shield the view of the inner, more sentimental, actions is particularly effective. Ken Posner's lighting design is appropriately suggestive of the vicissitudes of war and peace--ranging from the foggy charcoal light of the prologue to the bright light of the army camp to the gloomy light in the towns of peace and war.

Steppenwolf's use of these epic theatre devices is picture perfect, but does not result in reflective estrangement. Why? Under Eric Simonson's direction the scenes are paced too slowly; the pre-intermission first part of the play, one hour and 45 minutes, is simply too long. This soporific effect is exacerbated by the original music of T Bone Burnett and Darrell Leonard. Music is a device of the epic theatre; it not only helps to explain the action of the play to the audience, it also interrupts the flow of the onstage action to give the audience a chance to reflect. This original music, even though excellently performed by a live orchestra, does not achieve this effect. It is wonderful, enjoyable, mellow music; but it is too reminiscent of Chicago jazz club fare. So, even though the audience is not mesmerized by the illusion of a well-made play, it is also not engaged in the action of the play enough to discover what the performance of the play is primarily meant to show.

Nevertheless, the chief problem with this production is the performance of Lois Smith as Mother Courage. In order to understand the meaning of the performance, both audience and actor must recognize the stupidity of the character who has learned nothing from her experiences as she determines to get back into business. In performance, sympathy for and identification with Mother Courage must be subverted; but not compassion—otherwise, the audience would not be moved to reflect upon Mother Courage's plight. The acting style of the ensemble is, arguably, the most important device of the epic theatre. An epic theatre actor is not completely transformed into the character he is portraying; he "must invest what he has to show with a definite gest of showing." Bertolt Brecht, "Short Description of a New Technique of Acting which Produces the Alienation Effect," Brecht on Theatre, p. 136.)

Helene Weigel's Mother Courage is the model performance. "Her way of playing Mother Courage was hard and angry [emphasis added]. .. . that is, her Mother Courage was not angry; she herself, the actress, was angry" at the stupidity of the character. Couragemodell 1949. Other major portrayals have evoked comparison to Weigel and been found wanting: from Joan Littlewood's lifeless mumble; to the earthy, eccentric and ultimately sympathetic portrayals by Judi Dench and Diana Rigg; to the snarling, callous portrayal by Glenda Jackson; to the charming con artist of Anne Bancroft; to the sentimental portrayal by Gloria Foster (in Ntozake Shange's 1980 adaptation). The most critically acclaimed portrayal "in the Anglo-Saxon world" was Linda Hunt in the Boston Shakespeare Company production directed by Timothy Mayer in 1984. Frank Rich of the New York Times stated that "[a]s Brecht intended, Miss Hunt's Anna Fierling is not a sentimental heroine to be applauded for her spiritual indomitability, but a feisty cunning operator caught in the facts of capitalism." Arthur Holmberg writing in Theatre Review, concurred: "Unlike Anne Bancroft, she doesn't use charm to con us. Linda Hunt has no charm and that's her greatest asset." See Gideon Lester, "A Model of Courage," http://fas-www.harvard.edu/~art/courage2.html for a performance history of the play.

Lois Smith's portrayal of Mother Courage is neither hard and angry nor sentimental and charming. It is simply unfocused and confused. Ms. Smith seems to have equated the concept of alienation in the epic theatre with speaking lines in a hesitant, almost forgetful, distracted manner. Her tendency to move readily from speech to song is an admirable talent that subverts the purpose of both speech and song in the epic theatre. Her movement on the stage is without the energy of ruthless business woman. Her portrayal of Mother Courage does not result in compassion for the character or in a desire to understand her all too human plight.

All of the ensemble is clad in James Schuette costumes that are excellent indicators of social class and individuality--stylized, not realistic. They give the production an authentic look. However, many of the ensemble members simply render realistic portrayals of their characters. In Brechtian terms, they give meaning to their characters in the play, but not the play itself. Their performances are out of sync with this presentational production. Yet, there are several members of the ensemble who do achieve the epic theatre's "gest" of showing the meaning of the play. Amy Warren as the prostitute Yvette, Ian Brennan as Eilif, Sally Murphy as Kattrin, and Nicholas Rudall as the Chaplain are notable members of this group.

Mother Courage and Her Children. Eric Simonson directs Bertolt Brecht's drama in a David Hare's adaptation that was first produced in 1995 by Great Britain's Royal National Theatre. Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650. Through November 4: Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:30 PM; Saturdays-Sundays, 3 and 7:30 PM; Wednesday, October 24 and 31, 2 and 7:30 PM; Sunday, October 28 and November 4, 3 PM only. $40-$50.

--Sandra Marie Lee

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