Backstage: ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’

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(Host) How one woman copes with the turmoil of war is the subject of a play being produced by Montpelier’s Lost Nation Theater. VPR’s Neal Charnoff goes Backstage with “Mother Courage and Her Children.”

(Charnoff) Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” is set in the early 17th century, during the Thirty Years War. Mother Courage is a peddler who follows the troops throughout Europe, making a living by selling goods to soldiers on both sides of the conflict. She is a woman who will do anything it takes to survive, and to keep her children alive.

Despite the theme of survival, the play contains many lighthearted moments. In this scene, Mother Courage, played by Mary Baird, tries to sell a chicken to one of the regiment cooks, actor Rick Ames.

(Mother Courage) “And I have a capon and I am supposed to give it away for four hellers?”
(Cook) “I said three, not four.”
(Mother Courage) “Now look, this chicken, this chicken is not an ordinary chicken. This chicken was so gifted, I tell you. It used to boil its eggs as part of the deal. It’s true – omelets scrambled, the lot, and you’re saying four hellers is too much? Now look, I know you, you don’t get something to eat and quick, your commanders going to cut your fat head off.” (Cook) “You know what I’m going to do? This is a very fine piece of beef, which I am about to cook. I’m giving you one minute to think.”
(Mother Courage) “Go ahead. Cook it, as it’s at least a year old.”
(Cook) “This cow was walking around only yesterday with a smile on its face, I saw it myself.”
(Mother Courage) “Then it must have been smelling even when it was alive.”

(Charnoff) German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote “Mother Courage” following the Second World War, after 13 years in exile from his homeland.

Andrew Doe of Montpelier is directing the Lost Nation Theater production. He says the play is Brecht’s attempt to examine the human fascination with war. Doe adds that, although Brecht intentionally set the play in the 17th century, there is much for the contemporary audience to relate to.

(Doe) “He believed in what he called historification. He wanted to distance it from the present, in order for people to look at it with a distancing sensibility. There’s so much of it that resonates so clearly today, that it’s almost psychic.”

(Charnoff) As with Brecht’s most famous work, “Threepenny Opera,” music plays a large role in Mother Courage. For this production, Montpelier pianist Michael Arnowitt is playing an adaptation of the original score. He says the music reflects Brecht’s ability to blend broad comedy with serious drama.

(Arnowitt) “The play has a combination of high art and low art. So there’s a lot of colloquialisms, as well as some very sophisticated thought in the play, and I think the music mirrors that. I describe it as a combination of Kurt Weill and Stravinsky.”

(Charnoff) In addition to the musical score, costume and set design play a large role in “Mother Courage.” Kim Bent is Lost Nation Theater’s artistic director. He notes the simple suggestions of 17th century peasant wear. Bent says that an earthy set design is integral to the play’s themes, and audiences may recognize what he calls a “Bread and Puppet” look. Bent is especially proud of the set’s centerpiece, Mother Courage’s covered wagon.

(Bent) “It’s a journey, Mother Courage is on a journey. And she’s like a turtle with her shell on her back, and her shell in this instance is her wagon. So whenever you do a production of ‘Mother Courage,’ essentially you’re talking about coming up with a credible shell, or wagon for Mother Courage. We’ve built on some wooden-spoked, iron-rimmed wheels, a carriage and a kind of covered wagon look that changes throughout the show – because her condition changes throughout the show, from being more successful to less successful, or vice versa.”

(Charnoff) Director Andrew Doe says that despite its visions of life during wartime, audiences should expect to have a good time at “Mother Courage and Her Children.” Doe says Brecht went out of his way to dispel German stereotypes following World War Two.

(Doe) “The whole production. according to Brecht himself. was much lighter, much less what he called the typical American concept of German. That is, heavy and basically boring. And ‘Mother Courage’ is not. ‘Mother Courage’ is lively, it is ironic, but certainly not dark and heavy.”

(Charnoff) For VPR Backstage, I’m Neal Charnoff.


  • Lost Nation Theater is staging “Mother Courage and Her Children” at Montpelier’s City Hall Auditorium through May 30.
  • Review other stories in the Backstage Series online.
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