Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht

Mother Courage and Her
by Bertolt Brecht
in a translation by Tony Kushner
Background pack
The National's production
Tony Kushner on Mother Courage
Mother Courage's Journey Timeline
Rehearsal diary by Bruce Guthrie
Rehearsal exercises
Interview with Duke Special (Music)
Interview with Sophie Stone (Kattrin)
Production research bibliography
Brecht's life and work
Further production details:
This background pack is
published by and copyright
The Royal National Theatre
Reg. No. 1247285
Registered Charity No.
Views expressed in this
workpack are not necessarily
those of the National Theatre
Deborah Warner
National Theatre
South Bank
London SE1 9PX
T 020 7452 3388
F 020 7452 3380
E [email protected]
Workpack writer
Bruce Guthrie
Copy on Brecht
by Didi Hopkins and others
Emma Gosden & Lyn Haill
Clare Parker
Rehearsal and production
Anthony Luvera
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
The National’s production
The Voice of the Scene Headings. .Gore Vidal
Scene 1
Anna Fierling, Mother Courage. . . .Fiona Shaw
Kattrin, her daughter . . . . . . . . . . . .Sophie Stone
Swiss Cheese, her younger son . . .Harry Melling
Eilif, her elder son. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Clifford Samuel
The Army Recruiter. . . . . . . . . . . . . Sargon Yelda
The Sergeant. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Gary Sefton
Scene 2
Mother Courage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fiona Shaw
Eilif. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Clifford Samuel
The Cook. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Martin Marquez
The General. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Colin Stinton
The Chaplain . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Stephen Kennedy
Scene 3
Mother Courage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fiona Shaw
Kattrin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sophie Stone
Swiss Cheese. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Harry Melling
Yvette . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Charlotte Randle
The Quartermaster. . . . . . . . . . . . . Youssef Kerkour
Soldier with cannon . . . . . . . . . . . . William J Cassidy
The One with the Eyepatch . . . . . . Anthony Mark Barrow
Sergeant . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Gerard Monaco
Yvette’s Colonel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Roger Sloman
Stretcher-bearers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Guy Rhys,
Johannes Flaschberger
Scene 4
Mother Courage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fiona Shaw
The Clerk. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Jonathan Gunthorpe
The Young Soldier. . . . . . . . . . . . . .Louis McKenzie
The Older Soldier . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Stephen O’Toole
Scene 5
Mother Courage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . FionA SHAW
Kattrin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sophie Stone
Farmer’s Wife . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ELEANOR MONTGOMERY
The Chaplain . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Stephen Kennedy
First Soldier . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .MORGAN Watkins
Second Soldier . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Kyle McPhail
Farmer One . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Gary Sefton
Scene 6
Mother Courage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . FionA SHAW
Kattrin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sophie Stone
The Regimental Secretary . . . . . . . Johannes Flaschberger
The Chaplain . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Stephen Kennedy
Scene 7
Mother Courage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . FionA SHAW
Kattrin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sophie Stone
Scene 8
Mother Courage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . FionA SHAW
Kattrin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sophie Stone
Yvette . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Charlotte Randle
Serving Man . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Anthony Mark Barrow
The Old Woman . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Eleanor Montgomery
The Chaplain . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Stephen Kennedy
The Cook. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Martin Marquez
Eilif. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Clifford Samuel
Young Man . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Morgan Watkins
A Soldier. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Guy Rhys
The Soldier . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Youssef Kerkour
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Scene 9
Mother Courage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . FionA SHAW
Kattrin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sophie Stone
The Cook. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Martin Marquez
Dog. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Gary Sefton
Scene 10
Mother Courage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . FionA SHAW
Kattrin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sophie Stone
Scene 11
The Lieutenant . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Roger Sloman
First Soldier . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Sargon Yelda
Second Soldier . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Gary Sefton
Third Soldier. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Anthony Mark Barrow
The Farmer. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Gerard Monaco
The Farmer’s Wife . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Siobhan McSweeney
The Farmer’s Son. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Kyle McPhail
Kattrin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sophie Stone
Scene 12
The Farmer’s Wife . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Siobhan McSweeney
Mother Courage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . FionA SHAW
Kattrin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sophie Stone
The Farmer. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Gerard Monaco
The Farmer’s Son. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Kyle McPhail
All other parts played by members of the company
Duke Special and the Band
Paul Pilot (guitar)
Ben Castle (saxophone & clarinet)
Jules Maxwell (pianos & organs)
Simon Little (upright bass)
Phil Wilkinson (drums)
Chip Bailey (percussion)
Duke Special (piano)
Director. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Deborah Warner
Set Designer. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Tom Pye Costume Designer . . . . . . . . . . . . . Ruth Myers
Lighting Designer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Jean Kalman
Songs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Duke Special and the cast
Musicscape. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Mel Mercier
Sound Designers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Andrew Bruce & Nick Lidster
for Autograph
Video Designers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Lysander Ashton
& Mark Grimmer
for Fifty-Nine Productions Ltd
Company Voice Work . . . . . . . . . . .Jeannette Nelson &
Kate Godfrey
Company Movement . . . . . . . . . . . Joyce Henderson
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Tony Kushner on Mother Courage
Fiona Shaw as Mother Courage
Photo by Anthony Luvera
Is Mother Courage and Her Children an antiwar play? It’s certainly not a wildly enthusiastic
endorsement of war, not a pro-war play. Brecht
had been an ambulance driver during World
War I, an experience that cured him of any
appetite for military conflict. The Thirty Years’
War, the setting for Mother Courage, in Brecht's
dramatic account, was a pointless, grotesquely
protracted, gruesome catastrophe for everyone
except the handful of victors among the
European aristocracy who profited from it. This
is an assessment of the conflict to which no
historian I've encountered would take exception.
War, for Brecht, as it was for the American Civil
War General William Tecumseh Sherman, as it is
for Mother Courage by the end of the play, as it
is assumed to be by most people who haven't
lived through it and known to be by nearly
everyone who has, is hell.
Driven into exile by the Third Reich, Brecht
began work on Mother Courage in Sweden in
the summer and fall of 1939; he was writing
it when Germany invaded Poland. Ten years
later, the play received its German premiere
at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. The
refugee playwright in his wanderings had
circumnavigated the planet. The city to which
he returned, once his home and the arena for
his great successes, scandals and remarkable
theatrical experiments, was now a wasteland of
burnt, rat-infested rubble. The Reich was gone,
World War II had ended, but the Cold War was
heating up. The possibility of atomic annihilation
overshadowed an uneasy peace.
In 1949, Mother Courage’s characters,
creator, cast and audience shared a warweariness and an ashen, heartsick terror at the
prospect of more war. It was manifestly one
of Brecht's ambitions for the play to expose
the transactional, economic nature of war. But
by the end of Mother Courage, arguably the
bleakest conclusion Brecht wrote, his adage
that war is business carried on by other means
feels inadequate and hollow. The play reveals
war not as business but as apocalypse, as the
human nemesis, the human antithesis. War
devours life.
It's understandable that the play has often been
labeled as anti-war, both by those for whom this
constitutes high praise and by those for whom
Mother Courage is evidence that Brecht, writing
an ostensibly pacifist text in 1939, supported
the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression treaty, thereby
unmasking himself as a dull Stalinist drone and
obedient functionary of the Comintern.
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Tony Kushner on Mother Couragecontinued...
Emblazoned on the house curtain of the Berliner
Ensemble, whose signature production was
Mother Courage, was a peace dove drawn by
Picasso. In a poem about those curtains, Brecht
admiringly describes Picasso’s peace dove as
streitbare – “argumentative” or “cantankerous.”
If there's a pacifist, anti-war spirit stirring within
Mother Courage, it too must be described as
streitbare, to say the least. It's a problematic
sort of anti-war play, given that its climactic,
least ambiguous and most hopeful moment is
the one in which a town of sleeping people are
awakened and summoned to battle against a
merciless foe. The great moment of heroism and
sacrifice in Mother Courage, the great instance
of a refusal of obedience to an evil order, is not a
refusal to fight but rather a call to arms.
So is that an anti-war play?
Almost all of us believe that war is ghastly and
ought to be avoided whenever possible. Most
of us don’t believe war is always avoidable,
but if we've survived it, or tried imaginatively to
comprehend its horrors, we dread its outbreak.
Non-violence isn’t a course most of us can
embrace, but its arguments, if not persuasive,
are compelling to any thoughtful person: There's
very little evidence in history that war brings
peace. There’s ample evidence that, given our
assumption of war's inevitability, we're more
than a little susceptible to militarist advocacy for
wholehearted and constant preparedness and,
when our troops are engaged in combat, for a
blinders-on determination to win. In other words,
pacifists and militarists and the vast rest of us
in between, have contradictory thoughts and
feelings about war, even to the point of torment.
Simple plays with simple, single answers can be
of little use to us.
Bertolt Brecht was not a simple man. His
personality and his politics are fascinatingly
complex, as is his theoretical writing, his
poetry, his plays, all of which are remarkably
resistant to reductive labeling. Mother Courage
and Her Children, in my opinion the greatest
of his many great works, is not a simple play.
It places us in judgment of the actions of a
woman who inhabits a universe defined by war,
who often makes calamitous choices but who
makes them faced with scarcities and perils
Fiona Shaw as Mother Courage
Photo by Anthony Luvera
so severe that her choices are unbearably
hard, and sometimes all but impossible. She
refuses to understand the nature of her tragic
circumstances; she refuses to look back;
she is afraid looking back will weaken her.
She reaches correct conclusions and then
immediately discards them. She's afraid she
can't afford to learn. She presents us with
a maddening and dismaying spectacle; she
refuses to judge herself, and we judge her
for that. And also, we watch her world grow
lonelier and less forgiving with each bad
choice she makes. We feel we are watching
her dying – the losses she countenances
would kill anyone – yet she refuses to die.
We judge even that refusal; her indomitability,
her hardiness, come to seem dehumanizing,
uncanny, less mythic than monstrous.
And yet we are moved by this woman, as,
inarguably, Brecht meant us to be. She's
egoistical because she has almost nothing.
She's selfish but she's spared nothing. She
has a vitality and a carnality. Even though
her appetites seem obscene, set as they are
against widespread carnage, the mortification
of Courage's dignity, of her flesh, the grindingdown of her ambition and self-possession are
devastating to watch. She's smart and she
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Tony Kushner on Mother Couragecontinued...
thinks her cleverness has gained her the little
something, the small sufficiency – her wagon
– by means of which she attains a degree of
agency and power in her malevolent, antihuman world. The shattering of that illusion of
power leads her to self-loathing and from that
to a bitter contempt for the powerless, and then
on to a creeping slow stupidity, leaving us with a
terrible sense of loss.
The smartass, skeptical, secular intelligence
governing Courage is at war with a fatal
darkness that suffuses the action. As with nearly
all of Brecht's big plays written in exile, Courage
is set at one of the many transitional historical
moments when the medieval is yielding to
the mercantile (a process it took centuries to
complete, if indeed it's completed even now).
The bad new things are preferable, according
to another of Brecht's adages, to the good old
things, but in Courage, a pre-modern, peasant
Christianity is set against the onslaught of the
modern, the vehicle for which is the war. It's
impossible to resist the power of this sorrowful
Christian ethos of redemptive suffering. It
is equally impossible to imagine for it any
existence in the Hobbesian war-of-all-againstall world of Mother Courage – our world – other
than as the nearly subliminal, nearly sublingual,
poetic, oppositional specter that haunts and at
a few critical moments possesses Brecht's play,
which at least in part accounts for its divided
pro- and anti-war soul.
boots, buckles, beer and black market bullets
to sell instead. Courage isn't neglecting any
plausible, palatable, even endurable alternative.
In choosing to write about a canteen woman
trailing after armies in war-ravaged 17th-century
Europe, Brecht precluded any alternatives
or options from presenting themselves. If his
formal inventions – the jarring succession of
bluntly spliced juxtapositions and epic theatrical
chronological elisions and leaps, the probing
of the social basis of character, of personality
– invite us to adopt a stance of critical
observation, his choices of time and place and
circumstance force us out of judgment and into
There's a life in Courage's details that refuses to
participate in anything schematic. Like all great
plays, Courage instructs; like all great plays, its
instruction flashes forth from within a churning,
disorienting action, compounded of conflict, of
contradiction. Clarity is intended, but confusion
is no accident. What Courage shows us will
escape our judgment, but it remains infinitely
available to our arguments, to our struggles to
This article was written for the NT
programme for Mother Courage and Her
Children© Tony Kushner, 2009
In her blindness to the Pyrrhic nature of her
victories each time she succeeds in hanging on
to the goods she sells, Courage embodies an
uncomfortably familiar modern disfigurement:
A relationship to commodities, to money and
the marketplace, to the non-human and the
inorganic that perverts human relationships
and is ultimately inimical to life. And yet…
what else can she do? If she's oblivious to
the consequences of hanging on, she's eagleeyed about the consequences of losing what
she has. Neither Courage nor Kattrin will
have to sell herself—neither will end up like
the prostitute Yvette—as long as they've got
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Timeline: Mother Courage’s journey
1599 Bamberg, Bavaria
Anna Fierling (Mother Courage) first goes into
business as a canteen woman.
1604 Bamberg, Bavaria
Kattrin is born. Mother Courage leaves her
native South German home of Bamberg to go
to the Sweden-Denmark war.
1611 Sweden
Gustavus Adolphus is crowned King.
1612 Bamberg, Bavaria
Mother Courage buys her wagon.
1618 Bohemia
Thirty Years' War between Catholics and
Protestants begins with the Bohemian revolt.
1621 Riga
Gustavus Adolphus II captures the city. Anna
Fierling earns the name Mother Courage by
travelling through the battle to deliver bread.
1624, Spring (Scene 1) Sweden (Dalarna)
Eilif is recruited into the Swedish army to fight
in the Sweden-Poland war.
1625-26 (between Scenes 1 and 2)
From Dalarnia to Poland (Wallberg)
Mother Courage follows the Swedish army
across Poland.
1626 (Scene 2) Poland (near the fort at
Wallhof), General's tent
Mother Courage meets Eilif for the first time in
two years.
1629, October (Scene 3) Poland. Been
following the 2nd Finnish regiment for three
Made prisoners of war as the Catholics defeat
the Protestants and Swiss Cheese is killed.
1629 (Scene 4) Poland, an officers' tent of the
Catholic armies
While waiting to complain, Mother Courage
talks a young soldier out of complaining.
1629-31 (between Scenes 4 and 5)
Poland, Moravia, Bavaria, Italy, Bavaria
Following the Catholic army.
1631, May (Scene 5) Magdeburg
Tilly's victory costs Mother Courage four
officers' shirts.
1632, April (Scene 6) Near Ingolstadt, Bavaria
Field Marshal Tilly's funeral.
1632 (Scene 7) Travelling with Catholic army
Mother Courage at the height of her business
1632, Summer (battle was in November)
(Scene 8) Lutzen
Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus has fallen
at in the Battle of Lutzen. A brief peace is
declared. Eilif dies.
1634, Autumn/Early Winter (Scene 9)
German mountains called Fichtelbirge
Business is bad. The Cook leaves for Utrecht.
1635, whole year (Scene 10) Central Germany
Mother Courage and Kattrin travel throughout
1636, January (Scene 11)
Farmhouse on the outskirts of Halle
Catholic forces threaten the city. Kattrin is
1636. January (Scene 12) Leaving the
Mother Courage follows the last Protestant
1648 Europe
Thirty Years' War ends with the signing of
several treaties. The results are:
Peace of Westphalia; Hapsburg supremacy
curtailed; rise of the Bourbon dynasty; rise of
the Swedish Empire; Decentralisation of the
Holy Roman Empire.
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Rehearsal Diary by Staff Director Bruce Guthrie
Photo (Deborah Warner in the rehearsal room for Mother Courage and Her Children) by Anthony Luvera
“Intelligence is not to make no mistakes,
but quickly to see how to make them
good.” Bertolt Brecht
The following is a summary of the sevenweek rehearsal period at the National Theatre
Week 1
A terrific start to the rehearsal process. The
company have really gelled and had a lot of fun
with the play. There is a vitality and optimism
buzzing in the room come the end of the week.
The group warm-ups, improvisations, exercises
and readings with cast members playing each
other's parts seemed to remove any potential
blocks on the play caused by a reverence or
awe paid to it because of its reputation as a
classic of the 20th century.
There was plenty of getting-to-know-you on
day one. Movement and games with Joyce
Henderson every day with all of the team
involved was fantastic. Great to get the blood
pumping and the mind working on a daily basis.
It also helps to create the feeling of an ensemble
with the whole team, not just the actors.
What really struck me was the willingness of
everyone to pursue and support other people's
ideas. This was most evident in the early runs
of the play where possibilities were explored
in their freshest state. Discovering how actors
could create their own sound effects with the
use of a microphone was great. The use of
scene titles and the stage directions gave a root
to the readings and really helped the clarity of
the story.
I am looking forward to the weeks to come.
Week 2
The week begins with the arrival of Duke Special
and his band. They play through the songs for
the show with the cast and then perform two
songs for everyone at the meet-and-greet (over
100 people who will be working on the show
from all departments come to the rehearsal
room). It's a wonderful morning. Everyone is
buzzing about the music. Duke tells us the
songs will develop with the show and how much
he is looking forward to his first venture into
Tony Kushner talks to the company about
the play (see article from the programme)
and answers the actors’ questions. He is a
fascinating man. His passion for this play is
evident (the first Brecht play he read at the age
of 18) as he talks about the setting and the
Thirty-Year War. Certain things he says about
the play stick in my head; “If you hang on to
anything – even the smallest idea – it will destroy
you. You have to roll with the forces of the
world.” “The play is the world presented – it’s
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Rehearsal Diary – continued
not there to teach any specific lessons.” “Each
sentence is its own moment and the characters
will contradict themselves in order to survive.”
He also summed up his view of Brecht's muchdebated Alienation technique: “Making the
strange familiar and the familiar strange.”
As the week progresses, we dig deeper into
research materials. We look at pictures of
wars over the last 180 years. The images are
harrowing. While the technology changes, the
results seem to be very similar. We also look at
images of gypsies and travelling people to get a
sense of Courage, her family and the wagon.
We have our first reading of the play with
everyone playing the parts they have been cast
in. It is great to hear the voices and see some
of the initial choices made by the actors. There
are a great many interesting things to play with.
I am intrigued to see where we go from here in
weaving them into the story. What stays, what
develops and what becomes something else.
We start work on the scenes. The work is very
detailed and interesting. The text is tough. The
scenes are more complicated than they may
seem at first. It is a time-consuming process and
before we know it the week is over. We come up
with a plan of action and a rehearsal timetable to
get us through the entire play by 12 August. This
will involve long days. It's a challenge to get that
amount of work done but we will get there.
Week 3
We crack on with the play now. The sessions are
long and tiring for all involved but I feel that we
are making progress. Deborah and Fiona [Shaw]
seem to have boundless energy and enthuiasm
for the play. The scenes are complicated and
rich and it takes time to excavate detail from
them but it will stand us in good stead I'm sure.
Particular highlights are the end of Scene 3 (the
death of Swiss Cheese) and Scene 4 (Song
of the great Capitulation). Colin Stinton as the
General in Scene 2 was fantastic too.
Characters are beginning to develop now from
the initial ideas. By the time we reach Scenes 5
and 6 we are starting to find the playing energy
levels that we need to start Scene 1 with. Detail
is being layered in and ideas are expanding all
the time. It would be great to go straight back
to Scene 1 again and work from the start of the
play but time is pressing on.
Good progress made but we have to keep up
this level of energy and commitment or we may
struggle to have enough time.
Week 4
A difficult week. At the top of Scene 8, one of
our younger actors struggled to find a way into
the scene. It proved to be very time-consuming
but is a perfect example of the importance of
smaller roles in a huge play. There is a common
misconception amongst young actors that
bigger roles are easier because there is more
to say and consequently more to play. But this
is not the case. The smaller roles are just as
important as the leads. The play must work as a
whole. The challenge (especially with supporting
and ensemble roles) is for the actor to make
choices and bring them on stage with them
rather than relying on reacting to others all the
time. The skill is in making interesting choices
that add to the action rather than run against it
in a non-constructive way.
Progress picks up as the week goes on.
Interesting ideas for Scene 9. We experiment
with the actors playing the scene as if on a
substance like crystal meth. It gives the scene
a mad, desperate quality. Tony Kushner talked
about how the Song of Solomon mirrored the
plight of the children in the play: each of the
great individuals in the song was undone by
their virtues.
Scene 11 is often referred to as one of the
great scenes of European drama. We spend
a lot of time discussing relationships in this
scene. Sophie [playing Katrin] experiments with
climbing up ladders and different types of drum.
It is a great scene, one to re-visit and clean up,
but the intention is there.
Scene 12 is such a tough scene – but it is going
to be brilliant. Fiona experiments with disjointed
physical movements and erratic emotion; the
farm family look on at a woman who is unhinged
and dangerous. It's a good session and will
settle the more we do it.
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Rehearsal Diary – continued
We get back to the start of the play and revisit
Scene 1. It's still a tough one to make clear
but at least the pressure of getting through the
play for the first time is off. The actors are being
encouraged to be more specific and to bring
more ideas to the play now we have got through
it once. Even though it is only the end of week
four, time is against us. This is a big play with
big ideas. The next few weeks will be packed,
interesting and exciting.
“This must be played like a classical text or
Shakespeare. It is a high action play. All of the
characters are focused on whatever they are
after. We cannot let the level of intention drop
and the thoughts must be exquisitely clear at all
times. When our energy levels are up, it's the
stuff of terrific theatre.”
Deborah Warner
Week 5
It has been a week of solving problems and
discovering new challenges. Certain scenes are
really beginning to take off while the complexity
and length of others tells us we need to revisit
them a few more times. Even though we still
have two weeks left, I think it's going to be tight.
Running Scene 3 was a very positive step. It
allowed the actors to get a feeling of roughly
how the scene will flow. The scene is over a
quarter of the play and is almost worthy of
being a play in its own right! The complexity of
prop logistics is beginning to be a problem as
ideas are explored, expanded upon and some
are discarded. More and more detail is being
layered in. It is fascinating to watch Fiona work
so instinctively. She is constantly trying new
things and coming at each scene in a multitude
of different ways.
We are still waiting to hear about fire regulations
in the theatre. We need to know whether we
can open the huge shutters at the back of the
Olivier stage to allow the cart to get on and off.
This will have a massive impact on the staging
of the show (thus far we have been working on
the principle that it will be possible to open the
shutters). As a result of this delay, the actual cart
we will use in the show will not be ready until the
first day of the Technical Rehearsal, which will
contribute to slowing us down since the actors
will have to get used to the way the cart moves,
its weight etc. If it gets here earlier, we'll try to
get the actors on stage sooner than the tech to
work with the cart.
Duke Special is in the rehearsal room next week
with the whole band. This will be a welcome
addition. The music they played for us at the
beginning of week two has been fleshed out
and worked with the actors. Brecht wanted the
songs to be events within Mother Courage, I
think that they certainly will be in this version.
I will start work with the understudies next
week. Their roles will be confirmed and we will
have a reading. I would usually have started
work with them before now but we have been
working long hours and I feel the actors should
concentrate on their primary roles in the play
before turning their attention to understudying.
They will be ready.
Week 6
So much to do and so little time! So many
elements need to come together now to make
this show work. We have to start nailing down
who uses which props and where. The scene
changes will be huge. The songs are going to be
brilliant. Lots of great stuff this week.
Members of the company with drector Deborah Warner (centre)
Photo by Anthony Luvera
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Rehearsal diary – continued
Particular highlights this week were The Song
of Fraternisation, The Song of the Hours and
The Song of the Great Capitulation. Putting
Duke Special on stage and integrating him into
the scenes really works. There are times when
he is directly involved in the action, and times
when he is more removed. He seems to me like
a ghostly minstrel, embodying the spirit of the
war (but perhaps I am trying too hard to label
The sound work on the show is very exciting
too. Gore Vidal reading the scene titles,
combined with Youseff's Arabic versions is
very interesting to listen to. Gary Sefton using
the microphone to create a bombardment
soundscape gets better every time we do it.
He also has a foot pedal now which, when hit,
creates a deafening explosion.
The play is beginning to become clearer.
The episodic nature of the piece means that it
feels like lots of mini-plays with the same core
characters. Lots of time passes between almost
every scene (with the exception of 3-4). This
brings its own set of challenges and makes
it difficult to continue any through-line of
effect from the previous scenes. Almost every
line is a new thought and this is becoming
clearer the more we do it. We are all full of
contradiction, and that's what makes us
We also had Sky Arts in filming a
mini-documentary of the rehearsal process.
This is available to watch at
One week left and the Olivier stage is looming.
I get the feeling we will only truly find this play
during the previews. The actors need to work
in the space now. This play is huge in terms of
logistical size, themes and dramatic content.
I have absolute faith that Deborah will bring
all of the terrific elements we have explored in
the past weeks together on that historic stage.
I am looking forward to it.
© Bruce Guthrie, 2009
Tom Pye's scene heading designs for the stage
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Rehearsal exercises – from a day in Week One
Group Warm-Up
Movement coach Joyce Henderson takes
the whole group through a warm-up session.
Everyone in the room participates: the director,
staff director, stage management, design team
and Sophie's sign-language interpreter.
exercise shows how the group can have very
different perceptions of the play. It also gives
the group an idea of the possibilities that may
exist in the playing of the play. It is a very good
way of encouraging debate about the play and
exploring lateral thinking about it.
The physical warm up involves stretching,
various name games (as this is early in
rehearsals) and physical focus games.
Reading the play
We read the play with actors playing parts in
which they were not cast. This is not gender
specific. One actor reads the scene titles for the
play and another reads the stage directions. We
sit in a circle on chairs and the actors who are
playing do so in the middle of the circle. There is
a selection of props and costumes in the middle
of the circle for the actors to use as they see
fit throughout the reading. The only rules are
that they keep the action going, listen to each
other and play one big idea for the character
all the way through – this could be an accent,
physicality or attitude – and the idea must be
bold. It doesn't matter if it is consistent with
the sex of the character or based on evidence
held within the play. After the reading, the
actors commented that they felt the reading
had unlocked many new possibilities of how to
play the text and took a lot of pressure off all
the actors in terms of playing their own parts. It
also allowed experimentation to take place in a
way that was both fun and without judgement of
what is right and wrong. It liberates the text from
a feeling that there is a set of rules that we have
to adhere to and helps to give the company
ownership of the play.
The group get into a tight circle facing inward
with one person in the centre. The person in
the middle throws an object (in this case a
small ball) to another company member who
stands in the circle who then throws it back.
The person in the centre then throws the ball
to another member of the company. They
must make eye contact when doing this and
not attempt to catch each other out. Once
a steady rhythem has been established, a
member of the circle shouts “change”. The
person in the centre of the circle then runs
out of the centre, becoming part of the circle,
while the member who shouted takes their
place. The rhythm of the throwing should stay
consistent and the ball should not be dropped.
This takes practice and the group have to
work out collectively the right time to shout
“change”. As the game develops, the aim
should be to change the person in the middle
on every throw.
Group exercise
Each member of the group is given a blank
sheet of paper and a pen. The director asks
the group to write down three sentences about
Mother Courage and Her Children without using
the title or the writer's name. These sentences
can be as long or short as the individual wants.
They can be anything the individual thinks or
feels about the play or its themes, and do not
have to be factual. Once completed, each
person should fold their piece of paper and put
it down in the middle of the room. Everyone
should pick up a piece of paper that isn't their
own. The group should walk around the room
in random directions, stopping to listen when a
member of the group feels the need to read the
sentences aloud. Once every thought has been
read aloud we discuss the thoughts as a group.
The opinions are diverse and range from very
specific to sweeping moods and feelings. The
Final Exercise
The company are given large sheets of paper,
brushes and poster paint. Everyone paints a
picture of what they think the play is. These
pictures range from abstract to literal to
impressionistic (anything the company wants).
Once they are finished (we allowed about an
hour and a half) we walk around the room to
view the paintings. Each company member
then talks about their painting. It was a very
interesting way of exploring the actors' thoughts
about the play via a different creative medium.
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Interview with Duke Special (Music)
Duke Special,
recording his songs
for Mother Courage
and Her Children
How did you get involved with Mother
Fiona Shaw saw me play at an awards
ceremony in Los Angeles – she was being
presented with an award. I was performing at
the after-show, and that started the ball rolling
in her mind. She'd been thinking about doing
a production of Mother Courage with Deborah
Warner. Deborah came over to see me play in
Ireland a couple of times and gradually they
began to form a plan about involving me in
some way.
Where does the name of the band come
It's a moniker that I use for anything to do with
music. You'll never find my regular birth name
on any record that I do. I always come with the
name Duke Special and on this occasion it's
'and band.' I do solo gigs or I play with a 7-piece
band. The name Is a slightly theatrical thing In
that I can hide behind it and say things as Duke
Special that perhaps I couldn't as myself.
Like a persona?
I guess so, a little, in the way that an author puts
words in the mouths of his characters, which he
may or may not believe.
Was the name inspired by anything?
Yes, by vaudeville performers from around the
early 1900s. A lot of them went on to be known
as The Great Suprenzo or the Magnificent.
Some of them were the Duke...
How did you get started in music? What were
your earliest influences?
Probably family, to be honest. I have three older
sisters, I was the youngest. My mother played
piano and all her siblings and all my cousins
play piano and sing. I think it felt very normal to
express yourself that way at social gatherings
or at Christmas. When I was 10 or so, I found
it a great way to express myself while other
people were playing keepy-upsy with a football.
Something just clicked in me with playing and I
found it a great outlet. It was encouraged: it was
fortunate my parents allowed me to chase that
crazy idea.
It would be fair to say it's an eclectic group
of instruments that you use. What is it that
inspires you to do that – is it just because
you like the way that they sound or do you
actively go out and look for different sounds?
It's all to do with the players. You could have
the most crazy instruments or the most regular
instruments but it's all about the way that
they're playing them, how they use them and
how they think about it. I think I've always, as
Duke Special, tried to have the capacity of
reaching into pop and rock circles – with the
drum kit and guitar and bass – but also I've tried
to align myself to something more theatrical,
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Interview with Duke Special (Music) – continued
using piano, and with Kurt Weill or Tom Waits
as influences; and also through the lyrics,
telling a story in the song-writing. I hate being
boxed in by any particular genre. If somebody
thinks they have me figured out that makes me
feel really frustrated and I want to deliberately
do something different! So sometimes I want
to beat the crap out of my piano and push it
over and at other times I want to play the most
melodic sound you've ever heard – and often in
the places where you shouldn't.
What creatively inspires you to write songs?
You talked about being very different and
your back catalogue of songs shows that.
But do you see something and get an idea
from it – like a poem?
It's all those things. As a songwriter you're
always trying to prove something to yourself and
to other people, I find. That's often the start of
It: you kind of go: I'm going to write something
here. It's also trying desperately to get in touch
with your own feelings, I suppose. Some people
talk a lot. I don't talk a huge amount but I find
songs are huge boreholes into what's going on
inside me. Sometimes stuff comes out in songs
that surprises me, 'cause I haven't really talked
or thought about it. I find that quite cathartic.
And then it can be anything from reading a
book to watching a movie, to a conversation,
to hearing another piece of music, to someone
saying, Do you want to write some songs for a
play and then having to start from that. It's all
about staying curious and open.
just followed my own instinct with it. I knew
that Brecht had collaborated a lot with Kurt
Weill, and I kind of knew that Kurt Weill's stuff
was often melodic but had a lot of interesting
twists and turns in it. So I tried to keep that as
my benchmark. But I had no idea whether it
was going to work or what anyone was going
to think of it. So, yes, I was very pleased that
Deborah and Fiona really liked it.
Duke Special in Mother Courage and Her Children
Photo by Anthony Luvera
How has it been, writing music for a play
like this, where you have Brecht's words
translated through an American writer,
and then on to writing the music that you
presented in the second week of rehearsal,
to Nick Hytner [the National's Director] in the
rehearsal room. And how has it differed from
your normal work?
I really love the process. I respond to lyrics in
terms of how they make me feel. Sometimes
I like jaunty, upbeat songs with more morose
lyrics, or disguising a difficult line with an upbeat
melody, and making something accessible
through melody that is very dark otherwise. I
just tried to respond to the lyric. I had no idea
whether it was going in the right direction: I
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Interview with Sophie Stone (playing Kattrin)
How do you work in a rehearsal room, being
an actress who happens to be deaf? What
sort of things do you need to have in place in
order for you to work?
When there are a huge number of people
involved – actors and technical crew [around
120 people are involved in this production] – you
can't skim over things or be complacent about
how much jargon you need to know, like safety
procedures, especially on a show like this where
safety is paramount. You have to have a certain
relationship of trust with the people you work
with. I had a communicator put in place so that
they could articulate anything that I might have
missed, or to position me in the right place, and
basically feed back all of the details and any
information that could be easily misplaced or
misunderstood, or not picked up on at all.
On this particular production, have there
been differences to the way you might have
worked at RADA or on other productions,
because of the size of the company and the
system it has? What is the system you'd
have on a smaller production and how is that
different to Mother Courage?
In drama school I might have had a
communicator, or interpreter, but they do notetaking and lip-speaking. They're very adaptable.
At drama school I spent two or three weeks at
a time with them, getting to know everybody's
lip patterns, getting to know what to expect
from each session, and how things work – and
working out whether I could be independent
in this situation or in this class. Maybe certain
circumstances would be a bit more difficult
for me and I would need support. After two or
three weeks of full-time support I would say,
actually I don't need as much. But with this
show, because of its size and time restrictions,
and the number of lip patterns I had to pick up
on – there were so many things happening at
once. I couldn't mess about with the director's
time, so I had to have support throughout the
whole rehearsal period, right into technicals.
Even into the previews, where we would have
pre-show feedback from the night before, I
would need somebody there to ensure that I
got all the notes. I have found it a bit difficult
letting go of my independence and saying, I
need the support. Usually I wouldn’t feel I do. I
wouldn’t want to be so reliant that for any other
job they would hesitate in taking me on because
they think the amount of support I'd need is
too much for them to cope with. That's my
fear in this profession – that I'm giving people
ammunition to not give me jobs. So I want to try
and find my own way with my role, but obviously
there's a lot of pride to deal with before you
can't get there.
You're playing Kattrin in Mother Courage.
What have been the particular challenges of
the role for you as an actress?
Not having anything to say! A lot of people
have spoken about the relief of talking: when
people talk they can unburden an emotion of
what they're saying or who they’re saying it to.
As I can't articulate any thoughts or feelings for
Kattrin, I carry a lot of tension, a lot of withheld
emotions, and that can be very exhausting.
It's also a case of looking closer at your own
experiences, which Deborah, the director, made
a point of wanting from me. A way of expressing
everything that I, as Sophie, throughout my
life have had to change in order to understand
people, in order to survive in certain situations
where I can't lip-read or I can't understand
or can't hear. How do I get through those
Sophie Stone in rehearsals
Photo by Anthony Luvera
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Interview with Sophie Stone – continued
circumstances? I watch and I position myself.
So I had to incorporate those survival methods
into the rehearsal space through which I was
able to understand Kattrin's survival methods
and how she picks up on everything. Not just
by listening, but by watching – which is why she
is so affected by everything – but because she
can’t talk about what she has seen or what has
happened to her, she becomes a mysterious,
enclosed character, carrying a lot of things.
When you talk about survival methods that
you, Sophie, have identified with, what do
you mean, in your own life?
A lot of it comes down to lip-reading – people
have different lip patterns and sometimes I can’t
read them, or they may face away from me, or
maybe even – bullying tactics from school – they
may purposely hide their face so that I can’t
understand. So I would either pretend or guess,
or find a way of getting somebody to repeat
themselves, without pulling focus too much onto
them, which is quite important in theatre. If your
co-actors have to repeat themselves constantly,
it’s hard for them to continue to play the scene.
It’s difficult for me to put my finger on because I
don't really see it as survival – it’s a way of living.
You’re more aware of what’s going on around
What's the biggest thing you've learnt from
doing this show? I find with each show, I
learn something vastly different. Do you think
in those terms?
A couple of things. One of them is physicality,
the amount of physical work that Kattrin has
to do. Almost to compensate for her lack of
speech, she dives into work head on and even
further into that world of obsessiveness, and
her work is covering the pain of everything she
has to experience. And I think, through that, I
have learned that you cannot generalise your
physicality. Everything is very specific to the
moment, to what has just happened and what is
going to happen and what comes out of that is
almost like an obsessive-compulsive disorder. In
people's silent world, how do they communicate
with the objects around them? With their bodies.
When Mother Courage covers Kattrin's face
to hide her from the soldiers, how does she
physically express herself without her face being
seen and how long does that go on for before
she feels she needs to express with her face?
I find, with every show that I do, that I’m delving
deeper into the question of why is she doing
this, where is she going and how does she
react? Kattrin's reaction to things changes
depending on the dynamics of the show that
night, and the intensity of what's happened.
The other major thing I've learnt is about my
working relationships with people who have
been in the industry for a very long time: the
experiences I have picked up from them and
what I can bring to the table. Not only as a freshfaced drama graduate, but also as somebody
with a disability who people may never have
experienced working with. Hopefully I've opened
some minds as much as they've opened mine.
I am very happy with my working relationships;
I've grown as a person and developed a better
understanding of working with a huge group and
maintaining a relationship with them all. You all
bring something to a show and if there's one
part of it that needs to be sorted out then we
have to collectively push this play forward.
During the rehearsal process, especially at
the beginning, people had to bring ideas into
the room. What was your starting point with
Kattrin, how did that develop throughout
rehearsals and even now, through the
process of performing the play?
I don’t think I had a specific starting point. As
an actor, you research a character to the point
where you may have made some decisions
about who she is, and sometimes you bring
those ideas to the table. Deborah may feel that
one or two of your ideas might be right but she
wants you to get rid of all of them and to start
from the truth of you, which is why she hires
the people that she has hired. She wants you
to gradually layer on the character from your
experiences. You don't force your acting choices
onto what you perceive the character to be. It
was quite difficult at the beginning, bringing
more and more ideas in but not finding the right
choices until later on, when I stopped trying to
find the choices. I just let it happen naturally,
feed off other people, improvise and try things
out. I learnt if you try something and it doesn't
work, don't give up, try something else. You will
get there in the end.
One kernel of advice for anybody who may
be in a similar position to you, who might
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Interview with Sophie Stone – continued
be deaf, who might have some particular
challenge ahead of them?
When I first started acting, a lot of people may
have dismissed it as an easy way out, that I
chose this because I didn’t want to do any hard
work. If only they knew! I followed this because
it’s my passion and all I know. Whatever choice
you decide to take your life on, be open to
changes, be open to the fact that your passions
may change further down the line. But you've
also got to take a lot of knocks before you get to
where you want. If enough people support you,
the doors will open and you'll be all right. This
is an acting world; there are no beginnings or
ends. But that's the buzz. You don't know where
you're going to end up, you don't know how
long this ride will last, and whether you're in this
for the long haul.
If you're passion about what you do, however,
whatever job you want and whoever you are,
whether you're disabled, in an ethnic minority
group, or in a particular box, if you fight hard
enough, then maybe someone will stand behind
you and get you there.
Sophie Stone as Kattrin
Photo by Anthony Luvera
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Mother Courage – Selected Research Bibliography
Mother Courage and Her Children
translated by Tony Kushner
Mother Courage and Her Children
Various Translations
Brecht on Theatre
ISBN13 978-0413388001
Mother Courage and Her Children – Plays in
by Peter Thompson, ISBN 0-521-59774-9
Brecht – A Choice of Evils
by Martin EsslinISBN 0-413-54750-7
The Thirty Years’ War
by Geoffrey Parker, ISBN 0-415-12883-8
Essential Histories – The Thirty Years’ War
ISBN 978-1-84176-378-1
ICRC – Humanity in War
ISBN 978-1-906523-15-2
The Thirty Years War –
by C V Wedgewood, Penguin Books, 1938
Travelling People
Zona – Siberian Prison Camps
ISBN 0-9542648-4-3
Stopping Places
by Simon Evans, ISBN 978-1-902806-30-3
Hermanovce - Four Seasons with the Roma
ISBN 0-9542648-7-8
The Roma Journeys
by Cia Rinne, ISBN 978-3-865213716
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Bertolt Brecht
No modern director can fail to be influenced by
Brecht. No living writer can fail to be influenced
by Brecht. No actor should ignore Brecht’s
methodology. No one seriously concerned with
theatre can bypass Brecht. Brecht is the key
figure of our time, and all theatre work today at
some point starts or returns to his statements
and achievements. Peter Brook
Brecht the writer of poems and plays.
Brecht the theorist.
Brecht the director.
Brecht the Marxist.
Brecht the man.
Brecht the collaborator.
Brecht the stealer of ideas.
Brecht the womaniser.
Brecht the practitioner.
Brecht is undeniably one of the greatest
playwrights of the 20th century. His plays
remain among the most frequently performed
in the world repertoire. Every generation of
European theatre practitioner from the 1960s
onwards hasencountered and been influenced
by Brecht. Many may not be directly aware of
his legacy, but his influence has permeated
western theatre culture and is evident in the
work of contemporary playwrights, theatre
companies and directors.
Contemporary audiences and critics,
academics and actors often feel uncomfortable
with Brecht’s political commitment. To
understand his work we need to look at what
was happening in the immediate world around
Brecht when he was writing.
Berlin was between the two World Wars. The
generation of 1914 had died, if not literally,
then in every other way. The devastating
psychological effects of war could no longer
support the artifice of illusory theatre. Truth and
raw reality took over. Berlin became a hotbed
of art, politics, entertainment and high living
that radiated its influence over all the rest of
Europe and the world.
Cafes, elegant hotels, cabarets, music
and concert halls, theatres and cinemas
attracted talented entertainers, avant-garde
artists, writers and musicians of the age.
To see the terrain of Brecht’s Berlin, look at
the work of Klee, Kandinsky, Kokoschka,
Picasso, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Marlene
Dietrich, Reinhart, Schonberg. Cabaret,
based on the French model (short topical
revues, often political in nature, interspersed
with song), had long been a popular form
of entertainment for Berliners. (See Der
Blaue Engel – The Blue Angel with Marlene
Dietrich.) It aimed to startle rather than
convert; it was a place where, in rhyme
and song, political cabaret artistes would
offer their footnotes to the daily newspaper
headlines, and where the public would
discuss these events.
Brecht was seeking a new kind of theatre
that reflected the times in which he was
living; that replaced the old-fashioned
theatre with a modern new theatre; that
used theatre as a tool to examine the society
in which he was living; that asked
questions of the actors and the audience;
that instructed the audience; that
entertained whilst also being a tool for social
and political change.
Although Brecht’s theories changed over
the years, he was a political playwright
who wanted people to understand the
political and social condition of the world
around them. He was concerned with the
audiences involvement in what they were
watching. Early works, like The Mother
was a ‘lehrstück’ or learning play and
was written with the idea of educating
as well as entertaining his audience. The
idea of a ‘theatre for the scientific age’
was to investigate life, truth and evidence
through theatre, in the same way that a
scientist would experiment and examine.
To wonder ‘why?’. ‘The world around you
is changeable, it is not fixed. You can do
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Bertolt Brecht continued…
something about it – there is no such thing as
Brecht wanted people to examine the world
around them, to see things in a new light, to
ask questions about themselves and others,
about the inevitability of their lives; to take
responsibility for their actions and to be aware
that there is always another way. Choice offers
alternative outcomes. Brecht explores the
role of actor and the role of audience within
the theatrical space. He wanted them both to
question the actions of the characters on stage
and ask: ‘was that necessary’, and use this tool
of investigation to ask the same questions of
their own lives.
Brecht was not interested in his actors
‘becoming’ their characters. He wanted them
to be able to step in and out of role and remain
detached from the emotional centre of the
character they were playing. If an actor ‘acts
misery’, the audience immediately empathise
and feel the same, mirroring the emotions of the
actor. Brecht wanted the audience to question
what was going on and not to ‘feel with’ the
actor. By using particular rehearsal techniques
(see practical drama work), actors were trained
in this way.
Each character has to make decisions in the
play which define their next move. In order for
the actor to make these decisions visible to the
audience, Brecht devised a series of exercises
that separated the text from the action, and
deconstructed each moment minutely. When
run together again, the actor had to ‘show’ this
moment, and as Brecht said, ‘put air around it’
so it was clearly visible to the audience.
Brecht moved to Berlin in September 1924
to work as a script reader at Max Reinhardt’s
Deutsches Theater. He arrived on the crest of a
wave: already Trommeln in der Nacht (Drums in
the Night) had won the coveted Kleist Prize after
its Munich production; a month after his arrival
in Berlin, his Lebens Eduards des Zweiten von
England (Life of Edward II of England) opened at
the Staatstheater. That same month Im Dickicht
der Städte (In the Jungle of the City) was
produced by Erich Engels with sets by
Casper Neher, Brecht’s classmate from his
school days.
In 1928, the Berliner Börsen-Courier critic
After this litmus test, the name Bert Brecht
will be remembered for reasons other than
its attractive alliteration. Spheres of light
and confusion revolve around this young
man: his emotions are rooted in primordial
sounds: his hands uncover fragments of
life. They can balance human-ness with
humanity and conquer human frailty in the
earthly spirit. He has a wild, prize-worthy,
young talent, as long as one does not
demand that a twenty-year-old begin at his
For Brecht, these plays were the beginning
of a new theatre:
Today’s stage is completely makeshift. To
view it as having to do with the intellect,
with art, is a misapprehension. Theatre
deals with a vaguely comprehended public
.... The despairing hope of the theatre is to
keep a hold on its public by constantly
capitulating to its taste… But unless the
public is seen in terms of the class struggle,
it must be rejected as the source of a
new style. (Brecht, Gesammelte Werke, V:
Theoretische Schriften, p.126)
Brecht’s success in Berlin was, indeed,
based on his view of the audience as
representatives of a class. After Baal (a
parody of expressionist excesses), and
Mann ist Mann, he moved straight to his
great and eventually international triumph,
The Threepenny Opera.
was the response from Alfred Kerr, Berlin’s
leading theatre critic, after seeing Die
Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera)
when it opened under the direction of Erich
Engels at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm
on 31 August 1928. However, it was an
instant hit with the public, and had a long
The newspaper, Kreuz-Zeitung, wrote of
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Bertolt Brecht continued…
The Threepenny Opera:
‘It can be most easily summed up as literary
necrophilia, of which the most notable factor was
the worthlessness of its subject matter. What
simple-mindedness – naiveté is too weak a word
– for [the manager of the theatre] to believe he
can fill his house with emptiness!’
Alfred Kerr, from the Berliner Tageblatt asked –
What does The Beggar’s Opera have to do with
our time? Good Lord! Does the threatening
march of the beggars’ battalion or a little pseudoCommunism make it relevant? Pah! Without the
magnificently simple music of Weill it is nothing.
Rubbish. Junk. The thirteenth in the baker’s
The review was devastating, but Kerr also
accused Brecht of plagiarising some of the songs
from a translation of Francois Villon’s poetry. A
few months later Brecht admitted he was ‘quite
sloppy when it comes to matters of intellectual
BRECHT by Anthony Clark
What one has to remember about Brecht’s
theories on the theatre is that they were
formulated after the plays were written as
an attempt to analyse the effect they had on
Brecht’s writings about theatre are an inspiration.
Throughout his career he valued the theatre as
an instrument for political instruction. This is
not to say that all his plays are didactic political
diatribes, on the contrary, he explores many
different ways of instruction. His plays are full of
humour, sadness and purpose.
Art ought to be a means of education, but its
purpose is to give pleasure.
Brecht, 1952
A theatre which could inform, educate, challenge
and change people needed a dynamic form,
significantly different from the prevailing theatre
aesthetic of his day. That aesthetic was a kind
of naturalism – ‘keyhole theatre’ – voyeuristic
theatre – theatre which relied on an audience
being spellbound by the illusion of reality on
stage. What Brecht was after was a
theatre form which clearly acknowledged
that the actors and the audience were in
the same space; that celebrated the fact
that the artists had made choices about
how to do things, choices informed by
taking political responsibility for what
was happening in the contemporary
world. He used the medium of theatre in
a surprising way in an attempt to get an
audience to think about what was going
on, on stage. Why has it been portrayed
like that? What does this mean?
What are the causes for a character’s
Some of the devices he used, as
described in his writing on Epic Theatre,
are no longer as provocative as they
were. We are now used to suspending
our disbelief, accepting the illusion of
the work created in the theatre despite
the fact that we can see the source
of lighting, despite the ecleticism of
the design – our relationship to his
innovations is very different. They are, to
many people, old hat.
So we have to find new formal ways of
revealing his plays, while respecting the
intentions of the writer. Perhaps very
overtly theatrical lighting, full of colour,
is stranger to us than gradations of
open white light – one of Brecht’s many
21ST CENTURY by Anthony Meech
Brecht was immensely influential in the
twentieth century, as a writer, director
and theatre theorist – even as a survivor
of the various régimes he lived through.
His plays, theories and his theatre
practice have inspired directors, actors
and critics the world over. But what of
Brecht’s legacy will survive into the new
millennium? What will Brecht have to
offer us in the 21st century?
Recent research suggests that many of
the texts which were previously regarded
as Brecht’s, are in fact either wholly or
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Bertolt Brecht continued…
in large part written by his collaborators. Few
critics would now support Brecht’s claim to
sole authorship of the plays.
What of his production values and stagecraft?
They were certainly innovatory in their time,
but over the years it has become increasingly
difficult to remember a time when British
theatres would not have expected audiences
to pay good money to see dirty or used
costumes, and props. Add to this the fact that
Brecht was a committed Marxist and devoted
the last eight years of his life to establishing
not only the company and production values
of the Berliner Ensemble, but also actively to
encouraging new writers from the GDR. As a
result of this, the Berliner Ensemble became
a model national theatre in all but name. After
1989 this national theatre lost its nation, its rôle
and its unique qualities.
So what is there left of Brecht to take with
us into the new millennium? A discredited
exploiter of the devotion of both men and
women? A playwright who did not write his
own plays? A theatre practitioner whose once
innovative ideas are now common practice?
The poet laureate of a political ideology which
would appear not to have stood the test of
time, and of a country which no longer exists?
There must be, and there is, something else.
From the allegations of plagiarism which
surrounded the premiere of his first play
Baal onwards, Brecht was never far from
accusations of borrowing from others, whether
it was his texts, his ideas or his theories.
But Brecht’s genius as a theatre artist lay
precisely in this borrowing, in the way he
combined and developed what he inspired
in (or stole from) others, to realize his new
theatre – the collaborative effort which he
encouraged throughout his company. The
integrity which gives his work its unique power
is achieved through Brecht and his followers’
total commitment to the theatrical task in
hand. This commitment can be found too in
an area of Brecht’s theatrical activity which
remained tantalizingly incomplete, its promise
unfulfilled. It holds a key to his intentions
overall, and perhaps also offers us a model
and an inspiration for possible development
of theatre in the new century. This is the work
Brecht undertook with colleagues in the late
1920s and early 1930s into a new style of
teaching theatre to be called the Lehrstück,
the intention of which was to institute a new
relationship between stage and audience.
The new interaction he was attempting to
put in place in these theatrical experiments
between the stage and the audience, Brecht
called “Die Neue Zuschauerkunst”, which
could be translated as: the new art of being
an audience member, which involves an
active, or empowered audience. Brecht
was in fact attempting to extend the central
plank of his theatre production method, that
of collaboration or borrowing, to include the
final link in the chain: the audience, as equal
partners. And it is the new audiences and
Brecht’s ideas on their rôle which are the
mainspring of this new theatre form.
But what is the new rôle the audience is
expected to play? “Lehren” in German
means to teach. The plays are teaching
plays. This concept is hardly new. It could
be claimed that theatre has been used as
a teaching medium since mediaeval times.
What is new is what Brecht is intending
to teach his audience. For centuries the
theatre had been expected to communicate
eternal truths of the human condition to its
audience. Brecht’s theatre instead teaches
doubt. His plays do not embody certainties,
rather the opposite. The habit of doubt
which Brecht is hoping to teach in these
plays prepares an audience to contemplate
that other concept central to Brecht’s
thinking: change. Brecht rejects tragedy and
tragic inevitability, because tragedy teaches
its audience to accept their lot as inevitable
and immutable. His plays aim to show their
performers and audiences that they must be
prepared to welcome and take responsibility
for the change which, he believes, must
come. Brecht aims not for the calm of
resolution and acceptance at the end of a
play, but rather for an animated, discursive
and therefore empowered audience.
It was this goal of developing a new
response from his audience which he was
forced to abandon when he had to flee
Germany in 1933 to spend the next decade
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Bertolt Brecht continued…
in exile, away from active involvement in
theatre. During this time he reverted to a more
traditional expectation of his audiences in plays
such as Mother Courage and Her Children,
The Life of Galileo and The Caucasian Chalk
Circle. By the time he returned to Germany
much had changed. He was setting up a major
world theatre company, and devoting his time
to nurturing new writing talent. There was
little chance for him to engage in small-scale
In revisiting his plays in a new century, and in
particular in smaller scale productions, in more
intimate environments, we have the opportunity
to redefine the part the audience can be
expected to play in productions of Brecht’s
plays, in accordance with his own ideas. If we
can discourage the audience from “leaving
their brains in the cloakroom with their coats”,
we may perhaps realise his aim of an active,
empowered audience – what he meant by Die
Neue Zuschauerkunst.
Brecht’s theory of theatre in four main
points: From Drama from Ibsen to Brecht by
Raymond Williams"
1. The drama Brecht opposes involves
the spectator in the stage action and
consumes his capacity to act: in the drama
he recommends the spectator is an observer
and his capacity to act is awakened.
2. The drama he opposes presents
experience, drawing the spectator in until
he is experiencing the action with the
characters: the drama he recommends
presents a view of the world in which the
spectator confronts and is made to study
what he sees.
3. The drama he opposes makes one scene
exist for the sake of another, under the spell
of the action, as an evolutionary necessity.
The drama he recommends makes each
scene exist for itself, as a thing to be looked
at, and develops by sudden leaps.
4. The drama he opposes takes man, in
the run of the action, as known, given,
inevitable. The drama he recommends
shows man producing himself in the course
of action and therefore subject to criticism
and change.
What is basically being attacked is “the
illusion of reality” so, instead of subjective
involvement, there would be objective,
critical engagement. Brecht’s ideal was that
“the theatre will stop pretending to be the
Brecht at the time of writing Mother Courage and Her Children
Photo © akg images
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Bertolt Brecht continued…
Timeline: Brecht’s life and work
1898 1917 1918 1919 1920 1921 1922 1923
1924 1926 1927
1928 1929 1930 1932 1933 10 February Brecht born Augsburg,
Enrols as a medical student at
Munich University.
Military service as a medical orderly
in Augsburg.
Participates in Karl Valentin’s
political cabaret; writes Baal.
Son Frank born to girlfriend Paula
First trip to Berlin.
Second trip to Berlin: observes the
great director Max Reinhardt in
Drums In The Night in Munich then
Berlin. Receives Kleist Prize for
young writers. Marries Marianne
In The Jungle Of The Cities in
Munich. Baal in Leipzig. Daughter
Hanne born to Marianne Zoff.
Directs adaptation of Edward The
Second in Munich. Moves to Berlin.
Meets Helene Weigel who gives
birth to their son Stefan. Meets
Elizabeth Hauptmann, future
Man Is Man in Darmstadt.
Mahagonny song cycle, first
collaboration with Kurt Weill, starring
Lotte Lenya. Divorces Marianne Zoff.
The Threepenny Opera opens at the
Am Schiffbauerdamn Theatre
in Berlin, later home of the Berliner
Writes first of his “learning plays”
(Lehrstücke). Marries Weigel.
The Rise And Fall Of The City Of
Mahagonny in Leipzig. He Who Said
Yes, He Who Said No in Berlin,
directed by Brecht. Helene Weigel
gives birth to daughter Barbara.
The Mother in Berlin. Meets
Margarete Steffin, future
28 February The burning of the
Reichstag – the following day
Brecht flees with his family to Zurich
and then settles in Denmark. Meets
Ruth Berlau, future collaborator.
Hitler appointed Chancellor.
1934 1935 1937 1938 1939
1941 1942 1943 1944 1945 1947 1948 1949
Hitler becomes Fuhrer.
Brecht travels to Moscow then to
New York for The Mother. Nazis
revoke Brecht’s citizenship.
Trip to Paris to see his Señora Carrara’s Rifles. Production recorded by Ruth Berlau in the first of what were to become the Berliner’s famous ‘Model Books’.
The Life of Galileo completed.
Second World War begins.
Moves to Finland to avoid Nazi
invasion. Completes The Good Person of Szechwan and The Trial of Lucullus.
Writes Mr Puntilla And His Man Matti with Hella Wuolijoki.
Completes The Resistible Rise of
Arturo Ui, written with Margarete
Steffin. Brecht moves his family to
California via Moscow (where Steffin
dies) and Vladivostok. In LA the
Brechts are classed as “enemy aliens”.
Lives in America, meeting other exiles and Hollywood stars
including Charlie Chaplin and Charles Laughton.
Schweyk In The Second World War
Writes The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Works with WH Auden on The Duchess of Malfi.
English version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle completed by James and Tania Stern and WH Auden. English version of The Life of Galileo completed by Brecht and Charles Laughton.
Second World War ends.
The Life of Galileo in LA starring
Charles Laughton. Brecht appears
before the House Un-American
Activities Committee. Next day leaves for Europe.
After 15 years in exile, moves to East Berlin. Publishes the Little Organum for the Theatre.
Mother Courage and Her Children with Weigel in title role prompts invitation to form state-subsidised Berliner Ensemble.
Completes Days Of The Commune.
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Bertolt Brecht continued…
1950 1953
1954 1956 Becomes an Austrian citizen.
Elected president of PEN, worldwide
association of writers.
Berliner Ensemble takes up permanent
residence at the Am Schiffbauerdamn
Theatre. Mother Courage tours to Paris
and is a sensation, winning Best Play
and Best Production at the Théâtre des
Nations festival.
Brecht dies. Two weeks later Berliner
Ensemble visit Palace Theatre, London
with The Caucasian Chalk Circle and
Mother Courage.
“I am a playwright. I would actually like to
have been a cabinetmaker, but of course you
don’t earn enough doing that.”
“Human beings go to the theatre in order
to be swept away, captivated, impressed,
uplifted, horrified, moved, kept in suspense,
released, diverted, set free, set going,
transplanted from their own time, and
supplied with illusions. It is not an art at all
unless it does so.”
“There is nothing so interesting on stage
as a man trying to get a knot out of his
“The epic theatre is chiefly interested in the
attitudes which people adopt towards one
another, wherever they are socio-historically
significant. It works out scenes where people
adopt attitudes of such a sort that the social
laws under which they are acting spring into
sight. The concern of the epic theatre is thus
eminently practical.”
“Epic theatre can show that almost
naturalistic elements are within its range.”
“If in art an appeal is made to the emotions it
means reason has to be switched off.”
“With rigidly epic presentation an acceptable
empathy occurs.”
“Art is not a mirror with which to reflect
reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
“The lightest way of life is in the arts.”
“Epic Theatre is an extremely artistic affair
hardly thinkable without artists of virtuosity,
imagination, humour and fellow-feeling.”
“An actor, even if he is stupid, can act clever
discover: National Theatre Background Pack
Bertolt Brecht continued…
ERIC BENTLEY “Back in the early twenties,Brecht
wasn’t getting much attention. ‘What you need’
a friend told him ‘is a theory. To make your stuff
important.’ So Brecht went home and got himself
a theory, which is now known to more people than
the plays.”
ROBERT BRUSTEIN “Even at his most
scientifically objective, Brecht continues to
introduce a subjective note; even at his most social
and political, he remains an essentially moral and
religious poet.”
HERBERT IHERING (when Brecht was 24)
“Brecht is impregnated with the horror of this age
in his nerves, in his blood. . . Brecht physically feels
the chaos and putrid decay of the times.”
RONALD HAYMAN “He had one gift in
commonwith Jesus: they both knew how to state
acomplex truth about human behaviour in a
provocative story with the resonance of a riddle.”
CHARLES LYONS “His plays are explorations of
the quality of a single human action – the futile
attempt of the human will to assert itself in a free
Ensemble... was generously supported by the
state: Brecht had sixty actors and two hundred
and fifty staff members in all; production and
rehearsal time were virtually unlimited. Thus, like
Shakespeare and Molière in their time, Brecht had
his own private theatre to mount productions of his
own work.”
JOHN RUSSELL BROWN “Brecht was, on the
one hand, democratic, adaptable, and part of
a team, but on the other hand also a dominant,
charismatic, famous, and politically favored leader
who shaped productions according to his own
inclinations and theory, whatever particular role he
assigned himself on each
occasion. He added the role of the wise theatre
veteran, his Chinese-philosopher persona, to the
flamboyant and spoiled child-genius of the past.”
HERBERT LUETHY “Never has Brecht been able
to indicate by even the simplest poetic image or
symbol what the world for which he is agitating
should really look like.”
PETER BROOK “He really had almost a strangely
split mind between the academic parttof him
that wrote theory and the man of the theatre
who refused. He would, even in rehearsals, say
‘I don’t know what idiot wrote this theory’ or ‘I
don’t know what idiot wrote this part of the play’. I
think he was a landmark in theatre history, but like
all landmarks, as one moves on, the landmark is
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR “We knew nothing about
Brecht but we were enchanted by the way he
depicted the adventures of Mack the Knife. The
work seemed to reflect a totally anarchic attitude...
Sartre knew all Kurt Weill’s songs by heart and we
often used to quote the catch phrase about grub
first and morality
JOAN LITTLEWOOD “Brecht, like Sartre, never
seemed to know exactly what he was saying.”
Royal Shakespeare Company “We used the
Brecht model in a totally English way. Cambridge
“The idea of the Berliner Ensemble towered over
us. Kenneth Tynan arranged for us to visit Berlin
and to see the work of Brecht’s company and to
meet Helene Weigel. The Oliviers, John Dexter,
Tynan and myself stood with Weigel at Brecht’s
graveside in the cemetery that he used to see from
his workroom window. We were unanimous in
our admiration for the work, perhaps for different
reasons. We believed that it set a standard to be
Tynan: Is there any great playwright whose work
has never tempted you at all?
Burton: Brecht.
Tynan: Why not Brecht?
Burton: Loathsome, vulgar, petty, little, nothing.
Tynan: Large, poetic, universal, everything.
discover: National Theatre Background Pack