'Mother Courage' Not Epic Theater

Bertholt Brecht’s magnum opus, “Mother Courage and her Children,” was forged amidst the fires of mounting war in Europe. Brecht completed the play in 1939, the same year Hitler invaded Poland; an ardent socialist, that year also saw the already-exiled playwright relocate yet again, from Denmark to Sweden, in an attempt to keep one step ahead of the Wehrmacht. “Mother Courage” was indelibly shaped by the trauma of the times that produced it—Anna (Margaret A. Nyland), the hardscrabble owner of an army canteen, trundles her wagon from camp to camp while the war on whose back she makes a living exacts its own terrible price on her family. Said to have been completed in little over a month following a burst of inspiration, the play is a searing condemnation of war and its profiteers.But in the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s production of “Mother Courage,” which ran at Farkas Hall from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1, Brecht’s fire was reduced to little more than a meager flicker.

While technical and directorial issues numbered among the production’s problems, the nail in the coffin was the play’s lead actress. Anna (AKA Mother Courage) is a war-hardened fast-talker, a stranger to peacetime and a perpetual wanderer of Europe’s battlefields. With the 30 Years’ War reaching fever pitch, Mother Courage tries desperately—and ultimately, vainly—to keep her children, Eilif (Andrew F. Miner ’18), Swiss Cheese (Hunter A. Merryman ’18), and Kattrin (Elana P. Simon ’18), from being sucked into the very conflict that helps her put food on the table. Yet Nyland proved largely incapable of conveying either her character’s hard-learned pragmatism or her fiercely protective streak; when army recruiters (Lethu A. Ntshinga ’18 and Joshuah B. Campbell ’16) threaten to conscript one of her sons, the most Nyland could muster was to limply brandish a knife in a manner hardly suggestive of jeopardy to life and limb. Nyland delivered her lines without irony or pathos, devoid of the cynicism so characteristic of Brecht’s work (“Song of the Insufficiency of Human Struggling” from “The Threepenny Opera” providing perhaps one of the clearest examples). Nor did the technical side of things help alleviate the flatness of the acting: when her second son is executed, for example, Mother Courage’s face is entirely obscured by shadow. If there was any emotion to be read there, the audience certainly couldn’t see it.

At its worst, acting and directorial missteps combined to present a reading of the play so bizarre that it could only have been unintentional. Near the play’s outset, Mother Courage predicts the future of her children by drawing lots—piece of paper with a black cross means death, while a blank slip means life. In a choice that must have sounded good on paper, director Alistair A. Debling ’16 had a cameraman film Mother Courage live as she drew black crosses on each slip (to ensure for practical purposes that each actor would receive the doomed mark) and then projected the footage for the viewers to see. But by revealing this artifice, Debling inadvertently made it seem as though Mother Courage were deliberately consigning each of her children to death rather than presenting a true game of chance. Worse, Nyland’s remote reaction every time one of the children pulled out a black cross made Mother Courage’s grief feel sarcastic instead of sincere. The confused execution of the scene cast a shadow over the rest of the play, rendering cryptic Mother Courage’s desire to protect a family that mere moments ago she had seemed utterly indifferent towards.

This is not to say, however, that the production was a lost cause. Campbell, a member of the Harvard Krokodiloes, delivered heartfelt renditions of the opening and closing songs (the haunting original music was composed by Debling). And as the opportunistic chaplain who accompanies Mother Courage, Paris K. Ellsworth ’15 possessed the requisite sanctimoniousness and a sonorous voice put to good use in Debling’s score. Sam R. Peinado ’15, playing the wily army chef who briefly shacks up with Mother Courage, was perhaps the best at channeling the work’s grim humor. Nor was Nyland’s performance universally weak, succeeding in Mother Courage’s quieter moments—scenes of resignation, introspection, private grief. All this is not enough, however, to shoulder the weight of a play that approaches three hours in length. Outstripped by its own ambitions, the production tried but largely failed to capture the soul of Brecht’s bitter, sardonic script.



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