Staging Blindness and Insight: Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" in East Berlin

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Abstract / Description of output

As Roland Barthes argues, Brecht’s play "Mother Courage" relies pedagogically on a dialectical interplay between identification and distance: Brecht intends the spectators to share Mother Courage’s blindness, only then suddenly to see what she does not. This contradiction should lead the spectators to see not only Courage’s blindness, but also their own. Whilst Barthes relates blindness solely to Courage’s mistaken belief that she can profit from war with impunity, I show how Brecht’s use of onstage spectatorship systematically contrasts blindness and insight in his text and staging. Drawing on archival evidence including Brecht’s drafts of the play, his director’s script, his collaborators’ notes, and photographs, I explore how he used the stage action to expose contradictions between the blindness of Courage and her sons, Courage’s hubristic belief in the acuity of her vision, and Kattrin’s critical, perceptive spectatorship. I show how Brecht used the gaze of Kattrin and the peasant family to disrupt the theatre audience’s identification with Courage and direct its focus and judgement; at key moments, these characters fulfil the role of the ‘unsichtbarer Zeigestock’ (invisible pointing stick) that Brecht had called for in a 1935 letter to George Grosz. Finally, I test Brecht’s claims that early post-war audiences failed to achieve critical distance towards Mother Courage, uncovering new evidence of the range of responses that the staging elicited. Whilst some spectators did identify fully with Courage, others were edging towards precisely the critical viewing positions that Brecht had sought to encourage.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 9 Nov 2019
EventBertolt Brecht: Contradictions as a Method - Theatre Faculty, Academy of Performing Arts (DAMU), Prague, Prague, Czech Republic
Duration: 8 Nov 201910 Nov 2019


ConferenceBertolt Brecht
Country/TerritoryCzech Republic


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