Nobody ever said it would be easy. By common consent one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children is also one of the largest, most complex, and most difficult to bring off. The theater that has gotten it onstage at all can justly claim to have achieved something. Theaters that can pack houses with it, and hold their audiences’ attention all through the dense, rocky trajectory of its story, can genuinely be called great. It would be a joy to assert that the Public Theater’s celebrity-laden production in Central Park belonged in that illustrious top rank, but no dice. The play is onstage, in all its impressive bulk, and the houses are packed, courtesy of Meryl Streep’s movie stardom, but beyond that, the praiseworthy items are sparse at best.
Streep’s performance, which is all anybody really wants to hear about, is like the production overall: intermittent. At the comparatively few moments when she engages the character fully, you doubt that anybody’s performance of anything could be better. At one or two of those moments, Tony Kushner’s translation leaves Brecht’s language undecorated for an instant, and George C. Wolfe’s direction lets Streep play the moment without comment, and the results are gigantic: When Streep’s Courage talks, quietly, about wanting her daughter Kattrin to be “like a stone in Dalarna, where there’s nothing but stones,” the wonder and terror that are Brecht’s gifts to the modern theater rise, palpably, in the humid air over the Delacorte. Streep is plucky, she is versatile, she is canny—all qualities that link her to the role. She can sing, she can be tough, and she can register deep grief with a startling economy of means. If she doesn’t do a cartwheel, as she did in The Seagull, she certainly wheels the cart, and even a prop cart makes heavy toting on a large, open stage.
She is not, innately, ideal casting for the role. Anna Fierling, the canteen woman who will peddle her goods to whichever army is nearest, is in essence a prole; Streep is one of nature’s aristocrats. In a different world, Anna Fierling’s intelligence, resourcefulness, and determination would enable her to rise high. Always a class act, Streep rides high no matter what she does; her beauty and charisma make audiences so grateful to be in her presence that she can slack off when she chooses without breaking her spell. Not that Streep, every bit as intelligent as she is beautiful, is any sort of slacker, but the awareness, after decades of stardom, that she will be adored in any case is not the best inducement to concentration. Which is only to say that watching Streep in person is always wonderful, but it is not always Mother Courage. She has flutters and hesitations; she goes in and out of the role; she shifts her tone in ways that have nothing to do with either Courage’s wiles or Brecht’s notion of distancing. There are other actresses, even other stars, who might make better Courages. (Why hasn’t anyone thought of Kathy Bates for this role?) There are other roles that will be better fits for Streep.
Though she can pull the cart by herself, no Mother Courage can carry the play alone. Such help as Streep gets, from the creative team and supporting cast, matches her for uncertainty of tone. Made by some of our most serious artists out of a sincere love for Brecht, the production reveals again the difficulty American theater people often have in knowing just how to express that love. The impulse to follow Brecht slavishly, to do everything that the stage directions and the images and the received notion of the theories tell us, is matched by the impulse to help the beloved author along, to Americanize and showbiz-ize—and underscore and explain. Pulling in opposite directions, the two often cancel each other out, leaving the audience to gaze at the nondescript static muddle in the center. Jeanine Tesori’s score, which sounds like a mélange of Weill, Eisler, and Dessau interrupted by bits of American pop, is the perfect embodiment of this confusion.
Thanks to academia, Americans have tended to come to Brecht by way of his theories. To do so is to put the cart, as it were, before the human horse. For Brecht, theories were a provisional and constantly evolving matter; he was an artist first and a theoretician second. The same could be said of the morality and ideology in his plays. The ostensible lesson of Mother Courage—that war is evil and that people who seek to live off it lose everything—is not the same as the experience of seeing Mother Courage. By the end, we may even get the feeling that Brecht, like the ancient Greek poets, thinks war the natural condition of humankind: “Der Krieg, es dauert hundert Jahre/Der g’meine Mann hat kein Gewinn.” (“The war lasts 100 years; the common man makes nothing from it.”) Her eye always on the immediate profit, Mother Courage loses everything. Desperate to teach her children her own practical cynicism, she has raised three idealists—one brave, one honest, one loving—and lives to see all three die for not being like her. As the title’s “and Her Children” indicates, the play is as much a family story as a political preachment; the cognitive dissonance of title and subtitle (“A Chronicle of the Thirty Years’ War”) is the essence of Brecht’s approach.
Courage’s hard eye for a bargain, her shifting allegiances, and her crafty ability to talk her way out of any situation are not merely conceptual: Brecht found these elements in himself, not in his historical sources. When he first drafted the play in 1939, he had three acknowledged children; his eldest son, Frank, was killed fighting for the Nazis on the Russian front in 1943—a fact surely as relevant to the play as any definition of “alienation effect.”
Facts are not what Tony Kushner’s good at. A brilliant writer of rhetorical prose, he achieves his best effects, as in the great monologues of Angels in America, by piling up the phrases till they explode. This method is antithetical to that of Brecht, a poet who uses words purposively and exactingly. In Kushner’s version, the common man has vanished from the lines I quoted above, to be replaced by an entirely irrelevant allusion to the Dies Irae. The “Americanizing” profanities and gag lines that Kushner scatters around, though distracting, are less harmful to the play’s sense than his habit of throwing in these metaphysical grandiosities, and fancier phrases generally than Brecht employs. Following the text faithfully speech by speech, he has been unfaithful to it line by line. This doesn’t help the actors, who tend either to shout pointlessly (Austin Pendleton’s rendering of the “Song of the Hours” is particularly painful) or to turn the event into a casual tossing-about of phrases, with the threat of death nowhere near, despite the loud bombardment effects. Kevin Kline’s Cook might be lounging poolside at some wealthy estate, and Jennifer Lewis’s Yvette, though dazzlingly entertaining, is nowhere near the reality of a working girl who plays her cards right.
Brecht loved reality. He loved showbiz too, for what he could learn from it; he was as willing to learn from Ethel Merman and Bobby Clark as from Schiller and Hölderlin. But reality always held first claim on his soul. This is hard for Americans to grasp: To them, these days, reality is a subgenre of TV entertainment. We know, in increasing numbers, that the Iraq war is wrong, that the rapidly expanding mess in the Middle East is exactly the same kind of pointless and futile horror as the Thirty Years’ War that devastated 17th-century Europe. Wolfe’s production doesn’t fail to evoke this awareness, but it does so with a strange lack of urgency, softening where it should be bluntest (as in the Drum Scene), underlining where emphasis is least needed. Courage says that even her daughter Kattrin’s muteness is due to the war, because “a soldier stuck something in her mouth when she was little.” Does anybody really need the pause and the gesture that Streep makes in the middle of that line to understand it? Having Mother Courage at all is a blessing, but having all of Mother Courage would be a greater one.