Pairing Mother Courage and Her Children and The Body of an American

I’m currently teaching a 100-level literary analysis class that is a motley crew indeed: senior bio majors who put off taking a writing-intensive course until the very end of their college careers; freshman English majors who are super excited; and a lot of kids in between who just want to fulfill a general education requirement and get on with their lives. It’s at 8:30 in the morning, many of them are falling asleep, and I have to really put on my dog-and-pony show to get them to stay engaged.

Nonetheless, this is a fun class to teach for me because it allows me to teach texts that I otherwise wouldn’t get to teach. I typically teach either creative writing or nineteenth century American poetry, but because the purpose of this course is to introduce students to different literary genres, I get to pair up anything I want from any time period I choose. I structure intro classes like this around a theme in order to help the students (and myself) to better focus. The theme for this iteration of the class is war, a theme explored from a variety of angles. So we’re reading poetry, plays, and novels from a variety of eras, from Beowulf to Toni Morrison’s Korean War-era novella Home.

We just finished up our unit on drama, in which I paired Tony Kushner’s fantastic translation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play Mother Courage and Her Children with American playwright Dan O’Brien’s fragmented play about war photographer Paul Watson, 2014’s Edward Kennedy Award-Winning The Body of an American. Mother Courage is about the Thirty Years’ War, which took place in Europe (mostly in what would become Germany) in the 17th century. The Body of an American is set in the present day and follows a variety of conflicts, including U.S. involvement in Somalia in the 1990s, the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, and the recent (and still going) American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In particular, the play focuses on Watson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland, who was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. (This photo is graphic, so I won’t post it here, but it’s easily found online.)

These plays work nicely together. Both are experimental and dark, with strange bits of comedy threading through. Both are theatrical—meaning that they are supposed to be experienced as artifice, as theatre (we are not supposed to get lost in the story and think it’s real—there are distancing effects in place in both plays to prevent this from happening). Both plays force students to pay close attention to things like stage setting and stage directions. And neither makes any attempt to sugarcoat the trauma and ugliness of war.

In this post, I want to highlight some technical similarities between these plays, as this was a significant reason I paired them. (There are plenty of thematic similarities, particularly with respect to trauma and the intersections between war and capitalism, but I’ll leave that to y’all to discover!) Because all students in the class were required to perform scenes from these plays, I will talk about a couple of things students learned from these performances as well.

Epic Theatre, the Alienation Effect, and Documentary Theatre

Brecht and his circle created a style of drama known as epic theatre, which employs a variety of techniques to created distance between the audience and the drama unfolding on the stage. Some of these techniques are as follows:

  • Casting famous actors in lead roles (so the audience won’t stop thinking, “That’s Meryl Streep!” rather than getting caught up in the character and thinking she is real)
  • Having actors play multiple roles, thereby confusing the audience
  • Having actors play characters of different genders
  • Breaking up the action with songs
  • Having actors wear anachronistic costumes
  • Having the set be “stagey”—i.e. not realistic, purposefully creating a spectacle in which you never forget you are watching a play, not watching reality

These elements and others can combine to create what Brecht called Verfremsdungeffekt, or alienation or distancing effect, in which the audience retains a critical distance from the actors and the story. Ideally, instead of emotionally identifying with the characters, the audience is critically engaged, asking “Why is this happening?” or “Why is this character doing this?” This doesn’t mean that the play doesn’t evoke emotions, but that’s not its primary purpose.

Bertolt Brecht; Dan O’Brien and Paul Watson.

The Body of an American is largely based on the real-life correspondence and friendship between Dan O’Brien and Paul Watson, so it’s a different kind of play, one that O’Brien calls documentary theatre. This means that the play is constructed from factual material, rather than being a work of fiction. It’s kind of like putting a memoir onstage. Examples of nonfictional materials O’Brien includes in this play are:

  • Paul’s August 2007 NPR interview and Dan’s hearing of it
  • Paul’s and Dan’s e-mails to each other
  • Projected Google maps images as part of the play’s set
  • Projected images of Paul’s photography as part of the play’s set
  • Characters’ names as “Dan” and “Paul,” like their real-life counterparts, rather than being changed to something else

These nonfictional elements already create a distancing effect akin to Brecht—it’s strange to watch a play comprised of e-mail exchanges (doubly strange because the actors deliver the lines as e-mails, i.e. not looking at or talking to each other on the stage). O’Brien also has actors playing multiple roles: there are only two actors in The Body of an American, and they play more than 40 roles. One actor begins the play with its first line; the second actor reads the next line, and it goes on that way, alternating, regardless of which character is speaking. It gets confusing in a wonderful way, particularly when O’Brien chops up the monologue of one character so that it gets spoken by both actors, back-and-forth:

PAUL.                                   We were on the roof

of the Sahafi, where the journalists were

staying,

PAUL.                                    if they were staying.

PAUL.                                                You could count

on one hand who was still there.

PAUL.                                                            I’d have to

count on one hand because my other hand

PAUL.                        isn’t really a hand at all.

PAUL.                                                          I was

born this way.

(O’Brien, Dan. The Body of an American. London: Oberon Books, 2014.)

Try to imagine two actors delivering these lines in rapidfire succession and you’ll get a sense of why it’s hard to lose yourself in this play (which I think is part of O’Brien’s point—is it responsible to lose oneself in narratives of war and trauma?).

Staging scenes

 When I teach drama, I do show video clips from performances as they are available (I mean, Meryl Streep’s Mother Courage is pretty amazing), but I also require students to stage scenes during class. I put them into groups and give them a range of scenes to choose from the day’s reading; it’s up to them to select an excerpt, decide how to stage it, make decisions about props, and then come up with discussion questions about the scene to pose to the class. Some students hate this, but the majority of them get into it. Much like having to write in a poetic form helps students to understand that form better, having to stage scenes from these two experimental plays helps students to better understand the effect of dramatic techniques on an audience. (Plus, drama is meant to be performed, not just read. I think we do it a disservice if we don’t perform it when we study it.)

meryl-mother-courage
Meryl Streep playing Mother Courage in the Public Theater production of the play at Delacorte Theatre in Central Park (2006)

Playing multiple roles

For The Body of an American, there cannot be more than two actors in the scene. For Mother Courage, I make sure to keep the groups small enough that students will be forced to play more than one role. Some students took this and ran with it, playing three or even four roles in a scene. They indicated character changes by moving to different spots on the “stage” (typically the center of our circle of chairs), by costume changes (one student kept changing hats to indicate a change of characters, which was hilarious because he played three characters who tended to speak all in a row, meaning hats were flying!), or even by their hair (one student wore a man-bun for one character, let his hair down for another character, then put it back into its bun to resume the first character). In the climactic scene of the play, in which the character Kattrin sacrifices herself to warn a village of an impending army attack, the role-switching produced so much comedy (one student playing both a soldier and a farmer’s son had to argue with herself, then push herself to the ground) that we were laughing all through Kattrin’s great compassionate act. Students really got the idea of alienation effect from acting out (and from viewing) this scene! I also enjoyed another group’s gender-bending Mother Courage scene, in which Mother Courage was played by a male student and the male roles in the scenes were played by female actors. It’s a small thing, but it points out to the audience our gendered expectations for casting and dashes them; it also creates a wonderfully Brechtian distancing effect.

obrien-body-of-american
Dan Bender and Ryan Hallahan in StageLeft’s production of The Body of an American (2016)

Stage directions and setting

There’s a gold mine of potential for literary analysis in stage directions and stage settings, but in my experience, students often skip over reading these elements. Mother Courage and The Body of an American are great plays for teaching the importance of stage directions and stage settings. Mother Courage features the aforementioned character Kattrin, who is mute from war trauma. The character has no lines; to play her, and to understand her, one must focus on Brecht’s stage directions. In the aforementioned scene, Kattrin begins banging a drum to awaken the townspeople. The student playing Kattrin brought in a wooden spoon and a giant Tupperware storage container. The scene lasted 8 minutes, and she pounded the Tupperware with the spoon so loudly that I’m pretty sure I’ll never be scheduled to teach a class in this particular building again. It was difficult to even hear the dialogue over her insistent pounding. Again, this was a great example of Brecht’s distancing effect—the stage directions, when followed, contribute to the absurdity of a scene that might otherwise be played as heart-stirring and Hollywood-heroic.

To fully experience the O’Brien play, it’s not enough to read the characters’ exchanges; you must also look at all of the projected background images O’Brien indicates in the margins of his play. These images include Google maps of war-torn places Paul has visited, as well as places Dan O’ Brien has lived; an array of Paul Watson’s photos; and occasional songs or videos (a particularly memorable video is of Miami Tribune owner Sam Zell saying “Fuck you” to a journalist). Although one O’Brien scene group did indeed ignore these images, the other group went the extra mile and found them, projecting them as part of the set during their scene. It was off-putting and weird to watch the images change and still try to follow the dialogue (already hard to follow due to its fragmentation), yet these images, which were of Paul Watson’s photographs of the effects of war, are absolutely crucial to understanding the character Paul’s trauma in the scene. He can’t get the images of the wars he’s seen out of his mind, and this becomes the audience’s experience too as we look at his photos.

Give it a try!

 I’d absolutely recommend teaching either of these plays in an introductory course on genre, or in other courses (the O’Brien play would be great in a course on contemporary American drama, for example). They really sing, however, when paired together and when performance is part of the analysis. If you try it, let me know how it goes!

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