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Thirty Years War revisited: ‘Mother Courage’ given Jewish treatment in ShPIeL’s latest production

Rita Hight portrays Mother Courage in the ShPIeL-Performing Identity’s next production. (photos provided)

(Editor’s note: Please note that the dates of performances have changed since Community’s print deadline. Mother Courage will now be staged from Feb. 13-23.) 

When German playwright Bertold Brecht wrote his classic work, Mother Courage and Her Children, in 1939, he set the story in 17th century Europe during the Thirty Years War between the armies of Catholicism and Protestantism.
But when the ShPIeL-Performing Identity reprises the play in Louisville next month, it will have distinctly Jewish and Kentucky flavors.
The ShPIeL’s treatment of Mother Courage will be a cabaret-style musical, including a mix of klezmer and bluegrass music by Gregory and Abigail Maupin.
It will have “comedic, meditative moments and outright protest.”
And that’s just how Brecht would have wanted it.
“I’m not working against the play’s intentions as a cabaret-style, comic, and also dramatic piece of theatre; Brecht wrote it that way,” said David Chack, artistic producing director of the ShPIeL. “That’s what Brecht is uniquely known for. Think Mack the Knife in Threepenny Opera, which Brecht wrote about a murderer. Or Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. All are comic and all are dark.”
Chack said the ShPIeL’s rendition of Mother Courage takes a rare look at the plight of Jews during a dark time while remaining true to the spirit – and shtick – of Brecht’s play.
He thinks Mother Courage sends the right message for today’s troubled times.
“They are a warning for what may come due to evil, suffering and exile,” Chack said, “and, in the case of Mother Courage, to putting a stop to always looking for the next war and the xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and exile that comes with it. How timely is that?”
Set in during the Thirty Years War, one of the most violent periods in European history, Mother Courage tells the story of a cunning canteen woman with the Swedish army, who makes her living from the war. Over the course of the play – a period of many years – despite her resourcefulness, she tragically loses all three of her children, Swiss Cheese, Eilif, and Kattrin, to the very war from which she makes her living.
Louisville actress Rita Hight, who plays Mother Courage in the ShPIeL production, sees many parallels with her character and the Jewish mother.
“It’s very maternalistic outlook,” said High, who is Jewish. “Her children are everything to her, and the Jewish mother – almost a cliche — does almost everything for her children.”
Even though Brecht did not infuse overt Jewish characters or content into his play, which some critics consider to be the greatest of the 20th century, the plight of the Jews certainly influenced him while he wrote it. His wife, Helene Weigel, who played the role of Mother Courage, was Jewish, as were several writers, artists and performers within his circle of friends.

Asaf Angermann, UofL visiting professor of Jewish thought & philosophy, and ShPIel Artistic Director David Y. Chack, at a recent rehearsal for “Mother Courage.”

One of them was the German philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin, who killed himself in 1940. In a 1933 note to Margaret Steffin, Brecht’s lover and collaborator, Benjamin wrote, “Listen to this: the Vienna gas board has stopped supplying gas to the Jews. (But) a consequence of the gas consumption of the Jewish population was that the gas company lost money, since it was precisely (the Jews)…who did not pay their bills (because they used) the gas to commit suicide.”
Hight says Weigel, Brecht’s wife, had much in common with Mother Courage.
“She doesn’t have a permanent place. She is a wanderer. She makes he living in retail, that traditionally Jewish [occupation] and that’s how she survives.”
Related to the production, Chack, along with Asaf Angermann, visiting professor of Jewish thought & philosophy at the University of Louisville, Janna Segal, assistant professor of theatre arts at UofL will make up an all-Jewish panel discussion on Brecht and Contemporary Politics at the 48th Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture on Feb. 20 at the Brown Hotel. Chack’s topic will be “Is Mother Courage the Wandering Jew?: Performing Exile, Creativity, Resistance and Brokenness.”
“The style, the writing [of the play] is exquisite and the way Brecht constructs it is masterful,” Chack said. “The translation by Tony Kushner is magnificent and so connected to today as well as to a Jewish sensibility.”

Want to go?
Mother Courage and Her Children, translated by Tony Kushner and produced by the ShPIeL-Performing Identity, will be staged from Feb. 13 to 23, Thursdays through Sundays, at Locust Grove, 561 Blankenbaker Lane. Tickets can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com/event/4492137 or at the door. Registration for the Louisville Conference at thelouisvilleconference.com.

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