My Mother of the Year Is Brecht's Mother Courage

Brecht did not imagine that after his death the springboard for the next big war would shift to the Middle East.

One of the most wonderful things in this country of ours (and they are legion!) is that all kinds of plays and novels, which in other countries have lost their relevance, here assume greater topicality than ever. A case in point is Bertolt Brecht, one of the most gifted crafters of satire, whose work reverberates with despair, existential fear, loss of trust in the leadership and the insipid nature of existence in general.

What does a play like “Mother Courage and Her Children” have to say these days to the citizens of the European continent, where Brecht wrote his finest works before being forced to flee? Nearly 70 years have passed since Germany was caught up in a war, and nearly 100 years since World War I, which served Brecht as the inspiration for this brilliant play, set against the background of an ongoing war whose causes and purposes no one understands. The rulers in Brecht’s work come and go, and people go on dying in their masses without knowing why. But hereabouts, despair and anxiety are always trendy, for after all, even if we don’t know where the catastrophe will start, we know for a fact that start it will. In fact, it started long ago.

I’ve seen “Mother Courage” several times, in productions by different theaters; once even in French (which I don’t understand, let alone speak) with English surtitles. When I was young, I saw the Haifa Municipal Theater production, directed by Yosef Milo, with his wife, Yemima Milo, playing Mother Courage. It was a spectacular production with a great many extras and a large revolving stage that was brought to Haifa specially from France. Yemima Milo was compared to Hanna Rovina, who had played the part in the first Hebrew-language production, by the Habima Theater, before I was born.

I saw it again, in a different translation, directed by David Levin, also at Habima, this time starring Lea Koenig. Just to show how topical the play was then − as it is today − we will recall that the ultranationalist Geula Cohen, then an MK, demanded that the production be stopped because it “damaged public morale.” In other words, out of a fear that someone in the audience might be persuaded to believe that people here are continuing to die for nothing and that other people profit from the security threat which they themselves help create.

Both Gita Munta and the late Zaharira Harifai were excellent in the leading role over the years. But none of the previous productions touched me as much as the current one, by the Cameri Theater, directed by the brilliant Udi Ben Moshe and starring Tiki Dayan, who plays Mother Courage as though she herself wrote the play.

Brecht wrote “Mother Courage and Her Children” in 1939 after he had fled Nazi Germany and was living in California. The play is set in the period of the Thirty Years’ War, and the plot centers around Anna Fierling, known as “Mother Courage” and “Canteen Anna,” who has three children from three different men, and loses the children to the war − which she hopes will last forever, so that she can profit from it. Brecht took the name “Mother Courage” from a work by the 17th-century German novelist and playwright Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, entitled “Courage: An Adventuress.” However, most of the play is Brecht’s invention.

For, yes, Europe was once the arena of perpetual wars. Brecht was out to warn against the consequences of protracted wars, which in the end would harm even those who profited from them. Of course, he did not imagine that after his death the springboard for the eruption of the next big world war would shift from Europe to the Middle East. Well, our loss in the war for sanity, existential security, stability and the possibility of hoping for a better world, was the theater’s gain.

The day before I saw “Mother Courage,” I saw the Cameri’s much talked-about production of “Macbeth.” Like Mother Courage, Lady Macbeth is considered a major feminine role in the theater. The Shakespearean character, too, needs to be played by an actress who possesses impressive dramatic presence and excellent acting ability. For reasons known to the play’s director, the role was given to Ruti Asarsai. She is beautiful, there’s no doubt of that, and possibly, with the right amounts of testosterone viewers can understand how she is able to influence Macbeth to become the power-hungry, bloodthirsty monster that he becomes.

The problem with this production is that, given Gil Frank’s unforgettable performance as Macbeth, and the fine work of all the supporting actors − I found it hard to understand Lady Macbeth’s importance to the development of the plot and what it is in her, apart from her perfect figure, that turns Macbeth into the thing he becomes. This, of course, completely undermines Shakespeare’s original intention: He wrote a saliently antifeminist play in which the woman is the driving engine of the entire plot. The truth is that each of the actors who played the witches seemed to me more suited for the role of Lady Macbeth − until I went to see “Mother Courage” the next day. I immediately asked myself why, for example, the part had not gone to a wonderful actor like Orly Zilbershatz, who plays the prostitute in “Mother Courage.” Or even to Gloria Bess, who even in the role of a mute exudes far more impressive stage presence than Asarsai.

But these women are all dwarfed by Tiki Dayan, who is a blatant proof that the most dramatic actors are those who are also capable of being comedians. (Gadi Yagil, who has a supporting role, is also a proven comic.) Dayan doesn’t “play” Mother Courage; she lives the part. Instead of the sweeping gestures and resounding voice of her predecessors in the role, she acts on the stage as though she were in a film, creating the feeling that not only is Tiki Dayan Mother Courage, but actually all of us are.