This essay is a part of the COVID-19 dossier, edited by the b2o editorial staff.
by Martin Woessner
It was Tuesday, March 24th, not two weeks into the transition to “distance learning,” and I was moderating a discussion of Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, a web-based videoconferencing technology I had been blissfully ignorant of just weeks prior. Between awkward silences and recurrent screen-freezes—Brechtian reminders of just how surreal a space the virtual classroom really is—I kept remembering a line somewhere in act four or five. “I’m right and you know it,” Mother Courage tells a young soldier, “your fury’s just a lightning bolt that splits the air, bright, noisy, then BANG!—all over. It was short-lived anger, when what you needed was long-burning rage, but where would you get something like that?”
Mother Courage and Her Children is a play about a camp follower in the Thirty Year’s War. The term “camp follower” is a euphemism: it describes civilians—usually women—who trail behind armies providing things without which no war could ever be waged: food, drink, supplies, and services—some essential, some less so. War has always been a gendered economy and Mother Courage personifies it. Feeding soldiers allows her to feed her own children. “War!” she exclaims at one point, “A great way to make a living!”
Most readers see Mother Courage as a heartless capitalist, a war profiteer. But some of my students, with whom I was now interacting solely online, found her far more sympathetic: tragic, but relatable, a victim of circumstance more than a villain. Indeed, many of my students believed Mother Courage had no choice: they saw her as yet another marginalized woman doing what she had to do to take care of her family and survive.
“MC is a strong figure,” Elvia wrote on the class blog. “She becomes a businesswoman due to necessity. She must support her children, and this is the way that she found to make money.” Sandy said something similar: “She is a single mother protecting and providing for her children.” At the very least, another student wrote, Mother Courage was “a complex character.” “When you live amongst catastrophe,” she argued, “I imagine that you become desensitized to it all.”
Reading such perceptive comments, I realized Mother Courage was what we now call an “essential worker.” In the same way that soldiers are thoughtlessly sacrificed by greedy generals, our selfish, me-first society sacrifices the essential worker to a market economy that simultaneously relies upon and demeans her. The first to be deemed essential and applauded, the last to be supported or even protected. I had a painful epiphany that day: my students could relate to the plight of Mother Courage because they knew it all too well. They were living it. The realization hit me in a lightning-bolt-that-splits-the-air kind of way.
Essential workers are women. Mostly, they are women of color. And women of color make up the majority of my students. I teach at The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education, an interdisciplinary division dedicated to educating working adults. My students work in hospitals and medical offices, in public agencies and social services, in grocery stores and bodegas. They work in public transportation, in community centers, and in shelters. They have continued working these past few months so the rest of us could retreat into our socially distanced bubbles. Like Mother Courage—who got her name because she once drove her food-laden cart straight through “cannon fire” to reach her customers—their work entails serving others while risking their own personal safety. Necessity puts them in this position. “I didn’t see that I had a choice,” says Mother Courage.
On the theme of necessity, Brecht is merciless, more so than Marx, more so than Hegel, who famously likened history to a “slaughter-bench.” “Necessity trumps the commandments,” is the message of Mother Courage. The Threepenny Opera, the play that made Brecht famous, is even blunter: “first comes food, then comes morals.” For Brecht, material inequality determines everything. Looking at the way the pandemic has affected marginalized communities more than affluent ones, it is hard not to think he is right. New York City may be the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis, but the boroughs and neighborhoods where the “essential workers” live—where my students live—are the epicenter of the epicenter. They are the neighborhoods of necessity.
When I first started teaching at CWE, a working student was somebody slightly older, usually somebody whose first foray into higher education had been delayed for financial reasons or family obligations. Increasingly, our students are younger. One effect of rising rates of national inequality is that just about every student attending a public institution of higher learning is now a working student. To be a full-time student these days is an uncommon luxury, one my students do not enjoy. The responsibilities they juggle are tremendous. Many are the first in their families to pursue a college degree. Many are first-generation immigrants. Most of them hold down jobs while also caring for others: children, spouses and partners, parents, even grandparents. They do the work that keeps extended families together.
I have always tried to imagine my classroom as a space of freedom, someplace where daily responsibilities can be put on hold for a little while my students and I think about ideas they may not have encountered before. Ideas from long ago or even far away. There are times, though, when current events just cannot be kept out of the classroom. Like the semester I taught a course called “Capitalism and Anti-capitalism” while the Occupy Movement took over Zuccotti Park just two blocks north of where we were discussing Adam Smith. Or that time in 2016 when, in the middle of a lecture about how totalitarian rhetoric demonized outsiders, one of my students told me that Donald Trump (demonizer of Mexicans, Muslims, and the “mainstream media”) was pulling ahead of Hillary Clinton in the exit polls. My Mother Courage moment, as I have started to think of it, is another example of how the present occasionally grabs hold of the past and refuses to let go.
The pandemic upended my pedagogy. I found myself looking at everything through the lens of Covid-19. Each week, I scrambled to make the past into a tool that might pick the lock of the locked-down present. I failed, but I took heart in the idea that it could be done. After all, Brecht did it. He often used history to confront the injustices of his day. Mother Courage decries the devastation of the Second World War, but it documents the plight of a woman in the seventeenth century. Similarly, Life of Galileo contemplates the moral responsibilities of scientists in the age of atomic bomb, but it is set during the Scientific Revolution. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a satire of National Socialist racketeering, is temporally closer to its true subject, but is geographically displaced to the gangster underworld of Chicago.
This blurring of the lines between the historical and the contemporary, the far-off and the close-at-hand, is a powerfully generative artistic trick. But I worry, as a teacher, that it can produce a sense of defeatism, a feeling that nothing ever improves, that the gangsters always win in the end. Times of crisis compress the chronological continuum, pressing everything into a presentist purgatory, where everything seems the same as it ever was. They leave one feeling trapped.
We historians take it as our duty to explain the phenomenon of change over time. But what happens when nothing changes: when the same problems, the same tragedies, the same injustices, persist? What happens when the terrible past becomes, again and again, the terrifying present? When fascism goes from being the subject of history books to the stuff of the nightly news?
I had assigned Tony Kushner’s translation of Mother Courage. Kushner is, most famously, the author of Angels in America, which bears witness to another viral pandemic, namely the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Kushner’s version of Mother Courage premiered in New York in 2006, at the height of the violence of the Iraq War, with Meryl Streep in the lead. I encouraged my students to watch John W. Walter’s documentary about the production, Theater of War, which highlights the connections between Brecht’s play and the American wars in the Middle East. I also encouraged them to watch the Frontline documentary For Sama, directed by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts, which offers a harrowing account the more recent siege of Aleppo, Syria.
All this frantic searching for contemporary points of reference was unnecessary, though. My students got Mother Courage and Her Children just fine. Every essential worker today understands the bind Mother Courage is in. They know what it is like to sacrifice one’s health and safety because there is no other choice. They know what it is like to be stuck between choices that are not really choices. Get sick or starve. Get sick or get evicted.
“Necessity trumps the commandments.” Mother Courage did what she had to do to survive: no wonder my students recognized this before I did. Like her, they are working—still working—in the middle of a catastrophe. Like her, they are providing for their families. Like her, they are running straight through the cannon fire. Those who would fault Mother Courage for making a buck off of an endless war, those who would deem her actions dubious at best, immoral at worst, are those who have the luxury of judging from afar, from the comfort of their work-from-home jobs, which ensure a steady stream of paychecks and all the packages you desire, delivered right to your door. But who does the delivering? Who does the shipping? Who does the sorting and selecting and packaging?
My students have been unwittingly conscripted into a form of service that is potentially lethal. But they are unlike like Mother Courage in one incredibly significant way. They are not callous, dismissive, or cruel. They are not selfish. Just the opposite: my students brim with warmth and generosity. They exude positivity and solidarity, even when I test their patience with onerous texts about how awful the world was and continues to be. This even though some of them have been exposed to the virus, even though some of them have gotten sick, even though many of them have lost family members, friends, or co-workers. I keep asking myself: “How is it possible to bear such enormous physical, psychological, and emotional strain?”
Why do my students have to be “on the front lines”? The militaristic metaphors are everywhere these days and I hate them, even and especially as I continue to use them. Anders Engberg-Pedersen is right: “the American mind needs to be demilitarized.” I am sick of being told, by a supposedly wartime president, that we must fight a silent enemy; that we are in the midst of a struggle unlike anything the nation has seen since the Second World War. All of this is nonsense. Cynthia Enloe called out such lazy rhetoric in an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Since my students had read one of her essays earlier in the term—an essay about camp followers, in fact—I posted a link to the piece. I think I was trying to prove, despite everything, the ongoing relevance of our class. But honestly, I think I was also trying to justify the paycheck I was still receiving while working, non-essentially, from home. I was trying to justify my privilege.
Let’s face it: in the face of a global pandemic, humanities professors are not much help. My colleagues working in the medical and social sciences are surely better equipped than I to lend a hand. But eventually, the humanities can still play role, if only belatedly, retroactively, imperfectly, as we always seem to do. This essay is a case in point. I have written it as an attempt to transform my own lightning bolt of fury concerning the dangers my students are weathering into something like a long-burning rage, the kind of rage that might actually make a difference. It is an idea I would not have considered had it not been for how my students taught me to read Brecht.
Brecht composed Mother Courage and Her Children in exile. It was performed once during the war, in Switzerland, but it was the 1949 production of the play in war-torn Berlin that made its reputation. I have been thinking about that production, and what it must have meant for the people of that city. Whenever the people of New York City can begin to rebuild this fractured, unequal metropolis, which Covid-19 has both ravaged and revealed to us, they will need art like Mother Courage to challenge them, unnerve them, and enrage them. They will need a play—if I may be so professorial and didactic—to mobilize them. They will need a story about the injustice of a society that simultaneously relies upon and demeans “the common people who do the sweaty work.”
Who out there is writing the new Mother Courage and Her Children? I hope it is one of my students. I cannot wait to see it, to read it, to think about it. Better yet, I cannot wait to teach it, in a classroom, face to face. With students.
For comments and feedback, I thank George Cotkin, Eduardo Mendieta, Serene Hayes, Arne De Boever, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Roy Scranton, Robert Valgenti, and Andrew Hartman. Most of all, I thank my students.
Martin Woessner is Associate Professor of History & Society at The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education (CUNY). He is the author of Heidegger in America (Cambridge UP, 2011).
 Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children, trans. Tony Kushner (London: Methuen Drama, 2009), 54.
 Ibid., 69.
 Campbell Robertson and Robert Gebeloff, “How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers in America,” New York Times, 18 April 2020: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/18/us/coronavirus-women-essential-workers.html?referringSource=articleShare
 Mother Courage and Her Children, 9.
 Ibid., 23.
 See, for example, Madeline St. Amour, “Working College Students,” Inside Higher Ed, November 18, 2019: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/11/18/most-college-students-work-and-thats-both-good-and-bad.
 For more on the contemporary relevance of Arturo Ui, see Martin Jay’s recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Trump, Scorsese, and the Frankfurt School’s Theory of Racket Society,” April 5, 2020: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/trump-scorsese-and-the-frankfurt-schools-theory-of-racket-society/.
 Anders Engberg-Pedersen, “Covid-19 and War as Metaphor,” b2o, April 22, 2020: https://www.boundary2.org/2020/04/anders-engberg-pedersen-covid-19-and-war-as-metaphor/?
 Cynthia Enloe, “The Laundress, the Soldier, and the State,” Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 35-48.
 Mother Courage and Her Children, 62.