Bebe here! I thought I would use my blog to start promoting my academic writing as some of it is very good. All these essays are from previous years and have been submitted and marked so it’s open to share publicly.
How do two of the playwrights use dark humour, music hall or other comic forms to address the social and political concerns of their era?
The use of comedic features in the plays act as a way of distracting the audience from one point, and subtly highlighting another. This is used by both Bertolt Brecht and Shelagh Delaney to convey their political and social messages. These are featured in their plays in a clear and interesting way. Brecht’s anti-war message in Mother Courage is hidden through the abstract and historical world that is created. Music is used as a tool of distraction and of subverting the seriousness of the messages. In A Taste of Honey, Delaney’s use of dark humour and music hall atmosphere highlight the characters’ situation in a more interesting way for the audience. The use of these features creates a complex dramatic piece with varied stylistic approaches.
The play by Brecht was created as a warning to those who thought joining the Second World War was a good idea. The ideas that were put into the Mother Courage and her Children are used solely to show the audience how the war does not have a steady progression and those who succeed are never loyal to one side. Brecht shows clearly that those who suffer the most are the ones who are innocent and get caught up in the bloodshed of someone else’s battle.
The way that Brecht uses music in Mother Courage and her Children creates the feeling of argumentative duality for the audience. The duality comes from the message it conveys at different parts of the play. The characters of Mother Courage is the key to this two toned meaning. She switches sides constantly throughout the play, choosing to back whoever is the winner in that present moment.
To feed the war you have to pillage
But let your soldiers rest a bit:
For what they need, here’s Mother Courage,
With woollen coats and boots that fit!
Their heads ablaze with lice and liquor,
The boys are marching to the beat!
I guarantee they’ll step it quicker
With boots upon their blistered feet
Unless his belly’s full of porridge,
A soldier’s sure to turn and run.
Buy him some grub from Mother Courage
So he’ll know where to point his gun.
They’ll for God and legal tender,
I’ll see them clothed, and feed as well,
And bless the boys, in all their splendour,
As they march down the road to hell
The quotation above shows the audience how Brecht where Mother Courage’s motivations lie throughout a majority of the play. He seems to take a direct aim at those who profiteer in times of war and conflict. The song seems to claim be arguing that those who use war to sell goods or fund the military are patriotic and supportive of the army. The hardship of the soldiers is countered against the view that those who sell the goods are doing so to benefit the soldiers. Mother Courage repeats the argument twice in the final lines of each verse of the song. The line “I guarantee they’ll step quicker with boots upon their blistered feet” makes it clear to the audience that those, like Mother Courage who profit from war, do so in the view that they are needed to make the armies continuing fighting.
Brecht punctuates the song with clear arguments that those who furnish the armies use in their defence.
Unless his belly’s full of porridge,
A soldier’s sure to turn and run.
Buy him some grub from Mother Courage
The short passage from the second verse of the song highlights his point as Mother Courage states that she will feed the soldiers and this will encourage them to continue fighting the enemy. The continuation of the war in this manner and the promise that Mother Courage makes displays the attitude contained by the profiteers. The attitude of business in this song is seen as necessary; otherwise, the soldiers would be defeated. Brecht treats the patriotism that Mother Courage has in that moment as a bad thing, as she is only being patriotic when the business needs it.
Brecht’s own communist view seems to influence the song. The anti-consumerist message echoes throughout it with Mother Courage stating “To feed a war you have to pillage”. The use of ‘pillage’ at the end of the line connects a feeling of violence with that of gaining more stock to sell for a higher price. Mother Courage’s bluntness in celebrating this statement and ideal shows the audience how aware she is of her situation and her advantage. The continuation of this lifestyle seems to be a problem that Brecht dislikes, as he uses ‘pillage’ with deeply negative connotations. The connotations that Brecht surrounds around this phrase with seem to be there to challenge the audience politically.
Brecht explains that a performance of Mother Courage should demonstrate that war is the continuation of business by other means, of no benefit for the ‘little people’ and positively deadly for the virtuous. As the owner of a canteen wagon during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), Mother Courage is a petite bourgeoisie, one of the small fry.
Meg Mumford, Bertolt Brecht, pp68
The quotation from Meg Mumford’s book on Brecht backs up the theory that war is good for businesses and those who profit from it. The view that Brecht tried to portray was one that would speak to the common people. This seemed to be aimed at the first audience and the embedding of Mother Courage as a common citizen makes the audience feel like the experience is more of an objective viewing.
Brecht uses comedy as a tool for distraction in Mother Courage and Her Children. Brecht displays this feature best in scene three of the play, as he uses Kattrin imitating Yvette the prostitute as a way of distracting the audience. The focus on Kattrin rather than on the conversation Mouth Courage, Cook and the Chaplain are having about the war creates the needed detachment between the message of scene and action on the stage.
The Chaplain and the Cook go behind the wagon with Mother Courage. Kattrin watches them leave, she leaves the watching and go to Yvette’s hat. She puts it on, then sits and put on the red shoes. From behind the wagon, Mother Courage is heard talking politics with the Chaplain and the Cook.
Mother Courage What’s the news from the front?
The Cook No one knows where that is.
The stage directions from scene three show clearly the effect Brecht wants to have on the audience members. The fact that Mother Courage, Cook, and the Chaplain are hidden from view creates a separation for the audience member from the point they are talking about. The discussion of the serious topic of war mixed with Kattrin imitating Yvette and playing around in front of the audience means that they do not fully listen to those behind the wagon.
In A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney uses dark humour to amplify and convey her argument. The politics of the play relies on the audience finding those moments funny yet realising the serious and poignant meaning behind it. The dark humour is hidden in with the distraction that comes from the scenes containing Helen. Delaney, similar to Brecht, uses a character as the tool for the diversion and creating the trait of being forgetful and easily distracted in the role of Helen. The final section of the play displays this as the tension is broken when Helen deviates off the topic of the race of the unborn baby onto where her hat is located.
JO: If you don’t like it you can get out. I didn’t ask you to come here.
HELEN: Where’s my hat
JO: On your head.
HELEN: Oh yes… I don’t know what’s to be done with you, I don’t really. (To the audience) I ask you, what would you do?
These moments relax the audience as they appear when some sort of confrontation is happening beforehand. The fact that Delaney uses this makes the audience question what happened before hand. The fading tension and the changing of the topics highlight the change in tone to the audience.
Delaney uses the direct address in “I ask you, what would you do?”. This makes the audience think about their own response to the situation of an unwed teenage mother carrying a mixed race baby. The reflection asked by Helen of the audience harkens back to Brecht, who used a similar in his own plays to get across the agenda he was promoting. The sharp switch from the end of Jo’s line to “Where’s my hat?” shows how the character of Helen is attempting to survive in the world she is in, where her life is more monetary comfortable but difficult due to the unstable relationship with Peter.
Delaney uses a mix of music and humour in the first scene of the play and this creates an effect of nostalgia for the past. The feeling of nostalgia Delaney has in the play relates to how Manchester was changing in the post-war years with the destruction of the slums and the movement of those people to high rise flats. Helen’s nostalgia over an old job in a pub shows how she prefers her past and the feeling of happiness that it contains.
HELEN: (looking at the aspidistras) That’s nice, isn’t it? Puts me in mind of my first job, in a tatty little pub down Whit Lane. I thought it was wonderful… You know, playing the piano and all that; a real get-together at weekends. Everybody standing up and giving a song. I used to bring the house down with this one. (Sings)
I’d give the song birds to the wild wood
I’d give the sunset to the blind
And to the old folks I’d give the memory
Of the baby upon her knee
Delaney brings the song into the play naturally, so it has the feeling of being a recall of a memory from Helen’s younger days. The inclusion of the song shows the audience how her memory of the younger days is connected to music. This musical connection seems to suggest that Helen relies on certain songs and the imprint these left on her brain.
The way Helen discusses the meetings at the pub conveys the idea of the breaking down of close-knit communities due to the splitting up and forced movement of these families into the newly built council houses and high rises. The phrase from Helen “a real get-together” shows that the communities were a central part of life in Britain
At one of a series of public meetings held in 1937, one resident argued that: ‘Whitehawk and Manor are held up as shining examples of slum clearance but I can tell you that a good 50 percent of the people would willingly return to their hovels … so that they might enjoy a little community life and a little friendliness.’
This extract from Slum Clearance, Privatization and Residualization, displays how the residents of Brighton during the slum clearances; that took place between the twenties and the thirties, were aware of the attitude of the residents who lived in the demolition areas. The view that the resident gives of relates to the one that is featured in the play; as Helen seems to think that when the community was there; somehow life was better as there were the friendships there.
Both of the texts rely heavily on using the comedy and the humour to convey their message. Brecht talks about how war is an endless cycle that goes around with allegiance and foes being interchangeable with their actions. Brecht creates these complex characters who display the duality that is found from those who benefit from those situations. Delaney, on the other hand, uses the black humour and moments of music to reveal the real life situations that the characters are in. The black comedy that Delaney uses creates the feeling of displacement from those who were moved to the newer housing when the slum housing was destroyed.
Delaney, Shelagh, A Taste of Honey, London: Bloomsbury, 2008
Brecht, Bertolt, Mother Courage and her Children, trans. Tony Kushner, London: Bloomsbury, 2014
Jones, Ben. (2010). ‘Slum Clearance, Privatization and Residualization: the Practices and Politics of Council Housing in Mid-twentieth-century England’, Twentieth century British history. Vol:21 (4) pp.510 -539