Theatre Arts: Mother

In analyzing the figures of Nora (A Doll House), Mother Courage (Mother Courage and Her Children), and Amanda (The Glass Menagerie), it is important to examine the ways in which they interact with their respective societies, specifically how well they play the roles defined for them by those societies, if this is, indeed, at all possible. For in each play, there exist societal structures, as well as exigencies of a given period within those structures, which range from being burdensome to downright inimical to the process of being a "good mother." However, before going into these issues, we should have some sort of "good mother paradigm" and it seems that a threefold definition of provider, protector, and teacher will do as well as another for our purposes here.

In the case of Nora, the situation is bleak: due to the oppressively male-dominated culture of Nineteenth century Norway, not only is she in no position to be a provider or protector for her children, but, due to the condescending, patronizing attitudes of her father and husband, she has remained in a state of arrested development her whole life and is consequently unable to be a good teacher to them as well; she cannot teach her children things about life that she has not learned herself. At the end of the play she leaves her husband and children, the former because she realizes she no longer loves him, that theirs is not a true marriage, and the latter in order to gain the life experience necessary not only to be a more well rounded person, but a better mother as well. "The way I am now, I'm no use to them" she tells Torvald as she is leaving (III.762-3). However, what is not stated at the end of the play, yet clearly understood by the audience of the play's day (as well as by contemporary audiences), is that Nora is bound to fail. With no survival skills, how will she survive? How will she make up the lost years spent as more a doll than a woman? What is made plain is that she is already a victim before she leaves the house: she is the victim of a society that has allowed her to reach adulthood without becoming fully developed as an individual.

Mother Courage, on the other hand, is no one's fool--except, perhaps, her own. She certainly has the ability to provide for her children, although the method she has chosen, small-time war profiteering, is a direct threat to their safety. Therefore, while she tries in various ways, ultimately (as is born out over the course of the play) she is not a very good protector. As to her merit as a teacher, the problem lies more in the matter than the method: she sends too many mixed messages. She objects to her sons joining the war effort, yet her whole livelihood revolves around it. She sings anti-war songs with one son, but can't stop negotiating long enough to save another from a firing squad. In the end, she is too savvy for her children's own good.

Mother Courage differs from Nora in that while Nora's problems derive from the culture in which she lives, Mother Courage is experiencing the retribution for her own character flaws. The 100 Years War, of course, plays a major role in her suffering and that of her children, but it is more a circumstance than a cause. Mother Courage is the classic tragic hero (or perhaps, in this case, anti-hero) in that she is brought down by her own foibles and short- comings, as are those around her. Since these latter are her own children, it is safe to say that she is definitely not a "good mother."

As to Amanda, she probably falls somewhere between Mother Courage and Nora. Like Nora, she possesses neither the ability to provide for nor protect her children; while she does odd sales jobs, it is Tom's salary that is keeping the family afloat. However, like Mother Courage, she is selfish, and her own self-centered agendas tend to bring about damaging consequences for her children. She is like Nora, in that she has grown up pampered and is at a considerable disadvantage when trying to deal with the outside world. Yet she is also like Mother Courage, as she has known hardship and has been forced to make terms with it. Also like Mother Courage, she has difficulty being an effective teacher to her children because of her own skewed value system. Her whole awareness is shaped by her identification with the glory days of her southern belle youth, of a time and place which has vanished and to dwell upon which can only be painful and counterproductive. In considering the question of the "failed mother," it is safe to say that both Amanda and Mother Courage fall under this category; just looking at the condition and fate of their respective children shows this. Nora, too, is a member of this group, not so much because she has failed outright, but that she has never gotten the opportunity to succeed. Nora is beyond a doubt the best candidate to be a good mother, given an ideal society that doesn't oppress its citizens; she has a good heart as well as a good head on her shoulders; the fact that she reaches the conclusions she does at the close of the play proves this. Amanda and Mother Courage, on the other hand, possess flaws of character that would make them bad mothers in any society. They simply lack compassion, a much-needed trait in any human being, particularly a mother. They are selfish, their actions are dictated by what is best for them, rather than their children. Amanda forces Tom to bring home a gentleman caller not so much for Laura's sake, as for her own, so that she can relive her own youth vicariously through her daughter, terrifying and tormenting her in the process. Mother Courage turns down the cook's proposal to open a tavern with her not so much for her daughter's sake, as for her own: she would not be boss anymore. No, even in a non-oppressive society, the selfishness of these women would ultimately become a source of unhappiness for their children.

Finally, regarding which author and style are best suited to treat the "mother" question, I would opt for Tennessee Williams. His is a "memory play," and as such will be infused with more of the author's personal thoughts and feelings than Brecht's epic figure, who is more an allegorical device, and Ibsen's heroine who is fictitious and based upon a model chosen more for other characteristics than the maternal. Williams is more concerned with the dynamics within a given family than Ibsen and Brecht, who are trying to make statements about society, and so is most likely to create a fully-realized family member, in this case, a mother.

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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