Bertolt Brecht was born in Bavaria, Augsburg, Germany, in 1898 to a paper factory manager and the daughter of a civil servant. As a young boy, Brecht enjoyed writing poetry, and he had his first poems published in 1914. A voracious reader since boyhood, Brecht was influenced by writers like Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and François Villon. While attending secondary school, Brecht earned a reputation as an enfant terrible, or horrible child. In 1917, Brecht studied medicine at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and worked as an army hospital orderly during World War I. A year later, during the chaos of the revolution in Bavaria, Brecht wrote his first play, Baal, which was produced in 1923. After his military service at the hospital, Brecht resumed his studies, but he abandoned them for good in 1921.
Brecht joined the communist Independent Social Democratic party in 1919. After World War I, Brecht was very disappointed by how the war affected the country’s state of civilization, and he developed a violent attitude toward the bourgeois, or middle class, which was known as the new ruling class. He befriended writer Lion Feuchtwanger, who served as an important literary contact. Feuchtwanger mentored Brecht on the discipline of playwriting, and soon after, Brecht was named chief adviser on play selection at a theater in Munich. Brecht had a short-lived affair, which resulted in a son, Frank. In 1922, he married actress and opera singer Marianne Zoff. Their daughter, Hanna Hiob, was born in 1923 and would later become a famous German actress.
After moving to Berlin in 1924, Brecht’s writing career soared once Edward II was produced. Although he worked for well-known directors Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, Brecht soon formed his own circle of collaborators, friends, and lovers—among them Helen Weigel, an actress who greatly influenced his work. Brecht’s writing reflects his boyhood preoccupations—gangsters, sports, jazz, and cabaret—the works of his favorite authors, and current events.
After World War I, Germany was crippled by war reparations—the unemployment rate was high, and its political future was uncertain. Brecht was studying Marx’s Das Kapital in 1927, and his work on The Threepenny Opera and subsequent productions was developed in service of communism and in favor of the rise of the proletariat. He hoped that the working class would gain power and change the current political system employed by the ruling class.
Brecht adapted The Threepenny Opera from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera after that play underwent a successful 1920 revival at London’s Lyric Theater. Brecht’s secretary, Elizabeth Hauptmann, had read about the revival and ordered a copy of the play to translate into German. She handed Brecht one scene at a time while he was engaged in other projects. After reading the translation, Brecht called Kurt Weill, a young composer with whom he had been collaborating with on another opera, Mahogonny. Producer Ernst Josef Aufricht—in need of new work to draw attention to his central Berlin Theater am Schiffbauerdamm—commissioned the play. With a scant three months until the opening, Brecht, Weill, and their friends and families retreated to the French Riviera to finish the script. The plot instantly appealed to Brecht, who altered its trappings considerably—setting the piece in Victorian England, for example, and changing Macheath’s trade from highwayman to gangster/thief. Despite many pre-production snags (including the hasty addition of a prologue scene at the insistence of the actor playing Macheath), the play opened to a packed house in September 1928.
The spring following the debut of The Threepenny Opera, Germany’s majority party, the Social Democratic Party, prohibited annual May Day worker’s demonstrations in Berlin. When the communist party defied the ban and demonstrated, more than thirty-two workers were killed. The next year the crash on Wall Street precipitated an international crisis, while in Germany Hitler and the Nazi party offered promise at a time when things could not look worse. On February 27, 1932, communists, writers, and intellectuals who had been resisting Nazism—including Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein—were rounded up. Brecht knew that his time in Germany was limited. After the 1933 Reichstag Fire Decree, which stripped German citizens of many key civil liberties, Brecht fled Germany with his family, settling first in Austria, then Denmark, and finally in Sweden. Brecht traveled often during his years of exile, finding new collaborators and working on more political plays. The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 inspired Brecht to write Mother Courage in a matter of months, and during the summer of 1941 the Brecht family relocated to California, settling in Santa Monica.
Brecht struggled to establish a career both in Hollywood and on Broadway, and although he did produce plays, novels, film, and a body of criticism, he was eager to return to Europe after the war. In 1947, Brecht received a summons from the House Committee on Un-American Activities. When asked to answer to charges of communist leanings, Brecht remained vague, emphasizing that he was a guest in America. The next day, he flew to Switzerland. He returned to then-communist East Germany in 1948, where he and Helen Weigel founded the Berliner Ensemble. They produced what many critics consider to be his best works—Mother Courage and Her Children, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and The Good Woman of Szechuan. He received a Stalin Peace Prize in Moscow in 1955. He died of coronary thrombosis on August 14, 1956.
The Threepenny Opera is an early example of Brecht’s employment of “epic theater,” a concept first brought to the public’s attention by his former employer, Erwin Piscator. Brecht’s version of epic theater was meant to educate rather than to entertain, and it employed specific stage devices to put the audience through Verfremdungseffekt, or the “alienation effect.” This distancing technique provokes the audience through alien or seemingly forced action onstage. Brecht employs the alienation effect by focusing the play’s action on the audience’s reality (i.e., real life), rather than focusing the audience’s attention on the play’s reality (i.e., the fantastical, fake world created on stage). Since The Threepenny Opera leaves the audience with neither morals nor happy endings, individuals are forced to think about the issues for themselves. Perhaps the biggest irony of The Threepenny Opera is that the combination of Brecht’s comedic timing and Weill’s catchy ballads yielded Brecht’s greatest commercial success.
The most obvious link between Gay’s and Brecht’s works is that both plays condemn the hypocrisy of the upper class. The Beggar’s Opera ridiculed the aristocracy and the over-the-top nature of Italian opera, but its purpose was to entertain. Brecht, in contrast, was immersed in Marxist thought after he became a Marxist in 1929. (Communism evolved from Marxism.) He saw capitalist society as hypocritical and corrupt and suggested that since drama had been defeated by capitalism, art should be an agent of social change. Although set in Victorian England, the tone of The Threepenny Opera reflects the climate of Germany at the time Brecht wrote it—a few years before Hitler’s ascendancy. His Marxist view motivated him to angle The Threepenny Opera to inspire social change. Indeed, his text reflects Marxist thought by criticizing the superstructure of bourgeois ideology—specifically family, science, charity, and religion.