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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
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
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
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
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Threepenny Opera!