A Reflection on The Threepenny Opera
“Sometimes it’s more important to be human, than to have good taste”
– Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) looked for ways that would help him dramatize Karl Marx’s postulates on capitalism, particularly focusing on set design, music and playacting when relating the story, thus attempting to have audiences remove themselves from the stance of a mere character identification, which is typical for conventional realism and naturalism, all with the goal of achieving an effect of estrangement or distancing (Verfremdungseffekt), namely, have audiences act critically, shed the passivity that feeds the conditions which instigate the process of alienation within a capitalist society.
Brecht despised the bourgeoisie theatre of his time, since it heavily invested in emotionally manipulating its audiences, mainly by having them identify, emotionally, with the protagonist. He realized that this manipulation was the result of crafty technology – beautiful, realistic sets, naturalistic lighting, the imagined fourth wall (towards the audience), as well as the emotional and extrovert acting techniques. Soon enough he understood the threatening power of such an approach, seeing how in his homeland, Germany, the Nazi movement, with its racist, nationalist, xenophobic demagogy, had gained staggering support based on a similar kind of emotional manipulation. According to Brecht, emotional manipulation stands as the worst enemy (enemy number one) of human consciousness and decency.
The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) was written with the aim of mocking the conventionalism of sentimental musicals, as well as striking a direct attack to Wagnerian opera, and with that, have the world of theatre intersect with the world of the commoners rather than the elites of society. The libretto was created during his early period, together with such texts as Drums in the Night, Man Equals Man and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. These plays are in fact humorous, for they possess a dry and cynical center, and relate the key social and political issues of their times, thus attacking the bourgeoisie’s value system and accepted conventions.
Brecht was influenced then by expressionism and experimented with new techniques. Convinced that theatre ought to act as the harbinger of social and political changes, he sought out a compatible theatrical form to his theories, hence the creation of what we have come to call Brecht’s ‘Epic Theatre’. “Today when human character must be understood as the ‘totality of all social conditions’ the epic form is the only one that can comprehend all the processes, which could serve the drama as materials for a fully representative picture of the world.” (Brecht’s comment, 1931, in The Threepenny Opera1F)
The first collaboration between Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht took place due to a commission made by the Baden-Baden musical festival in 1927, which in turn resulted in the creation of Little Mahagonny. Kurt Weill had the reputation of a dissonance composer, of someone who flirted with neo-classicism; however, Brecht’s text inspired Weill’s imagination, and a similar, almost compatible, literary and dramaturgical sensibility emerged. The incoming success proved encouraging for both to continue with their collaborations, experimenting also with other alternatives to the operatic establishment, such as the school-opera The Yes Sayer (Der Jasager) and the radio cantata The Berlin Requiem (Das Berliner Requiem). When Brecht grew too restrictive about the role music should play within his political theatre, their collaboration ceased, only to be briefly reinstated during the creation of The Seven Deadly Sins (Die sieben Todsünden), a ballet chanté (“sung ballet”) in 1933.
The premiere of The Threepenny Opera took place almost 200 years after the premiere of the work it was based on, namely John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Due to his own initiative, Brecht adapted Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera fashioning it into a new text that would serve as stark criticism of capitalism while exhibiting Brecht’s avant-garde approach to theatre-making. A great deal of The Threepenny Opera’s historical significance can indeed be attributed to Brecht’s experimental techniques, but we should also not dismiss the importance of Kurt Weill’s music, which was equally important for the production’s overall success.
Originally Brecht asked Weill to pen modernist melodies to match his text, whereas the commissioner of the piece, concerned about his investment as he had heard Weill’s previous composition pieces and was stunned by their atonal nature, asked the musical director to supply a back-up music in case Weill’s music would prove inadequate.
However, Weill and Brecht decided on another route – popular music. In those days, jazz was considered decadent, taken as the music of the lower social classes; consequently, Weill decided to pick jazz as the musical language that would allow him to communicate with his audiences freely and effectively. Even though this work is a musical, Weill did not simply create songs, where a part of the lines would be sung; what is more, he created an organic and compact piece of music which linked the separate elements and turned the leitmotif into a song. The songs would not be used to strike an emotional cord during a high note; rather, they would act as commentaries that would usually lead the audiences to the effect of estrangement; therefore, the text of the songs is both ironic and funny, the melodies are under the influence of jazz, a bit crazy-sounding and unromantic, while the songs in general stood to satirize the popular sentiments.
Weill’s musical answer to Brecht’s text is unpretentious, unforced and fantastically compatible, yet immediately recognizable, the result of his unique talents. He considered his music and orchestrations as holy creations, and insisted on the significance of ‘Klangblid’ (sound-scape) – sounds which create the sensation of experiencing a particular kind of an acoustic surrounding; namely, compositions or musical productions which use sounds from an acoustic surrounding.
“With every musical work for the stage the question arises: how is music, particularly song, at all possible in the theatre? Here the question was resolved in the most primitive way possible. I had a realistic plot, so I had to set the music against it, since I do not consider music capable of realistic effects. Hence the action was either interrupted, in order to introduce music, or it was deliberately driven to a point where there was no alternative but to sing.” (Kurt Weill, answering ‘why anyone would sing onstage’, in a letter to the journal “Anbruch”, January 1929)2F
The introductory song, ‘Ballad of Mack the Knife’ (Die Moritat von Mackie Messer), has become one of the greatest hits of all time, namely the version sung by Louis Armstrong and renamed into “Mack The Knife”, later to be re-recorded by many other artists. Brecht’s satire of the bourgeoisie remains one of the greatest representations of modern times, where audiences can entertain themselves without being manipulated.
Until present day, The Threepenny Opera remains one of Brecht’s most challenging productions when it comes to its interpretation. It is difficult to combine Brecht’s later-on publicly open communism and the frivolities inseparable from this production, with the fact that the production’s success was also repeated in the theatres of the bourgeoisie.
Brecht’s ideas would carry on, being widely accepted by feminism, psychoanalysis and Marxism; in the Russian school of montage and filmmaking, his concept would be embraced by Eisenstein. The Brechtian tradition in theatre continues through Müller, Arden, Bond, Fo, and in film, through Goddard, Straub, Greenway.
Even though many of Brecht’s techniques were a part of the bourgeoisie film and theatre of his day (and of the contemporary theatre of our day), his challenge is still upon us: how to confront the problem of emotional manipulation while creating a stimulating, surprising, fun, radically critical, popular and accessible socially-artistic work.
Translated from Macedonian by Bela Gligorova