Bertolt Brecht was one of the greatest innovators of theatrical productions and dramatic theory of the twentieth century. His approach to theater emerged from the German expressionist school, which reflected the alienation from society caused by expanding technological industrialism as well as the discontent and disorientation that followed World War I. His first theatrical success, The Threepenny Opera, which received its premiere on August 28, 1928, took Berlin by storm. Jarring, jangling, irreverent, amusing, scintillating, cynical, exciting, and unnerving, the play brought international fame to Brecht.
To some extent, however, the play confirmed critics in their uneasy feelings about Brecht the creative artist: Was Bertolt Brecht a genius or a plagiarist? A joke, current in Berlin at the time, went to the heart of their uneasiness: “Who wrote it?”—“Brecht.”—“All right. Who wrote it?”
The Threepenny Opera was perfect fodder for a charge of plagiarism. It was an adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera, a 1728 ballad opera by the English playwright John Gay. Brecht’s secretary translated the first few scenes into German, but when the play was accepted for production, Brecht rushed the preparation of the script, lifting entire scenes, characters, and dialogue from the original. Rather than using the original songs and score, Brecht drew on a file of his own song lyrics and poems based on translations of the medieval French poet François Villon and the English Victorian poet-novelist Rudyard Kipling. To this mix, he added a heavy sprinkling of Bible verses. Even the most famous line from the play, “Food comes first, and then morality,” originated with the German Romantic playwright Friedrich von Schiller. If Brecht escaped the accusation of plagiarism, it was because he blended the many borrowings to make a uniquely original concoction.
While The Threepenny Opera presented a criticism of society during the 1920’s, Brecht chose to date the action at the time of Queen...
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