Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

by Bertolt Brecht

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Critical Context

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The epic opera’s predecessor, the Songspiel Mahagonny (unpublished until 1963; the little mahagonny), was produced at the Chamber Music Festival in Baden-Baden, Germany, in 1927 and caused an uproar that foreshadowed the even more scandalous effect Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny generated in Leipzig. The latter was actually a continuation and expansion of the former. Hissing, whistling, and fighting broke out during the work’s premiere, and the police were summoned. During subsequent performances, the lights were kept on, and the police were stationed along the walls of the theater to prevent similar riots. Lotte Lenya, Bertolt Brecht’s main actor, commented that the audience believed that the dramatic work was simply communist propaganda, not the traditional opera that they expected. Despite the scandal, the work was a success, and the premiere performance was considered a historical moment in the German theater.

Some critics consider this work, which was written at the same time as Die Dreigroschenoper (pr. 1928, pb. 1929; The Threepenny Opera, 1949), the quintessential expression of Brecht’s thought during what Klaus Schuhmann calls his “transitional period” (1926-1929). During these years, Brecht read Marx and was in the process of committing himself to communism. In particular, Marx’s dictum that it was more important to change the world than merely to interpret it exercised a great influence on Brecht’s attitude toward the role of dramatic works, according to Fritz Sternberg. Because Brecht had little confidence in the political effect of opera, however, he soon turned to other dramatic forms, such as the ballet-cantata Die Sieben Todsünden der Kleinbürger (pr. 1933; The Seven Deadly Sins, 1961), in which the “culinary” aspect was deemphasized and the didactic element could be stressed. As Brecht himself stated, the epic opera was supposed to be “fun,” to be enjoyable, even as it made jabs at capitalism.

Others point out that Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny represents a significant experiment in the operatic form rather than an important stage in Brecht’s ideological development. While working on this musical play, Brecht devised the main traits of his epic theater and integrated these principles into his “epic opera.” The techniques he used in it to produce the alienation effect were developed further in his later plays.

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