When Brecht wrote The Threepenny Opera, he was still defining himself as a dramatist. An overview of his life makes this plain. After serving as a medic in World War I, he attempted medical school. When his playwrighting and poetry took precedence during the 1920’s, it was significant that The Threepenny Opera realized some of his notions of staging. He came upon these ideas from two angles. As assistant to the great director Max Reinhardt, he knew stagecraft; as a student of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867) and a witness to Weimar Germany, he saw Western capitalism as morally bankrupt. These twin experiences coalesced in his plays, of which The Threepenny Opera was the first of importance, to be followed by Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (pr. 1929; Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1957), Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthofe (pb. 1931; Saint Joan of the Stockyards, 1956), Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (pr. 1940; Mother Courage and Her Children, 1941), Leben des Galilei (pr. 1943; Life of Galileo, 1947), Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (pr. 1943; The Good Woman of Setzuan, 1948), and Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (pr. 1958; The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1948).
Brecht’s plays have for many people come to epitomize the ambiguities of life in modern times, the bittersweet poverty amid plenty, spiritual decease and material prosperity, a theater of despair and a theater of joy. In the harsh strains of The Threepenny Opera can be heard the sleazy decadence of Europe and America, the amoral exploitation of the poor, the celebration of economic power, the seeds of revolution.