Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844
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 Victoria’s coronation (1837) and to place it in London’s Soho area. Berliners, who were enthralled by American gangsterism, nevertheless saw past the time and place into the references to their age. A part of Brecht’s genius was that he anticipated the audience’s recognition.
It was a tribute to Brecht’s theatrical sense that he secured the services of the young composer Kurt Weill to provide the score for the production. Weill’s music was in large part responsible for making the production the success that it became, for his compositions were as avant-garde as Brecht’s lyrics and theories. Influenced by such diverse sources as a classical training and American jazz, Weill provided music that was perfect for the play: a pastiche of jazz, cabaret, operetta, and vaudeville. It was fresh, irreverent, new, and startling, and it satirized opera and traditional serious music with a jangling sound akin to a berserk hurdy-gurdy that, while it grated on the ears, excited and stimulated listeners.
Oddly enough, what made Brecht’s presentational style engrossing was not stylistic consistency but the element of the anachronistic, which was subtle enough not to call attention to itself. In The Threepenny Opera, for example, Brecht drew on Chicago gangsters, modern music, and a Roaring Twenties atmosphere in an eighteenth century play set in nineteenth century England.
Eventually Brecht’s ideas coalesced into his credo for epic theater. Even at the time of The Threepenny Opera, Brecht was reading Aristotle. The term epic theater was not original with Brecht; like so much of his work, it was borrowed from the German playwright and impresario Erwin Piscator, who used the term to describe his presentational style of theater. Brecht used Piscator’s term and theories and elaborated and enlarged on them.
In Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), epic and tragic poetry are contrasted. Tragic poetry was represented by the classical Greek dramas and demanded emotional involvement that reached its climax in catharsis. The epic, on the other hand, was a saga without emotional identification by the audience and was didactic in nature.
For Brecht, the social and political critic-commentator, the epic was the ideal method of communication, and he used devices in The Threepenny Opera that he would later incorporate into epic theater. The term most often associated with Brecht is the effect of alienation (Verfremdungseffekt). He believed that distancing was necessary if the spectators were to take the social message of the play to heart. To this end, Brecht developed his play in short, concise vignettes that were connected by theme rather than by chronology; he interrupted the action of the play with songs that, instead of furthering the plot, reinforced the message; he used the machinery of the theater (lights, setting, the stage itself, properties, placards, slogans, signs, and later, projections) to call attention to the fact that the play was theater and not reality; and he recommended that his actors stay emotionally distant from their characters. All of these concepts can be seen in The Threepenny Opera. Brecht’s influence on other writers, producers, and theorists is tremendous and indelible. In many ways, Brecht is synonymous with modern theater.