The Threepenny Opera

by Bertolt Brecht

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Critical Overview

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A study of the critical reception of Brecht's plays must include references to his political and aesthetic ideology. More so than with most playwrights, it was Brecht's dynamic personality that generated his reputation. His charisma as a director and thinker made him the leader of a faithful group of artists and intellectuals.

Brecht had three opportunities with which to establish his notoriety under the adverse condition of being on the side of the wrong political party. In Germany prior to the Nazi takeover, he supported the Socialist Democrats; in the United States, he actively supported communism during the height of the McCarthy era (Senator Joseph McCarthy headed the hearings on Un-American Activities designed to root communism out of American society); and upon his return to East Germany, he criticized the communists, once again embracing the ideals of a classless society as promoted by Socialist Democracy. Through all of this, Brecht's very peculiar form of drama elicited ever-widening circles of interest, first among the international intellectual elite, and then, slowly and inevitably, to a wider audience by way of his profound influence on other writers.

The Threepenny Opera opened at the Munich Schiffbauerdamm Theater on August 28, 1928. It ran there until Hitler banned it; early praise and the notoriety of the ban made Brecht an overnight success. The tunes were whistled on the street and a Threepenny Opera Bar opened in Berlin, featuring music exclusively from Brecht and Weill' s work. In 1933 the play was produced at New York's Empire Theater, where it ran for a dismal twelve performances before closing. Audiences in the United States, beyond a small group of writers, artists, and avant garde thinkers, would not recognize Brecht's genius for another thirty years.

Just as The Threepenny Opera was being produced in the main centers of culture across Europe (to considerable acclaim), Brecht was worrying about how he might survive at all, let alone write. He and a group of other writers persecuted by Hitler met frequently to decide where to go. By 1923, his works were on the Nazi "burn" list (Hitler frequently ordered any books that contradicted or undermined his philosophy to be destroyed), and his own safety was questionable. He fled to Vienna in 1933 and then to Denmark, where he published anti-fascist tracts. In 1939 he was forced once again to move, this time to Sweden and then almost immediately again to Finland, from where he obtained passage to the United States. Finland became an ally of Germany ten days after he left.

In 1941, after a long land trip across the Soviet Union, Brecht arrived in California, where he was virtually unknown. He proceeded to search for a market for his work, forming a circle of intellectual German refugees. He met Eric Bentley, then a graduate student of German who would later become a renowned drama critic. Bentley offered to translate his works; it was the beginning of a long and productive relationship. Actor Charles Laughton, himself quite an intellectual, also joined the playwright's coterie, and by 1943, Brecht's works were beginning to be produced in small but important avant garde theaters. His work, however, earned no public acclaim and he had no Broadway productions during his lifetime, although several of his plays were big hits in New York during the 1960s.

Unfortunately for Brecht, the United States was going through a period of hysteria over the fear of communism. The House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed Brecht in 1947. The committee was snowed by Brecht's charm and intellectualism. He affirmed that he had studied Karl Marx but only as a...

(This entire section contains 735 words.)

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student of history, and he flatly denied his membership in the communist party. The committee let him go without further questioning. The result was a small leap in the popularity of his plays. In 1948 he returned to East Berlin and established there the Berliner Ensemble, which enjoyed the support of the intellectual elite in East Berlin and of audiences in the European cities where they visited.

In that troupe and in the work he did with his coterie of young German actors and writers, he left his indelible mark. Having left his country in exile, he had returned triumphant and remained so until he died in 1956. His political followers continued his penchant for attacking the establishment (now the communist regime in East Germany) after his death, while his literary successors still attribute their theatrical innovations to the ideas he planted with his own work.


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