The Operas

  • Ronald Speirs


The Threepenny Opera, which had its première in Berlin in 1928, was an immediate and enormous theatrical success, the first Brecht had enjoyed since Drums in the Night. This success has puzzled later commentators who wonder why bourgeois audiences should have been so enthusiastic about a work containing passages of Marxist social criticism, and who therefore suppose that the work’s popularity must have rested on some “misunderstanding”.1 The fact is that the didactic passages (which, ironically, are the ones most frequently quoted in interpretations) were not even part of the original libretto, but were inserted subsequently by Brecht when, after his adoption of Marxism in 1929, he revised the text in 1931; his misleading Marxist commentary on the opera dates from the same year.2 In its original form The Threepenny Opera was a lightweight picaresque farce with few and feeble socially critical implications.3 Like Brecht’s earlier adaptation of Marlowe’s Edward the Second, this adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera reduced rather than sharpened the political significance of the original on which it was based.


Biblical Story Divine Providence Operatic Romance Spiritual Peace Existential Fear 
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  1. 1.
    F. Podszus, for example, claims that the opera’s success rested on a misunderstanding — “Das Ärgernis Brecht”, Akzente I, (1954) p. 144.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For an account of the changes made by Brecht in 1931 see, R. C. Speire, “A Note on the First Published Version of Die Dreigroschenoper, and its Relation to the Standard Text”, Forum for Modern Language Studies, vol. 13, no. 1 (1977) pp. 25–32. For an account of the manuscript version, from which the first edition was developed, see the introduction and notes to the Methuen translation, which make it clear that Macheath’s speech from the gallows, in which he describes himself as a “bürgerlicher Handwerker” (“bourgeois artisan”), although not included in the first edition, did exist in the first draft. The play was first published in 1929 by Universal-Edition of Vienna, not in 1931, No. 3 of the “Versuche” series, as is stated in the notes to the Methuen translation (p. 124). The Methuen introduction is also in error when it states that “What we have therefore is the work as it was written and staged just half a century ago in 1928” (p. vii).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 4.
    E. V. Robert’s introduction to his edition of The Beggar’s Opera, (London, 1969) pp. xix–xx.Google Scholar
  4. 15.
    For an account of the vicissitudes of various productions, see David Drew, “The History of Mahagonny”, Musical Times, (Jan., 1963) p. 18 et seq,. The introduction and notes to the Methuen edition also contain much usefu material.Google Scholar
  5. 16.
    Kurt Weill, Ausgewahlte Schriften, (Frankfurt a.M., 1975) p. 58.Google Scholar
  6. 19.
    Although Brecht refuses, characteristically, to present Mahoney’s fate in a straightforwardly pathetic and cathartic manner, I believe that the conception of the character is tragic and do not believe that Mahoney was being held up simply as a warning example of the consequences of irrationality, as claimed by Cotterill, “In defence of Mahagonny,”, in Culture and Society in the Weimar Republic, ed. K. Bullivant (Manchester, 1977) p. 190 et seq,. One simplifies the opera if one looks in it for the kind of “implied answers” which are admittedly to be found in later works by Brecht.Google Scholar

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© Ronald Speirs 1982

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  • Ronald Speirs

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