Brecht effect: bourgeois bashing with catchy tunes
‘The Threepenny Opera’ began in disaster and grew into a triumph – a new Irish production hopes to burnish its agitprop credentials
David Ganly (Mack The knife) and whores in ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at the Gate Theatre. Photograph: Matthew Thompson
In 1928 the world was on the brink of disaster, and so, it seemed, was Bertolt Brecht. For its part, the world seemed oblivious to any approaching crisis but Brecht must have known what was in store.
His troubled adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a relatively genteel satire on 18th-century politics, poverty and corruption, was intended to be a radical attack on the capitalist excesses of the Weimar Republic. But, however shaky the German economy seemed under soaring wages, prices and debts, it was propped up by foreign capital, particularly from a booming Wall Street.
Brecht, then a 30-year-old dramatist and poet who believed the theatre could be a trenchant forum for political ideas, was seeking an ideology (he was not quite a Marxist, but getting there), a method (he had been experimenting with the distancing devices of his verfremdungseffekt, or “alienation effect”) and a voice (for The Threepenny Opera it would be an idiom both vulgar and hip, full of jazz-age subversion and underworld slang).
But it also required the right music and, over the objections of his theatre manager, Brecht turned to the strikingly contrapuntal composer Kurt Weill to create the score. Brecht’s new production, it was rumoured, would close in a matter of days. The Weimar Republic was generally expected to last.
Instead, the stock market crashed, the Great Depression took hold and Hitler began his rise to power. During this time, after an initially lukewarm response, the show became a huge hit – until it was banned by the Nazis. By that time, though, Brecht had fled to Denmark and Weill to the US.
As he considers the shock waves of the original production, Cathal Synnott, the musical director of the Gate Theatre’s new production of the classic, recalls two very different contemporary responses to the music.
“Schoenberg said of him – and we’re talking about the serious high end of German music at this particular period – ‘Kurt Weill is the only man alive of whose music I can find no value’.”
On the subversive end of the spectrum, there is Stravinsky, who wrote Weill a letter, saying: “This is one of the most important pieces of the 20th century. Could you please furnish me with a score?”
The lesson of The Threepenny Opera, an anti-capitalist satire that proved a huge commercial hit, with an iconoclastic score that delivered enduring crooner standards, is that disaster and success can be hard to distinguish at first.
When we meet, on the last day of technical rehearsals for director Wayne Jordan’s production, Synnott is nearing the end of his own problem-solving. On his lunch break, Synnott enters the theatre’s hospitality room wearing black coat-tails and crisp whites, clutching a copy of the score.
It’s a conservative vision of the opera musician but also a clue to the production’s aesthetic. “Conceived with an opulence only beggars could dream of and an economy only beggars could afford,” is how Brecht put it, with a designation somewhere between luxury and junk.
That contradiction is there in the music too, where a banjo – that twanging instrument of the folk – might assert itself among the decorum of piano, saxophones and harmoniums. Brecht had his verfremdungseffekt, Synnott knows, but Weill had his klangbild, or “sound structure”, and everything within it knew its place.
It’s worth remembering that in 1928 jazz was still a distrusted form, as insurgent a departure from the mainstream as punk was in the 1970s. It begs the question whether the best way to honour The Threepenny Opera now might not be adherence to the letter of its text, but to its radical spirit.
A mooted new adaptation of the play by Mark O’Rowe did not go ahead in the end (it fell through after the Dublin Theatre Festival programme went to print) but the plan suggested a desire at least to render Brecht in a contemporary and local voice. (This production reverts to the Ralph Manheim and John Willett translation of 1976 but, Synnott says, there have been tweaks).
“Unless we can start from a point where we actually know what the score is, it’s very hard to know how to twist it,” says Synnott. “Kurt Weill twists the harmonic language – he twists everything – to make it subversive. I can’t make a judgment call on making it more subversive. I can’t twist that any further. I suppose I’m taking it from a very traditionalist standpoint in the sense of trying to find all the right instruments to rebuild what Kurt Weill created. This little blue book is like a minefield of information and misinformation. It’s a heuristic process. I’m searching it for clues.”
That’s not an easy task. Although Weill became zealously protective of his score (“In no case would I allow my music to be changed arbitrarily,” he wrote in a letter to a Swiss theatre in 1949), his composition may have been influenced by plenty of arbitrary changes. His original musicians, the Lewis Ruth Band, comprised seven members who played 23 instruments and much of the score is based on that band’s idiosyncrasies. Even Weill’s score is permissively notated: “piano, if possible”, or “soprano saxophone, but clarinet will suffice”. At a certain point, though, it froze into an authoritative form.
You could say the same thing about The Threepenny Opera itself which, for all Brecht’s theorising about “alienation effect” has always been a much more approachable play in practice.
The obvious irony was that, while it attempted to skewer bourgeois values, presenting them in the mouths of murderers, hoodlums and pimps, it was enthusiastically embraced by the establishment. It might have been Brecht’s clearest articulation of an “epic theatre”, where a visible orchestra, unnatural lighting shifts and projected song titles never allowed the audience to swoon into a fiction, but it also gave them enjoyably roguish characters such as Mack The Knife and Mr Peachum.
And when Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife) or Louis Armstrong, or Frank Sinatra, or any given karaoke bawler at a certain stage of the evening launches into its most famous ballad, (“Oh, the shark has teeth like razors . . .”), they rarely treat it like a theme tune for a psychopath.
“I think there’s a subtle form of verfremdungseffekt,” says designer Ciarán O’Melia, reconciling the show’s entertainment with its power of subversion. “Even in the text there are those little cues that you may not pick up on until afterwards: did I just hear that?”
O’Melia, whose work was this year exhibited at the World Stage Design Exhibition, has emerged in recent years as a designer capable of constructing startling beauty with very modest means. Here, creating a stage that accommodates a 19-strong cast, including eight musicians, he sees the aesthetic as “more about opulence”. Using a scheme of overlapping black materials – black frames and black velvet under bare lighting, for instance – his design plumps for “a dark glamour. It has that sort of rough and raw cabaret feel, but it still has a richness to it and the bourgeois element of dressing it up.”
That pivot point between luxury and poverty may be the necessary position for a production of Brecht’s classic. But while Synnott knows that audiences tend to come out humming the soundtrack more than the polemic, he says “I guarantee you a lot of people will be coming out singing, What Keeps Mankind Alive” – the agitprop ballad that denounces wealthy lifestyles as an exploitation of the poor.
That may not be a difficult message to sell these days, together with Macheath’s snarling words about banks, but that doesn’t make it any less resonant. “When we get to What Keeps Mankind Alive and those big epic choruses enunciate that question, I don’t think anybody will be in any doubt that Brecht is involved in the show.”
The Threepenny Opera runs until November 2 at the Gate as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival