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.