The National Theatre's 1986 production of The Threepenny Opera. Photo by Zoe Dominic
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper, or The Threepenny Opera, is now regarded as one of the greatest artworks to come out of the Weimar Republic. Its history, though, is fraught with many of the misfortunes that might befall a theatre: angry actors, unhappy producers and a major programme misprint.
The Threepenny Opera comes from the satirical The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in 1728, which had been revived in Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre in the 1920s. Brecht’s secretary, Elizabeth Hauptmann, heard about the revival and began to translate it for her employer and collaborator, scene by scene. At around the same time, a timber merchant’s son by the name of Ernst Josef Aufricht had come into some money and leased central Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. He needed a play. Brecht needed a theatre.
In early 1928, Aufricht commissioned Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, giving him six months until its debut in August. Kurt Weill was to write the music (to the original concern of Aufricht, who considered him too avant-garde) and the process began in earnest. Brecht and his writing collective drew from sources including the original The Beggar’s Opera, the work of Rudyard Kipling and even the Bible. With three months until opening, the play was still unfinished, and the creative team retired to the French Riviera to work on it. It would not be totally complete until the night before its opening.
The rehearsal period was infamously chaotic. There were constant changes to the cast, the script and the music, including the addition of the song ‘Mack the Knife’ at the last minute. What has become arguably the piece’s most famous tune was the result of a strop by Harald Paulsen, playing Mack, who threatened to quit if his character did not receive a proper introduction. His anger was obliged, perhaps in part because of so many other sections of the music remained undecided. Songs were still being cut and added at the end of the dress rehearsal, which finished at 5am.
On 31 August 1928, The Threepenny Opera was shown to the world in its recently finished form. There was another blip on the way: Lotte Lenya, the actor and wife of Weill who was playing Jenny, was left out of the programme and her husband attempted to stop her going on stage. Fortunately, he was unsuccessful. Despite a slow initial reaction from the audience, the performance ended with rapturous applause; Lenya claimed that those who declined invitations to the premiere later professed to have been there.
Since then, Threepenny has been adapted for stage and screen, as well as a novel by Brecht himself. Through these – and by taking a look at the creative process that bore it – it’s possible to see The Threepenny Opera not just as a classic to be admired, but as a living, breathing text, with something different to offer to each new generation. Simon Stephens’ new version, directed by Rufus Norris, opens in the Olivier Theatre on 18 May.