"[W]hat think you of a Newgate [Prison] pastoral, among the whores and thieves there?"
— Letter from Jonathan Swift to Alexander Pope (August 30, 1716)
"The Threepenny Opera … sums up a whole epoch and evokes a special state of mind. The epoch is not just the Berlin of 1919-28; it is any epoch in which a lurid rascality combined with fierce contrasts of prosperity and poverty shape the dominant tone of society. The state of mind is one of social impotence so close to despair that it expresses itself through a kind of jaded mockery which mingles a snarl with tears.
— Harold Clurman, review of Marc Blitzstein’s 1954 adaptation of Der Dreigroschenoper, in “The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays” (1974).
"My whole theory is much naiver than people think, or than my way of putting it allows them to suppose. Perhaps I can excuse myself by pointing to the case of Albert Einstein, who told the physicist Infield that ever since boyhood he had merely reflected on the man running after a ray of light and the man shut in a descending lift. And think what complications that led to!"
— Bertolt Brecht, “Notes on Erwin Strittmatter’s Play Katzgraben,” in John Willett, ed. and transl., “Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic” (1964)
THE RARE FIRST EDITION OF “THE THREEPENNY OPERA,” A CLASSIC OF THE MODERN STAGE, ALONG WITH THE BOOKLET OF SONGS FROM THE PLAY THAT WAS PUBLISHED TO MARK ITS HUNDREDTH PERFORMANCE; BOTH ITEMS IN FINE CONDITION IN THE ORIGINAL PRINTED WRAPPERS, AND BOTH WITH THE OWNERSHIP INSCRIPTION OF CHARLOTTE GROTE-HASELBALG, ONE OF THE ACTRESSES WHO PLAYED POLLY PEACHUM IN THE PLAY’S ORIGINAL 1928 RUN.
In 1926, after a brief career in journalism, a stint in the Army at the end of World War I, and almost a decade of work in the theater, Bertolt Brecht (born Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht) discovered a new source of inspiration for his plays. “[I]n 1926 … while researching material for a play about the Chicago grain exchange, [Brecht] discovered the writings of Karl Marx and the theory of dialectics. The play was never completed but in Marx Brecht found what he regarded as the key to understanding the world around him and to the historical process, as well as a framework and structure for his own writing.” (Non & Nick Worrall, eds., Bertold Brecht: The Threepenny Opera, 2005). He remained a committed Marxist through his life, although he apparently never joined the Communist Party. Marxist dialectics typically do not have much entertainment value, yet somehow Brecht managed to transmute his ideological preoccupations into one of the most rousing, amusing, cynical, and entertaining plays of the twentieth century — the work offered here. As Harold Clurman recognized in the quotation above, the play is very much of its time (first performance, 1928) — capturing the hysteria, despair, and cultural experimentation of the Weimar era — yet universal in its relevance and appeal.
Brecht developed innovative theatrical techniques to communicate with his audiences. “He drew up a rough-and-ready yet basic distinction between the old Aristotelean theatre, which he generally called ‘dramatic’ … and his own new theatre which he called ‘epic.’ … Brecht found in epic writing an objectivity, an ability of the author to stand back and comment on the action, which attracted him. He wanted to make his audience think, not just feel; to find ways of thinking that would enable them to apply those processes to their real worlds and therefore act as a force for change in society.” (Id.).
In order to force the audience to think about the action, rather than passively absorbing it, Brecht used various devices to keep the audience members aware that what was before them was, after all, only a play. He referred to this process as Verfremdung, a term that is sometimes translated as “alienation,” but might more accurately be rendered as “defamiliarization,” or “distancing.” The devices he used for this purpose included putting the orchestra in full view of the audience; having the curtain conceal only part of the stage; using projected signs that anticipated, summarized, or commented on the action; and constructing the play from paratactic scenes without a smooth flow between them (“montage”).
The Play: Die Dreigroschenoper was adapted by Brecht, with some assistance from the translator Elisabeth Hauptmann and with music written by Kurt Weill, from John Gay’s “A Beggar’s Opera.” He maintained the original English setting but transposed the action from the early 18th century to the Victorian era. Both eras offered an abundance of rascality at all levels of society that enabled Gay, and then Brecht, to convey their implicit message that there was, at bottom, not all that much difference between the high life and the low life.
The play opens at a fair in Soho. The stage directions indicate that “The beggars are begging, the thieves are stealing, the whores are whoring. A ballad singer sings a ballad.” (This and other quotations from the play are from the translation by Ralph Mannheim and John Willett.) The ballad is the famous “Moritat von Mackie Messer” — a song that, in a somewhat softened English version, and as sung by Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong, and a host of others, became the perennial favorite “Mack the Knife.”
Mackie is the master criminal MacHeath. His character is suggested by a couple of verses from the Moritat:
On a beautiful blue Sunday
See a corpse stretched in the Strand.
See a man dodge round the corner
Mackie’s friends will understand.
* * *
And Schmul Meier, reported missing
Like so many wealthy men:
Mac the Knife acquired his cash box.
God alone knows how or when.
MacHeath, it transpires, is romantically involved with Polly Peachum, the daughter of the second principal character, and foil to MacHeath, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum. “[H]is business is trading in misery and guilt. He has divided London into fourteen districts and, for a sizable fee and a percentage of the earnings, licenses beggars to ply their trade in a particular area. His emporium is also a theatrical outfitters in that he supplies the beggars with customers and properties designed not to horrify but to elicit sympathy from passers-by. … Independent beggars are beat up by Peachum’s employees and forced to join the equivalent of a beggars’ trade union.” (Worrall, op. cit.).
The play proceeds through a series of crimes and misdemeanors, betrayals, double and triple crosses, and dirty tricks reminiscent of the more sophisticated, but no less amoral, behavior of Peachum and MacHeath’s betters in Parliament, industry, the Church, and the military. In the final scene, MacHeath, sentenced to death, is awaiting his execution, when a messenger arrives: “I bring a special order from our beloved Queen to have Captain Macheath set at liberty forthwith — All cheer. — as it’s the coronation, and raised to the hereditary peerage. Cheers. The castle of Marmarel, likewise a pension of ten thousand pounds, to be his in usufruct until his death.” Good news all around, although as Peachum cautions the audience, “Saviours on horseback are seldom met with in practice.”
Stephen Parker, in his biography, Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life (2014) describes the origins of the play as follows:
“Elisabeth Hauptmann had been translating [from English into German] John Gay’s satirical ballad opera of 1728, The Beggar’s Opera, a parody of Italian opera style. She had told Brecht of the huge success of the revival at London’s Lyric Theatre where it had run since 1920 for an astonishing 1,463 performances. Instead of the usual grand music and themes of opera, Gay’s work relied on everyday tunes and characters. … The audience could sing along to the music and enjoy the characters in this satire about corruption at all levels of society.”
“[Brecht] had scarcely touched the material when one day … in the spring of 1928, Ernest Josef Aufricht asked him if he had a new play for the re-opening of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm …. Brecht quickly convinced him that his adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera was the very thing...”
“The material was right up Brecht and Weill’s street. However, it would have to be re-cast substantially to make it work as a satire of modern society. … For both Weill and Brecht, it was … an opportunity to break down barriers between elite and popular art. … In Gay’s gangster Macheath, Brecht encountered an irresistible, hedonistic outsider in the same mould as his great early creations. Of course, when Brecht wrote about the project for German critics in January 1929 he pointed to the serious underlying message …. However … his fascination with the amoral outsider produced a gangster whose courage and magnetic attraction outweighed the anti-capitalist message. Brecht knew exactly how to make him part of an unforgettable theatrical experience. He would never again allow his audience to enjoy themselves in such an unfettered way.”
“Brecht and Hauptmann made rapid progress on the text and Weill began composing the music in April 1928. Brecht and Hauptmann had a first draft ready for the playbook by early May. Weill’s playful, quirky tunes were the perfect foil for the savage lyrics. Weill imbued the form of the ballad opera with his contemporary style, drawing on jazz and dance music.”
The play was an unqualified success. “The Threepenny Opera was performed at the Theater am Schifffbauerdamm for the whole of the 1928-9 season and enjoyed phenomenal success throughout Germany. By January 1929 there were productions at nineteen German theatres, as well as in Prague, Budapest and Vienna. In all, there were 4,200 performances in 1928-9 … The Threepenny Opera rapidly became an international success. … Success in the USA would have to wait until the famous production in Marc Blitzstein’s translation which ran at New York’s Theater de Lys from 1954 to 1961. … Today The Threepenny Opera remains one of the world’s most performed musical dramas.”
* * *
The work offered here is the true first edition of the libretto of Die Dreigroschenoper, described on the cover as follows: Bert [sic] Brecht & Kurt Weill, “Die Dreigroschenoper (The Beggar’s Opera): Ein Stück mit Musik in einem Vorspiel und acht Bildern nach dem Englischen des John Gay. Übersetzt von Elisabeth Hauptmann … Universal Edition — Wien, Leipzig, Nr. 8850.” See “Sources and Genesis of ‘Die Dreigroschenoper’,” in Stephen Hinton, “Kurt Weill: Threepenny Opera” (Cambridge Opera Handbooks 1990), at 13 (describing the first edition).
Hinton states that the first issue of 300 copies was reprinted twice (in printings of 500 copies each) in November 1928 and December 1929. In the present copy, there is a publisher's imprint on the rear wrapper ending in "2338 28". Other copies have the imprint ending in "1398 29" and it has been generally understood that ones with "28" are from 1928; while copies with the "29" are from 1929.
Regarding the two 1928 printings, however, we have not been able to determine definitively in what ways, if any, they differ. However, the rubber-stamped number “225” appears on the front wrapper and in the margin of page 31 of our copy. Similar stamps appear on other copies of the first edition that have appeared on the market, and may indicate the numbering of the 300 copies comprising the first printing.
The cover of the first edition states: “Den Bühnen gegenüber als Manuskript Gedruckt” (“Printed as a manuscript for theatres”) — i.e., originally intended for use in connection with productions of the play, rather than for sale (although some copies were apparently sold). It is reasonable that an edition of only 300 copies, intended primarily for use by performers, directors, etc. would be numbered so that the copies could be tracked and retrieved and redistributed as necessary. Perhaps the edition became repurposed in light of the popularity of the play, and the subsequent 500 copies from 1928 were printed primarily for sale to the public, in which case there would be no need to number them. These indications are far from definitive, but they perhaps constitute circumstantial evidence that numbered copies are from the first issue. Additional circumstantial evidence that this copy is from the first issue is provided by its ownership by a person associated with the original production, as described below.
The libretto is offered here with the pamphlet “Die Songs der Dreigroschenoper. Zur 100. Aufführung der Dreigroschenoper dem Publikum überreicht vom Theater am Schiffbauerdamm,” copyright date 1928. (“The Songs of the Threepenny Opera. Presented to the audience by the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm for the 100th performance of the Threepenny Opera.”) It would appear to be distinct from the issue of 10,000 copies prepared for public distribution (Item 105 in Walter Nudel’s “Bertolt Brecht – Bibliographie,” in the journal Sinn und Form’s special issue on Brecht (1957); see also Hinton, op cit., page 13 and Gero von Wilpert & Adolf Gühring, Erstausgaben Deutscher Dichtung: Eine Bibliographie zur Deutschen Literatur 1600-1990 (2d ed. 1992), at 183, No. 13.)
Both works have the ownership signature of “Charlotte Grote-Haselbalg” (on the title page of Die Dreigroschenoper, and on the half-title of the songbook). Charlotte Grote-Haselbalg, also known as Charlotte Andersch (the name under which she was born), Charlotte Haselbalg, and Charlotte Ander, was a German stage and film actress of the early twentieth century, credited with a lengthy list of movie roles in both the silent and sound eras. One of her stage roles was Polly Peachum (MacHeath’s lover) in the original production of Die Dreigroschenoper.
Carola Neher, who had been selected to play Polly Peachum in the 1928 production, “had to go to Switzerland to tend to her dying husband, the poet Klabund, with the result that she arrived two weeks late for rehearsal and felt obliged to abandon the role. She was replaced by Roma Bahn, who learned the part in four days.” (Worrall, op cit.). Bahn is in fact listed as Polly in the playbill for the play’s premiere; however, Ander performed the role at least once during the play’s original run. The media biographer and historian Kay Weniger, in his 2008 work “Zwischen Bühne und Baracke: Lexikon der Verfolgten Theater-, Film- under Musikkünstler 1933-1945,” a collection of biographies of performers who suffered under Nazi persecution, notes that “[m]it der Polly Peachum in einer Aufführung von Brechts-Weills ‘Dreigroschenoper’ in Ernst Josef Aufrichts Threatre an Schiffbauerdamm spielte sie 1928 ihre wichtigste und schönste Bühnenrole vor dem Machtantritt der Nazis.” (As “Polly Peachum in a performance of Brecht-Weill’s Threepenny Opera in Ernst Josef Aufricht’s Theatre an Schiffbauerdamm in 1928, she [Anders] played her most important and most beautiful stage role before the Nazis came to power.”)
According to Weniger, Anders had been threatened by the Nazis with a boycott due to an affair with a Jewish businessman, and later was accused of threatening to dismiss any members of her household who voted for Hitler in the 1933 election. She found it expedient to flee Germany for England, although she later returned, due to a lack of adequate roles, before the declaration of war between the two countries.
Die Dreigroschenoper: Wien - Leipzig: Universal-Edition, 1928. Octavo, original printed wrappers. Near-fine condition with only very light general wear. Die Songs Der Dreigroschenoper: Potsdam: Gustav Kiepenheuer, 1928. Twelvemo, original printed wrappers. A touch of restoration at hinges, otherwise near-fine. Housed together in custom cloth box with leather label.
RARE FIRST EDITION IN OUTSTANDING CONDITION OF A 20TH-CENTURY MASTERPIECE, WITH A NOTED PROVENANCE.
Price: $6,800 .