And now for something unashamedly feminist. Bertolt Brecht was a bastard. He wasn’t just a bastard, he was a talentless bastard. He stole all his best ideas from other people, usually the women in his life. He never had fewer than three mistresses on the go (always different ones) and expended most of his dramatic gifts in lying to them to keep them apart. When he wasn’t lying to them he was making them work as unpaid amanuenses. And one of his chief slaves, and one of the most unrecognized women in German theatrical history, was Elisabeth Hauptmann.
Well, all his might be a rather exaggerated and partisan way of putting it. But it is certainly the impression you get from reading John Fuegi’s The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht (1994). What Fuegi does is to take apart the history of the plays and show that the works that we think of as being ‘by Brecht’ are more fruitfully approached if we think of them as being by the ‘Brecht production line’ (rather in the way that James Patterson’s novels are now written by ‘helpers’). Let’s take The Threepenny Opera as a test case.
When the theatrical impresario Ernst Aufricht accepted the manuscript of The Threepenny Opera from Brecht in mid-1928, the work he saw was almost entirely by Elisabeth Hauptmann. Hauptmann was Brecht’s lover and theatrical factotum, and had worked up the piece from a translation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Additions by Brecht, mainly in the form of material stolen from Villon and Kipling — and of course the music of Kurt Weill — completed the play we know today, but the basic structure was essentially a Hauptmann-Gay affair. By sheer force of personality Brecht is now known as its author.
Anyway, this is all a little irrelevant to the subject at hand, which is titles. So let’s look at the title. Brecht did not invent this either. His working titles had included Gesindel (Riff-Raff) and Ludenoper (Ragamuffin’s Opera), but the final name was bestowed one August evening in 1928 at Schlichter’s Café in Berlin by Lion Feuchtwanger, who came up with The Threepenny Opera in reference to the cut-price nature of the entertainment.
Hayman, Ronald: Brecht: A Biography (1983)
Fuegi, John: The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht (1994)
See a clickable index of all titles covered