The Threepenny Opera, written and staged in 1928, soon became Brecht's first and greatest commercial success. Produced only two years after Brecht's famous work Man equals Man, the play represents a new style for Brecht. Whereas Man equals Man has its roots in Brecht's Augsburg youth and was developed from a variety of influences, The Threepenny Opera was written for a very specific purpose. Brecht chose not to alter the text as much as in other works and developed the plot into first a screenplay and then a novel. As such, the text remains tightly bound to the moment of Germanic history in which it was written.
The late 1920s were part of a more stable period in the Weimar Republic, a period where the hyperinflation was reigned in and foreign (particularly American) capital flowed into the country. For the theater, this meant a significant re-working of the classics, prominent among which stood Brecht's Edward II and Erich Engel's Coriolanus in early 1925. Later in that year the production of Carl Zuckmayer's Der froehliche Weinberg revolutionized theater by introducing down-to-earth comedy to the stage.
At this point in his career, Brecht was experimenting with his "epic" theater and also with the ideas of Karl Marx, whom he began reading in 1926. These interests led him to work for Erwin Piscator on "dramaturgs". Piscator set up an independent company at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz in 1927, a Berlin West End theater but with Communist politics and a preference for the themes that Brecht was trying to deal with. In spite of this partnership, Brecht was unable to complete any major social-political plays for the theater, notably Joe P. Fleischhacker (about the Chicago wheat market) and Decline of the Egoist Johann Fatzer (concerned with soldiers deserting in the First World War).
His difficulties in producing these themes for the stage were offset by his meeting with Kurt Weill in 1927. Occuring soon after Weill had enthusiastically reviewed his Man equals Man, the two men instantly started considering the opera medium for their respective talents. Weill was gaining a reputation at the time as a dissonant, contrapuntal neo-classical composer, and Brecht took full advantage of Weill's talents. Weill's first composition using Brecht's lyrics was the "songspiel" known as The Little Mahagonny, performed during a boxing match in Baden-Baden during 1927. The two men soon started working on a full-scale opera.
During this time the operatic atmosphere in Berlin was becoming quite favorable for modern operas. Krenek produced the jazz opera Jonny spielt auf in 1927, showing in both Leipzig and Berlin. At the same time Klemperer was appointed to head the Kroll-Oper, the second state opera house in Berlin.
In March of 1928 a young actor named Ernst-Josef Aufricht was given 100,000 marks by his father. He used the money to rent the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm and booked Erich Engel who was workin on Brecht's Man equals Man at the time. After planning for an opening production on August 31, the only thing lacking was the actual play. He soon brought in a man named Heinrich Fischer to act as his deputy. After tapping many of Germany's best known playwrights (including Kraus, Wedekind, Toller, and others), Fischer happened to run into Brecht in a cafe. Brecht mentioned his interest in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, a translation of which one of his mistresses (Elizabeth Hauptmann) was in the process of making. The fact that a revival of this play had been successful in London about six years earlier caused Fischer to allow Brecht to run with the idea.
Brecht took over the script and brought in Weill to write the modern melodies. Aufricht, worried about his investment, went to listen to two of Weill's operas and was appalled by their atonality. He ordered his musical director find the origal songs in case Weill's work would not be performable. In May the entire team, including Brecht, Hauptmann, Weill and Engel, were sent to Le Lavandou in the south of France to finish the work.
While in France and later on the Ammersee Brecht added several new scenes, such as the stable wedding, which does not occur in The Beggar's Opera. He also added his own songs, four of which he stole from a German version of Villon. In spite of the additions the rehearsals started in August with much of the original script intact, including songs by Gay and Rudyard Kipling (these later disappeared).
The play immediately encountered difficulties of an almost comical nature. The lead, Carola Neher, was two weeks late from her husband's funeral and gave up the part. Roma Bahn was immediately recruited and had to learn the role in four days. Helene Weigel (famous for her later portrayel of Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children) came down with appendicitis and had her part cut (she was supposed to play Mrs. Coaxer the brothel Madame). Then the actress playing Mrs. Peachum, Rosa Valetti, objected to the "Song of Sexual Obsession" and forced that to be cut as well. Other mishaps included the actress playing Lucy being unable to manage her solo (causing it to be cut), Lotte Lenya's name being left off the program, and the play being 45 minutes too long. After massive cutting, having Brecht write the finale during the rehearsals, and hastily adding the now famous song "Ballad of Mac the Knife", the play was ready.
The premier performance seemed to indicate that the play would be a disaster. The audience failed to react throughout the entire first half of the show. However, with the performance of the "Cannon Song", applause suddenly burst out and the collaborators had the greatest German success of the 1920s to contend with.
The play remains today as one of the more difficult Brechtian plays to interpret. It is hard to reconcile Brecht's outspoken later Communism with the flippancies inherent in the production, and with the fact that it has had repeated successes in bourgeois theaters. The problems stem from the fact that when Brecht wrote the play he was only beginning to explore Marxism and he did not yet identify with the class struggle. The issue is confused, however, by the fact that Brecht's notes were all written after the play and also after his adoption of a committed Marxist stance in 1929.
Brecht seems to have realized that the work was ineffectual in getting its message across, indicated by his subsequent switch to more didactic forms. However, he clearly liked the work and seems to have looked on it wistfully. Favorable critiques at the time did not focus on the issues of morality, but rather on the fact that the play represented a new theatrical genre. The play's subsequent interpretation as a political or social work seems to caused more by the Nationalist's rejection of it than from the work itself. As far as new theater goes, The Threepenny Opera served as a direct attack at Wagnerian opera, and through its display of the base elements of society brought theater to the people rather than to the elite "society". The impact on the music profession was also immediate, with Klemperer reportedly going to see the play ten times.
Brecht's satirization of the bourgeois society of the Weimar Republic, so elegantly set in Victorian England's Soho, remains one of the great plays today. "The Ballad of Mac the Knife" became a popular jazz tune in the 1950s and the work inself has inspired numerous artists. Attempts have been made to update the play, but Brecht himself left it mostly in the original form. Although the play was central to his success in the theater, it does not contain the central social and political elements that so many of his later works focused on. Indeed, The Threepenny Opera seems to have been an incidental creation that he and Kurt Weill put together, a brilliant but not perfect play.