Brecht's Times: The Historical Context of 'The Threepenny Opera'
"The cities were still there, the houses not yet bombed and in ruins, but the victims were millions of people. They had lost their fortunes, their savings; they were dazed and inflation-shocked and did not understand how it had happened to them and who the foe was who had defeated them. Yet they had lost their self-assurance, their feeling that they themselves could be the masters of their own lives if only they worked hard enough; and lost, too, were the old values of morals, of ethics, of decency." Pearl Buck, 1923.
When we think of the times in which Brecht lived, they are punctuated by war, political upheaval, and financial chaos. World War One was the beginning of the economic and social downturn that Germany experienced in the first half of the twentieth century. Just quickly refer to the quote above to give it a more specific context of what it is describing – sometimes you have to tell the reader what the read and what to focus on. This war was one unlike any other; the scale of destruction, the deadly new technology, the extreme loss of life on both the battlefield and back at home was shocking and devastating for the people of Europe.
While Brecht managed to avoid serving in the military until the tail end of the war, he would have still been affected by the extreme impact of the war on his country, and on the German individual. Even after the war there was no peace; massive political upheaval overturned the crown and made Germany a republic in 1918 and the Versailles Treaty made Germany responsible for the war and decimated their economy with war reparations, paid to other European countries. Though the Socialists who had power of the new republic focused heavily on reform, which saw women receive the vote and the introduction of the welfare system, the country was financially distraught for the better part of a decade. When hyperinflation struck, there were few left untouched. At its height in 1923, one trillion German marks was equal to one American dollar and the stories of people taking a wheelbarrow full of money to the shops to buy a loaf of bread was not just a fairy story. Towards the tail end of the 1920’s, Germany invested heavily in American banks and became more financially stable, especially the burgeoning middle-class.
It is this bourgeois that Brecht comments on in the The Threepenny Opera; the people who veil the lack of values, ethics and decency that Pearl Buck describes, with socially acceptable practices like big business. If you look close enough, there is much in this historical context, and in this play that mirrors contemporary Australia; the global financial crisis, an increasing number of people living in poverty, police corruption, a glamorized criminal underworld, Workchoices legislation, we even have a brothel opening in Toowoomba! The important thing with this play is to look for where it crosses with your own life in this society, and what you feel is unfair and unjust. That, really, is the heart of Brecht.
Research questions for teachers and students
- How is the context of 1920’s Berlin visible in The Threepenny Opera? What are the references to WWI and the financial situation of Germany in the play?
- Apart from those listed above, are there any similarities between the world of the play and modern Australia? Any between the world of the play and your own life?