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Bertolt Brecht: 'Threepenny Novel'

Heike Mund ss
October 8, 2018

Bertolt Brecht wrote the "Threepenny Novel" while living in exile in Denmark in 1934. It followed the success of his play, the "Threepenny Opera."

Deutschland Bertolt Brecht 1927
Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

Bertolt Brecht had wanted his Threepenny Novel to go into print as quickly as possible, as the successful writer desperately needed money at the time. The Dutch publishing house Allert de Lange had assured Brecht a generous advance — which, however, was contingent upon on-time delivery of the manuscript. This would later turn into a drama containing many disputes in its own right.

The Nazi seizure of power in 1933 had forced the playwright to go into exile in Denmark. He escaped the Nazis with his family on the night of February 28, 1933 — a day after the Reichstag fire in Berlin. They fled to Denmark by way of Prague, Vienna, Zurich and Paris.

Brecht would remain a refugee for 15 years.

'Threepenny Novel' by Bertolt Brecht


Plays by leftist writers like Brecht were banned in Nazi Germany. Brecht was one of many authors whose works were publicly destroyed in Nazi book burnings in May 1933.

Yet just briefly before that, Brecht was still a celebrated playwright. His Threepenny Opera, with music by Kurt Weill, premiered in Germany in 1928. By the time Weill and Brecht were forced to leaved Germany five years later, it was already an international hit that had been translated into 18 languages and performed over 10,000 times in Europe.

It has since become one of the most successful pieces of musical theater ever, with more than 250 different productions over the decades.

Brecht's first house in Denmark
Brecht wrote the novel while living in exile in DenmarkImage: ullstein bild - Granger Collection

On his way to Denmark, Brecht had met German novelist Hermann Kesten in Paris, who was in charge of the newly established German-language department at the Dutch Allert de Lange publishing house. After many letters, Kesten and Brecht signed an agreement for the rights for his next novel, which would be based on the Threepenny Opera. With the advance payment that Brecht managed to secure, he bought a house on the Danish island of Fünen.

Disagreements on presentation

Brecht started working on the Threepenny Novel in 1933. Making good progress, he filed the initial chapters on August 12, sending the first parcel containing his work to the publishers in Amsterdam. But after this, things began to slow down in the relationship. Brecht had to turn his attention to other work and traveled extensively as well. By the beginning of 1934, the publishers demanded further pages and urged Brecht to press ahead with finishing the novel. They also requested material to start advertising.

This is where things turned sour: Brecht made repeated demands for changes regarding the book design. From artwork to font, the relationship between Brecht and his publishers turned into a seemingly unending skirmish. Finally, the book hit the shelves by October 1934. Advance copies distributed among Germans living in exile in cities like Prague, Paris and London pointed towards a success.

Set in London's foggy streets and harbor district, as well as in pubs and saunas where men would do shady business, the story of Threepenny Novel had little to do with the Threepenny Opera. Its protagonists, such as the "Beggar's Friend" Peachum and his beautiful but calculating daughter Polly, as well as Macheath, known as "Mack the Knife," the leader of a criminal gang and cunning businessman, were all back, but in this different setting.

London during the 1920s
London in the 1920s: the harbor district was the home of beggars and business dealersImage: picture-alliance/CPA Media/Pictures From History

Brecht takes on modern society

The story takes place in London in 1902, during the rise of the capitalist system in Britain and at the height of the Second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa. Both of these form the historic foundations of the novel.

Jonathan Peachum runs a syndicate of professional beggars throughout London, which has made him a rich man.

"Peachum had begun in quite a small way. For a time he had helped with his advice a few beggars, one-armed, blind, or very aged. He sought out situations for them, places where people gave; for people do not give everywhere and at any time…The beggars who came to Peachum too found that their takings were increasing. So they agreed to give him, for the trouble, a part of the money they earned."

Meanwhile, Peachum's daughter, Polly, is busy turning the heads of men: "Throughout the neighborhood, Miss Peachum was known as 'the Peach.' She had a very beautiful skin. When she was fourteen years old, she had been given her own room on the second floor; people said that this was so that she shouldn't see too much of her mother, who was unable to control her weakness of spirits."

But Polly's father plans to marry his daughter off in exchange for a handsome dowry. However, Macheath gets in the way, by courting Polly and marrying her first. And thus the story takes on numerous twists and turns filled with murder, betrayal, illegal business deals and much more.

Film still "Threepenny Film"
Revisiting Brecht's story: a still from "Mack the Knife - Brecht's Threepenny Film" (2018)Image: FILMFEST MÜNCHEN 2018

Criminal bankers

Brecht had integrated many of philosopher Karl Marx' teachings into his works by the time the Threepenny Novel was published. He had spent years depicting Marxist theories and dissecting his social ideas each night on stage, even while he was still a student.

Those views influenced much of the Threepenny Novel, which reads as if it could be taking place today and not 1934: risky business models, financial ventures benefiting from the demise of other companies, franchising, exploitation, and focusing only profits at all costs — the book deals with all these modern problems of the financial world.

Macheath is at the top of his game amid all this, coming up with a refined way of exploiting people: "His B. shops had been cleverly thought out, and they made ingenious use of savings of the poor; but they were also very primitive, being really no more than dark, whitewashed holes with heaps of goods piled on rough pine boards and despondent people behind them. The source of these extremely cheap goods was not apparent."

Macheath, the unscrupulous criminal who knows how to protect his reputation becomes the director of a bank in the end. 

Brecht's novel doesn't skimp when it comes to criticizing capitalism as much as society in general. Yet it is remarkable how much of his criticism and satire still remain valid. Brecht famously said: "What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?" — a sentiment that still resonates today.


Bertolt Brecht
Playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)Image: picture-alliance/akg

Bertolt Brecht: Threepenny Novel, Grove Atlantic, (German title: Dreigroschenroman, 1934). English translation: Christopher Isherwood / Desmond I. Vesey.

One of the most important playwrights of the 20th century, Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsburg in 1898 and started writing poems at a young age. He started gaining recognition for his first works (such as Baal) in the early 1920s. He worked as director and playwright at the Deutsches Theater and other theaters in Berlin. He came in contact with Marxist theorists in 1926, which influenced his work. He escaped the Nazis in 1933, fleeing to Denmark and later on to the United States. He returned to Germany in 1948, settling in East Berlin, which was run under the Communist regime of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Upon his return, Brecht ran the Berliner Ensemble theater along with his wife, Helene Weigel. Brecht died in 1956.