Dreigroschenroman; Threepenny Novel

Dreigroschenroman; Threepenny Novel (written 1933-34; published 1934)

Co-author: Margarete Steffin

This unjustly neglected masterpiece is Brecht’s first major work written after Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933. It is a Swiftean satire of the first order and it is as relevant today as it was in 1934.

The novel is set in London in 1902, during the Boer War. During this war, the term ‘concentration camp’ was used for the first time by the British army. Setting the action in the midst of an imperialist overseas war allowed Brecht to show the connections between war, the arms industry, and the financial sector.

Die Dreigroschenoper; The Threepenny Opera (1928) had been set mainly in the criminal underworld of London’s Soho. In the opera of 1928, Macheath was a gangster on the run from the police. In the revised version of 1931, Macheath has become more self-aware, and in Scene 4 he announces that he plans to become a banker, because it is safer and more profitable. For a full description of these changes, see reading list below, Steve Giles (1989).

The evolution of Macheath continues in Dreigroschenroman; Threepenny Novel. In this novel, the setting has widened enormously to include the worlds of business, high finance and the government. Macheath is still the leader of a gang of burglars, but this novel shows him making the breakthrough from organised crime to legitimate business. Now Macheath is described as a natural leader and an expert in the art of handling human beings. He is now a demagogue with the tendency to make grand public speeches, and to give interviews to the press. Many of these speeches display traces of Nazi ideology. Macheath is now the owner of a chain of discount stores, the so-called B-stores or ‘Bargain stores’ (Billigkeits-Läden). The stores are part of a franchise chain. The managers of the B-stores are nominally the owners and they get a share of the profits. This motivates them to work around the clock in the most terrible conditions. In practice, though, the owners of the B-stores are effectively employees. When B-store owners go bust they are evicted, but Macheath’s franchise continues. Macheath regards his own employees as his chief source of income.

Early on in the novel Macheath assumes the persona of Jimmy Beckett, a wood supplier, in order to court Polly Peachum, daughter of Jonathan Peachum, who owns the monopoly on beggars in the city. When Macheath marries Polly, Jonathan Peachum is furious, because he wants Polly to marry a broker called William Coax, who is blackmailing him over a deal to supply ships to the government in order to transport troops to South Africa. Peachum puts pressure on Macheath by trying to frame him for the murder of Mary Swayer, one of the B-store ‘owners’ who has in fact taken her own life. But instead of fleeing abroad, Macheath goes to prison willingly. Aided by his friend the police chief Brown, Macheath succeeds in becoming the director of a bank and forcing his business rivals, Aaron and Chreston, to form a retail syndicate with him. Macheath’s rise to power is counterpointed by the fate of the ex-soldier George Fewkoombey, who loses everything, including his life.

The Threepenny Novel is more intellectually and politically ambitious than the opera, because it explores in detail how the capitalist system fosters and thrives on bribery, corruption, extortion and misinformation. The large scale of the novel, with its multiple plotlines and intrigues, enables Brecht to show how civil servants, police, businessmen and banks are mutually implicated in pursuing their own economic interests, suggesting that capitalism is closely related to crime. The rich become rich by exploiting and profiteering from the poor, even though these same rich people often like to deny that they are motivated by material interest. The novel is full of such denials, and it draws attention to the characters’ use of Orwellian doublespeak through the use of italics in order to highlight particularly flagrant examples of ideological manipulation. The novel makes the point that wealth and poverty are two sides of the same coin: one person’s wealth necessitates another person’s poverty.

As a study of the rise of an opportunist and demagogue, this novel anticipates Brecht’s other major reckoning with Hitler: Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. At the same time, the epic scale of the novel suggests the indictment of an entire social system which actively encourages poverty, corruption and violence.

Further Reading in English

Walter Benjamin, ‘Brecht’s Threepenny Novel’, in Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, trans. by Anna Bostock (London: Verso, 1998), pp. 75-84

Sean Carney, Brecht and Critical Theory. Dialectics and Contemporary Aesthetics (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 140-51

Keith A. Dickson, Towards Utopia. A Study of Brecht (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 255-69

Devin Fore, Realism After Modernism: The Rehumanization of Art and Literature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), pp. 115-31

Steve Giles, ‘Rewriting Brecht: Die Dreigroschenoper 1928-1931’, Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch 30 (1989), 249-79

Cornelie Ladd, Fictions of Power, Powers of Fiction: Critical Representations of European Thought by Marx, Conrad and Brecht (unpublished PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, 1991)

Ernest Schonfield, ‘The Rhetoric of Business in Brecht's Dreigroschenroman’, German Life and Letters 69:2 (2016), 173-91

Ernest Schonfield, Business Rhetoric in German Novels: From Buddenbrooks to the Global Corporation (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2018), Chapter 4, pp. 78-97: ‘Seeing through the Rhetoric in Bertolt Brecht’s Dreigroschenroman, 1934’

Further Reading in German

Bernd Auerochs, Erzählte Gesellschaft. Theorie und Praxis des Gesellschaftsromans bei Balzac, Brecht und Uwe Johnson (Munich: Fink, 1994)

Wolfgang Jeske (ed.), Brechts Romane (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984)

Wolfgang Jeske, Bertolt Brechts Poetik des Romans (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984)