Theater 30.3 (2000) 5-21
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The Threepenny Songs:
Cabaret and the Lyrical Gestus
Peter W. Ferran
Kurt Weill wrote in 1929,
Music has one faculty which is of decisive importance for the presentation of the human being in the theater: it can reproduce the gestus which illustrates the action on stage. . . .
. . . it can even create a kind of basic gestus which forces the actor into a definite attitude which precludes every doubt and every misunderstanding concerning the relevant action. . . .
One more thing needs to be said: that by no means all texts can be set in a gestic manner. The new form of the theater which I assume for the purpose of my argument is used nowadays by very few poets, but it is only this form which permits and allows gestic language. 1
The Threepenny Opera is the prime example of that "new form of theater," "the form that finds music indispensable because of its ability to clarify the action by gestic means." Indeed, the idea of Gestus is the kernel of Brecht's remarks in his "Notes on The Threepenny Opera," where he introduces the notions of "complex seeing"; "radical separation of the theater's elements"; "epic style of acting"; the "formed and formulated"; and, relating particularly to this play, "the bourgeois theater's guarantee of undisturbed enjoyment of conditions in themselves unwarrantable." 2
Putting together Weill's comments on the "gestic" in music and Brecht's still-radical ideas about theater in his "Notes," we can rescue Threepenny from the mis-appraisals that have multiplied as it has become more and more familiar. Simply put, The Threepenny Opera depends on a production defined integrally by its lyrical Gestus, one that grasps exactly what kind of action the music indispensably clarifies. Both the verbal "lyrics" and the "lyric" performing need to be analyzed in order to understand how the music governs the play's total theater experience. [End Page 5]
As German critic Jan Knopf said:
The point for Brecht and Weill was to use music for social criticism, to seek its expressive possibilities, and indeed to do so by (among other things) preserving its very "narcotic charms" to some degree but also by joining it to a context which contradicted them, which should have enforced a consciousness of their enrapturing effect: the contradiction between action and music was thematized and demonstrated, and the exhibition of epic forms was to contribute above all to this. That the success of The Threepenny Opera rests precisely on the failure of these artistic intentions is the historical irony which has overtaken the play. Brecht sought to escape it by newly reworking the content: first in "The Boil," the screenplay for the Threepenny Film, then in The Threepenny Novel. 3
"The contradiction between action and music was thematized and demonstrated, and the exhibition of epic forms was to contribute above all to this." By appreciating this process, we will come closer to grasping the play's aesthetic raison d'être and reclaiming its original intention.
Brecht remarks in the "Notes" that "by singing the actor accomplishes a change of function" [Indem er singt, vollzieht der Schauspieler einen Funktionswechsel]. 4 This functional change has to do not only with the bare fact of singing (an obvious point to all but the most uncritically reverential operagoers) but also, in Threepenny, with the style of performing that Brecht in the late 1920s granted his highest approval: the cabaret style. "He favored actors who came from the cabaret and the revue," reports Hans-Joachim Bunge (of Brecht's 1955 conversation with Giorgio Strehler, director of Milano's Piccolo Teatro), "because in his opinion they had the advantage of being 'artistically interested and socially aggressive.'" 5 Lisa Appignanesi synopsizes the general features of cabaret thus:
What remains more or less consistent in cabaret, and allows it to be defined as a distinct form, are its structural elements: a small stage and smallish audience and an ambience of talk and smoke, where the relationship between performer and spectator is one at once of intimacy and hostility, the nodal...