by Christine Lesiak
Longstanding debate rages as to the authorship of many of Brecht’s works, and Elisabeth Hauptmann’s hand in the The Threepenny Opera is no exception.
Hauptmann was in her early 20s when she moved to Berlin where she was hired by Brecht as his secretary and worked as his translator. Witnesses attest to their daily writing routine and her collaboration on nearly all his works from 1925 to 1933. It was Hauptmann who introduced Brecht to John Gay’s 1728 text TheBeggar’s Opera, and her English to German translation was the foundation for The Threepenny Opera. But more than just translation, Brecht scholar John Fuegi argues that script’s libretto – including the majority of the songs – was at least 70% Hauptmann’s work.
If this is the case, why is Hauptmann listed as collaborator rather than co-author?
By all reports Brecht was exceptionally charismatic and had an uncanny ability to recruit people to work for him – especially women. So was Hauptmann simply seduced like so many others? The answer may lie in part in the German post-war cultural and political climate. Female emancipation was still very young – women had gained the right to attend universities in 1909 and the right to vote in 1918, but their writing was of relatively low commercial value. Brecht was offered projects on the basis of his reputation, which he would hand over to his collaborators. We can imagine the impetus for dissemination and payment for her work under the Brecht brand won out over the desire for proper authorship credit.
The invisible writer got paid, although arguably not fairly. Researcher Monika Krause states Hauptmann received a scant 12.5% of Threepenny’s proceeds, and she needed to pester Brecht for payment. Robert Vamberly, Threepenny’s first dramaturg, reports that Hauptmann was paid “only in semen.” Perhaps tellingly, Brecht willed the rights of The Threepenny Opera to Hauptmann shortly before his death in 1956, but his widow Helene Weigel successfully challenged the will and secured most of the revenue.
No doubt The Threepenny Opera authorship debate will continue to rage. Brecht – prolific genius or master manipulator? The truth probably lies somewhere between the two. One thing we know for certain – Elisabeth Hauptmann is no longer invisible.
Fuegi, John. Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama. New York: Grove Press, 2002. Print.
Krause, Monika. “Practicing Authorship: The Case of Brecht’s Plays”. Practicing Culture. Ed. Craig Calhoun and Richard Sennett. Oxford: Routledge, 2007. Web.
Christine Lesiak is an Edmonton-based artist specializing in clown and physical theatre for adult audiences, and is a co-founder of Small Matters Productions. She has performed her original shows across Western Canada, Toronto and New York and is an artistic associate with Toy Guns Dance Theatre.
Christine has a BSc in Physics from the University of New Brunswick. She is a first-year MFA Theatre Practice candidate, specializing in the intersection of performer-created clown and immersive theatres.