Translating The Threepenny Opera – curious arts

by Josh Clendenin

The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht, with music by Kurt Weill is based on The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay (an English play). Threepenny was originally written in German, and has since been translated into many languages for diverse global audiences. The most commonly used English translation has been one by Marc Blitzstein, which was done in 1954, and some of it was approved of by Weill himself just before he died in 1950.

U of A Studio Theatre

U of A Studio Theatre’s The Threepenny Opera (2015). Photo by Ed Ellis.

Translation can be a challenging task, as the essence of the play must be maintained in the new language, and it should come across in a similar voice. Of course, this doesn’t always work out perfectly. In the case of Blitzstein’s translation of Threepenny, some critics found it to be more mainstream and benign, and not a smack in the face to bourgeois society, which Brecht and Weill intended with the original. Blitzstein clearly adapted the translation to make it more morally acceptable, so the show would actually be produced in the red scare of the McCarthy era in the United States.

During these times of suspicion, pointing at and mocking the rich excessively could get one thrown in jail for being a Communist, as Brecht had already been accused of!

Several decades later, a new, edgy English translation by Michael Feingold was used in the 1989 Broadway production of Threepenny. Feingold’s focus to tap into the stabbing, blunt and salty language that Brecht had originally written. Many critics in 1989 found the shocking language used in the production interesting, but commented that at times it came off as silly. Sadly, the translation was largely overshadowed by the poor performance of Sting as Mack the Knife. Read The New York Times review of the 1989 production with Sting.

The production of The Threepenny Opera at the Timms Centre will be using the ‘safe’ version by Blitzstein, but is it as ‘morally acceptable’ and ‘nice’ as they say? What do you think?

Josh Clendenin

Josh comes from Salt Lake City, Utah, where he was an actor, director, dialect coach and teacher. He has made his way up north to chase an MFA in Theatre Practice. Josh has a Bachelor’s in Performance and Directing, and a Bachelor’s in French from Weber State University. He also studied acting in France and London, UK. He is very excited to tackle his first year in the program and to start his research in multilingual and Francophone theatre.

Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title: The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht. Music by Kurt Weill. Libretto translation by Marc Blitzstein.
Featuring: UAlberta BFA Acting Class of 2015 with visiting performers, BFA stage management, theatre design and technical theatre students.
Dates: Until February 14, 2015 at 7:30 p.m.
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $11 student, $22 adult, $20 senior available online now at TIX on the Square and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.

Director Brian Deedrick. Conductor & Musical Director Peter Dala. Sets & Lighting Design Robert Shannon. Costume Design Robyn Ayles.
Sound Design Brian Maxwell. Choreography Marie Nychka. For full cast, creative team and production team see show page:

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