Threepenny Novel

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Threepenny Novel
Threepenny novel cover.jpg
Grove Press edn., 1956
Author Bertolt Brecht
Publisher Grove Press
Publication date

ThreePenny Novel (German : Dreigroschenroman) is a 1934 novel by the German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht, first published in Amsterdam by Allert de Lange  [ nl ] in 1934 as Dreigroschenroman. It is similar in structure to his more famous The Threepenny Opera and features several of the same characters such as Macheath, together with a general anti-capitalist focus and a didactic technique that is often associated with the dramatist. It is a novel that has been the focus of much critical attention and that is often described as both a continuation and a variation of the themes and motifs of Brecht's other work that focuses on alienation and on the communication of a social message. It can be seen alternatively as a careful development of the detective novel genre and as scathing criticism of the Brecht's own social conditions and the economic practices of German businesses and banks in the middle of the 20th century.

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol in Italy, the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. It is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages which are most similar to German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch: Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are also strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

Novel Narrative text, normally of a substantial length and in the form of prose describing a fictional and sequential story

A novel is a relatively long work of narrative fiction, normally written in prose form, and which is typically published as a book.

Bertolt Brecht German poet, playwright, theatre director

Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht, known professionally as Bertolt Brecht, was a German theatre practitioner, playwright, and poet.


In particular, it can be seen to have a peculiar relationship to history. According to Brecht's friend and intellectual confidant, Walter Benjamin, the novel is one that contains several different strands of history that do not directly match up. In the novel, Benjamin observes that "Brecht draws epochs together and billets his gangster type in London that has the rhythm and appearance of the age of Dickens. Private life is subject to the earlier conditions; the class struggle, to those of today. These Londoners have no telephones but their police already have tanks." [1] This aspect of the novel has drawn much critical attention and has helped to make sure that it is considered to be one of Brecht's most famous and important works of prose.

Walter Benjamin German literary critic, philosopher and social critic (1892-1940)

Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin was a German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist. An eclectic thinker, combining elements of German idealism, Romanticism, Western Marxism, and Jewish mysticism, Benjamin made enduring and influential contributions to aesthetic theory, literary criticism, and historical materialism. He was associated with the Frankfurt School, and also maintained formative friendships with thinkers such as playwright Bertolt Brecht and Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem. He was also related by law to German political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt through her first marriage to Benjamin's cousin, Günther Anders.

Charles Dickens English writer and social critic

Charles John Huffam Dickens was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world's best-known fictional characters and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime, and by the 20th century critics and scholars had recognised him as a literary genius. His novels and short stories are still widely read today.


The novel is set in London at the turn of the 20th century and its plot focuses on the machinations and developments of finance capital, something that is often considered to be unusual for Brecht as his work is traditionally viewed as being based more concerned with conditions of industrial production. The plot is organised around the activities of three different financial consortiums which are taking place in London. Three central characters each take their place with their own strand of the capitalist economy in order to shows ways in which this economy can be seen to effect each individual person in complex and often unpredictable ways. A character named Peachum maintains a syndicate of street beggars whom he ruthlessly exploits, a character named Coax attempts to invest in a commercial shipping venture and Macheath, a gangster, the origin of the song "Mack the Knife", maintains a commercial venture. Macheath is presented in the novel as someone who has left behind his previous life as a cut-throat gangster and instead is now attempting to make serious progress in business by engaging in direct competition and attempting to absorb and defeat his competitors in a commercial sense. As well as depicting Macheath's rise to power, the novel also focuses on the ways in which Macheath is able to court Polly, the daughter of a rich individual known as Peachum. Brecht employs a series of complex plot twists and turns in order to demonstrate Macheath's legitimate rise to power and to show the way in which he is able to do this often with legal sanction. The novel ends with Macheath as someone who restructures his business, takes over his competitors and eventually becomes the head of a large and important bank.

Financial capital is any economic resource measured in terms of money used by entrepreneurs and businesses to buy what they need to make their products or to provide their services to the sector of the economy upon which their operation is based, i.e. retail, corporate, investment banking, etc.

"Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" is a song composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their music drama Die Dreigroschenoper, or, as it is known in English, The Threepenny Opera. It premiered in Berlin in 1928 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. The song has become a popular standard recorded by many artists, including a US and UK number one hit for Bobby Darin in 1959.

The novel is intended as a critique of finance capital and of the a society that encourages sociopathic behaviour in order to achieve success. It is known that Brecht directly based his understanding of Macheath's own business strategies on the contemporary corporate strategies, especially modelling it on those pioneered by major German stores and supermarkets such as Karstadt and EPA  [ de ]. [2] As such, the novel is set both between London at the end of the 19th century and Brecht's contemporary Germany. Several details in the novel can be seen to represent a satire of these conditions. Notably several characters die in horrific ways as a result of overwork necessitated by the system. At the same time, the world is shown to be one that encourages conflict and that actively translates the most gangsterish impulses into the sphere of bureaucracy into an acceptable mode for the modern world. Throughout the work, Brecht is keen to draw attention to the fact that the brutality and criminality of earlier modes of society have not been overcome in this process. At one key point in the novel this is shown as Macheath reminisces nostalgically about his previous life as a gangster and states that he wishes that he could return to these conditions in which conflict and violence could be carried out openly instead of being hidden behind bureaucracy.


Karstadt Warenhaus GmbH is a German department store chain whose headquarters are in Essen. Until 30 September 2010 the company was a subsidiary of Arcandor AG and was responsible within the group for the business segment of over-the-counter retail.

The novel also shows that the legal system and the courts are weighted in favour of capitalist conditions and provides a criticism of the morality that this leads to. In particular, in several key ways the novel mimics the structure of a detective novel, however it does so in order to satirise the fact that within a capitalist economy it is almost impossible to find an individual who is not guilty, in some way or other, of contributing towards the continued exploitation of individuals. In one scene, a hypothetical trial is suggested in which all the dead would come forward and present their experience of exploitation in order to fully understand which historical individuals are guilty of exploitation. This dream clearly demonstrates the absurdity of the world as it exists and the near impossibility of attaining justice through conventional means in the world of capitalism. [3]

Marxist elements

The novel is one of the most obviously Marxist of Brecht's work, and indeed can be seen to quote directly from Marx's Das Kapital at several key points, even at one point directly reproducing a passage detailing to working to death of a 19th-century woman that appears in the chapter of Das Kapital detailing the working day. [2] In particular, Brecht can be seen to employ a Marxist understanding of the way in which labour time is employed by capitalism in order to make sure that the most possible amount of profit is made in every possible instance. This involves directly ignoring the needs and desires of those who work within it and aggressively subsuming human individuals within their simple capacity to be laborers rather than people. This is made clear throughout the novel via the introduction of a specifically Marxist understanding of economics and of Capitalism as a totality in which people do not behave as singular individuals but rather as representatives of economic categories. [4]

Marxism economic and sociopolitical worldview based on the works of Karl Marx

Marxism is a theory and method of working-class self-emancipation. As a theory, it relies on a method of socioeconomic analysis that views class relations and social conflict using a materialist interpretation of historical development and takes a dialectical view of social transformation. It originates from the works of 19th-century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

<i>Das Kapital</i> Book by Karl Marx

Das Kapital, also called Capital. A Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx is a foundational theoretical text in materialist philosophy, economics and politics. Marx aimed to reveal the economic patterns underpinning the capitalist mode of production in contrast to classical political economists such as Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. While Marx did not live to publish the planned second and third parts, they were both completed from his notes and published after his death by his colleague Friedrich Engels. Das Kapital is the most cited book in the social sciences published before 1950.

Legacy and influence

Although the Threepenny Novel is less famous than Brecht's plays, it is nonetheless considered by many to a masterful work of satire and to hold an important place in his overall body of work. In particular its critique of capitalist temporality, its use of differing registers and its capacity to translate industrial production into a bureaucratic sphere have recently attracted attention from literary critics and also from critical theorists. [2] Historically the novel can be seen to play an important marker of Brecht's friendship with Walter Benjamin, whose review of the novel contains early formulations of his own theories of history and of a Marxist understanding of aesthetics.

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<i>The Threepenny Opera</i> 1928 musical play by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

The Threepenny Opera is a "play with music" by Bertolt Brecht, adapted from a translation by Elisabeth Hauptmann of John Gay's 18th-century English ballad opera, The Beggar's Opera, and four ballads by François Villon, with music by Kurt Weill. Although there is debate as to how much, if any, Hauptmann might have contributed to the text, Brecht is usually listed as sole author.

Anti-capitalism political stance

Anti-capitalism encompasses a wide variety of movements, ideas and attitudes that oppose capitalism. Anti-capitalists, in the strict sense of the word, are those who wish to replace capitalism with another type of economic system.

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Superprofit, surplus profit or extra surplus-value is a concept in Karl Marx's critique of political economy subsequently elaborated by Vladimir Lenin and other Marxist thinkers.

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Criticism of capitalism

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Marxist aesthetics theory of aesthetics based on, or derived from, the theories of Karl Marx

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Marxist literary criticism

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Marxist philosophy Philosophy influenced by Marxist political thought

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Historical materialism Marxist historiography

Historical materialism, also known as the materialist conception of history, is a methodology used by some communist and Marxist historiographers that focuses on human societies and their development through history, arguing that history is the result of material conditions rather than ideas. This was first articulated by Karl Marx (1818–1883) as the "materialist conception of history." It is principally a theory of history which asserts that the material conditions of a society's mode of production or in Marxist terms, the union of a society's productive forces and relations of production, fundamentally determine society's organization and development. Historical materialism is an example of Marx and Engel's scientific socialism, attempting to show that socialism and communism are scientific necessities rather than philosophical ideals.


  1. Benjamin, Walter. (2006). "Brecht's Threepenny Novel" in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Vol. 3, 1935–1938. Edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge MA. : Harvard University Press. pp. 3–10.
  2. 1 2 3 Devin, Fore (13 September 2013). "The Time of Capital: Brecht's Threepenny Novel".
  3. Benjamin, Walter: "Brecht's Threepenny Novel". In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 3, p. 4.
  4. Marx, Karl. (1979). Capital, vol 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin