The Dreigroschenroman (1934), Bertolt Brecht's only completed novel, is arguably the richest work, symbolically and conceptually, in his entire oeuvre. Especially when compared with his better known drama and poetry, the sheer size of the piece (fully 370 pages in the Berliner-Frankfurter critical edition of 1990)and the breadth and depth of expression which attend such an expansive work of arttogether represent a singular interpretive challenge for students of Brecht. Of particular interest to me is that, in creating a work of long-form prose, Brecht develops a fundamentally new style of writing in which he adapts certain elements of his theory of epic theater (by definition a philosophy of the dramatic arts), manipulating these ideas for use in a very different discursive milieu. Perhaps because the book as a whole is such a lush source for Brecht's critics, certain innovative, unusual qualities of Brecht's narrative technique in the Roman have to date been overlooked.
Among the novel's more intriguing characteristics still largely unexplored in the criticism is the author's use of a variety of new structural devices in the text. In the most extraordinary of these techniques, Brecht takes advantage of the fundamentally visual nature of prose communication between author and reader by using the look of the text itself to amplify the novel's expressive power. This breakthrough in textuality endows the work with remarkable complexity and multidimensionality. Indeed, my review of modern fiction indicates that his technique in the Roman is, for its day, highly exceptional if not unique. Despite the significance and novelty of Brecht's prose construction in the Roman, even Wolfgang Jeske, certainly the leading critic of Brecht's novels, only pays glancing attention to his use of text design; often Jeske is content simply to repeat Brecht's statements about text structure without contributing commentary of his own (q.v. Poetik 191, 199; Dreigroschenroman 402-404). Others, for the most part, disregard the form of the text in toto, instead limiting their focus to more traditional matters of theme, ideology and reception.
My intention is to analyze the rationale which underlies Brecht's use of text design. To illustrate my understanding I shall refer to specific examples from the Roman and to relevant secondary materials from Brecht and his critics. I wish also to discuss the impact of text structure on the communicative efficacy of the Roman as a whole. Because the most conspicuous of Brecht's text strategies is the use of italic typeface in some sixty passages throughout the novel, the primary thrust of my study will be an interpretation of the form and role of these passages. Moreover, I shall investigate other, somewhat less salient uses of structure in order to establish the effect such experimentation imparts to the range and depth of Brecht's personal expression in erzählender Prosa. First I shall note briefly the background and general contents of the book, and the often considerable differences between the Roman and its thematic predecessor, the Dreigroschenoper. I hope at least to do justice to a novel which one of its earliest reviewers, Alexander Frey, appropriately called "Brechts Hauptwerk" (Jeske, Brechts Romane 39).
Background and General Characteristics
The history of the Dreigroschenroman begins with the first of Brecht's three major Dreigroschenwerke, 1928's Dreigroschenoper, which was itself adapted liberally by Brecht from Englishman John Gay's musical satire The Beggar's Opera of 1728. Both Gay's and Brecht's "operas" depicted events in the lives of the Peachum family, as well as those of the criminal Macheath and Constable "Tiger" Brown. Both works also met with enormous popular success, thanks in no small measure to the inclusion of contemporary songs as an integral part of the performance. In appropriating Gay's ingenious use of popular music to enhance the satirical influence of his work, Brecht discovered an exciting and, most importantly, entertaining way to convey his critical perspective to the audience. In this way he also refined and developed the objectives of epic theater, the concept of drama which has made Brecht one of the world's most influential modern playwrights.
Essential to epic theater is the audience's understanding that the events they are witnessing on the stage are, in fact, only drama. Viewers are to be made aware of the artificiality of the performance; this enables them to comprehend, in a detached, objective fashion, the intended meaning of the piece. The theory holds that in traditional, Aristotelian theater, the audience is too swept up in an illusion of dramatic reality to extract any lesson from the performance. Epic theater eliminates this possibility by eliminating the illusion. Thus the nature of an epic piece is didactic as much as it is dramatic; education and exposition, as much as entertainment, are the play's raison d'être. Examples of Brecht's removing the stage's proverbial fourth wall include (to cite selected examples from the Dreigroschenoper) having his characters speak directly to the audience; including "hanging cards" in the mise en scène which reveal upcoming events; and, in an interesting twist on traditional operatic art, having his characters express themselves in song. In this way a distancing "alienation effect," or Verfremdungseffekt, is achieved. Indeed, one conceptual link between Brecht's construction of the Roman and that of his dramas is the often epic format in which he communicates with his audience. He demonstrates in the Roman that the tenets of epic theory are flexible enough to provide for the kind of logical discourse developed in his dramas; the theory may be employed whether the "audience" consists of readers or viewers.
Following the success of the classically epic Oper, an adaptation for the cinema, the Dreigroschenfilm, was planned. Brecht wrote a treatment for the picture, renamed Die Beule, which was rejected by the producers for deviating too severely from the action and plot of the Oper (Knopf 506). While another version of the Film was produced which adhered more faithfully to the story and style of the Oper, Brecht's original idea for the Film gradually grew into the considerably more complex Roman (Esslin 108).
In describing the relationship between Oper and Roman, Weideli claims puzzlingly that the novel serves as "a glossary to accompany the opera" (30), an assertion hardly borne out by even a cursory reading of either work. Indeed, Brecht clearly uses the play only as a springboard for the novel, loosely maintaining certain aspects of characterization and theme while just as readily reworking and deleting other parts to suit his subsequent, more detailed artistic ends. "Weniges ist von den Grundlagen, weniges von der Handlung der Oper geblieben. Nur die Hauptpersonen sind noch dieselben," Benjamin recognizes in his article on the novel's evolution, "Acht Jahre" (included later in the exhaustive Dreigroschenbuch omnibus of 1960) (187).
Written in 1933 and 1934 during Brecht's exile in Denmark, the Roman was first published by Allert de Lange of Amsterdam, which at the time was quickly assuming the role of a leading publisher of German-language works by artists fleeing the Third Reich (Hecht 399). As with so much of Brecht's writing, the novel was written with a MitarbeiterIn whose assistance fundamentally affected the development of the work. Another, especially prominent example of Brecht's collaborative modus operandi is the Oper, in which the music of Kurt Weill constitutes a sine qua non. In the case of the Roman, Brecht's collaborator was Margarete Stefin (Fuegi 446). Though the full extent of Stefin's contribution has not been (and may never be) conclusively ascertained, correspondence between the two indicates that she by no means merely served as an amanuensis. On the contrary, her involvement seems essential: "überhaupt hat es den Anschein," he writes to her after the novel's publication, "als hättest Du ein Meisterwerk geschaffen, alter Muck. Insbesondere wird Deine klare Sprache gepriesen [. . .]" (Jeske, Brechts Romane 56).
The action of the Dreigroschenroman takes place in and around London in 1902 during the Boer War. Macheath, the dapper young thief and murder-rapist central to the Oper, is now an overweight middle-aged shyster running an elaborately organized crime syndicate. Meticulous in financial documentation (whether genuine or forged) and wholly unscrupulous in advancing his personal interests, Mac is here only nebulously connected to his (in)famous alter ego from the Oper, a poorly defined, half-forgotten criminal known as "das Messer." As with most characters in the Roman, Mac's crimes these days are of a decidedly white-collar nature; the laws he violates pertain more to economy than passion.
In the Roman Mac has developed a chain of discount shops called Billigkeitsläden which are able to keep prices at a minimum (and thus reap profit from the less affluent) by trafficking exclusively in merchandise stolen in bulk by his henchmen. His gang is so efficient and professional that, the narrator notes, "An den Docks wurde eines Tages eine ganze Straße gestohlen"; soon thereafter, we are given to understand, enormous, slightly used wooden planks were available cheaply for sale (130). The primary goal of Mac's operation is, naturally, wealth and power, though much is made of his purported devotion to serving the underclass. Early on the narrator describes, succintly and sarcastically, Mac's desired perception of the business: "Das System sollte ganz und gar dem kleinen Mann zugute kommen" (52). (As I will discuss later in detail, when one speaks of a "narrator" in the Roman, one might just as accurately cite Brecht himself; a decidedly epic element of the novel's construction is the forthright manner in which the author often addresses the reader, however thinly veiled the mouthpiece.)
Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, Bettlerfreund of the Oper, spends much of the novel frantically trying to extricate himself from a potentially devastating contractual agreement involving the sale of unseaworthy troop transports to the Crown. He is also, however, often depicted as nothing more than a painfully, ineptly protective father, horrified by what he sees as his daughter Polly's extreme sensuality. "Deine Tochter ist ein Haufen Sinnlichkeit, nichts sonst!" he complains to his wife (26); later, he blames his business woes on Polly, citing "ihre hemmunglose Sinnlichkeit, wohl eine Erbe ihrer Mutter" (110). Mr. Peachum resorts to some rather comically bizzare measures in order to preserve his daughter's chastity. For example, "Sie hat, soviel an mir liegt, ihren Körper niemals selber gesehen," he reassures himself. "Sie wurde im Nachthemd gebadet" (119). Echoing the lesson (intentional or unintentional) of Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen, the narrator chidingly (yet subtly) demonstrates the fallacy in Peachum's parenting:
Außerdem war es nur schädlich, über Dinge zu sprechen, die unter keinen Umständen sein durften und deren Bereinigung man verlangen konnte: durch Sprechen zog man sie nur in den Bereich der Möglichkeit und beraubte sich dadurch der Hauptwaffe, der offenkundigen Unfähigkeit, sich vorzustellen, es könnte etwas Unrechtes vorgekommen sein. (110)
Peachum's attitude utterly fails to deter Polly's sexual maturation; in spite of his best efforts at fatherly prophylaxis, she quickly becomes pregnant with the child of a Mr. Smiles.
Brecht spotlights her libido by opening the first of the novel's "Books," "Liebe und Heirat der Polly Peachum," with Polly's "Lied" from the Operalso the first example of Brecht's borrowing lyrics from the Oper for use as introductory material in sections of the Roman. In the song's lyrics Polly describes feeling drawn almost inexplicably to an unsavory man, a situation thematically reminiscent of Brecht's first play Baal (1919):
Und als er nicht nett war
Und sein Kragen war auch am Sonntag nicht rein
Und als er nicht wußte, was sich bei einer Dame schickt
Zu ihm sagte ich nicht nein. [. . .]
Und es konnte gar nicht anders sein! (21-22) The inclusion of the "Lied" indicates to the audience early on that Polly's romantic desires are more advanced (and dangerous) than her father would like to believe. These lines also foreshadow the active love life she enjoys throughout the book.
The narrator later mentions that when even Mac (Polly's future husband and by no means a stranger to the brothel) thought about his wife, "befiel ihn immer eine unbeschreibliche Unruhe. Sie war viel zu sinnlich" (83). The theme of sensuality arises repeatedly both in relation to Polly, and to the obsessive Mr. Coax, another of her paramours. As with Polly, Peachum's takes a damning view of Coax's morality. In articulating the Peachum's perspective on Coax, the narrator remarks: "Dieser Wüstling stand allzu offensichtlich unter der Gewalt seiner fleischlichen Begierden" (111). The prominence given to Polly's and Coax's passion makes an interesting counterpoint to the novel's overarching pecuniary bent. In examining these themes, however, Brecht underscores that greed and avarice are the primary motivation behind human behavior, whether the object of desire is by nature monetary or amorous. Both are in essence material goals to be pursued at any cost purely for personal gain.
Absent from the Oper, Coax is the master swindler who engineered the purchase of the aforementioned decrepit ships, inveigling his marks (Peachum and other successful businessmen) with an easy-going panache. Though Peachum claims persistently that he works only for the happiness and well-being of his daughter (an early subchapter is titled "Alles für das Kind"), when in a bind he is nevertheless fully prepared to offer Polly's hand in marriage to Coax, understanding that family ties would not only save him from total financial ruin at his blackmailer's hands but also might net him a share of the ill-gotten gains.
Among major changes in dramatis personae from the Oper to the Roman, the addition of George Fewkoombey is most prominent. He features foremost in the two Rahmenkapitel, "Die Bleibe" and "Das Pfund der Armen," which open and close the novel. A destitute amputee soldier recently returned from the war, Fewkoombey in desperation takes work as one of the army of beggars which Peachum has organized and dispatched throughout "die Straßen der Hauptstadt der Welt" (Brecht, Roman 10). Finally, after being subjected to merciless abuse by others, all of whom exercise some kind of financial superiority over him, Fewkoombey is, in the novel's closing line, unjustly hanged for the death of one of Macheath's B.-Laden owners, Mary Swayer.
Fewkoombey clearly serves as the novel's one truly sympathetic character; he is, furthermore, the only major figure completely unmotivated by greed. Though his role in the novel's core is of often tertiary importance at best, Brecht's focusing a prosaic limelight upon Fewkoombey in the chapters which precede and follow the main body of the novel endows him with a distinguished status in the reader's mind; the reader's attention is thus effectively directed to his character and interests. The audience is, furthermore, able to care about Fewkoombey because Brecht depicts him, in contrast to the novel's other characters, as a believable, realistic human being of flesh and blood. The attention Brecht pays to Fewkoombey makes even more convincing Weideli's argument that this impoverished, emaciated patriot individualizes and represents the oppressed proletariat as a whole (30).
Esslin correctly notes that a Marxist tendency, "only hinted at" in the Oper, becomes a dominant theme of the Roman (315). Benjamin concurs, adding: "Die Satire, die immer eine materialistische Kunst war, ist bei ihm [Brecht] nun auch eine dialektische. Marx steht im Hintergrund seines Romans [. . .]" (193). The novel's Marxist themes are made explicit in frequent references to class and social station. For example, the narrator tells the reader that murders by dem Messer "wurden aber von den Zeitungen kaum beachtet, da sie sich gegen Angehörige der alleruntersten Schichten richteten" (130); later, the narrator wryly calls Mac's extended fulminations against his creditors "eine Rede über die Lahmheit der oberen Schichten" (159). In explaining the willingness of workmen to reveal the genuine state of the ships being sold to the military, the narrator remarks, "Die Zimmerleute waren alle durch und durch sozialistisch verseucht" (48).
Socialist lessons are more commonly implied, however, for instance in the utter disregard with which the hapless, good-hearted Fewkoombey is handled by his fellow citizens. Shortly after we meet him in the opening chapter, he is cheated out of £75 in Government disability compensationall his moneyby a man intent on passing off a financially doomed public house to the first unsuspecting buyer. Only when he is homeless, jobless and hungry must he resort to begging in order to survive (thus "Die Bleibe"). Even then his subjugation is aggravated and intensified when other, more experienced beggars violently coerce him into joining Peachum's organization. Later, in the second of the novel's three books, "Nur wer im Wohlstand lebt, lebt angenehm" (a line from the Oper's "Ballade vom angenehmen Leben" [Brecht, Oper 41]), the sentences preceding a monolog by Peachum cast the soldier's ruthless treatment in a strikingly harsh light:
Manchmal blieb er [Peachum] bei Fewkoombey im Hof am Zwinger stehen und redete mit ihm, als sei er sein Kompagnon. Der Einbeinige wunderte sich darüber, bis er merkte, daß Herr Peachum vielleicht ebenso sehr zu den Hunden redete, denn er sah ihn überhaupt nicht an. (168)
Just as Fewkoombey must maintain the dogs in Peachum's kennel at the point of starvation so that the animals might better serve as heart-rending accouterments to the company's full-time beggars (and thus bring Peachum greater profit), so is Fewkoombey's exploitation so complete that he is barely able to live. Try as he might to support himself honestly and honorably, Fewkoombey is at best only able to manage the kind of pathetic existence most befitting a socialist hero. Often he is simply disregarded by those around him (though certainly not by Brecht), painfully illustrating the astonishing lack of appreciation and respect with which others treat him. A particularly poignant aspect of the novel's emotional impact stems from Brecht's making the reader a witness to Fewkoombey's transformation from promising, dignified war veteran to impoverished specimen of modern capitalism's societal detritus.
In discussing the novel's socialist inclination, Hayman and Weideli underscore the extensive passages depicting the intricate business dealings among Peachum, Macheath, Coax, and their rivals and confederates. Weideli contends correctly that Brecht essentially wrote a "novel of business," one in which "the description of economic phenomena rates at least as much space as that of feelings" (31). Esslin asserts that the book's business aspects weaken the impact of the work as a whole; while recognizing the Roman as a "Versuch, den Mechanismus der kapitalistischen Gesellschaftsform satirisch bloßzustellen," he faults Brecht's contrived war between robber barons as "einfach zu naiv, um überzeugend zu wirken" (108).
Hayman speaks to the novel's central motivation and purpose, noting that:
Insistently, the novel defines the businessman as the criminal who is never brought to justice. [. . .] Brecht had arrived at the dogma that all business deals are tainted with criminality. [. . .] As in Die heilige Johanna, Brecht was at pains to demonstrate the workings of economic processes, and the novel gave him space for a stage-by-stage exposé of how business is done. [. . .] In the world of the story, the criminal is capitalism [. . .]. (182)
Indeed, the Dreigroschenroman is a Kriminalroman in multiple ways. One could argue compellingly that the basic crime of most characters is voluntary submission to that pursuit of monetary gain which ineluctably attends life under the capitalist system.
Hayman goes on to suggest that the book's "premiss is that human innocence, which existed once in an Eden-like society, will one day be revived by an egalitarianism which will somehow exempt citizens from the need to own property or do business" (182). Though intriguing, his assertion here indicates that he is reading something rather presumptuous into Brecht's story. Where Hayman sees a prediction or assurance from the novel, I see instead a more urgent call to action. To me the novel reads as simply a more complex, elaborate version of the Lehrstücke which are Brecht's trademark; clearly his intention is to expose and satirize rather than to portend or prognosticate.
Apart from their value as socialist commentary, the sections of the novel pertaining primarily to economics and business are (as noted by Hoffman) likely the least engaging to readers; unfortunately for the author, their intricacy and precision also tend to interfere with and detract from effective communication of the novel's message. The Roman features numerous lengthy segments detailing various fiscal schemes; this results in more than a few dry patches of narrative which would be more at home in a financial journal than in a work of fiction. The Oper, whose mass appeal was rooted firmly in its entertainment value both as captivating drama and as a lively, contemporary musical review, is in this way most clearly and easily differentiated from the somewhat headier, deeper Roman.
Some Aspects of Text Design and Structure
Apart from the basic differences in theme and characterization between the Oper and Roman, readers of the novel are also struck by Brecht's innovative structuring of the text. The novel's core is made up of three Bücher of roughly the same size, bracketed by the two tiny frame chapters. The central books are each further divided into several interior chapters, which are themselves divided into one or two subchapters of varying lengths, all of which, like the Rahmenkapitel, bear individual titles. Most chapters and some subchapters also contain introductory lines of verse, quotes or proverbs. In this regard one notices an overarching distinction between the basic epic design of the Oper and the general, pseudo-epic format of the Roman. Though with these titles Brecht has in a sense brought into prose the hanging cards of epic stage design, in the Roman these words give little or nothing away to the reader: No upcoming events are revealed. In only one instance does a title divulge significant information regarding what is about to occur in the story (in the case of the second book, "Die Ermordung der Kleingewerbetreibenden Mary Swayer"), but even here the "giveaway" is so general as not to interfere with an Aristotelian reading of a suspenseful book. (Examples of some of these other titlesdifficult to place or decipher in isolationare "15 Pfund," "Herr X," "Noch Einmal der 20. September," and "Nebel.")
Similarly, the discerning reader will often perceive only a vague, indirect relationship between the subject of the opening verse lines or quotations and the events of the following pages. These quotes help to gently reinforce the concepts Brecht then presents, but he generally refrains from making explicit those lessons and ideas he wants the reader to take from the text. For instance, the following quatrain opens "Die Bleibe":
Und er nahm, was sie gaben, denn hart ist die NotDoch er sprach (denn er war kein Tor):
»Warum gebt Ihr mir Obdach? Warum gebt Ihr mir Brot?
Weh! Was habt Ihr mit mir vor?!« (9)
The meaning of these lines, which are ostensibly taken from an "alte irische Ballade," "Herr Aigihns Untergang""Aigihn" being "Eugen," Brecht's first name, in Augsburger dialectonly becomes entirely clear after one has read the novel completely, though the lines do ensure that the reader comes away from the introduction with an incipient perception of the novel's characteristically dour tone. Furthermore, unless the reader happens to be intimately familiar with Augsburg, or, alternately, has a critical study on hand, Brecht's opening the book with a winking reference to himself may go completely unnoticed. This kind of dense inside humor is used repeatedly in the chapters' introductory lines. Likewise, the inclusion of the chorus to the Oper's second "Dreigroschenfinale," "Denn wovon lebt der Mensch," though it bears no obvious relation to the events of the chapter it precedes, nevertheless takes on greater import with further reading. Were it not for the atmosphere these selections create, this and other inclusions of song lyrics from earlier works by Brecht would serve as little more than a curious, amusing holdover from the musical.
Occasionally, however, the meaning of the quotes is so obscure that, for many readers, they presumably have little if any import upon first reading. For example, Chapter 8 is introduced by a quote from Napoleon, "On s'engage et puis on voit" (loosely, "one commits oneself and then sees where one is"), whichif it is understood at all by the readerserves only to succinctly underpin the quickening pace of Macheath's actions as he attempts to save his business in the following subchapter, "Napoleonische Pläne." Chapter 13 is preceded by the phrase which Frederick the Great ordered chiseled on Prussian cannons, "Ultima ratio regis" ("the last resort of the King"); this seems to speak to the necessity of Swayer's murder, or perhaps the ruthlessness of Macheath's final financial machinations. Later a brief quote, "Arbeiten und nicht verzweifeln," attributed only to "Carlyle," is included before the subchapter "Unruhige Tage" in Chapter 14. Though the quote bears a satirical nuance in keeping with the socialist tone of the book as a whole, the words assume an elevated significance for those readers more familiar with the nineteenth-century British historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle. A devoted student of German literature, Carlyle also authored of a biography of Frederick the Great (from which the earlier quote may perhaps have been drawn).
Even more abstruse are references provided by the character Jacques Opper, author of a "biography" of the (possibly fictitious) Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus. In explaining his appreciation of Macheath's business acumen, Opper nonchalantly (and inscrutably) cites other figures from ancient Spartan history, such as "Alcibiades" and "Collocacadia." In bringing such references to the fore, Brecht provokes heightened interest in curious readers, and also encourages a closer reading of the text that follows. Often the effect such lines may have on the reader is, again, limited to the establishment of a certain atmosphereto the suggestion of moods and ideas which may be fully understood only as the reader progresses through or reflects back on the text. In the Oper, as in many other classically didactic Brechtian plays, the audience is quite deliberately compelled to reach a certain conclusion, partly through the use of expository introductory lines; however, in the Roman, though this element of epic text design contributes to the reader's drawing certain conclusions, Brecht elects to take a more subtle and, often, more pleasing approach to his discourse with the audience.
Brecht's use of sprechenden Namen, or speaking names, is another, inherently more superficial and transparent element of his prose. Such names illustrate forthrightly (and, at least to English speakers, obviously) a given individual's personal qualities by integrating them into his or her name. A significant early example is the name of the father of Polly's child, the suitor Smiles. Notable for the sensual pleasure he represents for Polly (especially in contrast to his leading competitor, the older, homelier Macheath), Smiles' name itself reflects his passionate role in Polly's life. Polly herself is given the new nickname Pfirsich in the novelpresumably "the peach," were the English-speaking characters' actual words to be faithfully recorded. Nevertheless, Brecht never makes explicity the connection between the name "Peachum" and the word "Pfirsich," again relying on the reader's ability to decipher the bilingual pun.
Mr. Coax, of course, expertly coaxes Peachum et al into an extortionate business deal. Interestingly, his name was almost surely appropriated and altered from "Mrs. Coaxer," Jenny's madam in The Beggar's Opera and a figure absent from the Oper. The madam is mentioned only fleetingly in the Roman and is renamed "Mrs. Lexer"a "reader of men," perhaps. In each of these cases, the cross-linguistic quality of Brecht's naming in the Roman, much more advanced than in the Oper, serves to give certain readers pause, and creates, at least momentarily, an amused distance between audience and text.
Brecht's use of a kind of montage technique is another significant structural element in the Roman. Within the chapters and subchapters, Brecht changes the reader's focus regularly, creating a series of interlocking scenes within the narrative, much as in the composition of a film; thus Knopf suggests that the Roman might be most accurately characterized as a "filmischer Roman" (357). For example, Chapter 9 begins with a conversation between Mr. Peachum and Fewkoombey at the beggars' headquarters. This is followed by an extended scene in another room between Peachum and the nefarious Coax; the reader's attention is then abruptly shifted to an exchange among Macheath and some of his cohorts elsewhere in the city, followed in turn by a heated tête-à-tête between Macheath and Fanny Chrysler, his closest business associate. Though Knopf and other, like-minded critics agree that Brecht was by no means the first writer to employ such a fast-moving, cinematic method in the creation of narrativeBrecht himself noted this montage quality in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson (Knopf 357)these scholars do acknowledge, quite correctly, that this technique contributes a special cadence to the novel, and accounts for one of the book's more entertaining qualities.
Brecht also occasionally inserts platitudes into the text which can, at times, sound very pedantic; but, of course, this is an integral part of the epic nature of the work. He tends to make general pronouncements on the behavior of human beings; for instance, the narrator at one point wistfully remarks, "Wenn die Leute den geringsten Kummer haben, werden sie noch gleichgültiger gegen andere, als sie es für gewöhnlich sind" (68). Another example is seen in the narrator's proclaiming, seemingly in relation to the ship inspector Bile but ambiguously nonetheless:
Es gibt Leute, die die Fähigkeit besitzen, sich in andere überhaupt nicht entfühlen zu können, die von Tatsachen völlig unberührt bleiben und ihre Gedanken ganz und gar ungeniert, ohne jede Rücksicht auf die Umgebung und den Zeitpunkt, aussprechen. Solche Männer sind zu Führern geboren. (43)
The tendentiousness of such statements is characteristic of the more straightforward communication evidenced in Brecht's plays. Here Brecht's assumed role as the novel's narrator is made so plain as to be impossible to ignore.
Occasionally Brecht's commentary provides an outside perspective on the behavior or complexion of a character; such obiter dicta also afford Brecht the opportunity to directly influence the reader's perception of the novel. For example, in commenting on Mac's pep talk with B-Laden owners, the narrator points out:
So zeigte er sich als geborener Führer und bewies, daß man alles sagen kann, wenn man nur einen unerschütterlichen Willen besitzt. [. . .] Wie die Geschichte zeigt, haben gerade diese Schichten eine Schwäche für Weltanschauungen, die es gutheißen, wenn der Starke über den Schwachen triumphiert. (189)
Also, early in the novel, after the narrator quotes Macheath as saying, "Das Leben ist hart [. . .], wir dürfen nicht weich sein"a theme which is restated continuously throughout the bookthe narrator continues, "Er hatte eine Vorliebe für große Worte" (50). Macheath, to be sure, isn't the only speaker about whom this charge may be levied; Brecht's desire to speak to the reader in an unconcealed, forthright fashion at times accounts for an unmistakably pedantic tone in the text. Statements such as those above, like Brecht's introductory quotes and the novel's filmic narrative structure, illustrate the ways in which Brecht's urge to educate an audiencesuch a hallmark of his dramatic workare tailored so as to fit effectively in a work of long-form prose. Brecht's clever adaptation of these epic elements bespeaks his versatility and inventiveness, regardless of the genre in which he chooses to create.
Typeface and Text Design
From Brecht's correspondence regarding the galley proofs of the novel in 1934, it is clear that the graphic considerations of the text were a major concern to him throughout the novel's development. For instance, in one letter to de Lange written after reviewing a first test printing, he complains about the use of an unsuitable typeface: "Das Satzbild sieht ja seriös aus. Aber die Schrift ist sehr klein, und durch die fetten Typen wirkt sie sehr schwer. Der kleine Charakter der Erzählung leidet etwas darunter" (Jeske, Brechts Romane 45-46). Later he writes the publisher to ensure that "[d]ie Abstände zwischen den Unterkapiteln" and "[d]ie Zahlen im kursiv gedruckten Text" look exactly the way he imagined (Jeske, Brechts Romane 47). The care Brecht shows for the visual aspects of the book's presentation indicates that such considerations had expressive (and not purely aesthetic) import for him.
Other manifestations of text design aside, the most intriguing aspect of Brecht's concept of type structure in the Dreigroschenroman is his painstaking use of italics in certain passages in lieu of roman script. Throughout the novel, only certain sections of the narrativeranging in length from a quote or brief paragraph to a full pageare printed in italic type; other sections, including some of comparable theme, size and subject, are printed in Roman type.
Brecht writes, tellingly, in a subsequent letter to de Lange:
Die neue Kursivschrift finde ich nicht gut. Rein ästhetisch betrachtet, ist sie hübsch, aber daß sie sich so gut ins Satzbild einfügt, ist ein großer Fehler. Es entsteht nicht so der Eindruck, daß hier etwas zitiert wird, daß hier bestimmte Sprüche und Redereien ausgestellt werden wie bei der Kursivschrift im zweiten Buch [. . .].
Ich bitte sie dringend, die Kursivschrift zu belassen wie im zweiten Buch, sie ist ausgezeichnet und genau zweckentsprechend [. . .]. Man fragt sich bei ihr viel leichter: warum das? (49)
Here Brecht makes known the main motivation underpinning his use of italic type: To focus the reader's attention forcefully on selected statements, and thus on certain ideas and philosophies. Because he is an artist, not a philosopher per se, and because epic theater is by its nature a theory of creative art, not expository essay, Brecht in prose text must devise a way to address the audience while still maintaining (to at least a minimal degree) the illusion and style of conventional fiction. Just as in epic theater Brecht often has his performers speak directly to the audience, giving the author an unusual, non-traditional conduit for communication with the audience, his use of italics in the Roman enables him largely to circumvent the prosaic limitations of speaking through characters. Brecht employs extended, selective use of typeface in order to give the reader a visual clue that the ideas and statements in question are something more than simple dialog or monolog. In these passages, Brecht demonstrates to the audience his desire to speak to them in prose, whether his remarks are cloaked under the thin veil of something a character "said," "thought" or "dreamed."
Though not unknown in works of his contemporaries, Brecht's extensive use of italics is nevertheless most unusual. His use of typeface in the Dreigroschenroman is distinguished from other authors' styles by the specific methods of design which he employs. An early, rudimentary example of an artist's creative use of type in twentieth-century prose is James Joyce's Ulysees (1922); here the role of type is limited to a very few italicized passages. A much more extensive application of graphic prose is found in Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (1939), in which typeface counts as but one of many ingenious graphic tools in the text. In William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), italic type is often used to indicate a shift of consciousness or perspective, or to express the pseudo-verbal impressions of characters who otherwise cannot communicate. In his short story collection In Our Time (1924), Ernest Hemingway uses italics in introductory passages to spotlight their distinction from the main text. In Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931), and, more recently, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970). lengthy italicized passages are alternated with passages in Roman type, affording the authors an added dimension of textual expression. Clearly typeface as a prose device was being exercised inventively by English-language writers of Brecht's era, perhaps influencing his own structural experimentation; however, I have found no comparable exemplars in German apart from the Dreigroschenroman. (Today, however, typeface seems to be a commonplace tool for writers of all genres. A brief internet search for novels which prominently feature italicized passages returned dozens of instances from the late 1990s alone.)
In discussing the importance of typeface in the Roman, Benjamin emphasizes that Brecht mandates the italicization of certain sections:
[. . .] so daß sie sich aus dem erzählenden Text herausheben. Er hat damit eine Sammlung von Ansprachen und Sentenzen, Bekenntnissen und Plaidoyers geschaffen, die einzig zu nennen ist. (190-191)
Recognizing the unique quality of Brecht's use of type, he continues:
Sie allein würde dem Werk seine Dauer sichern. [. . .] Die Stellen unterbrechen den Text; sie sinddarin der Illustration vergleichbareine Einladung an den Leser, hin und wieder auf die Illusion zu verzichten. (191)
Brecht's construction of the story, his portrayal of its characters and events, is on the whole so engaging and complete that, in an alternate form of type, Brecht has found an ideal tool for introducing a visually stunning element of epic style into the narrative. As Benjamin, and Brecht himself, point out, such interruption in the flow of the writing naturally draws and compels the reader's attention to specific ideas. In causing the reader to wonder why a passage has been so emphasized, Brecht subtly encourages the reader to examine more carefully assertions and ideologies which otherwise might have simply blended away into relative obscurity.
Through most of the novel Brecht usually includes one italicized passage per subchapter. (An exception is toward the final chapter of the third and final book, in which several consecutive speeches rife with glaringly capitalist perspectives are all italicized.) A close reading of several selected passages may best illustrate Brecht's modus operandi.
Already on page 13, in "Die Bleibe," the reader is confronted with the printing technique which comes to distinguish the book's more outstanding segments (literally and figuratively):
»Jacke aus!« rief er. »Zeige in offenem, ehrlichem Kampf, ob du fähiger bist als ich, eine sich gut rentierende Stellung zu besitzen, die wir beide erstreben. Freie Bahn dem Tüchtigen! und Wehe dem Besiegten! ist mein Wahlspruch. Auf diese Art ist der ganzen Menschheit gedient, denn nur die Tüchtigen kommen so in die Höhe und in den Besitz des Schönen auf Erden. Wende aber keine unfairen Mittel an, schlage nicht unter den Gürtel und ins Genick und laß die Knie aus dem Spiel! Der Kampf muß, soll er Geltung haben, nach den Regeln des Britischen Faustkämpferverbandes ausgefochten werden!« (13)
By the fourth sentence the audience is aware that the pugilistic beggar "saying" these words isn't really the person speaking; Brecht is using the brute, whose "Armen waren wie die eines Orang Utans," as a thinly disguised mouthpiece for the expression of his own ideas. Phrases like "Auf diese Art ist der ganzen Menschheit gedient" are, to be sure, at home neither in the taunts of a beggar nor in the prelude to a fight; in putting philosophical statements into the mouth (but not the speech) of a lower-class beggar, Brecht also uses an old epic standbysituational incongruenceto put the audience on guard. The reader is made to understand early on (had there been any misconception to begin with) that he or she should expect something more from Brecht's work than from a traditional Dreigroschenroman (in the sense of "dime store novel" or "pulp novel") with superficial, inconsequential action and adventure. This epic handling of dialog recurs continually in the novel's italicized passages. As in his drama, Brecht invites us to be entertained, but in the italicized passages he is often quite unsubtle in the ways in which he conveys what he sees as the more enduringly significant messages of the work.
Another even more striking example of Brecht's having his characters philosophize unexpectedly comes in the ninth italicized passage, after Fewkoombey and Polly have discussed her arranging to abort her child:
Hätte er sich Gedanken gemacht, wären ungefähr dies seine Gedanken gewesen:
Wieder einmal fehlen 15 Pfund. Wären sie da, wäre es wieder einmal unerklärlich, wenn ein Mensch geboren würde. Warum sollte ein Weib so entmenscht sein, ein Kind in eine solche Welt zu setzen, wenn sie die 15 Pfund hätte, die genügen, es ungeboren sein zu lassen? Wie sollte es eine solche ungeheure Menge von Menschen geben, die sich gegenseitig wegen ein paar Lungenzügen Luft, eines Daches, durch das es manchmal nicht regnet, einigen Bissen schlecht schmeckender Nahrung zerfleischen, wenn jedesmal 15 Pfund da wären, sie abzutreiben? Mit wem sollte man die überflüssigen Kriege führen und für wen wären sie nötig? Wen könnte man ausbeuten, wenn man nicht schon seine Mutter so ausgebeutet hätte, daß sie die 15 Pfund nicht hätte? An den Eigenturmsverhältnissen ist nichts zu ändern, das sagen alle Professoren. Die Eigentümer kann man nicht abschaffen, warum wenigstens nicht die Nichteigentümer? [. . .] Wie können diese Weiber es also gefährden, indem sie sich weigern, Kinder in diese überfüllten, stinkenden, vom Gebrüll der Hungerden erfüllten Steinhaufen zu setzen? [. . .] Natürlich ist jeder das Hemd näher als der Rock und das eigene Kind zu schade für diese Welt. Mit ihrem Kind soll natürlich eine Ausnahme gemacht werden! Verdammter Egoismus! Es ist nur gut, daß das Abtreiben Geld kostet! Da gäbe es ja kein Aufhalten mehr . . .
So ungefähr hätte der Soldat wohl gedacht, wenn er gedacht hätte. (73-74)
Fewkoombey, like the beggar quoted earlier, here explains a point of view not unthinkable in men of his station, but nonetheless phrased in a manner strangely out of place in such a speaker. For instance, he is, presumably, little qualified to comment on the socioeconomic beliefs of "alle Professoren." Of greater significance than the nihilism and negativity expressed in this passage is the way in which Brecht bookends "Fewkoombey's thoughts" with a forthright admission that they are, in fact, not really the soldier's. From this we must infer that they are Brecht's own.
Similarly, in the twelfth italicized passage, Brecht relates comments that "would be made" by Peachum after he comes to understand the degree to which Coax has cheated him:
Wäre er gebildet gewesen, hätte er ausrufen können:
Was ist Ödipus gegen mich? Allgemein und durch Jahrtausende galt er als der Unseligste der Sterblichen, das Musterstück der göttlichen Henker, der Hereingefallenste aller vom Weibe Geborenen! Gegen mich ist er ein Glückspilz. Er ging in ein schlechtes Geschäft hinein, ohne es zu ahnen [. . .]. Ich aber habe gewußt um alles, ich bin selber der Dummkopf, also lebensunfähig. Bei mir hat es sich gezeigt, daß man mir eine Schmeißfliege für 1000 (tausend) Pfund andrehen kann. (97-98)
Here again, Brecht chooses to speak to the reader in a more subtle, indirect way than through his role as the novel's narrator. Nevertheless, in blatantly putting words in a character's mouth, he is able to draw additional attention to the characteristics and ideologies he most wants the reader to recognize. Interesting also is his inclusion above of the parenthetical "(tausend)," mimicking the style of writing used in formal contractual agreements. This textual wink to the audience via typeface is seen elsewhere as well, once in the initial dealings regarding the ship, "Die Kaufsumme sollte in 8 (acht) Teile gehen [. . .]" (39); and again more pointedly in a comment about Mary: "Ihr waren nur mehr 27 (siebenundzwanzig) Stunden zu leben gegeben" (206).
Even more frequently, Brecht prints in italics comments made by the novel's upper-class characters which, though not unusual syntactically, are exceptional in the degree to which the characters harp on economic or philosophical subject matter. For example, at one point Macheath expounds upon his understanding of the modern business world to one of his hirelings:
«Grooch,» sagte er, «Sie sind ein alter Einbrecher. [. . .] Sie sind kleiner Handwerker, damit ist alles gesagt. Das ist ein untergehender Stand, das werden Sie mir nicht bestreiten. Was ist ein Dietrich gegen eine Aktie? Was ist ein Einbruch in eine Bank gegen die Gründung einer Bank? Was, mein lieber Gooch ist die Ermordung eines Mannes gegen die Anstellung eines Mannes? [. . .] Mann schickt, wie gesagt, keine Mörder mehr aus, wenn man den Gerichtsvollzieher schicken kann. [. . .]» (243-245)
This selection demonstrates Brecht's habit of italicizing comments which, in contrast to other sections of dialog, are special in the strength (and, often, incongruity) of the opinions and perspectives discussed. Mac's alarmingly socialist indictment of collusion between business and government is ironic coming from such a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist thief, but Brecht in choosing a different typeface to spotlight the statement ensures that irony alone is not made to bear responsibility for underscoring the contextual importance of the remarks.
As mentioned before, italicized passages are occasionally portrayed as a character's thoughts or dreams. Often this technique is used to provide a somewhat less heavy-handed, dogmatic perspective on characters' motivations and behavior. In Chapter 9, for instance, Mac wistfully imagines how he will raise Polly's son, whom he believes to be his own:
»Ich werde ihn Dick nennen«, träumte er, »ich werde ihn in allem belehren, ihm sagen, was ich weiß. [. . .] Ich werde ihn an der kleinen Hand nehmen und ihm erzählen, wie man einen Konzern leitet und aus den Leuten etwas herausholt, diesen schuftigen, unzuverlässigen, sich um jede Arbeit drückenden Brüdern.« (165)
In this and other italicized passages (such as the novel's third, in which Polly explains her evolving views on chastity ), Brecht is content to express his characters' more quotidian thoughts and aspirations, though as in the excerpt above the passages contain telling indications of the character's deepest beliefs and desireswhether ruthlessly capitalist (as above with Mac), or ardently sensual (as with Polly).
Each of these selections is but a representative of other similar passages which are interspersed throughout the Roman. In a work as comparatively large as the Dreigroschenroman, such clever use of italicization affords Brecht an unexpected, penetrating conduit for relating directly to his readers. It is a credit to Brecht's versatility as a writer that, in his first major work of prose fiction, he was able to develop and execute a bespoke method of visual text design which was at once so remarkably nuanced and so suited to his intentions.
The Dreigroschenroman, though all too often overlooked by critics and readers in favor ofhis better known plays and poems, is without question one of the most diverse and fertile sources of idea and innovation in the Brechtian corpus. Apart from the novel's relative enormity as compared to Brecht's other individual works, the novel is distinguished by his willingness to experiment with nontraditional techniques of textual design and structure which create a complexity befitting his expressive, and epic, goals. Brecht is, moreover, able to use the inherently visual quality of the printed word to enhance the impact of his message in a manner which is by definition beyond the realm of performance art. Indeed, few prose writers of Brecht's caliber have ever crafted texts with the level of structural sophistication evident throughout the novel. As with his dramatic work, Brecht is able to lecturein the case of the Roman, on the inherent corruption of the capitalist systemwhile simultaneously captivating his audience with an engrossing story. The Dreigroschenroman, like Brecht's most successful plays, is both thought-provoking and stirring, both enlightening and amusing. Here again he demonstrates by example that entertainers make the best teachers. Today's students of Brecht would be well advised, and well rewarded, to give the Dreigroschenroman the respect and attention which are its due.
Benjamin, Walter. "Acht Jahre." Bertolt Brechts Dreigroschenbuch. Texte, Materialien, Dokumente. Ed. Siegfried Unseld. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1960. 187-193.
Brecht, Bertolt. Baal: Der böse Baal der Asoziale. Texte, Varianten, Materialien. Ed. Dieter Schmidt. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968.
---. Dreigroschenoper. Bertolt Brechts Dreigroschenbuch: Texte, Materialien,Dokumente. Ed. Siegfried Unseld. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1960.
---. Dreigroschenroman. Ed. Wolfgang Jeske. Vol. 16. Werke. Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe. Series Ed. Werner Hecht, Jan Knopf, Werner Mittenzwei, Klaus-Detlef Müller. Weimar: Aufbau, 1990. 30 vols.
---. "über den Kriminalroman." Schriften zur Literatur und Kunst 2. Vol. 19. Gesammelte Werke. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968. 457-458.
---. "über die Popularität des Kriminalromans." Schriften zur Literatur und Kunst 2. Vol. 19. Gesammelte Werke. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968. 450-457.
Esslin, Martin. Brecht: The Man and His Work. Garden City: Anchor, 1961.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: J. Cape and H. Smith, 1930.
---. The Sound and the Fury. New York: J. Cape and H. Smith, 1929.
Fuegi, John. Brecht & Co.: Biographie. Trans. Sebastian Wohlfeil. Hamburg: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1997.
Goebel, Rolf J. "Brechts Dreigroschenroman und die Tradition des Kriminalromans." Brecht-Jahrbuch 1979. Ed. John Fuegi, et al. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1979. 67-81.
Hayman, Ronald. Brecht: A Biography. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.
Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1955.
Hoffman, William. "America Welcomes Brecht: Reviews of A Penny for the Poor." Gestus: The Electronic Journal of Brecht Studies 1.1 (1985): 36-38.
Jeske, Wolfgang. Bertolt Brechts Poetik des Romans. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1984.
---, ed. Brechts Romane. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1984.
Joyce, James. Finnegan's Wake. New York: Viking, 1939.
---. Ulysees. Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 1922.
Knopf, Jan. Brecht-Handbuch. Lyrik, Prosa, Schriften. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1984.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Schutte, Jürgen. "Satire und Realismus. Zur Schreibweise des Dreigroschenromans." Faschismuskritik und Deutschlandbild im Exilroman. Ed. Christian Fritsch and Lutz Winckler. Argument-Sonderband 76. Berlin: Argument, 1981. 65-82.
Schlenstedt, Dieter. "Satirisches Modell in Brechts Dreigroschenroman." Der deutsche Roman im 20. Jahrhundert. Analysen und Materialien zur Theorie und Soziologie des Romans. Ed. Manfred Brauneck. Bamberg: Buchner, 1976. 260- 282.
Weideli, Walter. The Art of Bertolt Brecht. Trans. Daniel Russell. New York: New York UP, 1963.
Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1931.
Home Research Courses Contact