Brecht, Weill and The Threepenny Opera are names practically synonymous with each other. However, little is known about the great theater producer behind its staging, Ernst Josef Aufricht, whose memoir, And the Shark, He Has Teeth, has been translated into English for the first time. Aufricht’s story follows The Threepenny Opera from conception to debut, packed with comical anecdotes and compelling insights; however, as Aufricht lived through Nazi Germany and war-torn Europe, his account also reveals tales of flight, exile, and emigration.
Benjamin Bloch’s beautiful translation captures the laconic quality of Aufricht’s prose; subtle humour and wit is laced through a narrative that navigates both an uplifting and harrowing journey. Below is an extract from the memoir detailing the day of the Opera’s premiere at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin, 31 August 1928.
The dress rehearsal lasted till six in the morning, and then the actors, the musicians and the technical personnel left the theater. We who remained sat down together. The play was three quarters of an hour too long. Various songs, among them the Solomon Song, with its outstanding interpretation by Lotte Lenya, had to be cut. The seventh scene, Peachum’s main scene, had to be cut in half. Then we all went home exhausted. I slept one hour and was back in the theater at ten o’clock. Today, I said to myself, I don’t want to see a single member of this high-strung cast before the show begins. Someone was already waiting for me there. A young man, Naphtali Lehrmann, approached me with a request. He played the part of Filch. Brecht had recommended him for the role, although he wasn’t an actor, but an unemployed apprentice interested in getting into the book business. Addressing me with all the arrogance and contempt of a member of the Young Communists facing his employer, he began:
“You’ve hired me for the minimum wage of ten marks a day. I’m not an actor, nor do I wish to become one. You can’t put me on the blacklist, or find any way to threaten me, I don’t own anything. I demand thirty marks an evening or I’ll disappear this instant, and you have no premiere.” I said, “Agreed!” and hoped to replace him the next day.
“I demand a two-month contract immediately, and a larger advance,” Lehrmann announced. I called Brecht and asked him to come to the theater to speak with his protégé. I showed the young man to a chair. Brecht arrived and spoke to him for a long time, and finally appealed to the young man’s conscience. The result was twenty marks a day plus the advance.
Next came Erich Ponto, carrying two suitcases, into my office. He was packed and needed to leave quickly to catch the midday train back to Dresden. He’d heard about the extensive cuts in the seventh scene, which affected mostly his lines, and he refused to play only a part of the role for which he had been hired. Now I was at a loss. I could only plead.
“For your wife and children’s sake,” Ponto answered me—he’d been a frequent guest in our house—”I’ll unpack my bags!”
I went out of my office and onto the stage. A mid-height stage curtain, a little over man-high, was hanging across it, drawn up at the sides and running on a wire that had been painted black to make it invisible. It replaced the bigger curtain that came down only during intermission and at the end. It was a heavy, red, silken material, hemmed with green and embroidered with colorful parrots. Behind this middle-curtain the stage technicians worked silently in felt slippers and very little light. “This curtain will be the shroud of the premiere,” I said to Caspar Neher, the Stage Designer. After a heated discussion, he gave in. There happened to be a supply of plain white sackcloth in the house. Rollers were fastened the length of the material and it was pulled across the wire. Neher took a can of black paint and a thick brush, and painted the final title of the play across this curtain: The Threepenny Opera.
And then came the horse, or rather, the steed. It was a life-size, galloping dapple-gray stallion with fiery nostrils, which was supposed to burst from the upper level of the organ shell on two rails and slide onto stage bearing the messenger of the queen. Unfortunately, the angle of the rails had been miscalculated such that both messenger and steed would have continued along their path and landed in the audience. To start making adjustments in the machinery with only four hours till curtain was not possible. “The horse stays, or there’s no play!” declared Brecht categorically. In the meantime he had given directions that four wheels be attached to the horse, and, beaming, he pulled the animal on stage. “This is how it’ll be done tonight: an extra pulls it out by the reins with Gerron in the saddle.” I objected: “we’re not running a children’s theater here!” “Then,” suggested Brecht, “we’ll have it on stage before the curtain goes up.” Someone remarked accurately: “But then the deus ex machina, the mounted messenger of the Queen who comes in time to prevent the hanging, loses its whole point.” “In that case,” Brecht answered, “we’ll just cover it, and uncover it for the mounted messenger.” He had a tarpaulin brought out, and covered the horse.
“I don’t want this ugly block on stage for the final scene,” I said. In the audience Weigel was wringing her hands and moaning: “The horse, the horse!” Brecht now had everything staked on the horse, and he’d come up with a new idea—but it was never heard. The head technician Sachs came up to me:
“There are a few projection screens I haven’t tested. If you want to start at seven-thirty”—it was already six, the cleaning women with their brooms were coming into the auditorium—”then I’ll need the stage now.”
“Please clear the stage and let down the iron curtain, the rehearsal is over!” I had to announce.
“This is the last time I ever set foot in this theater!” Brecht screamed. “Me too,” said Weill and Neher. Fischer challenged them: “Would you gentlemen like to give us that in writing?” And as they were all proper theater people, they arrived punctually at seven-thirty for the premiere, and the queen’s mounted messenger made his entrance on foot, and stood on a little grass plot spread out for him by an extra.
And the Shark He Has Teeth: A Theater Producer’s Notes, by Ernst Josef Aufricht.
Translated by Benjamin Bloch.