Book Chats on Bookplates.
One has to confess that the names Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill, Caspar Neher and Bertolt Brecht, were...well...just names, until, in late spring this year a book on the topography of central London passed across our desk. The volume was a 1925 first edition copy of C. L. Kingsford's “The Early History of Piccadilly, Leicester Square, Soho & Their Neighbourhood” (C.U.P.).
Last updated here November 2019.
This was Bertolt Brecht's original title for his 1934 novel based on The Threepenny Opera, his 1928 reworking of John Grey's “The Begger's Opera”. This in turn was first performed in 1728.
The copy displayed an ownership bookplate in an Avante-Garde, or possibly Russian Futurist style...and this is shown above left, as positioned in the book, and also below right. Priced by us at £4.50 in a job lot, nothing more was thought of it at the time, and so it was relegated to our stock room.
It was only much later, on hearing a chance radio comment on Bertolt Brecht as play write in the 1920's, that memory prompted the book's retrieval and we took a closer look at the curious bookplate, a woodcut.
Most booksellers, on being asked “Do you have anything by B.B”, immediately think of D. J. Watkins-Pitchford and his nature books, but this was clearly out of the question. Could it possibly be Bertolt Brecht?
Viewed with these eyes, the apparent jumble of symbols in the bookplate (below right) coelesce into … a theatre stage, an audience (the XXXX), a spotlight illuminating the stage from the gallery (known in the UK as "The Gods", because of the elevated view down onto the stage), and a Greek looking proscenium column. Two other Brecht related book items are now known to us, shown below. The one on the left is a bookplate from a collector of Brecht items, while the central one shows the Title Page from the first issue of the first edition of Brecht's "Baal". In particular notice the shark & the knife. We are grateful to Robert Klein (www.pressendrucke.jimdo.com) for drawing these to our attention.
Curiously, the only Brecht on our shelves was a £2.00 paperback Methuen Student Guide, but, it fortunately contained a precis biography, and helpfully that was set out under each year.
There under the year 1928, we read:
“The Threepenny Opera, music by Kurt Weill, words by Brecht, opened at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin on August 31st and becomes the hit of the season. Brecht has provocatively transferred bourgeois manners to a Soho criminal setting.”
Connoisseurs will also recall the play contains the song “Moon over Soho” a cynical, albeit nostalgic dismissal of romantic love!
Now most booksellers will praise the special qualities of their stock, after all it's in their DNA! But in this instance it seems completely plausible that we have Brecht's personal copy of a book he used to research the Victorian Soho underworld, the setting for his dramatization and for his lead character, the Soho lowlife Macheath (later immortalised in song by Sinatra as "Mack the Knife"). So, it's of further interest that his sub-title for the first performance in 1928, was “The Pimp's Opera”. Three posters for the play are shown above with the very first 1928 Berlin one, far left. There is a further curious thing, the first stanza of the lyrics to Mack the Knife, runs as follows:
Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white
Just a Jack Knife has old MacHeath, babe
And he keeps it, ah, out of sight
Ya know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe
Scarlet billows start to spread…………
Now look again at the Brecht book plate above and to the left!
Note updated on March 24th 2017.
Since writing the above we have discovered that the woodcut artwork for our 1925 bookplate is by Nicolai Nikolaevich Kupreyanov, 1894 - 1933, a Russian printmaker, illustrator and graphic designer, living from 1922 in Moscow and sometime Professor at the Moscow Polygraphic Institute. Two other examples of his distinctive Avante-Garde, or Cubist, bookplates are shown below. The central example is clearly monogrammed "NK" in Cyrillic (see bottom right on the block). This particular bookplate is exlibris "A. G. Kahana".Corrections, additions and indeed, any advice, on Bertolt Brecht and this interpretation, most gratefully received.
We would be especially interested to hear of any known link between Brecht and Kupreyanov.