Spotlight

A rare collectible: David Hockney’s ThreePenny Opera

 

A free spirit

When David Hockney (b.1937) was commissioned to design an advertisement for the The ThreePenny Opera, he was just 34. Already a commercially successful artist for his sun-drenched Californian swimming pool paintings, his colourful pop art style challenged the artistic conventions he had inherited. Unafraid of depicting what inspired him, the Bradford-born artist describes himself as bohemian, a ‘free spirit.’

For Hockney, bohemia wasn’t just a way of life. It was a belief system. It meant being openly gay in an oppressive society. It meant being able to explore a range of artistic mediums. And, above all, it meant not being anchored to one artistic movement. Never intended for the elite few, his art, in his words, was – and still is – for ‘ordinary people’. When asked about his political views, Hockney explains that, ‘Ultimately, I’m about liberty and I think you have to defend it.’ Reflecting on his career, Director of Tate Britain Alex Farquharson explained that, ‘At times camp and ironic, Hockney’s art is ultimately always sincere and profoundly human.‘ With wayward beggars, bandits, and brothel owners, The ThreePenny Opera’s set and cast must have made intriguing subjects for the young artist to depict. 

David Hockney, Self portrait with blue guitar, 1972, (Creative Commons, public domain)David Hockney, Self portrait with blue guitar, 1972, (Creative Commons, public domain)

Hockney and the theatre

Hockney’s long-standing love of theatre, narrative drama, and illusion goes back a long way. In 1966, he designed the revival of Alfred Jarry’s Ubo Roi for London’s Royal Court Theatre. In the 1970s, he produced enormous set designs and costumes for operas – most notably Stravinsky’s production of the Rake’s Progress at Glyndebourne Opera House in Sussex. 

As prolific as he was versatile, the idea of working in new mediums, relating new narratives, and changing perspectives stimulated Hockney. A diligent researcher, Hockney would have been well aware of The ThreePenny Opera’s history. Originally written by John Gay in 1728 under the title ‘The Beggars Opera’, the play was translated into German by the Elisabeth Hauptmann and her playwright lover Bertolt Brecht in the 1920s. As the product of post-WWI bohemian Berlin, it’s unsurprising that the creative couple chose to translate a play that so brazenly critiqued the accepted customs of urban bourgeois society. 

The Rake's Progress, Ashmoleon, 1981, by David HockneyThe Rake's Progress, Ashmoleon, 1981, by David Hockney

San Francisco Opera, 1982, by David HockneySan Francisco Opera, 1982, by David Hockney

‘It’s the weightiest possible lowbrow opera for highbrows and the most full-blooded highbrow musical for lowbrows.’ – Hans Keller

The ThreePenny Opera

The ThreePenny Opera was first performed in 1928 and, despite an initially poor reception, it became a great success, playing 400 times in the next two years. According to critic and musicologist Hans Keller, the work is ‘The weightiest possible lowbrow opera for highbrows and the most full-blooded highbrow musical for lowbrows.’ Such disparate receptions of The ThreePenny Opera stoked fear in early audiences. Believing it glamourised criminality, some conservative magistrates tried to ban productions altogether. 

The ThreePenny Opera, rare theatre poster by David Hockney, 1972The ThreePenny Opera, rare theatre poster by David Hockney, 1972

Naturally, by the time Tony Richardson’s production came to London in 1972, attitudes had softened. Reviewing it shortly after it first premiered at the Prince of Wales Theatre, R. B. Marriott extolled it for showing the ‘horrors’ brought about by both ‘the poor as well as by the rich’. Viewing all sections of society as devious and corrupt, Marriott resolved that the play had timely ‘depth and significance’ with many ‘notable performers’. 

The ThreePenny Opera, rare theatre poster by David Hockney, 1972The ThreePenny Opera, rare theatre poster by David Hockney, 1972

Hockney’s offset lithographic poster depicts two of the play’s protagonists. The notorious villain Macheath (Joe Melia) rests a cigarette on his lip, and a champagne bottle with an accompanying glass is set before him. Such props engineered a sense of aspiration: the tools Macheath, nicknamed ‘Mack the knife’ needed to cement his middle-class status. Across from Macheath, is Polly Peachum (Vanessa Redgrave). Coquettishly flashing a feather boa to hide her blushing face as her breasts protrude beneath, her character was markedly more naive to her gangster lover. Redgrave was praised by thesps for her satirical wit and her ability to reveal the folly of her impressionable, young character. 

The ThreePenny Opera, rare theatre poster by David Hockney, 1971The ThreePenny Opera, rare theatre poster by David Hockney, 1971

‘This is the most fantastic theatrical part I’ve ever had. I don’t come on till the second half. It’s what I call a doddle.’ – Dame Barbara Windsor

Using just three colours, Hockney reserves the rest of the poster for the play’s other co-stars, including ‘king of the beggars’, Peachum (Ronald Radd), Mrs Peachum (Hermione Baddeley), and the prostitute and former lover of Macheath Jenny (Annie Ross). Performing her rendition of the song ‘Pirate Jenny’ (since made famous by Nina Simone), Ross is said to have brought vital ‘poignancy and chilling passion’. However, the most memorable performance came from the late Barbara Windsor who played Lucy Brown. When asked about her role in the play, Windsor told photographer Neil Libbert, ‘This is the most fantastic theatrical part I’ve ever had. I don’t come on till the second half. It’s what I call a doddle.’ Accordingly, reviewers celebrated her role for supplying genuine cockney raucousness. 

The ThreePenny Opera, rare theatre poster by David Hockney, 1972The ThreePenny Opera, rare theatre poster by David Hockney, 1972

Sources:  

Peter Webb, Portrait of David Hockney, London 1988

David Hockney, Edited by Chris Stephens and Andrew Wilson, Tate Publishing, 2017

R. B. Marriott, 'The enjoyable ThreePenny Opera is lacking in feeling', The Stage, 1972

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