The Threepenny Opera
The Threepenny Opera
The Threepenny Opera
BERTOLT BRECHT 1928
Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 play The Threepenny Opera was his most financially successful play and the work with which he is most closely identified. The play is an early example of his “epic theater,” consisting of theatrical innovations designed to awaken audiences to social responsibility. Epic theater uses “alienating” devices, such as placards, asides to the audience, projected images, discordant music and lighting, and disconnected episodes to frustrate the viewer’s expectations for simple entertainment. This “theater of illusions” (as anti-realists such as Brecht termed it) allowed the audience to comfortably and passively view a production without being changed by it. It was Brecht’s intention to use drama to invoke social change, to shake his audiences out of their complacency and expect more from the theater than entertainment.
The disruptive capacity of Brecht’s drama was designed to awaken the theater-goers critical mind and galvanize them into political awareness and action. The Threepenny Opera, which he produced with the aid of his secretary (and lover) Elisabeth Hauptmann (who had just translated John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera  into German) and composer Kurt Weill, is a satire of bourgeois society, containing many of the major elements of epic theater: placards announcing the ballad singers, discordant music, and a plot that frustrates expectations for romantic resolution. The Threepenny Opera is very closely based on Gay’s eighteenth-century play, another social satire. Brecht and Hauptmann borrowed ballads from Francois Villon, and Weill turned them into darkly twisted cabaret songs for this version of the play.
Brecht also made some stylistic changes, transforming the protagonist, Macheath, into a morally ambiguous hero, emphasizing the parallels between Polly and Lucy, and creating the character of Sheriff Jackie Brown, a former army buddy of Macheath’s who protects his friend’s criminal activity in exchange for a percentage of his spoils. Brecht’s play places blame on capitalist society for the criminal underworld that Gay presented merely as a mirror-image satire of eighteenth-century aristocracy. Weill’s discordant mesh of jazz, folk, and avant-garde music adds to the play’s popular appeal, which was the polar opposite of what Brecht wanted: he designed his “epic theater” to awaken the audience’s critical judgement, not its empathy. Despite Brecht’s designs, The Threepenny Opera has become one of the hallmarks of musical theater and his most popular play. While it is regarded in modern drama as a significant political work, it is equally revered for its unique music and darkly engaging characters.
Born Eugen Bertolt Friedrich Brecht on February 10, 1898, in Augsburg, Germany, Bertold Brecht is regarded as a founding father of modern theater and one of its most incisive voices. His innovative ideas would prove to have a profound effect on many genres of modern narrative, not the least of which are novels, short stories, and cinema. Brecht is considered a pioneer of socially conscious theater—especially in the subgenre of anti-reality theater, which sought to debunk the illusory techniques of realistic drama. His work reflects his commitment to his political beliefs. By the time he was a young adult he had firmly embraced the communist doctrines of Karl Marx, a German philosopher who authored the seminal texts The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.
Brecht began life as the intellectually rebellious son of a bourgeois (middle-class) paper factory director. His mother was Catholic, his father Protestant; Brecht disavowed any religious affiliation, and his first play, written when he was sixteen-years-old, exposes the conflicting lessons of the Bible—early evidence of his life—long effort to erode the infrastructure of complacency in his society. During World War I, he was unable to avoid conscription into the German army (by studying medicine) and so served as an orderly in an army hospital. The meaningless suffering he witnessed there embittered his already pessimistic worldview.
Always fascinated by dualities and cultural opposites, Brecht sought to expose the ridiculousness of either extreme, while never offering any kind of transcendent alternative, thus earning many critics’ condemnation as a nihilist (one who believes that traditional values have no foundation in reality and that existence is pointless). Often his plays and poems depict situations that seem naturally aimed toward romantic conclusions yet avoid such easy resolutions. By the time he reached adulthood, Brecht had already established himself as a lady’s man, often juggling wives, ex-wives, and lovers who lived within blocks of each other and bore his children—often at the same time.
One of Brecht’s many significant others, Elisabeth Hauptmann, collaborated with him on his adaptation of John Gay’s eighteenth-century play The Beggar’s Opera, which he debuted in 1928 as The Threepenny Opera. The work featured music by renowned composer Kurt Weill and became one of the playwright’s best-known dramas (thanks in large part to singer Bobby Darrin’s popular cover of the play’s song “Mack the Knife”). Recent biographers speculate that Brecht ran a veritable writing sweatshop, using the talents of his harem of women, who stood little chance of literary success without his paternalistic shepherding or his political and intellectual inspiration.
Prior to the political ascension of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party in the 1930s, Brecht fled Germany and lived in exile in Europe and the United States. In 1947, he was unsuccessfully interrogated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for his outspoken communist sympathies. He returned to Germany in 1948, where he established the Berlin Ensemble, a theatrical production troupe dedicated to political and artistic reform. In this latter period of his life, he produced what is regarded as some of his best work, including the plays Mother Courage and Her Children (1949) and TheGood Woman of Szechuan (1953). He died of coronary thrombosis on August 14, 1956, in the then-communist country of East Germany.
The Prologue of The Threepenny Opera presents Fair Day in Soho (a suburb of London), where beggars, thieves, and whores ply their trades. A ballad singer steps forward to sing a macabre ditty about Mac the Knife. Peachum, proprietor of “The Beggar’s Friend Ltd.” strolls back and forth across the stage with his wife and daughter. At the close of the song, Low-dive Jenny says that she sees Mac the Knife, who disappears into the crowd.
In Scene One, it is morning in the Peachum business emporium, where the proprietor outfits beggars for their swindling careers. The scene opens with Peachum singing his morning hymn to the glory of human betrayal and deception. Peachum appeals to the audience to consider the complexities of his business: raising human sympathy often necessitates counterfeit misery, because the public has become so jaded that it’s donations diminish over time. He interprets the Biblical saying, “Give and it shall be given unto you” as meaning, provide new reasons to give to the poor.
A young man, Charles Filch (the word “filch” is slang for stealing), enters the shop. He reports that a beggar gang have beat him up for begging on their territory. Peachum offers him a district and an improved beggaring outfit in return for fifty percent of his take. Filch does not inspire Peachum’s confidence because he succumbs too easily to pity; begging requires sterner stuff, less of a conscience. Mrs. Peachum enters and discusses the whereabouts of their daughter, Polly, with Peachum. The couple sing a brief satirical duet on love.
In Scene Two, beggar gang member Matthew (a.k.a. Matt of the Mint) enters a stable to ensure that it is empty. Macheath brings in Polly, dressed in a stolen wedding dress. Moments later large vans appear, containing luxurious—and certainly stolen—furniture and tableware for the wedding. The rest of the beggar gang also arrive. In a comedy of grotesque decorum, the gang critiques the wedding appointments while Polly and Macheath cling to the semblance of a dignified ceremony. Realizing that a wedding song is conventional, Macheath orders
three of the boys, already considerably drunk, to sing one, to which they lamely comply.
Polly reciprocates with her own, rather hostile tune about a barmaid named Jenny, which Macheath pronounces art, wasted on trash. A Reverend, actually one of the gang, arrives to perform the ceremony. The party is nearly dispersed by the arrival of a special guest, Macheath’s old army buddy, Jackie Brown, the High Sheriff of London. He and Macheath drink together and sing an old army tune, “The Cannon Song.” While Macheath makes maudlin comparisons to classical friendships such as Castor and Pollux and Hector and Andromache, Brown notices the wealth around him and grows pensive. Macheath has succeeded in life in a way that Brown has not. Before Brown leaves, Macheath confirms that Brown has kept his record clean at Scotland Yard. Finally, the gang displays the crowning glory of their stolen goods: a new bed. The scene closes with a cynical duet (“love will endure or not endure. . .”) between the newly “married” couple.
Scene Three takes place back at Peachum’s place of business, where Polly sings a song to her parents revealing her new marriage. Her parents are appalled that she has married a notorious criminal. A group of beggars enter, one complaining about the poor quality of his false stump. Peachum grouses about the beggar’s lack of professional deportment and then turns back to the problem of his daughter’s bad marital match. Peachum lands upon a solution: turn Macheath into the police, get him hanged, and earn a forty-pound ransom at the same time. The family sings a trio on “The Insecurity of the Human Condition” containing the refrain “The world is poor and man’s a shit.” Then, Peachum exits to bribe Low-Dive Jenny to betray Macheath to the police.
Scene Four (the scenes are numbered sequentially through the whole play) takes place in the stable, now Polly and Macheath’s home. Polly begs Macheath to flee, because she has witnessed Brown succumbing to her father’s threats; Macheath will be arrested. Macheath puts Polly in charge of the accounts and preps the gang for the upcoming coronation, a huge business opportunity for thieves and beggars. Macheath departs. In an Interlude, Mrs. Peachum and Low-Dive Jenny step in front of the curtain to sing “The Ballad of Sexual Obsession” after Celia bribes Jenny with ten shillings to reveal Macheath’s whereabouts to the police.
Scene Five takes place at the whorehouse in Highgate. It is Thursday, the day Macheath normally visits but the proprietor and the whores don’t expect him; they are ironing, playing cards, or washing. Macheath enters and cavalierly throws his warrant for arrest on the floor. Jenny offers to read his palm, predicting treacherousness at the hand of a woman whose name begins with “J.” Macheath makes a joke of it, as Jenny slips out a side door. As Macheath sings “The Ballad of Immoral Earnings,” Jenny can be seen beckoning to Constable Smith. She joins in a duet with Macheath, describing her battered life with him. As they end, Constable Smith takes Macheath away to the Old Bailey (the prison).
In Scene Six, Brown is wringing his hands at the Old Bailey, in fear that his buddy has been caught. Macheath enters, tied heavily in ropes and accompanied by six constables. Mac writes a check to Constable Smith in return for not applying handcuffs and sings “The Ballad of Good Living.” One of Macheath’s lovers, Lucy, enters, too enraged by jealousy to care about Macheath’s fate. Polly then enters and the two women sing the “Jealousy Duet.” Macheath denies that he has married Polly, accusing her of masquerading to get pity. Mrs. Peachum comes to drag Polly away. Now Lucy and Macheath make up, and he elicits her promise to help him escape. He does so, but talks her out of going with him.
Mr. Peachum arrives to enjoy the sight of his triumph over Macheath, only to find Brown sitting in his cell. Peachum convinces Brown to go after Macheath or imperil his reputation. The lawman departs. The curtain falls, and Macheath and Low-Dive Jenny appear to sing the duet, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?,” the answers to which are: bestial acts and represssion.
Scene Seven opens on the Peachum Emporium in preparation for their grand plan of disrupting the coronation ceremony with “a demonstration of human misery.” This is a massive campaign: nearly fifteen-hundred men are preparing signs. The whores traipse in for their payoff, which Mrs. Peachum refuses to pay because Macheath has escaped. Jenny lets it slip that Macheath is with the whore Suky Tawdry, so Peachum sends word to the constables. Mrs. Peachum sings a stanza from “The Ballad of Sexual Obsession.” Brown enters and threatens to arrest the lot of the beggars, but Peachum blackmails him by insisting that they are busy preparing a song for the coronation. The boys sing “The Song of the Insufficiency of Human Endeavor.” As Brown disconsolately leaves to arrest Macheath, the curtain falls and Jenny sings a ballad about sexual urges.
Scene Eight takes place in the Old Bailey. Polly and Lucy compare notes on Macheath and befriend one another. Lucy hears a commotion and announces that Mac has been arrested again. Polly collapses, then changes into widows garb.
Scene Nine finds Macheath shackled and led by constables into his death cell. The police are worried that his hanging will draw a bigger crowd than the coronation. Smith is willing to help Macheath escape for one thousand pounds, but Macheath cannot get his hands on his money. Brown comes in to settle his accounts with Mac. Through all of this, visits from Lucy, Polly, Peachum, the gang, and the whores, Mac is notably casual about his impending doom. He sings a song asking forgiveness and proceeds to the gallows. Peachum presides, but his speech begins as a eulogy and ends as an announcement that Brown has arrived on horseback to save Mac. Brown announces that because of the coronation, Mac has been reprieved and raised to peerage. They cheer, sing, and the bells of Westminster ring.
The unnamed Ballad Singer serves as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting and explaining the play’s action as it unfolds. He opens the story with a grotesquely playful tale of Mac the Knife, an actual historical character who murdered prostitutes in London. Although John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (the source material for Brecht’s work) included ballads about the thieves in his dramatic world, the songs were not as outrageous as those sung by Brecht’s narrator—a credit to the musical talents of Brecht and his composer, Kurt Weil. Throughout The Threepenny Opera, the Ballad Singer punctuates the action with distastefully mordant commentaries on the seamy action of the play, sung to a discordant tune. He sings the play’s best-known musical number “Moritat” (or “Theme from the Threepenny Opera”)—more commonly known as “Mac the Knife”—which was popularized by singer Bobby Darrin in 1959.
Sheriff Jackie Brown
Brown is the crooked High Sheriff who takes a portion of the beggars’ earnings in return for tip-offs about planned police raids. He is a long-time friend of Macheath, having served with him as a soldier in India. Brown attends Polly and Mac’s wedding and is taken aback by the wealth that surrounds his friend. When cornered by Peachum, who cites a list of Macheath’s crimes, Brown is forced to send Constable Smith out to arrest his former pal. He is a weak-willed and greedy man who expresses sorrow upon seeing Macheath in jail at the Old Bailey but nevertheless accepts the money from Peachum. Finally, as Macheath stands at the gallows, Brown rides up on horseback with a reprieve.
Lucy is the Tiger Brown’s daughter. Mac has been having an affair with Lucy, deceiving both his friend and Polly. Lucy appears to be pregnant—the father presumably Macheath—but she reveals to Polly that she has faked her pregnancy by stuffing a pillow under her dress. Lucy at first treats Polly with haughtiness but later agrees with Polly’s assertion that Macheath loves her more. Lucy finally befriends her lover’s wife.
Filch comes innocently enough into Peachum’s beggar’s outfitting emporium, hoping to obtain Peachum’s permission to beg on a certain street corner. Filch proves himself singularly unsuited for the career of begging, however, being naturally inclined to pity—he expresses guilt over accepting money from people.
With fellows such as Bob-the-Saw, Crook-fingered Jake, Jimmy, Matthew (or Matt of the Mint), Ned, Robert, and Dreary Walt, the Gang consists of thieves, cutpurses, prostitutes, pimps, and beggars. All of them are supplied costumes for the trade of begging by Mr. Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, and they forfeit a percentage of their earnings to Macheath, who uses the money as a payoff to Sheriff Brown for protecting their racket. There is no honor among these thieves; all are ready to turn on their brothers if it will buy them an evening of food and pleasure. They give stolen gifts to Mac and Polly at their wedding.
Kimball performs the impromptu wedding between Polly and Macheath. He is more than likely not a real priest, as he is also one of the thieving Gang.
Low-dive Jenny is a former lover of Mac’s and now just one of the whores of the gang. Like the Biblical character of Judas (who deceived his leader Jesus Christ), Jenny betrays Macheath. She pretends to read Macheath’s palm, hinting at a dismal future event, then she informs Constable Smith of the thief’s whereabouts.
Mac the Knife
A former war hero turned master thief, Macheath is the dark hero, the grotesque Christ figure of The Threepenny Opera. His name alludes to the murderer
- Brecht wrote The Threepenny Opera as a novel in 1934 (Dreigroschenroman, translated by Vesey and Isherwood as A Penny for the Poor, R. Hale, 1937; reprinted as Threepenny Novel, Grove, 1956); but it was his play that received the most attention. He revised the script for a 1931 film version to be more politically oriented than the original 1928 play script. The black and white German film (Die Dreigroschenoper with English subtitles), directed by G. W. Pabst and starring Antonin Artaud, is available on video from Embassy Home Entertainment.
- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) released a 1954 recording of Kurt Weil’s music for The Threepenny Opera.
- Marc Blitzstein revived The Threepenney Opera in the 1950s and his revision of the “Mack the Knife” song became a worldwide hit for singer Bobby Darrin.
- A 1989 film version, alternatively titled Mack the Knife, was released by Columbia. Directed by Menahem Golan, the film features Raul Julia as Macheath and rock star Roger Daltrey (of the Who) as the Ballad Singer.
Mac the Knife in Brecht’s play; he was merely an underworld criminal and womanizer in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. His mother-in-law, Mrs. Peachum calls him a horse-thief and a highwayman (one who robs travelers). Much like Brecht, Macheath is also a womanizer who conducts simultaneous affairs with a variety of women; he plays the attentive husband to Polly while also pursuing an affair with his friend Tiger’s daughter, Lucy.
Macheath is the kingpin of the beggar gang, a jaded criminal, and a slave to his “sexual urges.” He appears to pursue his lifestyle with little emotion or regret. He whistles nonchalantly when Polly reads him the list of charges the police have against him: “You’ve killed two shopkeepers, more than thirty burglaries, twenty-three hold-ups, and God knows how many acts of arson, attempted murder, forgery, and perjury, all within eighteen months. In Winchester you seduced two sisters under the age of consent.” Macheath’s only response to the entire list of charges is that he thought the girls were twenty.
His father-in-law, Peachum, turns Macheath over to the police to rid his daughter (as well as his own business interests) of him. In the father’s eyes, Macheath is not a desirable match. Despite facing a sentence of death for his crimes, Macheath is tough and practical, brusquely ordering Polly to watch over his interests. He accepts his fate like the soldier he once was, although he persists until the last minute in trying to bribe his way out of jail.
Polly’s mother and Peachum’s wife, Celia assists her husband at the emporium by bossing the beggars. She faints when she learns that Polly has married Macheath because she sees this as a good investment gone bad: In her mother’s eyes, Polly had the potential to be a society lady and could have raised the family’s status by marrying a wealthy man.
Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum
Peachum is the proprietor of “The Beggar’s Friend, Ltd.” He runs the begging in London like an efficient business, outfitting the beggars, training them to perfect their methods (especially the art of swindling suckers), and assigning them districts in which to work. Peachum, like Fagin in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, takes a percentage of each of the Gang’s earnings, slowly getting rich while his employees live hand-to-mouth. Peachum needs Polly around his business to attract customers with her good looks. This exploitation of his daughter’s charms is disrupted when she falls in love with Macheath, marrying the thief without her father’s permission. True to his greedy and ruthless ways, Peachum solves the problem by selling Macheath out to the police.
Polly is the daughter of the beggar king, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum. She is referred to by her father as “a lump of sensuality”—a fact that he shamelessly exploits to increase his business. Polly marries her lover, Macheath, in a makeshift ceremony in a stable. During the proceedings, she learns that Macheath has also been sexually active with Lucy.
When Lucy and Polly meet they accuse each other ruining their respective relationships with Macheath. They sing a duet in which they trade lines berating each other. While Polly and Lucy are very similar characters, it is Polly who prevails in a sustained union with Macheath. While she does not like her husband’s sexual promiscuity, she accepts it as a fundamental part of his nature.
Smith is the police officer who arrests Macheath, though he accepts a bribe to leave the handcuffs off. He later offers to help Macheath escape for a one-thousand pound bribe.
See Sheriff Jackie Brown
Betrayal and Moral Corruption
Like the “greatest story ever told,” the story of Jesus, the protagonist of The Threepenny Opera is betrayed by a former intimate. But there the similarity ends, or rather, diverts to mirrored opposites. Macheath is not a savior like Christ but a moral corrupter, not a paragon of virtue but a fountainhead of sin, not the archetypal human ideal but a base man of bestial instinct. In contrast to Jesus, he marries the woman with whom he has been sleeping in a stable rather than being born of a chaste woman in a stable. The wedding gown and gifts are not humble attire and ritual offerings but stolen goods.
Despite these oppositions to one of the best-known symbols of purity, Macheath is not a completely evil figure. He has some appeal, especially to the whores and women of low virtue. He is gallant in his way, cuffing his gang members for not displaying enough gentility to his new bride; he has courage—or at least disdain for his fate; and he has a loyal friendship with his army buddy Jackie Brown. He has a roguish charm but his personality is presented not as a role model but as a warning against the seductive quality of such a dishonest life.
Nor is Macheath the only false idol in the play. Peachum is in the business of guiding beggars to larger profits falsely earned in the name of charity. He preys upon the generosity of the public, justifying his use of false wounds and artificial limbs with his own twist on the biblical homily “Give and it shall be given unto you.” Peachum argues that people are jaded and must be prodded to charity by ever newer and more ghastly representations of poverty. Yet the proprietor takes a whopping fifty percent of his beggars’ earnings, betraying the very purpose of begging through his swindling.
Peachum also betrays his own daughter by having her new husband arrested. The whores are the chorus of this play, and they are as corrupt as the main characters. Low-dive Jenny (J as in Judas), a former lover of Macheath’s, betrays him for a handful of money, which she is denied when Macheath escapes. In fact, Macheath has escaped due to the betrayal of the jail guard, whom the robber king has bribed. Furthermore, the whores know Macheath has escaped, and effectively are betraying Peachum when they demand payment for a job that was not satisfactorily completed. The list could go on, including Jackie Brown, who seesaws morally as he wrestles with remaining loyal to Macheath versus saving his own reputation and livelihood. The ubiquity of the corruption and betrayal in The Threepenny Opera goes beyond social criticism to a kind of macabre, black humor.
Art and Experience
The purpose of Brecht’s plays (as they were originally staged by the author) was to create an experience that would force audiences out of their common perceptions of bourgeois theater (as merely a means of entertainment). His plays sought to instill a willingness to work for social change. Thus, ultimately, Brecht’s plays were designed as tools of moral and social propaganda, yet they strangely lack what most propaganda, by definition, carries with it: a design for a utopian social paradise that social reform might achieve. Brecht’s plays are largely pessimistic: they offer what biographer Martin
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Compare the plot of The Threepenny Opera with the plot of John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera. Macheath is more villainous in Brecht’s version, and Lockit (a Newgate prison chief in Gay’s play) has transformed into Jackie Brown, a corrupt sheriff and old army buddy of Macheath’s. Consider also the differences in language and staging. What is the significance of the changes Brecht made to Gay’s work?
- The “alienating effects” of Brecht’s staging have become standard fare in modern drama. Does this lessen their impact on contemporary audiences? Why or why not?
- Brecht was becoming a committed Marxist when he produced The Threepenny Opera. In his play, what evidence do you find of Marxist concepts such as dialectical materialism (that change occurs as problems are resolved through conflict), distrust in capitalism, and desire for a classless society?
- In the final scene, Brown enacts a “deus ex machina” ending by granting a pardon to Macheath at the last minute before his hanging. Such endings, where the hero is saved at the last minute, are common to drama, but seldom found in novels, short stories, or poems. Think of other deus ex machina endings and develop a theory of their significance in theatrical works.
Esslin chose as the subtitle to his book Brecht, a “choice of evils” rather than the choice between a right and a wrong way to live.
This aspect of Brecht’s work has garnered much critical attention and warrants further contemplation. In The Threepenny Opera, the opera format—already stretching the viewer’s sense of realism—is made even more alien through constant reminders of the artifice of the play. Placards announcing the events and songs, asides to the audience, and lyrics incongruent with the action disrupt and sully any positive sentiments being expressed. For example, when Brown and Macheath reminisce about their days in the army, the ditty they sing cynically celebrates the fate of all soldiers to be chopped into tartar (ground meat). When Peachum complains about his lot in life, he sings that God has humankind in a trap that is a “load of crap.” In both cases, what might be profound social commentary is turned into a sick joke. In places, Brecht does address seriously the social ills he wants his audience to face and be moved to change. But he does not offer answers or a rectifying course of action. Rather than offer pat solutions to complex social problems, Brecht forces the spectator to ponder these issues and arrive at their own remedy.
Opera or Musical?
An opera is a play that contains music (instrumental and/or vocal) as well as dialogue, and the music is just as important to the piece as is the action and spoken words of the characters. The style of singing is known as recitative, which means that the sung words are slightly modified from normal speech, just enough to make them melodic. In operas, the characters sing in the recitative mode during the action of the drama, occasionally launching into a more definitive song, during which the action temporarily stops. It is not a true opera if the lines are spoken instead of sung.
In a musical, the players do not sing their lines but rather speak them normally. The players do, however, break into song and dance at certain points in the play. The action is punctuated by these musical interludes. In an opera, the songs are somewhat more integrated into the recitative singing in the rest of the drama (for the most part, the vocal activity in opera takes the form of singing). In addition, the artistry of an opera lies in the virtuoso singing performances of the performers, not in their qualities as actors or dancers. By contrast, the songs of a musical, while they may showcase the musical abilities of the actors and actresses, are not the raison d’etre (justification for existence) of the musical. The musical is a composite of song, dance, music, and drama in which each element contributes equally. In some cases (particularly cinematic musicals) one performer will record or “dub” the vocals while an actor (who may have no musical ability but can act) performs the speaking parts and lip-synchs to the pre-recorded singing. This practice would be unheard of in an opera, where the performance of the singers is paramount.
Following these guidelines, The Threepenny Opera is an opera in name only; its form of spoken and sung vocal parts defines it as a musical not a traditional opera. The musical was an American invention of the early twentieth century, a natural outgrowth of vaudeville, in which unrelated acts of singing, dance, jazz, juggling, mime, and stunts were performed. American musicals were pure entertainment. Jazz music and the “cabaret” style of entertainment were hugely popular in Germany during the 1920s. Brecht transformed the musical comedy and cabaret music into an instrument of satire, which is not unlike what John Gay did with opera when he wrote The Beggar’s Opera in 1728.
Gay fused together a satire on Italian opera (the form which is most commonly identified with the definition of opera) and the common ballad that had been popular on London streets for many decades. Thus, his invention was called a ballad opera. The ballad opera took the music from familiar ballads and set new words to them, incorporating dozens into the fabric of a loose plot. Gay’s work playfully ridicules the pretensions of society, aristocracy, and Italian opera. Brecht, on the other hand, intended his play to effect actual social change, but the extraordinary music by Kurt Weill led many viewers to perceive the work as entertainment.
Epic theater (sometimes called “open” theater) was the unique invention of Brecht. He designed epic theater as a “dialectical” (educational) experience: to deviate from the theater’s base goal of entertainment to turn the spectator into a judge. Brecht’s drama is designed to stir the audience into action. He attempts to accomplish this by disrupting the viewer’s passive stance toward the play in order to generate a mode of “complex seeing,” wherein the viewer follows the action, but also thinks about the construction of the play and the fabrication of its
characters at the same time. Brecht wanted to develop the viewer’s critical consciousness, the part of the observing mind that holds the drama at arm’s length and judges not the action of the story but the reasons for presenting the characters.
Brecht frustrates the viewer’s usual passive stance toward the drama in a number of ways. One is through the performers’ direct asides to the audience, where the character steps out of action momentarily to address the audience with his or her own observations about the proceedings. For example, Peachum asks the audience “what’s the use” of touching Biblical sayings if people are going to become jaded by them. The songs also serve to disrupt a complacent reading of the story, because they amplify or deny the themes presented by the action. The song Macheath and Polly sing after their wedding is a stinging cynical commentary that taints any shred of romanticism in the couple’s marriage ceremony when it says that “love will endure or not endure / no matter where we are.”
Although Brecht’s ideas about theater had a profound influence on later playwrights, his immediate effect on audiences was not as successful. Spectators sometimes developed empathy for his characters in spite of his “alienating” techniques. This initial failure was due in large part to Weill’s music, which many theatergoers found alluring; the intoxicating music often gave viewers the impression that the play’s events were a fantasy and thus removed from their own world. Critics have also pointed to the characters’ rakishly amusing behavior, the love story—albeit twisted—between Macheath and Polly, and Macheath’s happy ending as reasons for audiences to misinterpret the play as light entertainment.
Germany After World War I
Just prior to World War I, Germany, more dramatically than any other country in Europe was undergoing a transformation from an agrarian economy to an urban, industrial economy. An abundance of wealth, generated by a more productive work force, contributed to a growing sense of national power. Thus Germany magnanimously offered unlimited aid to Austria-Hungary when it came into conflict with the Balkans, portions of which it was attempting to overtake. Out of this conflict arose World War I.
Germans believed that they had the manpower and the technological superiority to put a quick end to the conflict. They did not bargain, however, for the involvement of Germany’s greatest European rivals, and after three years of bitter losses, Germany suffered utter defeat at the hands of the Allied forces (Russia, France, Great Britain, and towards the end of the war, the United States).
German leader Kaiser Wilhem II, after forcing the more politically astute Chancellor Bismarck to resign, had aggravated European politics to the point where Germany faced a hopeless two-front war against the countries (France and Russia) that enjoined its East and West borders. The arrogant sense of honor with which most Germans initially undertook the battle to back neighboring Austria-Hungary was completely overturned by the time that the German republic’s representatives were forced to sign a humiliating treaty at Versailles, France, in 1919. This treaty was signed in the same Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles where Germany had in 1871 forced France to accept a humiliating treaty ending the Franco-Prussian War.
The financial demands (Germany was forced to pay $31 billion in war reparations), the emotional price of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, the decimation of the country’s civilian and military population, and the crippling of its newly developed industrial machine seriously compromised Germany’s ability to repay the war debt or to reestablish its economy until, in 1924, an American businessman arranged for the United States to loan money to the faltering republic. Thereafter the spiraling inflation of the immediate postwar years and accompanying sense of pessimism and bitterness at having lost the war, was quickly followed by a period of heady economic growth and hedonism constrained by a clinging and pervasive sense of shame. The sharp decline and sudden rebound of the economy only served to exacerbate existing class conflicts.
During Germany’s involvement in the war, Brecht had avoided conscription for a time but finally had to serve as an orderly in an army hospital in 1916. His experience left an indelible cynicism about the effectiveness of armed combat. He found solace in the ideas of Karl Marx’s 1848 Communist Manifesto, as did other German Social Democrats. This political party envisioned a classless society as a solution to the ills of capitalism and the remnants of feudalism inherent in Germany’s political system. Brecht, along with other writers and artists of the period, produced Expressionist works that captured the revulsion of newly converted pacifists. While recognizing the moral obligation to effect social change, these artists also felt deeply the horrors of war, and the conflicting feelings were expressed in emotionally charged works of drama, literature, and perhaps most effectively, painting. Brecht’s plays continued to explore the gut-wrenching choices that faced Germany as it proceeded toward the rise of the Third Reich (Adolf Hitler’s Germany) and its second great defeat in World War II.
Out of the increasing hedonism that followed Germany’s defeat in World War I sprung the cabaret culture, a nightclub scene that came to personify German decadence. Adopting a nihilist philosophy (one that posits that life is ultimately meaningless), young Germans would indulge in excessive drinking, carousing, and sex. Believing that an individual’s actions made little difference whether a temperate or libertine lifestyle was followed, they indulged their every whimsy. Both in accordance with this philosophy and in reaction to it, a wealth of arts arose, notably the music of composers such as Kurt Weill and writers such as Brecht.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1920s: Germany transforms from pre-war optimism to a state of cynicism and violent class conflict in a matter of less than ten years. Political, economic, and social turmoil plunges Germans into a state of psychological shock, as evidenced in “Black Expressionist” art and in plays and literature expressing similar feelings of pessimism and bitterness.
Today: The 1990 tumbling of the Berlin Wall (erected in 1961 to further defend the political demarcation between East Germany and West Germany following Hitler’s defeat in World War II), marks a new era of unity for Germany.
- 1920s: Class conflict exacerbated by the war and rampant inflation make the country ripe for the rise of Hitler’s “Third Reich” and its promise of a new society.
Today: Germany holds a strong position in the world economy as well as the respect of fellow members of the United Nations.
- 1920s: Naturalist or Realist theater predominates in German drama. Brecht and others rebel against naturalism hoping to replace the “theater of illusion” with a theater for thinking and social change.
Today: Like theater in the United States, Brecht’s previously daring dramatic frameworks, characters addressing the audience directly, and open, symbolic rather than realistic staging and costumes are standard fare in German drama. While no longer shocking, these techniques are still effective ways of preventing theatergoers from viewing the production passively; modern theatergoers expect to be made to think.
Decadence would continue to influence German arts throughout the twentieth century. The concept pervades the literary works of such authors as Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice) and filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Marriage of Maria Braun) and Werner Herzog (Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo).
A study of the critical reception of Brecht’s plays must include references to his political and aesthetic ideology. More so than with most playwrights, it was Brecht’s dynamic personality that generated his reputation. His charisma as a director and thinker made him the leader of a faithful group of artists and intellectuals.
Brecht had three opportunities with which to establish his notoriety under the adverse condition of being on the side of the wrong political party. In Germany prior to the Nazi takeover, he supported the Socialist Democrats; in the United States, he actively supported communism during the height of the McCarthy era (Senator Joseph McCarthy headed the hearings on Un-American Activities designed to root communism out of American society); upon his return to East Germany, he criticized the communists, once again embracing the ideals of a classless society as promoted by Socialist Democracy. Through all of this, Brecht’s very peculiar form of drama elicited ever-widening circles of interest, first among the international intellectual elite, and then, slowly and inevitably, to a wider audience by way of his profound influence on other writers.
The Threepenny Opera opened at the Munich Schiffbauerdamm Theater on August 28, 1928. It ran there until Hitler banned it; early praise and the notoriety of the ban made Brecht an overnight success. The tunes were whistled on the street and a Threepenny Opera Bar opened in Berlin, featuring music exclusively from Brecht and Weill’s work. In 1933 the play was produced at New York’s Empire Theater, where it ran for a dismal twelve performances before closing. Audiences in the United States, beyond a small group of writers, artists, and avant-garde thinkers, would not recognize Brecht’ s genius for another thirty years.
Just as The Threepenny Opera was being produced in the main centers of culture across Europe (to considerable acclaim), Brecht was worrying about how he might survive at all, let alone write. He and a group of other writers persecuted by Hitler met frequently to decide where to go. By 1923, his works were on the Nazi “burn” list (Hitler frequently ordered any books that contradicted or undermined his philosophy to be destroyed), and his own safety was questionable. He fled to Vienna in 1933 and then to Denmark, where he published antifascist tracts. In 1939 he was forced once again to move, this time to Sweden and then almost immediately again to Finland, from where he obtained passage to the United States. Finland became an ally of Germany ten days after he left.
In 1941, after a long land trip across the Soviet Union, Brecht arrived in California, where he was virtually unknown. He proceeded to search for a market for his work, forming a circle of intellectual German refugees. He met Eric Bentley, then a graduate student of German who would later become a renowned drama critic. Bentley offered to translate his works; it was the beginning of a long and productive relationship. Actor Charles Laughton, himself quite an intellectual, also joined the playwright’s coterie, and by 1943, Brecht’s works were beginning to be produced in small but important avant-garde theaters. His work, however, earned no public acclaim and he had no Broadway productions during his lifetime, although several of his plays were big hits in New York during the 1960s.
Unfortunately for Brecht, the United States was going through a period of hysteria over the fear of communism. The House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed Brecht in 1947. The committee was snowed by Brecht’s charm and intellectualism. He affirmed that he had studied Karl Marx but only as a student of history, and he flatly denied his membership in the communist party. The committee let him go without further questioning. The result was a small leap in the popularity of his plays. In 1948 he returned to East Berlin and established there the Berliner Ensemble, which enjoyed the support of the intellectual elite in East Berlin and of audiences in the European cities where they visited.
In that troupe and in the work he did with his coterie of young German actors and writers, he left his indelible mark. Having left his country in exile, he had returned triumphant and remained so until he died in 1956. His political followers continued his penchant for attacking the establishment (now the communist regime in East Germany) after his death, while his literary successors still attribute their theatrical innovations to the ideas he planted with his own work.
Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina. In this essay she examines the social constructs of Brecht’s revisions to The Beggar’s Opera and how these revisions played into his political ideals.
When a writer revises and adapts an earlier work, as Bertolt Brecht did with John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), they make revisions that are consistent with a particular aesthetic and ideology. These shifts are part and parcel of the thinking of that writer’s age—an attempt to bring the older work into a contemporary frame and make it meaningful to modern audiences. For example, some late-twentieth-century adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet emphasize the tangled feelings between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude, indicating this age’s acceptance of Freudian Oedipal concepts (sexual attraction between mother and son). Much of the criticism written on The Threepenny Opera has centered on Brecht’s modifications to Gay’s staging: the asides to the audience, the placards announcing events, the songs that belie the often somber action taking place, and the harsh white lighting (elements identified with “epic theater”). However, Brecht also made small but significant changes to the storyline itself and these changes reveal his ideological leanings.
The Beggar’s Opera is about Macheath, a smalltime criminal who marries one of his mistresses while continuing his relationships with other women. Two of the women in his life, his wife, Polly, and lover Lucy, discover each other and vie for the right to claim him. As a way to rid himself of an unprofitable
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- John Gay’s 1728 comic opera, The Beggar’s Opera was Brecht’s source material and offers a good source for comparison. The differences between the two works illustrate the ideologies of the authors who produced them.
- Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and The Trial give an imaginative sense of the futility and nameless anxiety of the pre-World War I years in Europe. For a British perspective, T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” (1922) expresses a sense of spiritual vacuity, with imagery recalling the devastation of World War I.
- The 1972 film Cabaret directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, and Michael York presents a vivid and compelling picture of the hedonism, decadence, and spiritual longings of post-World War I Germany (circa 1931) in which Hitler began his ascent to power.
- Brecht had a profound influence on the literary artists who succeeded him. His epic theater gave rise to the “theater of the absurd,” which takes his idea of alienation to a new realm. In Samuel Beckett’s 1952 Waiting for Godot (which Brecht had seen and to which he had planned to write another play in reply just before his death) four characters await salvation in the form of the arrival of Godot, who never appears; like Brecht, Beckett raises issues of expectation and fulfillment.
- Jean Genet’s 1956 play The Balcony is another modernist play; it is about a brothel that transforms into a law court, battleground, and a slum, while the characters undergo similar transformations.
- Harold Pinter’s 1957 drama The Birthday Party concerns the disruption of normal daily life by the bizarre and examines the sanctuaries that people build to protect themselves from reality. Pinter’s fragmented and illogical plot causes theatergoers to question their assumptions of “normality.”
match (he had previously used his daughter’s looks to attract customers to his business), Polly’s father turns Macheath in to the police. After a couple of escapes, Macheath is led to the gallows but receives a last minute reprieve (and considerable rewards) just before he is hung.
Brecht’s secretary (and one of the playwright’s own lovers), Elisabeth Hauptmann, translated Gay’s play into German for Brecht, who then added his inimitable stylistic changes. He transformed it into “epic theater,” but he changed more than the presentation. Gay’s version makes no reference to Jack the Knife, does not include a wedding scene, has no counterpart to Sheriff Jackie Brown, and makes only one tiny reference to the coronation.
Jack the Knife was a nickname for the London serial killer more commonly known as Jack the Ripper. Jack targeted prostitutes and was never caught. The victims were each knifed in a characteristic style, with precise, surgical wounds that led many to suspect the murderer was a doctor or had medical training. The story of Jack the Knife has fascinated and horrified the world. Numerous theories have been proposed to reconcile his grisly methods with a psychological make-up and motive. By shortening Macheath’s name to Mac and adding the words “the knife,” Brecht alludes to the famous serial killer and transforms Gay’s protagonist.
As he is revised by Brecht, Macheath of The Threepenny Opera is already a more ruthless criminal than Gay’s character. Yet the association with Jack the Ripper cloaks him with such an aura of dark menace that Gay’s Macheath pales in comparison. In The Beggar’s Opera, Macheath is a womanizer and a scoundrel but not a murderer. Both characters bribe their prison guard in hopes of escaping and
“THE THREEPENNY OPERA QUESTIONS THE SOCIAL LAWS THAT WERE LEADING GERMANS, INEVITABLY, TO A SECOND WORLD WAR.”
both go gallantly to the gallows when recaptured. But Brecht’s Macheath is cynical and jaded; murder and death are inescapable elements in his world, and he has learned to make peace with them. In The Threepenny Opera, he and his army buddy (now sheriff), Jackie Brown, sing a ditty about the inevitability of dying on the battlefield, of being chopped into human “tartar” by the enemy. They have seen the worst of war and they have made it into a joke. Mrs. Peachum says of Macheath, “There goes a man who’s won his spurs in battle / The butcher, he. And all the others, cattle.”
Macheath’s attitude towards war has its roots in Brecht’s personal military experience. He had done light duty as an army orderly during part of World War I, and he wrote poetry about the butchery of war. Macheath represents the macabre side of Brecht, who expresses his revulsion with war in grotesque poems that reek of forced machismo. His “The Legend of the Dead Soldier” tells of a corpse that is revived and re-enlisted with gruesome details—such as a canister of incense swinging over the marching cadaver to mask its putrid odor. Brecht’s experience was by no means unique, nor was it extreme—anti-war feelings such as his were pervasive throughout Europe. In his version of The Beggar’s Opera, Brecht has transformed Macheath into a member of the “lost generation” of the postwar years, like Brecht and his peers. The playwright revised the eighteenth-century play to address his era’s prevailing state of mind: numbed and cynical.
When Macheath states his nihilistic case in the “Ballad of Good Living”: “Suffering ennobles, but it can depress / The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” he spoke for a large majority of the European audiences who first viewed the play. This nihilist philosophy justifies licentiousness; Macheath has a “live for today” attitude that closely resembles the decadent cabaret world of Germany in the 1920s. In fact, the lighting, staging, songs, and music all evoke the atmosphere of cabaret. No wonder that Brecht’s early audiences loved the play instead of recognizing it as an admonishment to their bourgeois lifestyle.
Oddly enough, the connections to war and to Jack the Knife are made but not emphasized. In a way, Macheath is a lovable rogue whose vocation sometimes requires that he kill people, a career criminal who wants full credit for such acts as setting the Children’s Hospital on fire. At the end of the play he is reprieved and given a high station, a manor, and a generous pension. He is not unlike those leaders who had actually profited by the war while Germany as a whole was devastated; men who were made heroes for their battleground butchery.
In Brecht’s version of London’s criminal underworld, Macheath marries Polly on stage, whereas Gay had this event occur offstage. The ceremony is made into a travesty of traditional marriage, with its stolen bridal gown, furniture, and food, all taking place in an abandoned stable. The stable element recalls Jesus Christ, who was born in such a humble setting. Macheath, however, tries to transform this setting into a palace, fooling himself that he is surrounded by luxury and becoming irritated by any notice of failure.
None of the furniture matches, and the thugs saw off the legs of a harpsichord to use as a table. The former owners were innocent victims of Macheath’s bungling cohorts, who panicked while robbing the family and killed them. Polly cries, “Those poor people, all for a few sticks of furniture.” In another twisted allusion to the Bible, Brecht has Macheam dragging stolen tables into his sanctuary (Christ overturned tables in the temple). In war-devastated Germany, the sight of valuable household items being sullied by the incompetence of thieves would have been especially distressing.
Jackie Brown is another intriguing revision implemented by Brecht. Brown, in some ways, is even more despicable than Macheath, for he has no redeeming charisma or sexual charm, and he equivocates endlessly over whether or not to turn in his friend Macheath. The shifting tides of German politics and power during these years must have unearthed many such creatures, who were more determined to be on the winning side—insuring their own survival at any cost—than to maintain their integrity. It is Brown who arrives on horseback to announce Macheath’s gifts of a reprieve, elevation to peerage, castle, and a sizable annual pension
from the Queen; with his questionable moral fiber, Brown is the instrument of authority and a symbol of a corrupt system.
The final telling variation from the Gay version involves the coronation ceremony. Brecht has Peachum plan a demonstration of “human misery” to coincide with the royal proceedings. John Gay would not have dreamed of having a character in his play put on such a demonstration—the eighteenth century did not have such a phenomenon. But demonstrations staged by political parties were standard fare in twentieth-century Germany. As the labor party factions evolved and disputed, marches and rallies were held to garner support. A group of beggars staging a demonstration would burlesque a common occurrence in postwar Germany, with its continuing contention between socialist democracy (which would become fascism) and communism. Brecht’s comment upon this phenomenon seems to be that the political rallies are no more effective than a parade of “human misery” put on by the miserable themselves.
Brecht has been accused of failing to take a political stand in this play. Robert Brustein in his The Theatre of Revolt found The Threepenny Opera a complex of ambiguities that are never solved. The deus ex machina (“God from the machine”) he finds especially obscure: “With the whole play inverted, and the whole world seen from its underside, even Brecht’s positive affirmations seem to come out backwards.” Yet the final lines literally bespeak an ironic or sarcastic solution: spare injustice from persecution. Brown spares the unjust Macheath from persecution by arriving on horseback to grant him a reprieve, and goes one step further by ennobling and enriching the criminal.
Brecht is saying that Brown’s act, sanctioned by the highest authority in the land (the queen) makes no less sense than to allow any injustice to be tolerated. His ironic comment, along with the theatrical innovations of “epic theater” are designed to provoke the viewer to think; Brecht said that it “arouses his [sic] capacity for action, forces him to make decisions.” Brecht believed that humans adapted to the social settings in which they lived, that “social being determines thought.” Therefore, he adapted Gay’s eighteenth-century play to better portray the social milieu that he was questioning. He set the play in London to provide a comfortable thinking distance, to avoid the politicization of his German audience’s response. He wanted to appeal to his viewers’ rational side (not the empathic response) so that they could revise themselves and their society.
The social elements that Brecht inserts into the play—a ruthless criminal (and possible serial killer), a wedding of thieves, an unjust reprieve—zero in on the very societal flaws he urged his audiences to correct. Brecht explained why he included certain social structures: “The epic theatre is chiefly interested in the attitudes which people adopt towards one another, wherever they are socio-historically significant (typical). It works out scenes where people adopt attitudes of such a sort that the social laws under which they are acting spring into sight.” The Threepenny Opera questions the social laws that were leading Germans, inevitably, to a second World War.
Source: Carole Hamilton for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Bernard F. Dukore
Dukore points out several Biblical references in The Threepenny Opera, citing both obvious allusions and ones that are cloaked in metaphoric language. Of the latter, Dukore argues that there are numerous examples that compare the character Macheath to Jesus Christ.
Several critics have quoted Brecht’s statement that the work which made the greatest impression on him was the Bible. Although Martin Esslin discusses the biblical quality of Brecht’s language, and although Von Thomas O. Brandt cites a number of biblical quotations in Brecht’s plays (without, however, identifying their exact sources), Brecht’s use of the Bible has, so far as I have been able to discover, been given only cursory notice. In this article, I should like to examine biblical references in The Threepenny Opera.
Brandt refers to The Threepenny Opera’s“Bibelcollage”; his term is accurate. Following the Prologue, the play begins with the Bible-carrying Peachum singing a Morning Hymn and closes with a chorale that has a nagging resemblance to German Easter chorales. Not only are there such general biblical references as Judgment Day (Peachum’s opening song, 1, 1) and basking in divine grace (first-act finale), but there are numerous specific references as well. For example, Peachum (first-act finale) sings of the desirability of “Being given bread to eat and not a stone,” referring to Matthew, 7:9 (“Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?”). In I,1 there are such direct quotations as “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts, 20:35) and “Give and it shall be given unto you” (Luke, 6:38). And the famous “whither thou goest, I will go” from Ruth, 1:16 is referred to three times: by Mr. and Mrs. Peachum in their song in I, 1; by Polly when she introduces the duet with Macheath at the end of I, 2; and by Polly when she tells her parents of the friendship between Macheath and Tiger Brown in 1, 3.
However, the major biblical references are those which relate Macheath to Jesus. Martin Esslin has called attention to the biblical parody in Threepenny Opera, citing the betrayal of Macheath on a Thursday. This is not the only point of resemblance. Like Jesus, Macheath may be called “a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners” (Luke, 7:34). Very early in the play (I, 1) a link between them is made obliquely. When Mrs. Peachum learns that the man who has been courting Polly, and whom Polly intends to marry, is Macheath, she exclaims, in a double entendre whose significance she does not realize, “For God’s sake! Mackie the Knife! Jesus! Come, Lord Jesus, abide with us!” In the wedding scene too (I, 2) there is a hint at this connection. The beginning of the “new life,” as Polly calls it, between herself and Macheath, takes place in a stable. As soon as they enter he commands her to sit down on the crib (“Krippe,” which can be translated not only as “crib” but also as “manger”). Then Macheath’s gang bring gifts—stolen gifts, to be sure, but gifts nonetheless.
But the most significant parallels, as well as the most extended, concern the Crucifixion. Like Jesus, Macheath is betrayed on a Thursday. And he is betrayed by his own kind, his own people: Jenny and Brown. Jenny’s treachery is explicitly related to that of Judas: “A female Judas has the money in her hand,” Mrs. Peachum sings in III,1. Peachum resembles Caiaphas, for just as Peachum’s business is in danger of being taken over by Macheath (“He’d have us in his clutches. I know he would! D’you think your daughter would be any better than you at keeping her mouth shut in bed?” says Peachum in I,1), so was Caiaphas’ in danger of being superseded by Jesus’, and Peachum hires Jenny to betray Macheath, as Caiaphas paid Judas to betray Jesus. Moreover, it is to be inferred that Tiger Brown carries the role of Peter, for he—in effect—denies his friendship with Macheath. This is made explicit when Macheath is brought to jail in II,3:
BROWN (after a long pause, under the fearful gaze of his former friend). Mac, I didn’t do it. . . I did everything I could. . . don’t look at me like that, Mac. . . I can’t bear it. . . Your silence is too terrible. (Shouts at a policeman.) Don’t pull him with that rope, you swine! Say something, Mac. Say something to your old friend. . . Give him a word in his dark . . . (Rests his head against the wall and weeps.) He doesn’t think me worth even a word. (Exit.)
MACHEATH. That miserable Brown. That evil conscience incarnate. And such a creature is made commissioner of police. Lucky I didn’t bawl him out. At first I thought of doing something of the sort. But then I thought a good, piercing, punishing stare would send the shivers down his back. The idea found its mark. I looked at him and he wept bitterly. That’s a trick I got from the Bible.
The biblical passage to which Macheath refers in the last sentence may be Luke, 22:61-62.
And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.
And Peter went out, and wept bitterly.
Brown’s request for a word for his dark (state? place?—he does not complete the sentence) recalls a number of biblical passages in which a godly word lightens darkness. There is the famous
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.. . .
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. [John, 1; 1, 4–5]
There is also, for example, “Christ shall give thee light” (Ephesians, 5:14), and the prophecy of Jesus is spoken of “as. . . a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts” (2 Peter, 1:19).
In addition, Macheath, like Jesus, is to be executed on a Friday. The precise time is fixed: he is to be hanged at six o’clock (III,3). This was the hour when there came a darkness over the entire land that lasted until the ninth hour, at which time Jesus quoted the beginning of the twenty-second Psalm, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Macheath’s cry as he is about to be killed (III, 3)—“Beware lest you go down as well as he!”—is reminiscent of “Remember the word that I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John, 15:20). Finally, there is a biblical parallel to the circumstances during which Macheath is released. Matthew tells us (27:15) that during the feast of Passover “the governor was wont to release unto the people a prisoner, whom they would.” Macheath is pardoned by the Queen because it is Coronation Day.
“THERE IS NO VICARIOUS REDEMPTION, BRECHT IMPLIES. MACHEATH DOES NOT SAVE MANKIND BY HIS DEATH; HE DOES NOT PURCHASE REDEMPTION WITH HIS BLOOD. SALVATION—SOCIAL SALVATION—REMAINS TO BE ACHIEVED, PRESUMABLY BY THE AUDIENCE.”
In The Threepenny Opera we have a satiric retelling of the Crucifixion in a manner which is in harmony with other satiric thrusts in this play. Brecht brings onstage many familiar elements. But he presents them through an unfamiliar angle of vision (thus making them appear strange—“alienating” them, as it were) and in so doing calls them into question. For example, Macheath’s gang steal expensive furnishings and bring them to an empty stable (I, 2). Brecht could have had the gang break into an unoccupied mansion for the wedding ceremony. However, by making the furnishings stolen goods, Brecht calls into question the manner by which their “legitimate” owners acquired them. Similarly, by presenting the prostitutes as not unlike the respectable bourgeoisie—the stage directions at the beginning of II, 2 read: A brothel in Wapping. An ordinary early evening. The girls, mostly in their underclothes, are ironing, playing draughts, washing themselves; a peaceful bourgeois idyll.—he emphasizes by implication the prostitution underlying the business and domestic dealings of the bourgeoisie. And by having the crook Macheath confide to Polly that it is only a matter of weeks before he devotes himself exclusively to banking (II, 1) he calls into question the morality of the legal business of banking. Occasionally, this practice of casting a critical light on traditional values and attitudes is made explicit, as when Macheath asks (III, 3), “What is a picklock to a bank-share? What is the burglary of a bank to the founding of a bank? What is the murder of a man to the employment of a man?”
Relating the story of Macheath to the story of Jesus enables Brecht to use each to comment on the other. The actions of men under capitalism, Brecht appears to be saying, are direct reversals of the actions advocated by Jesus. We would all like to be good, Peachum sings in the first-act finale, but circumstances (presumably economic) prevent us. In III,1 he sings that man is not wicked enough for the (presumably capitalist) world we live in. And at the end of the play (III, 3) he reminds us that if you kick a man he will not turn the other cheek but will kick you back. The immoral Macheath is therefore a more appropriate god than the humane Jesus, for while we pay lip service to the code of conduct of Jesus, we actually follow the actions and subscribe to the code of conduct of Macheath. In addition, there is the implication that Brecht is mocking the concept of salvation through divine grace. By making his Christ-figure a scoundrel, he is deriding Christianity. I think that Brecht would want us to infer that social regeneration must precede individual, religious regeneration.
However, Brecht is not simplistic. The biblical parallel does not make this play a simple anti-religious document. There is one essential difference between Macheath and Jesus: Macheath is released, not executed. Certain aspects of the story of Macheath may parallel that of Jesus, but Macheath’s fate is—fittingly—the fate of Barrabas.
Macheath’s knife, so to speak, cuts both ways. Brecht’s mockery of religion is not a blanket condemnation of religious ideals. He may cast doubt on some biblical concepts, but he upholds others. Just as his Verfremdungseffekt does not banish emotion utterly but adds thought and detachment, so his Bible-chopping does not banish the Bible utterly. Brecht’s vision appears to me to be essentially a Christian vision: he would like a world in which man could be good to his fellow man, and in which survival would not necessitate—as his characters state in the second-act finale that it presently does—cheating, exploiting, and forgetting one’s humanity. However, such a world is not easily come by. When Brecht tells us, just before the arrival of the Mounted Messenger at the end of the play, that “in the whole of Christendom/There’s nothing granted free to anyone,” he is not making a cynically anti-Scriptural comment, but in fact the reverse, for the Bible offers numerous statements concerning the economics of redemption, e.g., “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made your overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts, 20:28) and “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission” (Hebrews, 9:22). There is no vicarious redemption, Brecht implies. Macheath does not save mankind by his death; he does not purchase redemption with his blood. Salvation—social salvation—remains to be achieved, presumably by the audience.
Source: Bernard F. Dukore, “The Averted Crucifixion of Macheath,” in Drama Survey, Volume 4, no. 1, Spring, 1965, pp. 51–56.
In this brief review, Clurman finds in The Threepenny Opera an appeal that audiences can trace to historic events such as the Great Depression as well as more personal themes such as regret and loss.
Kurt Weill’s and Bert Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera is a masterpiece; in its present production at the Theatre de Lys it very nearly misses fire. Such is the paradox of the theatre: the presentation is almost as much part of a play as the material itself.
The Threepenny Opera—called that because it is so oddly conceived that it might be a beggar’s dream and so cheaply done that it might meet a beggar’s budget—sums up a whole epoch and evokes a special state of mind. The epoch is not just the Berlin of 1919-1928; it is any epoch in which a lurid rascality combined with fierce contrasts of prosperity and poverty shapes the dominant tone of society. The state of mind is one of social impotence so close to despair that it expresses itself through a kind of jaded mockery which mingles a snarl with tears. Such in a way was the England of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), from which the Brecht “book” derives, and certainly the Germany which preceded Hitler. No wonder the one period produced Hogarth and the other George Grosz.
We do not live in such a time—though people who remember the depression days between 1930 and 1935 will appreciate the mood of The Threepenny Opera most readily—but it makes the mood irresistibly present and, strangely enough, induces us to take it to our hearts with a kind of pained affection. There is, despite the sharp sense of period that permeates it, a universal quality in The Threepenny Opera. It fosters a bitter sense of regret that we live so scabbily in relation to our dreams and also a kind of masochistic attachment to our wounds, as if they were all we have to show as evidence of our dreams.
This effect is achieved through Brecht’s brilliant lyrics rendered with remarkable intuitive insight and witty skill in Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation—and through the one score Weill composed which places him on the level of an Offenbach. What bite and tang, what insidious irony, in the clean thrusts of Brecht’s verses; what economy and lightness in Weill’s songs and orchestration! How poignant is the sullied lyricism of this work with its jeering bathos, its low-life romanticism, its sweetly poisonous nostalgia, its musical profanity, and its sudden hints of grandeur, godliness, and possible greatness! Here in contemporary terms and with a strange timelessness is the ambiguous, corrupt seduction of a submerged half-world akin to that which Francois Villon sang of long ago.
How disappointing, then, to have so unique a work—acclaimed practically everywhere since its premiere in 1928—reduced to a minor event by so ill-prepared a performance as the one we now see! Except for Lotte Lenya, who appeared in the original production, the cast ranges from the amateurish to the adequate. Lenya’s nasally insinuating whore is superb for its incisiveness and triple-threat innuendo. But the fault is not the actors’—most of whom could do much better—but the director’s. Everything seems labored and awkward instead of sprightly and bright. The miracle is that the inherent superiority of the material survives all hazards.
Source: Harold Clurman, “The Threepenny Opera,” in his Lies like Truth: Theatre Reviews and Essays, Macmillan, 1958, pp. 113-15.
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Esslin, Martin. Brecht: The Man and His Work, Anchor Books, 1960.
Esslin, Martin. Bertold Brecht, Columbia University Press, 1969.
“KURT WEILL’S AND BERT BRECHT’S THE THREEPENNY OPERA IS A MASTERPIECE.”
Gray, Robert D. Brecht the Dramatist, Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Willett, John. Brecht in Context: Comparative Approaches, Methuen, 1984.
Williams, Raymond. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, Hogarth Press, 1987.
Witt, Hubert. Brecht: As They Knew Him, International, 1974.
Bentley, Eric. The Brecht Memoir, PAJ Publications, 1985.
Bentley was Brecht’s first English translator. In this book he chronicles his experiences working with the paradoxical playwright, generally concluding that despite Brecht’s oddities and personal failings, he was a genius.
Brustein, Robert. The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to Modem Drama, Little, Brown, 1962.
Brustein presents the thesis that modern theater consists of a rebellion against the classical norm wherein plays uphold a sense of community or communion. By contrast, the theater of revolt seeks not to reinforce community values to but to question and overturn them.
Esslin, Martin. Brecht: A Choice of Evils, Methuen, 1985.
Esslin has written three major treatments of Brecht. This one explains the dualities in his plays and in his nature, emphasizing that Brecht presented no transcendent Utopia but exposed the evil in both sides of political and social issues.
The Threepenny Opera
The Threepenny Opera ★★ Die Dreigroschenoper; L'Opera De Quat'Sous; Beggars' Opera 1931
A musical about the exploits of gangster Mack the Knife. Adapted from Bertolt Brecht's play and John Gay's “The Beggar's Opera.” In German with English subtitles. 107m/B VHS . Rudolph Forster, Lotte Lenya, Carola Neher, Reinhold Schunzel, Fritz Rasp, Valeska Gert, Ernst Busch; D: G.W. Pabst; W: Ladislao Vajda, Bela Balazs, Leo Lania; C: Fritz Arno Wagner; M: Kurt Weill.