Following the plot of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr. 1728), Bertolt Brecht’s very different play traces the marriage of Polly Peachum to the notorious criminal Macheath, her father’s attempt to dissolve the union by turning Mac in, and Mac’s last-minute reprieve. Nominally divided into nine scenes spread over two acts, in fact the play is an episodic drama interrupted by songs (of which “Mac the Knife” is best known), by signboards suspended above the stage, by “interludes,” and by three “finales.” To gain a sense of it, one must suspend ordinary notions of realistic drama and enter into the spirit of what Brecht called epic theater.
The play begins with a prologue: a street scene in Soho, London’s red-light district. As the Ballad Singer sings “Mac the Knife,” beggars, thieves, and whores ply their trades with Mac appearing for a moment at the end, announced by Low-Dive Jenny. Act 1 opens in Peachum’s outfitting shop for beggars. He sings a parody “morning hymn” before cynically describing his business: charging beggars for their outfits and regulating where they can beg. As a beggar new to the game, his current customer, Filch, is being set up in the begging racket. As she prepares Filch’s outfit, Mrs. Peachum talks with her husband about their daughter, Polly, who is becoming romantically involved with Mac the Knife, to Mr. Peachum’s ire, and Mrs. Peachum’s pleasure. They discover that Polly has not been home all night and sing the “No They Can’t” song, the parents’ lament for romantic notions that leave the lovers “up to their arses in shit.”
Scene 2 shifts to a stable in Soho where Mac is celebrating his marriage to Polly. His gang members—Crook-Fingered Jake, Bob the Saw, and the rest—report in to Mac, explaining how they stole the furniture for the wedding reception. Putting on the airs of a bourgeois gentleman, Mac barks at his gang about their manners and flatters Polly with elaborate courtesy. Members of the Gang saw the legs off a harpsichord for the wedding table. Generally speaking, their antics burlesque middle-class weddings. Mac’s violence is near the surface, ready to leap out at his followers, whose fancy dress cannot conceal their barbaric manners. For entertainment, three of the gang sing the “Wedding Song for the Less Well-Off.” Polly returns the favor by singing “Pirate Jenny,” the chilling ballad of a barmaid whose pirate lover sails into the city, besieges it, and carries out her orders to behead everyone. Next the Reverend Kimball and Tiger Brown, the Sheriff, honor the groom with their presence. Brown and Mac celebrate their long friendship with the “Cannon Song,” a rousing satire on the kinship of the British colonial soldiers who chop “men of a different color” into “beefsteak tartare.” The scene ends with the revelation of the Gang’s wedding present: a bed for Mac and Polly, who end the scene with a romantic exchange that echoes the Peachums’ sarcastic parody in “No They Can’t.”
A sign reading to peachum, aware of the hardness of the world, the loss of his daughter means utter ruin marks the beginning of scene 3. In the “Barbara Song,” Polly sings to her parents about her yielding to Mac, the man without manners to whom she could not say no. They are upset that she has married a “notorious criminal.” Then a beggar enters, complaining that he does not have a proper stump. Peachum urges that Polly divorce Mac for his money. Overheard by Polly, Mr. and Mrs. Peachum plot to turn Mac in, proclaiming (against Polly’s belief) that Mac can be apprehended where he always is, “holed up with his tarts.” Polly thinks Mac’s friendship with Tiger Brown will protect him. To close the scene, she joins her parents in singing the...
(The entire section is 1559 words.)