Themes and Meanings
The Threepenny Opera is about the values of the bourgeoisie. The criminals in Brecht’s play ape the values and conventions of the middle class. Like prostitution, begging and theft are depicted as businesses. The thief Macheath, a sort of gang chieftain, is in business, bolstered by an army friendship, with the High Sheriff; the business of begging is organized by types of begging and districts by the Peachums; and, overlaid by the sentimentality of melodrama, the society depicted is a recognizable analogue, reinforced by ceremonies and dramatic situations of comedy, to “respectable” middle-class society.
Beyond merely making of this material a pleasant revue using popular music, as John Gay did, to spoof the posturings of the middle class, Brecht has his mock-opera satirize the audience’s values, propagandizing against the decadence of capitalism. Not that his works espoused a particular course of political action—on that suspicion Brecht, a refugee from Nazi Germany to the United States, once found himself called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Rather, these productions put the comfortable platitudes of the middle class into the mouths of the villains of melodrama.
The themes—poverty, the exploitation of the poor, the hypocrisy of prostitution, of law enforcement, and indeed of capitalism—reverberate like harsh music through the old plot structure of boy meets girl, parents persecute boy, boy escapes. Brecht uses that formula as a criticism on itself. In scene after scene, as in the wedding reception, the juxtaposition of the criminal context and the middle-class event holds the criminals up for sympathy; the middle class, to ridicule.
Marriage, adolescent rebellion, parental control, middle-class values, friendship, legal ethics, sexual behavior—none of these subjects is the sole theme of this complex drama. Even theater itself is held up for examination as a political statement in support of the power structure.