The Threepenny Opera

by Bertolt Brecht

Start Free Trial

How does Brecht explore societal corruption and human brutality in "The Threepenny Opera"?

Quick answer:

Brecht sought through his plays to expose the contradictions of capitalism. The Threepenny Opera is a satirical work that uses humor and irony to attack bourgeois society's corrupt institutions as well as its injustices and inequalities. The play attacks capitalism because the musical plot indicates an alliance between crime and capital, which Brecht views as two sides of the same corrupt coin.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Because the primary theme of The Threepenny Opera is the underlying corruption of society, many auxiliary themes that spin off the main one could generate appropriate thesis statements for an effective analysis. Rather than see stable government as the backbone of orderly society, Brecht effectively shows all social institutions as...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

outgrowths of inequality and injustice. The police and the criminals are mirror images of each other, with no significant distinctions.

In the opera, the anti-hero Macheath, a gangster, has equal doings with Police Chief Brown and Beggar Commander Peacham, and he also has romantic relationships with both of their daughters and another with a prostitute. Macheath's arrest and imminent execution on trumped-up charges (though he is almost certainly guilty of many other crimes) structure the plot, with a counterpoint provided by Queen Victoria's coronation. His upcoming marriage to Polly Peacham, likewise, is reduced to a parody of bourgeois respectability, as every item for the nuptials and reception is acquired by theft.

While all this may sound as bleak as a Greek tragedy, the work is filled with mordant humor. Indeed, insisting on humor is one of Brecht's strengths. Mocking—not just critiquing—society's ills shapes the often absurd plot twists.

The opera is an indictment of capitalism, as the mordant humor of the final scenes shows. A dishonorable alliance of crime and capital is the outcome, as the former cop and two crooks team up in order for all three to become capitalists in the form of bankers, which, in Brecht's portrayal, are the worst kind of criminals.

Regarding Brecht's purposes, some historical research would be helpful on the context of when and where it was written (Berlin in the late 1920s, although it is set in London a century earlier). A communist, he was witnessing the rise of Nazism in his home country of Germany and hearing of Stalin's excesses in Russia. Brecht soon fled Hitler's regime for the United States, which was gripped by the Depression.

Further, this specific play can be contextualized in two related but different ways: within Brecht's other, roughly contemporary works and in relation to his principles of epic theater. The opera's strong female characters, especially Jenny, prefigure the central one in his masterpiece, Mother Courage. In this play, music and song—Kurt Weill's remarkable compositions—are key to creating atmosphere and simultaneously critiquing social ills at all scales.

Approved by eNotes Editorial