Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

by Bertolt Brecht

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Themes and Meanings

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Most critics agree that Bertolt Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny serves as a satire of capitalist society. (It is well known that Brecht had begun reading Karl Marx’s writings during the time he was working on this play.) Brecht appears to be particularly critical of capitalist society’s obsession with money, its shallowness, and its hypocrisy, which are most evident in a contemporary urban setting. People’s greed and selfishness ultimately lead to their dehumanization and alienation from fellow human beings.

Brecht’s criticism is aimed at the rich and the arrogant who believe that money can buy pleasure. In his play, he demonstrates how money brings only unhappiness and loneliness; the “friends” Paul buys—Jenny, Heinrich, and the men for whom he buys drinks—abandon him when he needs them. Although Jenny and Heinrich proclaim their loyalty toward Paul, they refuse to pay for his release from prison.

Kurt Weill, Brecht’s collaborator and the composer of his songs, claimed that Mahagonny was an international city and that the American names suggest not America per se but a mythical America. Nevertheless, some interpreters have viewed the play as a critique of American society; they point to the American location, the whiskey, the poker table, the song about the moon of Alabama, and the electric chair as proof that Brecht deliberately wished to criticize American urban life. Some have even interpreted Mahagonny as a metaphor for Las Vegas. Others have perceived the play as a critique of the chaotic and immoral Weimar Republic, particularly Berlin of the 1920’s with its rampant prostitution, unstable government, political corruption, and economic crises.

In his notes on the play, Brecht himself claimed that it was intended to have a provocative effect. By exposing the ills of society, it would cause people to become aware of a need for change and would incite social reform. He points out, for example, that the glutton stuffing himself to death brings to mind the starvation of others.

Several critics have observed the biblical references in the play. They view the approaching hurricane as alluding to the biblical theme of divine retribution and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. What is typically Brechtian, however, is the inversion of this theme: Mahagonny is spared, and Paul’s reminder of God’s existence falls on deaf ears. People, not God, destroy themselves and their cities. Some have even interpreted Paul as a modern-day Job or a Christ figure. His request for water before his execution supports the latter hypothesis. Moreover, as the people of Mahagonny carry his corpse through the streets, they speak of getting vinegar for the dead man, an allusion to an event that occurred when Christ was on the cross. However, Paul, unlike Christ, does not prove to be a powerful leader. Again, Brecht could be saying that there is no place for a Christ figure in contemporary society because he, like God, no longer exercises any power over humankind. This attitude is consistent with the Marxist perspective Brecht espoused, which claims that the afterlife is an illusion, that God does not exist, and that human beings have only the here and now. In summary, the biblical references can be understood as ironic: They are meaningless remnants of an older civilization, obsolete in contemporary society.

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