Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny Analysis

Bertolt Brecht

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

At the beginning of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, an old truck carrying three fugitives from the law, Leocadia Begbick, Trinity Moses, and Willy (also known as Fatty) the Bookkeeper, breaks down in the middle of a desert in the American West. Although they intended to become rich by prospecting for gold, presumably on the West Coast, they decide that it would be simpler and more lucrative to build a city and lure rich prospectors into their town with liquor and women. Mahagonny, which is erected in a couple of weeks, attracts Jenny Smith from Oklahoma and six other prostitutes. Eventually, men from big cities begin arriving at the “city of nets” to experience what they have heard to be a paradise.

Among the new arrivals are four lumberjacks from Alaska: Paul Ackermann, the main character (also known as Jim MacIntyre, Jim Mahoney, or Jim Mallory in some versions), and his three friends Jacob Schmidt (Jack O’Brien), Heinrich Merg (Bank Account Bill), and Joseph Lettner (Alaska Wolf Joe). They meet Leocadia Begbick, who introduces them to her “girls”; Paul decides to take Jenny after Jacob finds her too expensive. Soon, however, the city finds itself in a crisis: Inflation and the rising crime rate cause people to leave in alarming numbers. Even Paul considers moving on, because he does not feel completely satisfied with his new life. He senses that something is missing, but his friends persuade him to stay.

In the next scene, the four men, along with others, are drinking and smoking in front of the Hotel of the Rich Men. Signs surround them forbidding them to sing obscene songs and make noise. Again, Paul expresses his misgivings about staying in the city, because it is too quiet and boring. News of an approaching hurricane, however, disturbs their daydreams and frightens the town’s inhabitants. Only Paul relishes the upcoming storm, because it will bring some change, even if it is in the form of destruction, into his monotonous life. Begbick senses the danger in his attitude and warns, “Fierce is the hurricane/ Fiercer still is the typhoon/ But the worst of all is man.” Taking advantage of the situation, Paul invites the people of Mahagonny to do whatever they wish. An arrow on a large map visible in the background marks the hurricane’s course toward Mahagonny. Just as the...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Bertolt Brecht combines opera with elements from his epic theater, cabaret, and vaudeville. In his notes on the work, he dubbed it a “culinary opera” that both gives pleasure and educates. It not only embraces a “hedonistic approach” but also provokes the audience to question accepted conventions and to become aware of “the irrationality of the operatic form.” In particular, he observes that “the irrationality of opera lies in the fact that rational elements are employed, solid reality is aimed at, but at the same time it is all washed out by the music. A dying man is real. If at the same time he sings, we are translated to the sphere of the irrational.”

Brecht produced an opera “with innovations” by employing some of the techniques of his epic theater. One significant innovation is the “separation of elements” of the opera. Instead of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk (integrated work of art) in which the music, words, and setting are fused together, a technique that draws in the audience and makes them part of the musical production, he separated the various elements. Consequently, he makes the spectators aware of the opera as a contrived work of art. The distance achieved between the production and the spectators allows them to observe and reflect upon the message of the artwork.

Brecht’s text and Weill’s music most clearly demonstrate the didactic role of the epic opera. The playwright claimed that “the text had to be neither moralizing nor sentimental, but to put morality and sentimentality on...

(The entire section is 656 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bentley, Eric. Bentley on Brecht. New York: Applause, 1999.

Brecht, Bertolt. Bertolt Brecht Journals, 1934-1955. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Casabro, Tony. Bertold Brecht’s Art of Dissemblance. Brookline, Mass.: Longwood Academic, 1990.

Cotterill, Rowland. “In Defence of Mahagonny.” In Culture and Society in the Weimar Republic, edited by Keith Sullivant. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977.

Ozsvath, Zsuzsanna. “Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and The Good Woman of Setzuan.” University of Hartford Studies in Literature: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Criticism 13 (1981): 178-186.

Parmalee, Patty Lee. “1927-29, Studying Marx: Mahagonny and the Learning Plays.” In Brecht’s America. Columbus: University of Ohio Press, 1981.