The Threepenny Opera, written exactly two hundred years after John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728), follows its model closely in plot and in the names of its characters. Like Brecht’s Berlin, Gay’s eighteenth century London underwent a period of expansion and consolidation, with a Whig government rotten with corruption. Gay’s opera chiefly satirizes the aristocracy’s manners and morals, although it also mocks marriage, politics, theatrical conventions, the prison system, and many professions. By providing the highwayman Macheath with the dash of a courtier, and whores with the grace of ladies, Gay indicts the vices of the upper class without needing to bring a single upper-class personage on stage.
Brecht adopts Gay’s ironic inversion of high and low life but aims, in place of the no-longer-vital aristocracy, at Germany’s triumphant, smug, powerful bourgeoisie. The criminal highwayman Macheath is called “Mac the Knife” (Mackie Messer), and while he is a thief, arsonist, rapist, and murderer, he also has the habits of a middle-class entrepreneur, keeping books, worshiping efficiency, and insisting on business discipline by his gang. His thieves are in competition with big business and the banks; they are defeated by the more predatory, shrewder, better-financed Jonathan Peachum. As he stands before the gallows, in what seems to be his farewell address, Mackie laments that he is a small fish about to be swallowed by a bigger one:Ladies and gentlemen. You see before you a declining representative of a declining social group. We lower-middle-class artisans who work with humble jemmies on small shopkeepers’ cash registers are being swallowed up by big corporations backed by the banks. What’s a jemmy compared with a stock certificate? What’s breaking...
(The entire section is 740 words.)