The Threepenny Opera Summary
by Bertolt Brecht

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Threepenny Opera Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 into a bank compared with founding a bank?

In Brecht’s cynical, Marxist equation, the petty bourgeois equals the petty larcenist, while the tycoon finds his counterpart in Peachum, who licenses all the beggars in London and forces them to pay him 70 percent of their weekly take. Peachum transforms healthy men into deformed and pitiful creatures through the application of artificial limbs, eye patches, and the like—all carefully calculated to evoke the limited charitable impulses of the rich. Thus, if Mackie exemplifies the relationship between crime and business, Peachum highlights the relationship between the selfish capitalist ethic and the sacrificial morality of Christianity. Both Mackie and Peachum agree, in one of Brecht’s most famous statements, that eating comes first, then morality. Brecht suggests that Christianity and capitalism are really in the same ultimately corrupt league.

Brecht’s satiric attack on the bourgeoisie extends to its conventions of marriage, romantic love, and male camaraderie. Mac the Knife’s wedding to Polly Peachum is a typical middle-class banquet, featuring toasts, gifts, bad jokes, and gorging guests—except that it takes place in a stable and all the furnishings are stolen. Romantic love is reduced to lust and betrayal, with the relationship of Mackie and Jinny Jenny replete with pimping, whoring, sexual disease, and betrayal.

The play’s action follows a complicated network of double crosses: Macheath betrays Polly, Lucy Brown, and his gang; the whores betray Macheath twice; Peachum not only informs against Macheath but also sabotages his daughter’s chances for romantic bliss; and the plot climaxes with Mackie’s betrayal to the authorities by his supposed friend, the high sheriff of London, Tiger Brown. The Brown-Macheath friendship, added by Brecht to Gay’s plot, features a Kiplingesque ballad of their army bonding but is actually based on commercial advantage: Mackie gives Brown the goods on other criminals, while Brown, collecting a third of the reward, in turn provides police protection for Macheath.

Brecht sees every individual betrayed by an aggregation of other individuals, as well as by his own...

(The entire section is 1,542 words.)