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.)
The criminal elements of London’s Soho district (thieves, beggars, and harlots) ply their various occupations while the balladeer sings about crime increases in the area, because of the reappearance of master criminal Captain James MacHeath (“Mack” or “Mackie the Knife”). The song concludes as Mack strolls down the street, causing occupants to quit their businesses and draw aside.
Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, as notorious as Mack, heads a beggars’ organization that plays on the sympathies of wealthier citizens. Filch, an aspiring beggar, applies to Peachum for protection and a suitable costume and pays his fee under protest. Mrs. Celia Peachum ages the costume by staining it. Polly Peachum, their daughter, is out with a man she met a few days earlier. When Celia describes the man, Peachum realizes he is Mack the Knife. Celia tries to calm him, and they sing about how young love’s magic sours when the novelty wears off.
Mack escorts Polly to their wedding site, an empty stable that his bumbling henchmen, formally dressed for the wedding, ready for celebration by stealing furniture and even food for the banquet. Unfortunately, the henchmen have no taste and everything is wrong, even the dirge they sing as a wedding hymn to honor the couple. A minister comes to perform the ceremony, and Polly entertains everyone with a song about the revenge of the downtrodden on their social superiors. Mack’s best friend, Tiger Brown, chief of the London police, appears, and after reassuring Mack that his police record is wiped clean, the chief joins Mack in singing about being army buddies.
To her parents, Polly explains her marriage to Mack by saying that a “proper” man is not, necessarily, the “right” man. Peachum’s scolding is interrupted by the beggars, but he decides to bribe Mack’s harlots to turn on Mack. Polly boasts about the relationship between Tiger and Mack, but the Peachums reproach her by singing that...
(The entire section is 802 words.)