The Threepenny Opera

by Bertolt Brecht

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Characters Discussed

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Macheath, called Mac the Knife, the head of a gang of petty criminals in London. He manages his crooked affairs through “understandings” with Sheriff Brown. An incorrigible philanderer, he is involved with Brown’s daughter, Lucy, but also entices Polly, the daughter of “Beggar Boss” Peachum, into matrimony. This act outrages Peachum, who vows to undo Macheath by working a deal with Sheriff Brown. Mac’s enemies are convinced that, even when warned that a plot has been hatched against him, he will not flee far; soon, he is caught while making his habitual turn among the harlots of Turnbridge. Because Mac is an inveterate wheeler and dealer, however, he is able to bribe his way out of the charges and even to obtain recognition for service to the crown.

Jonathan Jeremiah “Beggar Boss” Peachum

Jonathan Jeremiah “Beggar Boss” Peachum, the proprietor of Beggar’s Friend, Ltd. He organizes London’s beggars quarter by quarter, giving them territories and pitiful roles to play. Although Peachum himself is an obvious opportunist, the destitute figures under him provide a channel to convey the social revolutionary theme of the play. Peachum is distracted from organizing an unprecedented parade of beggars at Queen Victoria’s coronation by the troublesome scandal of his daughter’s marriage to Mac. A mixture of opportunism and pomposity is revealed in Peachum, whose concern over the poor focuses mainly on how to use them to his benefit.

Polly Peachum

Polly Peachum, the daughter of Jonathan Peachum. Polly marries Macheath in a ceremony that reflects the milieu to which her father, in obvious hypocrisy, objects: The marriage takes place in a “borrowed” stable; all accessories, including furniture, are stolen. Polly is not timid about her association with Mac’s gang, prompting her mother’s recollection that “even as a child she had a swelled head like the Queen of England.” When Mac is pursued by the law, he asks Polly to “manage” the gang’s affairs. In her dealings with her parents, as well as in her verbal confrontations with Sheriff Brown’s daughter Lucy, who also claims Mac’s amorous loyalties, Polly demonstrates an uncanny ability to turn vulnerability into moral superiority.

Jack “Tiger” Brown

Jack “Tiger” Brown, the high sheriff of London, Mac’s friend since childhood days and a former fellow soldier with him in the colonial army in India. Brown receives a cut from all profits of Mac’s gang. He suffers pangs of conscience over his friend’s arrest and is only partially embarrassed when Mac escapes. He is soon caught in a quandary, however, when Peachum threatens to compromise the high sheriff by amassing hundreds of beggars at the queen’s coronation. Brown learns that, unless Mac hangs, he will have to undergo the unpleasantness of removing the destitute from the shadow of regal splendor by brute force. On the other hand, the sheriff is worried that, if a public execution is carried out, the crowds that would have cheered the queen will throng to the side of the gallows. Brown outdoes himself arranging a deal, gaining not only a reprieve but also the queen’s award of an honorary peerage, a pension, and a castle to Mac the Knife. This device satisfies the Peachums.

Lucy Brown

Lucy Brown, the daughter of High Sheriff Brown. She has been involved amorously with Mac. After her discovery of Mac’s marriage and her first confrontation with Polly, her role is that of a frenetic woman propelled by jealousy. As the plot advances, however, and Mac must flee both women to avoid arrest, Lucy’s weaknesses show through. Mac succeeds in making her believe that he loves only her, and (perhaps because she is...

(This entire section contains 654 words.)

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so gullible as to believe Mac) she comes to commiserate with her rival Polly, whom she now calls “Mrs. Macheath.” Both women come to the conclusion that men are not worth the frustration that they cause.


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A former war hero turned master thief, Macheath is the dark hero, the grotesque Christ figure of The Threepenny Opera. His name alludes to the murderer Mac the Knife in Brecht's play; he was merely an underworld criminal and womanizer in Gay's The Beggar's Opera. His mother-in-law, Mrs. Peachum calls him a horse-thief and a highwayman (one who robs travelers). Much like Brecht, Macheath is also a womanizer who conducts simultaneous affairs with a variety of women; he plays the attentive husband to Polly while also pursuing an affair with his friend Tiger's daughter, Lucy.

Macheath is the kingpin of the beggar gang, a jaded criminal, and a slave to his "sexual urges." He appears to pursue his lifestyle with little emotion or regret. He whistles nonchalantly when Polly reads him the list of charges the police have against him: "You've killed two shopkeepers, more than thirty burglaries, twenty-three hold-ups, and God knows how many acts of arson, attempted murder, forgery, and perjury, all within eighteen months. In Winchester you seduced two sisters under the age of consent." Macheath's only response to the entire list of charges is that he thought the girls were twenty.

His father-in-law, Peachum, turns Macheath over to the police to rid his daughter (as well as his own business interests) of him. In the father's eyes, Macheath is not a desirable match. Despite facing a sentence of death for his crimes, Macheath is tough and practical, brusquely ordering Polly to watch over his interests. He accepts his fate like the soldier he once was, although he persists until the last minute in trying to bribe his way out of jail.

Other Characters

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Ballad Singer
The unnamed Ballad Singer serves as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting and explaining the play's action as it unfolds. He opens the story with a grotesquely playful tale of Mac the Knife, an actual historical character who murdered prostitutes in London. Although John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (the source material for Brecht's work) included ballads about the thieves in his dramatic world, the songs were not as outrageous as those sung by Brecht's narrator—a credit to the musical talents of Brecht and his composer, Kurt Weill. Throughout The Threepenny Opera, the Ballad Singer punctuates the action with distastefully mordant commentaries on the seamy action of the play, sung to a discordant tune. He sings the play's best-known musical number ''Moritat'' (or ''Theme from The Threepenny Opera")—more commonly known as "Mac the Knife"—which was popularized by singer Bobby Darin in 1959.

Sheriff Jackie Brown
Brown is the crooked High Sheriff who takes a portion of the beggars' earnings in return for tip-offs about planned police raids. He is a longtime friend of Macheath, having served with him as a soldier in India. Brown attends Polly and Mac's wedding and is taken aback by the wealth that surrounds his friend. When cornered by Peachum, who cites a list of Macheath's crimes, Brown is forced to send Constable Smith out to arrest his former pal. He is a weak-willed and greedy man who expresses sorrow upon seeing Macheath in jail at the Old Bailey but nevertheless accepts the money from Peachum. Finally, as Macheath stands at the gallows, Brown rides up on horseback with a reprieve.

Lucy Brown
Lucy is the Tiger Brown's daughter. Mac has been having an affair with Lucy, deceiving both his friend and Polly. Lucy appears to be pregnant—the father presumably Macheath—but she reveals to Polly that she has faked her pregnancy by stuffing a pillow under her dress. Lucy at first treats Polly with haughtiness but later agrees with Polly's assertion that Macheath loves her more. Lucy finally befriends her lover's wife.

Charles Filch
Filch comes innocently enough into Peachum's beggar's outfitting emporium, hoping to obtain Peachum's permission to beg on a certain street corner. Filch proves himself singularly unsuited for the career of begging, however, being naturally inclined to pity—he expresses guilt over accepting money from people.

The Gang
With fellows such as Bob the Saw, Crook-fingered Jake, Jimmy, Matthew (or Matt of the Mint), Ned, Robert, and Dreary Walt, the Gang consists of thieves, cut-purses, prostitutes, pimps, and beggars. All of them are supplied costumes for the trade of begging by Mr. Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, and they forfeit a percentage of their earnings to Macheath, who uses the money as a payoff to Sheriff Brown for protecting their racket. There is no honor among these thieves; all are ready to turn on their brothers if it will buy them an evening of food and pleasure. They give stolen gifts to Mac and Polly at their wedding.

Reverend Kimball
Kimball performs the impromptu wedding between Polly and Macheath. He is more than likely not a real priest, as he is also one of the thieving Gang.

Low-dive Jenny
Low-dive Jenny is a former lover of Mac's and now just one of the whores of the gang. Like the Biblical character of Judas (who deceived his leader Jesus Christ), Jenny betrays Macheath. She pretends to read Macheath's palm, hinting at a dismal future event, then she informs Constable Smith of the thief's whereabouts.

Mac the Knife
See Macheath

Celia Peachum
Polly's mother and Peachum's wife, Celia assists her husband at the emporium by bossing the beggars. She faints when she learns that Polly has married Macheath because she sees this as a good investment gone bad; in her mother's eyes, Polly had the potential to be a society lady and could have raised the family's status by marrying a wealthy man.

Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum
Peachum is the proprietor of "The Beggar's Friend, Ltd.'' He runs the begging in London like an efficient business, outfitting the beggars, training them to perfect their methods (especially the art of swindling suckers), and assigning them districts in which to work. Peachum, like Fagin in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, takes a percentage of each of the Gang's earnings, slowly getting rich while his employees live hand-to-mouth. Peachum needs Polly around his business to attract customers with her good looks. This exploitation of his daughter's charms is disrupted when she falls in love with Macheath, marrying the thief without her father's permission. True to his greedy and ruthless ways, Peachum solves the problem by selling Macheath out to the police.

Polly Peachum
Polly is the daughter of the beggar king, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum. She is referred to by her father as "a lump of sensuality"—a fact that he shamelessly exploits to increase his business. Polly marries her lover, Macheath, in a makeshift ceremony in a stable. During the proceedings, she learns that Macheath has also been sexually active with Lucy.
When Lucy and Polly meet they accuse each other ruining their respective relationships with Macheath. They sing a duet in which they trade lines berating each other. While Polly and Lucy are very similar characters, it is Polly who prevails in a sustained union with Macheath. While she does not like her husband's sexual promiscuity, she accepts it as a fundamental part of his nature.

Constable Smith
Smith is the police officer who arrests Macheath, though he accepts a bribe to leave the handcuffs off. He later offers to help Macheath escape for a one-thousand pound bribe.

See Sheriff Jackie Brown




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