The Threepenny Opera

by Bertolt Brecht

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Social Constructs of Brecht's Revisions and Political Ideals

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When a writer revises and adapts an earlier work, as Bertolt Brecht did with John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), they make revisions that are consistent with a particular aesthetic and ideology. These shifts are part and parcel of the thinking of that writer's age—an attempt to bring the older work into a contemporary frame and make it meaningful to modern audiences. For example, some late-twentieth-century adaptations of Shakespeare's Hamlet emphasize the tangled feelings between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude, indicating this age's acceptance of Freudian Oedipal concepts (sexual attraction between mother and son). Much of the criticism written on The Threepenny Opera has centered on Brecht's modifications to Gay's staging: the asides to the audience, the placards announcing events, the songs that belie the often somber action taking place, and the harsh white lighting (elements identified with "epic theater"). However, Brecht also made small but significant changes to the storyline itself and these changes reveal his ideological leanings.

The Beggar's Opera is about Macheath, a small-time criminal who marries one of his mistresses while continuing his relationships with other women. Two of the women in his life, his wife, Polly, and lover, Lucy, discover each other and vie for the right to claim him. As a way to rid himself of an unprofitable match (he had previously used his daughter's looks to attract customers to his business), Polly's father turns Macheath in to the police. After a couple of escapes, Macheath is led to the gallows but receives a last minute reprieve (and considerable rewards) just before he is hung.

Brecht's secretary (and one of the playwright's own lovers), Elisabeth Hauptmann, translated Gay's play into German for Brecht, who then added his inimitable stylistic changes. He transformed it into "epic theater," but he changed more than the presentation. Gay's version makes no reference to Jack the Knife, does not include a wedding scene, has no counterpart to Sheriff Jackie Brown, and makes only one tiny reference to the coronation.

Jack the Knife was a nickname for the London serial killer more commonly known as Jack the Ripper. Jack targeted prostitutes and was never caught. The victims were each knifed in a characteristic style, with precise, surgical wounds that led many to suspect the murderer was a doctor or had medical training. The story of Jack the Knife has fascinated and horrified the world. Numerous theories have been proposed to reconcile his grisly methods with a psychological makeup and motive. By shortening Macheath's name to Mac and adding the words ''the knife;" Brecht alludes to the famous serial killer and transforms Gay's protagonist.

As he is revised by Brecht, Macheath of The Threepenny Opera is already a more ruthless criminal than Gay's character. Yet the association with Jack the Ripper cloaks him with such an aura of dark menace that Gay's Macheath pales in comparison. In The Beggar's Opera, Macheath is a womanizer and a scoundrel but not a murderer. Both characters bribe their prison guard in hopes of escaping and both go gallantly to the gallows when recaptured. But Brecht's Macheath is cynical and jaded; murder and death are inescapable elements in his world, and he has learned to make peace with them. In The Threepenny Opera , he and his army buddy (now sheriff), Jackie Brown, sing a ditty about the inevitability of dying on the battlefield, of being chopped into human ''tartar'' by the enemy. They have seen the worst of war and they have made it into a joke. Mrs. Peachum says of Macheath, "There goes a man who's won his spurs in battle /...

(This entire section contains 1777 words.)

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The butcher, he. And all the others, cattle."

Macheath's attitude towards war has its roots in Brecht's personal military experience. He had done light duty as an army orderly during part of World War I, and he wrote poetry about the butchery of war. Macheath represents the macabre side of Brecht, who expresses his revulsion with war in grotesque poems that reek of forced machismo. His "The Legend of the Dead Soldier'' tells of a corpse that is revived and reenlisted with gruesome details— such as a canister of incense swinging over the marching cadaver to mask its putrid odor. Brecht's experience was by no means unique, nor was it extreme—anti-war feelings such as his were pervasive throughout Europe. In his version of The Beggar's Opera, Brecht has transformed Macheath into a member of the "lost generation" of the post-war years, like Brecht and his peers. The playwright revised the eighteenth-century play to address his era's prevailing state of mind: numbed and cynical.

When Macheath states his nihilistic case in the "Ballad of Good Living," ("Suffering ennobles, but it can depress / The paths of glory lead but to the grave..."), he spoke for a large majority of the European audiences who first viewed the play. This nihilist philosophy justifies licentiousness; Macheath has a "live-for-today" attitude that closely resembles the decadent cabaret world of Germany in the 1920s. In fact, the lighting, staging, songs, and music all evoke the atmosphere of cabaret. No wonder that Brecht's early audiences loved the play instead of recognizing it as an admonishment to their bourgeois lifestyle.

Oddly enough, the connections to war and to Jack the Knife are made but not emphasized. In a way, Macheath is a lovable rogue whose vocation sometimes requires that he kill people, a career criminal who wants full credit for such acts as setting the Children's Hospital on fire. At the end of the play he is reprieved and given a high station, a manor, and a generous pension. He is not unlike those leaders who had actually profited by the war while Germany as a whole was devastated, men who were made heroes for their battleground butchery.

In Brecht's version of London's criminal underworld, Macheath marries Polly on stage, whereas Gay had this event occur offstage. The ceremony is made into a travesty of traditional marriage, with its stolen bridal gown, furniture, and food, all taking place in an abandoned stable. The stable element recalls Jesus Christ, who was born in such a humble setting. Macheath, however, tries to transform this setting into a palace, fooling himself that he is surrounded by luxury and becoming irritated by any notice of failure.

None of the furniture matches, and the thugs saw off the legs of a harpsichord to use as a table. The former owners were innocent victims of Macheath's bungling cohorts, who panicked while robbing the family and killed them. Polly cries, "Those poor people, all for a few sticks of furniture." In another twisted allusion to the Bible, Brecht has Macheath dragging stolen tables into his sanctuary (Christ overturned tables in the temple). In war-devastated Germany, the sight of valuable household items being sullied by the incompetence of thieves would have been especially distressing.

Jackie Brown is another intriguing revision implemented by Brecht. Brown, in some ways, is even more despicable than Macheath, for he has no redeeming charisma or sexual charm, and he equivocates endlessly over whether or not to turn in his friend Macheath. The shifting tides of German politics and power during these years must have unearthed many such creatures, who were more determined to be on the winning side—insuring their own survival at any cost—than to maintain their integrity. It is Brown who arrives on horseback to announce Macheath's gifts of a reprieve, elevation to peerage, castle, and a sizable annual pension from the Queen; with his questionable moral fiber, Brown is the instrument of authority and a symbol of a corrupt system.

The final telling variation from the Gay version involves the coronation ceremony. Brecht has Peachum plan a demonstration of "human misery" to coincide with the royal proceedings. John Gay would not have dreamed of having a character in his play put on such a demonstration—the eighteenth century did not have such a phenomenon. But demonstrations staged by political parties were standard fare in twentieth-century Germany. As the labor party factions evolved and disputed, marches and rallies were held to garner support. A group of beggars staging a demonstration would be just a common occurrence in post-war Germany, with its continuing contention between socialist democracy (which would become fascism) and communism. Brecht's comment upon this phenomenon seems to be that the political rallies are no more effective than a parade of "human misery" put on by the miserable themselves.

Brecht has been accused of failing to take a political stand in this play. Robert Brustein in his The Theatre of Revolt found The Threepenny Opera a complex of ambiguities that are never solved. The deus ex machina ("God from the machine") he finds especially obscure: "With the whole play inverted, and the whole world seen from its underside, even Brecht's positive affirmations seem to come out backwards." Yet the final lines literally bespeak an ironic or sarcastic solution: spare injustice from persecution. Brown spares the unjust Macheath from persecution by arriving on horseback to grant him a reprieve, and goes one step further by ennobling and enriching the criminal.

Brecht is saying that Brown's act, sanctioned by the highest authority in the land (the Queen) makes no less sense than to allow any injustice to be tolerated. His ironic comment, along with the theatrical innovations of "epic theater" are designed to provoke the viewer to think; Brecht said that it "arouses his [sic] capacity for action, forces him to make decisions." Brecht believed that humans adapted to the social settings in which they lived, that "social being determines thought." Therefore, he adapted Gay's eighteenth-century play to better portray the social milieu that he was questioning. He set the play in London to provide a comfortable thinking distance, to avoid the politicization of his German audience's response. He wanted to appeal to his viewers' rational side (not the empathic response) so that they could revise themselves and their society.

The social elements that Brecht inserts into the play—a ruthless criminal (and possible serial killer), a wedding of thieves, an unjust reprieve—zero in on the very societal flaws he urged his audiences to correct. Brecht explained why he included certain social structures:

The epic theatre is chiefly interested in the attitudes which people adopt towards one another, wherever they are socio-historically significant (typical). It works out scenes where people adopt attitudes of such a sort that the social laws under which they are acting spring into sight.

The Threepenny Opera questions the social laws that were leading Germans, inevitably, to a second World War.

Source: Carole Hamilton, Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina.

The Averted Crucifixion of Macheath

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Several critics have quoted Brecht's statement that the work which made the greatest impression on him was the Bible. Although Martin Esslin discusses the biblical quality of Brecht's language, and although Von Thomas O. Brandt cites a number of biblical quotations in Brecht's plays (without, however, identifying their exact sources), Brecht's use of the Bible has, so far as I have been able to discover, been given only cursory notice. In this article, I should like to examine biblical references in The Threepenny Opera.

Brandt refers to The Threepenny Opera's ''Bibelcollage''; his term is accurate. Following the Prologue, the play begins with the Bible-carrying Peachum singing a Morning Hymn and closes with a chorale that has a nagging resemblance to German Easter chorales. Not only are there such general biblical references as Judgment Day (Peachum's opening song, 1,1) and basking in divine grace (first act finale), but there are numerous specific references as well. For example, Peachum (first act finale) sings of the desirability of ''Being given bread to eat and not a stone," referring to Matthew, 7:9 ("Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?"). In 1,1 there are such direct quotations as "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts, 20:35) and "Give and it shall be given unto you" (Luke, 6:38). And the famous "whither thou goest, I will go" from Ruth, 1:16 is referred to three times: by Mr. and Mrs. Peachum in their song in 1,1; by Polly when she introduces the duet with Macheath at the end of 1,2; and by Polly when she tells her parents of the friendship between Macheath and Tiger Brown in 1,3.

However, the major biblical references are those which relate Macheath to Jesus. Martin Esslin has called attention to the biblical parody in The Threepenny Opera, citing the betrayal of Macheath on a Thursday. This is not the only point of resemblance. Like Jesus, Macheath may be called "a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners'' (Luke, 7:34). Very early in the play (1,1) a link between them is made obliquely. When Mrs. Peachum learns that the man who has been courting Polly, and whom Polly intends to marry, is Macheath, she exclaims, in a double entendre whose significance she does not realize, "For God's sake! Mackie the Knife! Jesus! Come, Lord Jesus, abide with us!" In the wedding scene too (1,2) there is a hint at this connection. The beginning of the "new life," as Polly calls it, between herself and Macheath, takes place in a stable. As soon as they enter he commands her to sit down on the crib (''Krippe,'' which can be translated not only as "crib" but also as "manger"). Then Macheath's gang bring gifts—stolen gifts, to be sure, but gifts nonetheless.

But the most significant parallels, as well as the most extended, concern the Crucifixion. Like Jesus, Macheath is betrayed on a Thursday. And he is betrayed by his own kind, his own people: Jenny and Brown. Jenny's treachery is explicitly related to that of Judas: ''A female Judas has the money in her hand," Mrs. Peachum sings. Peachum resembles Caiaphas, for just as Peachum's business is in danger of being taken over by Macheath ("He'd have us in his clutches. I know he would! D'you think your daughter would be any better than you at keeping her mouth shut in bed?" says Peachum in 1,1), so was Caiaphas' in danger of being superseded by Jesus', and Peachum hires Jenny to betray Macheath, as Caiaphas paid Judas to betray Jesus. Moreover, it is to be inferred that Tiger Brown carries the role of Peter, for he—in effect—denies his friendship with Macheath. This is made explicit when Macheath is brought to jail:

BROWN: (after a long pause, under the fearful gaze of his former friend) Mac, I didn't do it... I did everything I could don't look at me like that, Mac, I can't bear it. Your silence is too terrible.
(Shouts at a policeman) Don't pull him with that rope, you swine! Say something, Mac. Say something to your old friend... Give him a word in his dark... (Rests his head against the wall and weeps.) He doesn't think me worth even a word. (Exit)

MACHEATH: That miserable Brown, that evil conscience incarnate. And such a creature is made commissioner of police. Lucky I didn't bawl him out. At first I thought of doing something of the sort. But then I thought a good, piercing, punishing stare would send the shivers down his back The idea found its mark I looked at him and he wept bitterly. That's a trick I got from the Bible.

The biblical passage to which Macheath refers in the last sentence may be Luke, 22:61-62.

And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.

And Peter went out, and wept bitterly.

Brown's request for a word for his dark (state? place?—he does not complete the sentence) recalls a number of biblical passages in which a godly word lightens darkness. There is the famous:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. [John, 1:1, 45]

There is also, for example, "Christ shall give thee light" (Ephesians, 5:14), and the prophecy of Jesus is spoken of "as ... a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts" (2 Peter, 1:19).

In addition, Macheath, like Jesus, is to be executed on a Friday. The precise time is fixed: he is to be hanged at six o'clock (III,3). This was the hour when there came a darkness over the entire land that lasted until the ninth hour, at which time Jesus quoted the beginning of the twenty-second Psalm, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Macheath's cry as he is about to be killed (III,3)--"Beware lest you go down as well as he!"—is reminiscent of ''Remember the word that I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (John, 15:20). Finally, there is a biblical parallel to the circumstances during which Macheath is released. Matthew tells us (27:15) that during the feast of Passover "the governor was wont to release unto the people a prisoner, whom they would." Macheath is pardoned by the Queen because it is Coronation Day.

In The Threepenny Opera we have a satiric retelling of the Crucifixion in a manner which is in harmony with other satiric thrusts in this play. Brecht brings onstage many familiar elements. But he presents them through an unfamiliar angle of vision (thus making them appear strange—"alienating" them, as it were) and in so doing calls them into question. For example, Macheath's gang steal expensive furnishings and bring them to an empty stable (I,2). Brecht could have had the gang break into an unoccupied mansion for the wedding ceremony. However, by making the furnishings stolen goods, Brecht calls into question the manner by which their "legitimate" owners acquired them. Similarly, by presenting the prostitutes as not unlike the respectable bourgeoisie—the stage directions at the beginning of II,2 read: A brothel in Wapping. An ordinary early evening. The girls, mostly in their underclothes, are ironing, playing draughts, washing themselves; a peaceful bourgeois idyll. He emphasizes by implication the prostitution underlying the business and domestic dealings of the bourgeoisie. And by having the crook Macheath confide to Polly that it is only a matter of weeks before he devotes himself exclusively to banking (II,1) he calls into question the morality of the legal business of banking. Occasionally, this practice of casting a critical light on traditional values and attitudes is made explicit, as when Macheath asks (III,3), ''What is a picklock to a bank-share? What is the burglary of a bank to the founding of a bank? What is the murder of a man to the employment of a man?''

Relating the story of Macheath to the story of Jesus enables Brecht to use each to comment on the other. The actions of men under capitalism, Brecht appears to be saying, are direct reversals of the actions advocated by Jesus. We would all like to be good, Peachum sings in the first act finale, but circumstances (presumably economic) prevent us. In III,1 he sings that man is not wicked enough for the (presumably capitalist) world we live in. And at the end of the play (III,3) he reminds us that if you kick a man he will not turn the other cheek but will kick you back. The immoral Macheath is therefore a more appropriate god than the humane Jesus, for while we pay lip service to the code of conduct of Jesus, we actually follow the actions and subscribe to the code of conduct of Macheath. In addition, there is the implication that Brecht is mocking the concept of salvation through divine grace. By making his Christ-figure a scoundrel, he is deriding Christianity. I think that Brecht would want us to infer that social regeneration must precede individual, religious regeneration.

However, Brecht is not simplistic. The biblical parallel does not make this play a simple anti-religious document. There is one essential difference between Macheath and Jesus: Macheath is released, not executed. Certain aspects of the story of Macheath may parallel that of Jesus, but Macheath's fate is—fittingly—the fate of Barrabas.

Macheath's knife, so to speak, cuts both ways. Brecht's mockery of religion is not a blanket condemnation of religious ideals. He may cast doubt on some biblical concepts, but he upholds others. Just as his Verfremdungseffekt does not banish emotion utterly but adds thought and detachment, so his Bible-chopping does not banish the Bible utterly. Brecht's vision appears to me to be essentially a Christian vision: he would like a world in which man could be good to his fellow man, and in which survival would not necessitate—as his characters state in the second act finale that it presently does—cheating, exploiting, and forgetting one's humanity. However, such a world is not easily come by. When Brecht tells us, just before the arrival of the Mounted Messenger at the end of the play, that "in the whole of Christendom/There's nothing granted free to anyone,'' he is not making a cynically anti-Scriptural comment, but in fact the reverse, for the Bible offers numerous statements concerning the economics of redemption, e.g., "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made your overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood'' (Acts, 20:28) and ''And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission" (Hebrews, 9:22). There is no vicarious redemption, Brecht implies. Macheath does not save mankind by his death; he does not purchase redemption with his blood. Salvation—social salvation—remains to be achieved, presumably by the audience.

Source: Bernard F. Dukore, "The Averted Crucifixion of Macheath," in Drama Survey, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1965, pp. 51-56.

Lies like Truth: Theatre Reviews and Essays

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Kurt Weill's and Bert Brecht's The Threepenny Opera is a masterpiece; in its present production at the Theatre de Lys it very nearly misses fire. Such is the paradox of the theatre: the presentation is almost as much part of a play as the material itself.

The Threepenny Opera—called that because it is so oddly conceived that it might be a beggar's dream and so cheaply done that it might meet a beggar's budget—sums up a whole epoch and evokes a special state of mind. The epoch is not just the Berlin of 1919-1928; it is any epoch in which a lurid rascality combined with fierce contrasts of prosperity and poverty shapes the dominant tone of society. The state of mind is one of social impotence so close to despair that it expresses itself through a kind of jaded mockery which mingles a snarl with tears. Such, in a way, was the England of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), from which the Brecht "book" derives, and certainly the Germany which preceded Hitler. No wonder the one period produced Hogarth and the other George Grosz.

We do not live in such a time—though people who remember the depression days between 1930 and 1935 will appreciate the mood of The Threepenny Opera most readily—but it makes the mood irresistibly present and, strangely enough, induces us to take it to our hearts with a land of pained affection. There is, despite the sharp sense of period that permeates it, a universal quality in The Threepenny Opera. It fosters a bitter sense of regret that we live so scabbily in relation to our dreams and also a kind of masochistic attachment to our wounds, as if they were all we have to show as evidence of our dreams.

This effect is achieved through Brecht's brilliant lyrics rendered with remarkable intuitive insight and witty skill in Marc Blitzstein's adaptation—and through the one score Weill composed which places him on the level of an Offenbach. What bite and tang, what insidious irony, in the clean thrusts of Brecht's verses; what economy and lightness in Weill's songs and orchestration! How poignant is the sullied lyricism of this work with its jeering bathos, its lowlife romanticism, its sweetly poisonous nostalgia, its musical profanity, and its sudden hints of grandeur, godliness, and possible greatness! Here in contemporary terms and with a strange timelessness is the ambiguous, corrupt seduction of a submerged half-world akin to that which Francois Villon sang of long ago.

How disappointing, then, to have so unique a work—acclaimed practically everywhere since its premiere in 1928—reduced to a minor event by so ill-prepared a performance as the one we now see! Except for Lotte Lenya, who appeared in the original production, the cast ranges from the amateurish to the adequate. Lenya's nasally insinuating whore is superb for its incisiveness and triple-threat innuendo. But the fault is not the actors'—most of whom could do much better—but the director's. Everything seems labored and awkward instead of sprightly and bright. The miracle is that the inherent superiority of the material survives all hazards.

Source: Harold Clurman, "The Threepenny Opera," in his Lies like Truth: Theatre Reviews and Essays, Macmillan, 1958, pp. 113-15.


Critical Overview