The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Following the plot of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr. 1728), Bertolt Brecht’s very different play traces the marriage of Polly Peachum to the notorious criminal Macheath, her father’s attempt to dissolve the union by turning Mac in, and Mac’s last-minute reprieve. Nominally divided into nine scenes spread over two acts, in fact the play is an episodic drama interrupted by songs (of which “Mac the Knife” is best known), by signboards suspended above the stage, by “interludes,” and by three “finales.” To gain a sense of it, one must suspend ordinary notions of realistic drama and enter into the spirit of what Brecht called epic theater.

The play begins with a prologue: a street scene in Soho, London’s red-light district. As the Ballad Singer sings “Mac the Knife,” beggars, thieves, and whores ply their trades with Mac appearing for a moment at the end, announced by Low-Dive Jenny. Act 1 opens in Peachum’s outfitting shop for beggars. He sings a parody “morning hymn” before cynically describing his business: charging beggars for their outfits and regulating where they can beg. As a beggar new to the game, his current customer, Filch, is being set up in the begging racket. As she prepares Filch’s outfit, Mrs. Peachum talks with her husband about their daughter, Polly, who is becoming romantically involved with Mac the Knife, to Mr. Peachum’s ire, and Mrs. Peachum’s pleasure. They discover that Polly has not been home all night and sing the “No They Can’t” song, the parents’ lament for romantic notions that leave the lovers “up to their arses in shit.”

Scene 2 shifts to a stable in Soho where Mac is celebrating his marriage to Polly. His gang members—Crook-Fingered Jake, Bob the Saw, and the rest—report in to Mac, explaining how they stole the furniture for the wedding reception. Putting on the airs of a bourgeois gentleman, Mac barks at his gang about their manners and flatters Polly with elaborate courtesy. Members of the Gang saw the legs off a harpsichord for the wedding table. Generally speaking, their antics burlesque middle-class weddings. Mac’s violence is near the surface, ready to leap out at his followers, whose fancy dress cannot conceal their barbaric manners. For entertainment, three of the gang sing the “Wedding Song for the Less Well-Off.” Polly returns the favor by singing “Pirate Jenny,” the chilling ballad of a barmaid whose pirate lover sails into the city, besieges it, and carries out her orders to behead everyone. Next the Reverend Kimball and Tiger Brown, the Sheriff, honor the groom with their presence. Brown and Mac celebrate their long friendship with the “Cannon Song,” a rousing satire on the kinship of the British colonial soldiers who chop “men of a different color” into “beefsteak tartare.” The scene ends with the revelation of the Gang’s wedding present: a bed for Mac and Polly, who end the scene with a romantic exchange that echoes the Peachums’ sarcastic parody in “No They Can’t.”

A sign reading to peachum, aware of the hardness of the world, the loss of his daughter means utter ruin marks the beginning of scene 3. In the “Barbara Song,” Polly sings to her parents about her yielding to Mac, the man without manners to whom she could not say no. They are upset that she has married a “notorious criminal.” Then a beggar enters, complaining that he does not have a proper stump. Peachum urges that Polly divorce Mac for his money. Overheard by Polly, Mr. and Mrs. Peachum plot to turn Mac in, proclaiming (against Polly’s belief) that Mac can be apprehended where he always is, “holed up with his tarts.” Polly thinks Mac’s friendship with Tiger Brown will protect him. To close the scene, she joins her parents in singing the...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

In European and American theaters, Brecht’s dramatic techniques have become a movement in themselves. “Brechtian” covers such a range of dramatic devices that a short survey can only sketch them. To simplify greatly, in Brecht’s 1920’s Germany existed a tension between naturalism (or realism) that sought to portray life as it really is (was or would be) and expressionism that sought to portray the emotional dimension of life underlying surface reality. In the theater these two polar opposites produced realistic and expressionistic productions—the first opening a window into contemporary living rooms (the usual locale), the second, into anything from a factory with oversize machines to the surreal London of The Threepenny Opera. For Brecht in Berlin in the 1920’s, anything was possible.

The devices for which this play and Brecht became famous are led by the Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect), about which much has been written. The aim of the play was to induce in the audience an emotional distance, an alienation or estrangement like that experienced by spectators at a sporting event in which they observe objectively. Emotional identification falsifies the play and the production, Brecht held.

To that end, as The Threepenny Opera amply demonstrates, Brecht took an established form—the comic melodrama—and inverted it, examining the cultural and moral values that made it work. In The Beggar’s...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Soho. District of central London in which all the action of the play is confined. However, locations within Soho change rapidly as the plot moves. Soho historically was infamous as an area devoted to crime, poverty, dissolution, and moral depravity. Interested in criticizing society at large, Brecht chose to set his commentary in a removed place and time, making a point about how little society changes and the universality of his themes.

Dark, dirty, and dingy, Soho is a metaphor for the hypocrisy that exists within all strata of society. Its sordid settings and characters reflect the world around them and add to the sense of depravity and disappointment with a world that allows such hypocrisy to exist. Within the context of the drama, the criminal element proves to be no worse than the middle or upper classes, the major differences being found in economics rather than morality or honor. The rich and powerful can perform illegal and immoral acts and escape detection, while the poor receive a separate justice. Brecht’s socialistic idealism is propagated by the play, and the setting enhances his message.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Germany After World War I

Just prior to World War I, Germany, more dramatically than any other country in Europe was...

(The entire section is 703 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Opera or Musical?
An opera is a play that contains music (instrumental and/or vocal) as well as dialogue, and the music is just...

(The entire section is 889 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1920s: Germany transforms from prewar optimism to a state of cynicism and violent class conflict in a matter of less than ten years....

(The entire section is 228 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Compare the plot of The Threepenny Opera with the plot of John Gay's 1728 The Beggar's Opera. Macheath is more villainous in...

(The entire section is 201 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Brecht wrote The Threepenny Opera as a novel in 1934 (Dreigroschenroman, translated by Vesey and Isherwood as A Penny for...

(The entire section is 158 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

John Gay's 1728 comic opera, The Beggar's Opera, was Brecht's source material and offers a good source for comparison. The differences...

(The entire section is 281 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Bartram, Graham, and Anthony Waine. Brecht in Perspective, Longman, 1982.

Bentley, Eric. The...

(The entire section is 216 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Brecht, Bertolt. The Threepenny Opera. Translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. In addition to a new translation of the play, this volume contains an appendix with Brecht’s extensive notations on how the play should be produced, proposed lyric changes and additional stanzas for the songs, and a letter from Kurt Weill, the composer.

Ewen, Frederic. Bertolt Brecht: His Life, His Art, and His Times. New York: The Citadel Press, 1967. Exhaustive examination of Brecht’s total oeuvre in chronological sequence. Also examines personages and theories that influenced Brecht’s work.


(The entire section is 174 words.)