The Threepenny Opera

by Bertolt Brecht

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The Play

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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...

(This entire section contains 1559 words.)

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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 first finale, “Concerning the Insecurity of the Human State,” in which they agree that “the world is poor, and man’s a shit.”

In a parody of the melodramatic scene in which two lovers part, Mac now hands over his “business” to Polly, giving her a rundown on the thieves, showing her the account books, and telling her of his plan to turn in the Gang and enter banking. She avidly takes up the role of gangster’s moll. Their sentimental farewell “Where shall we be on Coronation Day?”—ends the fourth scene.

Next Mrs. Peachum and Low-Dive Jenny both step in front of the curtain. Mrs. Peachum offers Jenny ten shillings to inform on Mac, who she is sure will be found with his whores. She sings “The Ballad of Sexual Obsession,” cynically undercutting the higher aspirations of males for being in thrall to sexual obsession.

In a well-known scene, Mac next appears with his whores in the brothel in Turnbridge. Low-Dive Jenny slips out to betray him, giving a veiled warning of women’s treachery when she reads his palm. With Jenny, Constable Smith, and Mrs. Peachum looking on, Mac begins the “Ballade of Immoral Earnings,” a nostalgic duet between the pimp (Mac) and the whore (Jenny). Mac is still dancing with Jenny when Smith accosts him. He bolts, only to find Mrs. Peachum and more constables, who arrest him.

betrayed by the whores, reads the sign that announces scene 6, mac is freed from prison by the love of yet another woman. Before he gets out with the help of Lucy, Tiger Brown’s daughter, Mac plays on Brown’s sympathy. He buys lighter handcuffs from Constable Smith and celebrates this small victory with the “Ballade of Good Living,” asserting that “one must live well to know what living is.” Jealous of Polly, Lucy berates Mac until Polly comes. They both claim to be his wife, singing the “Jealousy Duet.” The two “wives” exchange insults both polite and otherwise until Mrs. Peachum intervenes and takes Polly away. Denouncing “that slut,” Mac gets Lucy to give him his hat and cane. He escapes from his cage (to Brown’s relief) just as Peachum comes in to collect his reward. Peachum comforts the disconsolate Brown, then alarms him with a veiled hint that there will be a popular revolution during the Coronation. Galvanized, Brown summons his sergeants, and the scene ends with Mac and Low-Dive Jenny in front of the curtain singing the second finale, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” The answer: “Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts.”

that night, reads the sign that proclaims the beginning of scene 7, peachum prepares his campaign. he plans to disrupt the coronation procession by a demonstration of human misery In parody of business organization, Peachum disperses his troops, and Mrs. Peachum turns down Jenny’s claim to the bounty because Mac has escaped. Jenny tells how Mac came to “comfort” her and has (she thinks) gone on to Suky Tawdry. Hoping to recapture Mac, the Peachums promise to pay the girls their bounty. Brown and the constables appear to lock up Peachum and his beggars, who sing the “Song of the Insufficiency of Human Endeavor.” Overturning Brown’s plan to imprison the beggars, Peachum argues that this act will only provoke a massive uprising of the poor. Unless Mac is on the gallows by six, Peachum threatens, the clubbing of six beggars at the Coronation will discredit Tiger Brown. After the curtain, Jenny comes out to sing the “Solomon Song,” in which Solomon, Cleopatra, Caesar, Brecht, and Macheath all meet their downfall as a result of their respective strengths: wisdom, beauty, courage, inquisitiveness, and “sexual urges.”

Now, under the sign property in dispute, at the jail Lucy and Polly, who are very polite to each other, try to discover Mac’s whereabouts, a question answered when Mrs. Peachum appears at the end of scene 8 to announce his recapture. Mrs. Peachum brings Polly a widow’s mourning dress since Mac is about to be hanged.

In the last scene, announced by the sign . . . again betrayed by whores, [mac] is about to be hanged, Mac comes in shackled. The bells of Westminster ring out as Matt the Mint and Crook-Fingered Jake enter to offer their help. They promise four hundred pounds to free Mac, who breaks in on the action with songs exhorting his followers to plead for his pardon. Polly enters to tell him that the business is fine but that she cannot raise the money to spring him. Sentimental but looking out for himself, Brown wants his account settled and goes off angry when it comes to only thirty-eight pounds. Mac now faces the Peachums, Lucy, the Whores, the Vicar, Matthew, and Jake. Jenny makes the first of the farewells, Peachum, Polly, Matthew, and Jake following. Mac is stealing the show from the Coronation, it seems. He steps out to sing “Ballade in Which Macheath Begs All Men for Forgiveness.” All exit, and then Macheath appears at the gallows with the others around. Peachum speaks directly to the audience, announcing that, since this is opera, not life, justice will give way to humanity.

In the third finale appears the “messenger on horseback” to announce that Macheath has been pardoned, entitled, and pensioned by the Queen “as it’s her Coronation.” Mocking the melodramatic happy ending, the play ends with Macheath’s reprieve and Peachum’s injunction, sung by all, to spare the poor, not to “punish our wrongdoing too much.”

Dramatic Devices

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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 Opera he found the perfect vehicle: an “opera” that spoofed the conventions of the operas and their patrons in eighteenth century England. Brecht’s treatment of that play is adaptation, really a new play, using song (with music by Kurt Weill) to break the dramatic continuity, further breaking that continuity by special effects, breaks in the logic of the plot, and abrupt reversals in the motivation and sympathies of the characters. Some of these devices are common in melodrama; there they reinforce the values of the larger society and encourage emotional identification with them. In Brecht’s play, reinforced by alienation, they cut counter to those values—the villain is pardoned, for example—and thereby the play invites the audience to examine and revise their social values.

Of his specific dramatic devices, Brecht is perhaps best known for the use of placards and songs to punctuate the play, breaking any illusion of a continuous photographic reality. Looking deeper, one can see a manipulation of dramatic conventions—the sympathy for the young lovers, for example, which, like every other conventional value one encounters in the play, is stood on its head.

Places Discussed

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*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

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Germany After World War I

Just prior to World War I, Germany, more dramatically than any other country in Europe was undergoing a transformation from an agrarian economy to an urban, industrial economy. An abundance of wealth, generated by a more productive work force, contributed to a growing sense of national power. Thus Germany magnanimously offered unlimited aid to Austria-Hungary when it came into conflict with the Balkans, portions of which it was attempting to overtake. Out of this conflict arose World War I.

Germans believed that they had the manpower and the technological superiority to put a quick end to the conflict. They did not bargain, however, for the involvement of Germany's greatest European rivals, and after three years of bitter losses, Germany suffered utter defeat at the hands of the Allied forces (Russia, France, Great Britain, and towards the end of the war, the United States).

German leader Kaiser Wilhem II, after forcing the more politically astute Chancellor Bismarck to resign, had aggravated European politics to the point where Germany faced a hopeless two-front war against the countries (France and Russia) that enjoined its East and West borders. The arrogant sense of honor with which most Germans initially undertook the battle to back neighboring Austria-Hungary was completely overturned by the time that the German republic's representatives were forced to sign a humiliating treaty at Versailles, France, in 1919. This treaty was signed in the same Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles where Germany had in 1871 forced France to accept a humiliating treaty ending the Franco-Prussian War.

The financial demands (Germany was forced to pay $31 billion in war reparations), the emotional price of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, the decimation of the country's civilian and military population, and the crippling of its newly developed industrial machine seriously compromised Germany's ability to repay the war debt or to reestablish its economy until, in 1924, an American businessman arranged for the United States to loan money to the faltering republic. Thereafter, the spiraling inflation of the immediate post-war years and accompanying sense of pessimism and bitterness at having lost the war, was quickly followed by a period of heady economic growth and hedonism constrained by a clinging and pervasive sense of shame. The sharp decline and sudden rebound of the economy only served to exacerbate existing class conflicts.

During Germany's involvement in the war, Brecht had avoided conscription for a time but finally had to serve as an orderly in an army hospital in 1916. His experience left an indelible cynicism about the effectiveness of armed combat. He found solace in the ideas of Karl Marx's 1848 Communist Manifesto, as did other German Social Democrats. This political party envisioned a classless society as a solution to the ills of capitalism and the remnants of feudalism inherent in Germany's political system. Brecht, along with other writers and artists of the period, produced Expressionist works that captured the revulsion of newly converted pacifists. While recognizing the moral obligation to effect social change, these artists also felt deeply the horrors of war, and the conflicting feelings were expressed in emotionally charged works of drama, literature, and perhaps most effectively, painting. Brecht's plays continued to explore the gut-wrenching choices that faced Germany as it proceeded toward the rise of the Third Reich (Adolf Hitler's Germany) and its second great defeat in World War II.

German Decadence Out of the increasing hedonism that followed Germany's defeat in World War I sprung the cabaret culture, a nightclub scene that came to personify German decadence. Adopting a nihilist philosophy (one that posits that life is ultimately meaningless), young Germans would indulge in excessive drinking, carousing, and sex. Believing that an individual's actions made little difference, whether a temperate or libertine lifestyle was followed, they indulged their every whimsy. Both in accordance with this philosophy and in reaction to it, a wealth of arts arose, notably the music of composers such as Kurt Weill and writers such as Brecht.

Decadence would continue to influence German arts throughout the twentieth century. The concept pervades the literary works of such authors as Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice) and filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Marriage of Maria Braun) and Werner Herzog (Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo).

Literary Style

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Opera or Musical? An opera is a play that contains music (instrumental and/or vocal) as well as dialogue, and the music is just as important to the piece as is the action and spoken words of the characters. The style of singing is known as recitative, which means that the sung words are slightly modified from normal speech, just enough to make them melodic. In operas, the characters sing in the recitative mode during the action of the drama, occasionally launching into a more definitive song, during which the action temporarily stops. It is not a true opera if the lines are spoken instead of sung.

In a musical, the players do not sing their lines but rather speak them normally. The players do, however, break into song and dance at certain points in the play. The action is punctuated by these musical interludes. In an opera, the songs are somewhat more integrated into the recitative singing in the rest of the drama (for the most part, the vocal activity in opera takes the form of singing). In addition, the artistry of an opera lies in the virtuoso singing performances of the performers, not in their qualities as actors or dancers. By contrast, the songs of a musical, while they may showcase the musical abilities of the actors and actresses, are not the raison d'etre (justification for existence) of the musical. The musical is a composite of song, dance, music, and drama in which each element contributes equally. In some cases (particularly cinematic musicals) one performer will record or "dub" the vocals while an actor (who may have no musical ability but can act) performs the speaking parts and lip-synchs to the prerecorded singing. This practice would be unheard of in an opera, where the performance of the singers is paramount.

Following these guidelines. The Threepenny Opera is an opera in name only; its form of spoken and sung vocal parts defines it as a musical, not a traditional opera. The musical was an American invention of the early twentieth century, a natural outgrowth of vaudeville, in which unrelated acts of singing, dance, jazz, juggling, mime, and stunts were performed. American musicals were pure entertainment. Jazz music and the "cabaret" style of entertainment were hugely popular in Germany during the 1920s. Brecht transformed the musical comedy and cabaret music into an instrument of satire, which is not unlike what John Gay did with opera when he wrote The Beggar's Opera in 1728.

Gay fused together a satire on Italian opera (the form which is most commonly identified with the definition of opera) and the common ballad that had been popular on London streets for many decades. Thus, his invention was called a ballad opera. The ballad opera took the music from familiar ballads and set new words to them, incorporating dozens into the fabric of a loose plot. Gay's work playfully ridicules the pretensions of society, aristocracy, and Italian opera. Brecht, on the other hand, intended his play to effect actual social change, but the extraordinary music by Kurt Weill led many viewers to perceive the work as entertainment.

Epic Theater Epic theater (sometimes called "open" theater) was the unique invention of Brecht. He designed epic theater as a "dialectical" (educational) experience: to deviate from the theater's base goal of entertainment to turn the spectator into a judge. Brecht's drama is designed to stir the audience into action. He attempts to accomplish this by disrupting the viewer's passive stance toward the play in order to generate a mode of "complex seeing," wherein the viewer follows the action, but also thinks about the construction of the play and the fabrication of its characters at the same time. Brecht wanted to develop the viewer's critical consciousness, the part of the observing mind that holds the drama at arm's length and judges not the action of the story but the reasons for presenting the characters.

Brecht frustrates the viewer's usual passive stance toward the drama in a number of ways. One is through the performers' direct asides to the audience, where the character steps out of action momentarily to address the audience with his or her own observations about the proceedings. For example. Peachum asks the audience "what's the use" of teaching Biblical sayings if people are going to become jaded by them. The songs also serve to disrupt a complacent reading of the story, because they amplify or deny the themes presented by the action. The song Macheath and Polly sing after their wedding is a stinging cynical commentary that taints any shred of romanticism in the couple's marriage ceremony when it says that "love will endure or not endure / no matter where we are."

Although Brecht's ideas about theater had a profound influence on later playwrights, his immediate effect on audiences was not as successful. Spectators sometimes developed empathy for his characters in spite of his "alienating" techniques. This initial failure was due in large part to Weill's music, which many theatergoers found alluring; the intoxicating music often gave viewers the impression that the play's events were a fantasy and thus removed from their own world. Critics have also pointed to the characters' rakishly amusing behavior, the love story—albeit twisted—between Macheath and Polly, and Macheath's happy ending as reasons for audiences to misinterpret the play as light entertainment.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: Germany transforms from prewar optimism to a state of cynicism and violent class conflict in a matter of less than ten years. Political, economic, and social turmoil plunges Germans into a state of psychological shock, as evidenced in "Black Expressionist" art and in plays and literature expressing similar feelings of pessimism and bitterness.

Today: The 1990 tumbling of the Berlin Wall (erected in 1961 to further defend the political demarcation between East Germany and West Germany following Hitler's defeat in World War II), marks a new era of unity for Germany.

1920s: Class conflict exacerbated by the war and rampant inflation make the country ripe for the rise of Hitler's "Third Reich'' and its promise of a new society.

Today: Germany holds a strong position in the world economy as well as the respect of fellow members of the United Nations.

1920s: Naturalist or Realist theater predominates in German drama. Brecht and others rebel against naturalism hoping to replace the ''theater of illusion'' with a theater for thinking and social change.

Today: Like theater in the United States, Brecht's previously daring dramatic frameworks, characters addressing the audience directly, and open, symbolic (rather than realistic) staging and costumes are standard fare in German drama. While no longer shocking, these techniques are still effective ways of preventing theatergoers from viewing the production passively; modern theatergoers expect to be made to think.

Media Adaptations

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Brecht wrote The Threepenny Opera as a novel in 1934 (Dreigroschenroman, translated by Vesey and Isherwood as A Penny for the Poor, R. Hale, 1937; reprinted as Threepenny Novel, Grove, 1956); but it was his play that received the most attention. He revised the script for a 1931 film version to be more politically oriented than the original 1928 play script. The black and white German film (Die Dreigroschenoper with English subtitles), directed by G. W. Pabst and starring Antonin Artaud, is available on video from Embassy Home Entertainment.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) released a 1954 recording of Kurt Weil's music for The Threepenny Opera.

Marc Blitzstein revived The Threepenny Opera in the 1950s and his revision of the "Mack the Knife" song became a worldwide hit for singer Bobby Darin.

A 1989 film version, alternatively titled Mack the Knife, was released by Columbia. Directed by Menahem Golan, the film features Raul Julia as Macheath and rock star Roger Daltrey (of the Who) as the Ballad Singer.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Bentley, Eric. The Brecht Commentaries, Grove, 1981.

Cook, Bruce. Brecht in Exile, Holt, 1983.

Esslin, Martin. Brecht: The Man and His Work, Anchor Books, 1960.

Esslin, Martin. Bertold Brecht, Columbia University Press, 1969.

Gray, Robert D. Brecht the Dramatist, Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Willett, John. Brecht in Context: Comparative Approaches, Methuen, 1984.

Williams, Raymond. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, Hogarth Press, 1987.

Witt, Hubert. Brecht: As They Knew Him, International, 1974.

FURTHER READING Bentley, Eric. The Brecht Memoir, PAJ Publications, 1985. Bentley was Brecht's first English translator. In this book he chronicles his experiences working with the paradoxical playwright, generally concluding that, despite Brecht's oddities and personal failings, he was a genius.

Brustein, Robert. The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to Modern Drama, Little, Brown, 1962. Brustein presents the thesis that modern theater consists of a rebellion against the classical norm wherein plays uphold a sense of community or communion. By contrast, the theater of revolt seeks not to reinforce community values to but to question and overturn them.

Esslin, Martin. Brecht: A Choice of Evils, Methuen, 1985. Esslin has written three major treatments of Brecht. This one explains the dualities in his plays and in his nature, emphasizing that Brecht presented no transcendent Utopia but exposed the evil in both sides of political and social issues.


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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.

Hayman, Ronald. Bertolt Brecht. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1984. Contains an excellent analysis of major themes and sources for Brecht’s plays.

Morley, Michael. Brecht: A Study. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977. Contains a complete discussion of The Threepenny Opera. Details how the play was written and analyzes its themes.

Speirs, Ronald. Bertolt Brecht. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Contains an analysis of Brecht’s evolution as a playwright and charts the evolution of epic theater.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide