Theatre / The Threepenny Opera

You're about to hear an opera for beggars. And because this opera was created so glamorously, the way only beggars can dream something up, and because it should still be so cheap that only beggars would pay for it, it's called The Threepenny Opera.

Die Dreigroschenoper is Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Darker and Edgier adaptation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Despite the title, it's a musical.

The play centers around the marriage of Polly Peachum (daughter of "Beggar King" Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum) to notorious gangster, alleged rapist, and aspiring gentleman Macheath (better known as Mack the Knife). Despite his notoriety, Mack has completely outsourced his crimes to his gang, and lives on his reputation alone. He's best friends with his old army buddy Jack "Tiger" Brown, the London chief of police, whose daughter Lucy he's dating on the side. He's also chummy with his former live-in girlfriend Spelunken-Jenny, a whore he still visits on Thursdays (hey — a gentleman is entitled to his habits). And he's got great plans: instead of robbing banks and stabbing men, he now wants to found a bank and hire men. After all, true grand scale thievery can only be done by the bourgeoisie. Mack is ready to climb out of the criminal slums and into criminal nobility. And Polly is just the right kind of wife to have by his side for it.

The only problem in his plan is Jonathan Peachum, who not only hates Macheath, but will do anything to get his daughter back — after all, she's valuable goods, and he's invested a lot of time and money in her proper upbringing. Peachum devises a plan to blackmail Tiger Brown and convince him to arrest Macheath. Since the Queen's coronation is due in a few days, Brown has his hands full trying to keep the beggars off the streets. Which Peachum decides to use to his advantage in blackmailing Brown: imagine thousands of beggars, crawling out of the gutters, crowding around the Queen... Mack tries to flee, but can't shake his Thursday habit at Jenny's brothel and is consequently arrested by a reluctant Brown. And when Lucy Brown shows up, apparently married to Macheath and pretending to be pregnant, Polly starts to realize that the marriage was a huge mistake.

The play was intended as a commentary on the evils of capitalism and has been notoriously misinterpreted by audiences worldwide, who consider Macheath the good guy. As a Take That!, Brecht went on to write the scathingly satirical Threepenny Novel (1934), in which Macheath's popularity is compared to that of Hitler and Polly is madly in love with the idea of a suave, gorgeous Macheath (and sorely disappointed when he turns out to be an old bald bastard).

Theatres also tend to completely ignore Brecht's stage directions: he specifically wrote that Macheath needs to be old and ugly, Polly needs to come off as virtuous and agreeable, Mr. Peachum is not a miser but simply a nihilist, and the Queen's messenger absolutely needs to be on horseback as satire of classic bourgeous opera endings. Instead, Macheath tends to be handsome and young in most productions, Polly is commonly portrayed as a gangster moll, Peachum is portrayed as a miser, and the horse is nowhere to be seen. (Nowadays, even Brecht's own theatre in East Berlin performs the play this way.)

Various movie adaptations have been made, one of which actually involved Brecht, Weill and Lenya (Dreigroschenfilm / Threepenny Movie, 1933). Due to Executive Meddling, however, it was severely Bowdlerised.

For a complete German recording of all of the play's songs, the excellent 1999 all-star Berlin performance with Nina Hagen is a great place to start.

Adaptations and re-interpretations by others include:

The Threepenny Opera contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Macheath's gang
  • The Alcoholic: Mrs. Peachum.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Bobby Darrin's cover of Mack the Knife projects this..
    Sukey Tawdry, Jenny Diver, Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown, ...
    The line forms on the right, dear, now that Mackie's back in town.
    • It's only true of Polly Peachum, the other girls were prostitutes who presumably didn't have a choice in the matter. In her "Barbara Song", Polly Peachum describes how she virtuously turned down all the respectable men who asked for her maidenhead...until a man showed up who was neither respectable nor bothered asking....
  • Anachronism Stew: The story nominally takes place in 1904. While the "Cannon Song" and its discussion of colonial warfare would seem to place the story in the mid to late 1800s, the coronation the play is centered around is that of Queen Victoria, thus implying an earlier date. Not to mention that the play its adapted from was written and set in the 1700s. Oh, and Macheath in this play tends to dress as a Roaring Twenties gangster.
    • The Donmar Warehouse production with Tom Hollander had something of a Setting Update with references to onion bhajis and Marks and Spencers in the lyrics.
  • Bawdy Song: "Pirate Jenny" and to a lesser extent "Barbara Song", and "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" are all in a genre of "cabaret music" sung by women at those clubs; for a different kind of Bawdy Song, the "Cannon Song" is based on rousing soldier music in the manner of Kipling's "Barrack-Room Ballads" (Brecht was a Kipling fan), and is intended as a deconstruction of them.
  • Betty and Veronica: Polly and Lucy
  • Breakout Pop Hit: Mac The Knife. Hilariously so. But thanks to Bowdlerlization
  • Bowdlerization: Most adaptions make the mistake of doing the production like a Broadway Musical, make the characters Lighter and Softer, remove the political and social criticial version and clean up all the song lyrics, in other words make it into a remake of the original The Beggar's Opera rather than the Darker and Edgier version it was originally supposed to be.
  • Cat Fight: Between Polly and Lucy in the "Jealousy Duet". Mostly musical in the stage directions, but tends to be "spiced up" in productions, especially the 1960s movie version.
  • Conspicuous Gloves: As detailed in the opening song "Moritat" (better known as "Mack the Knife"), the gangster Macheath is identifiable by his signature kid gloves. Besides being stylish they help him avoid blood stains.
  • Darker and Edgier: Like nearly all Brecht productions, it borrows from earlier plays, namely John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, practically all the characters, the love triangle, the Friendly Enemy cop is there and even the Deus ex Machina ending. Only differences is that Mackie Messer is not the Loveable Rogue that the original Macheath is, but a brutal pimp, rapist and child-murderer. The setting-update puts it in context of British Imperialism (via references to Kipling, one of Brecht's favorite writers) and the overall setting is much seedier.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The narration of the Threepenny Novel.
  • Deus ex Machina: At the very end, out of nowhere, Macheath is saved from the gallows with the information that he's not only pardoned but won a peerage. This was a deliberate parody showing how criminals are spared their fate and recieve unearned rewards in the manner of heroes in the old trope.
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing: invoked Although the play was intended as a vicious attack on capitalism, it is quite popular with non-communists. Though Brecht intended it for a non-communist audience in any case, since in theory, communists don't need to see a play about how capitalism works. More generally, people tended to uncritically glorify Macheath as an Anti-Hero by neglecting the strong women characters in the play who he subjects to all kinds of abuse and exploitation.
  • Domestic Abuse: All the prostitutes are kept in line by this, either from their clients or Mackie.
  • Everything's Even Worse with Sharks The song compares Mackie to the Shark with Mackie being Eviler Than Thou:
    "Oh the poor shark
    Yes, the sweet shark
    It has big teeth, buried deep
    Then there's Macheath
    with his big knife
    Hidden in his sleeve"
  • Evil Versus Evil: Macheath versus Peachum; the former tends to get sympathy mostly because of being more charismatic.
  • Expy: Jenny from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny would even be considered a straight-up transplant of Spelunken-Jenny, if the stories took place in the same universe. Both parts were originated by Miss Lotte Lenya.
  • Fan Disservice: The notorious lyric describing Jenny Towler's fate ("There they found her/Knife in Breast") in "Mack the Knife" is meant to invoke this. One of the many Bowdlerization subjected to it in English translations to make it a Pop Hit.
  • Ho Yay: Mack and Brown. Brecht has admitted that it's on purpose: Brown's love for Macheath is what keeps him going, but it's damaging to his job as a keeper of the peace. invoked
  • Humans Are Bastards: "What Keeps Mankind Alive"
  • Jack the Ripper: Not within the play, but in a novel adaptation, The Threepenny Novel, Macheath is identified with the Ripper. As a Shout-Out, Macheath also appears in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and is presented either as a Jack the Ripoff, or maybe the actual Jack the Ripper.
  • "Join the Army," They Said: "The Cannon Song"
  • Karma Houdini: Macheath. As mentioned in the summary above, this is a major plot point.
  • Kavorka Man: Macheath is an unattractive cutthroat, physically abusive and, as Brecht described him, "bald, old, humorless, with a face like a turnip". Still, women seem to throw themselves at him. Modern ensembles (including Brecht's own ensemble in Berlin) instead cast young and attractive actors for the part.
  • King of the Homeless: A brutal deconstruction. Macheath and Peachum function very much like capitalists who exploit prostitutes and beggars by overworking them and exploiting them. Both of them have connections with the law and end up assimilating into bourgeois society.
  • Knife Nut: Macheath
  • Lighter and Softer: English translations of the Moritat tend to erase the verses that describe Mack the Knife's more heinous crimes, like child rape and an arson that killed seven children, and even gloss over the celebration of cannibalism in The Canon Song.
  • Lost in Translation: In the case of two characters, Brecht's naming of characters was based on misunderstandings of Gay's topical references/slang. In the original, one of Macheath's gang was called "Matt of the Mint", in reference to a sketchy area in London that was located near what used to be a royal mint and functioned as a lawless "sanctuary area" for criminals. In Brecht's version, only the coinage implication carried through, and the character is called "Matthew Money". Similarly, Jenny Diver in Gay's play was named after an actual person who was a notorious pickpocket (with a probable bawdy pun with both the real person and fictional character). Brecht understood dive in the sense of "seedy location" and to this end, in some translations Brecht's character is translated as "Low-Dive Jenny".
  • Mood Whiplash: Brecht's alienation-effect was all about creating this effect. The lyrics and the style of music tend to be so-off. Ballad of Mack the Knife is sung by a jolly street-singer who is totally nonchalant about Macheath's crimes. The most shocking is "The Ballad of Immoral Earnings" a jaunty romantic song sung in a swooning style that talks about the whorehouse that featured Domestic Abuse and a disgusting back-alley abortion described in visceral detail.
  • Murder Ballad: "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer", obviously (Moritat is the German word for a Murder Ballad).
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Mr. Peachum. It's not that he's a miser — he simply doesn't believe that money or anything can save him, so he may as well make the best of what little money he's got. It's not that he doesn't like his daughter — it's just that his opinion of her, just like his opinion on the rest of humanity, is "already at its lowest possible point". And it's not that he particularly likes the Bible — he just figures he should have it in front of him to remind him of how rotten the world's Christians are.
  • Nostalgia Filter: The song "The Ballad of Immoral Earnings" is deliberately sung and set to tune to evoke an Arcadian setting of Good Times. The lyrics nastily subvert it:
    "And when a client came I'd climb out of our bed
    And treat him nice, and go and have a drink instead.
    When he paid up I would address him: "Sir
    Come any time you feel you fancy her."
    That time's gone past, but what would I not give
    To see that whorehouse where we used to live?"
  • Pirate Girl: Becoming this is part of Jenny's fantasies of revenge on society for her miserable life, about which she sings the song "Seeräuber-Jenny".
  • The Queen's Latin: While productions in translation tend to give the rest of the cast a Cockney accent, which makes sense given the setting, Peachum and sometimes the rest of his family often gets a Scottish accent. This is because one historical stereotype of Scots is that they are Bible-beating misers, which describes the common interpretation of Peachum perfectly.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Macheath and Tiger Brown as shown in the "Cannon Song"
    And when it rained / and we met a new race / a brown one or a pale one / maybe we'd use them to make our steak tartare!
  • Spiritual Successor: The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
  • Stylistic Suck: This was a device deliberately used in a lot of Brecht's work to achieve the proper "alienating" effect on the audience, and among other things, he wanted the music discordant and the cast to sing off-key.
  • Tenor Boy: Macheath is sometimes played like this ironically, and many performances have him singing the "Epitaph" in a sincere tenor, just to accentuate what a two-faced bastard he is.
  • Villain Protagonist: Everyone but Polly, whom even Brecht the arch-pessimist stressed to be a "virtuous and agreeable girl" in his notes on playing the parts.
  • Weird Trade Union: Peachum's guild of beggars

Alternative Title(s): Threepenny Opera