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Theatre / The Threepenny Opera

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"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".
The Street Singer

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. It was first performed on August 31, 1928 in Berlin.

The play centers around the marriage of Polly Peachum (daughter of "Beggar King" Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum) to notorious gangster and pimp Macheath (better known as Mack the Knife) who is getting old and wants respectability, titles and retirement. Mack has completely outsourced his crimes to his gang, and lives on his reputation. 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. And he's got great plans: instead of robbing banks and stabbing men, he now wants to found a bank and hire men. 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.

Brecht's production was intended to be an ironic Deconstruction of familiar European dramatic conventions and he made several important dramatic innovations, illustrating his concept of "epic theater", namely protagonists the audiences do not easily identify with, action taking place on multiple levels and social and political commentary used for dramatic effect. The music by Kurt Weill has endured in many cover versions recorded in Germany and in English (in a series of translations). The songs frequently covered include "Mack the Knife", "Pirate Jenny", "What Keeps Mankind Alive" which have seen versions by Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Nick Cave, Tom Waits among others.

Notable adaptations and re-interpretations include:

  • Die Dreigroschenoper (1931): There have been many movie adaptations. This is the first one and it actually involved Brecht, Weill and Lenya directed by G. W. Pabst (of Pandora's Box fame). It is notable for featuring most of the cast from the original production: Ernst Busch as the Street-Singer/Narrator, Carola Neher as Polly Peachum, Fritz Rasp as Beggar King Peachum and Lotte Lenya as Jenny (who sings "Seeräuber-Jenny"). Currently available on The Criterion Collection (alongside a French version also directed by Pabst).
  • The Threepenny Novel (1934): Brecht went on to write this scathingly satirical novel, 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).
  • The 1956 Off-Broadway production directed by Marc Blitzstein, for which Lotte Lenya won a Tony Award for her role as Jenny. This version featured many of the common Bowdlerizations of Brecht's original, but was nonetheless successful commercially and highly influential in its own right. The production featured Edward Asner (as Mr Peachum), Charlotte Rae as Mrs Peachum, Bea Arthur (as Lucy), Jerry Orbach (as PC Smith, the Street Singer and Mack), John Astin (as Readymoney Matt/Matt of the Mint) and Jerry Stiller (as Crookfinger Jake) as members of the cast during its run.
  • The 1976 production done by the New York Shakespeare Festival, later transferring to Broadway. Notable for not bowdlerizing the lyrics or the story. It starred Raúl Juliá as Mack, who got a Tony nomination.
  • Ópera do Malandro by Chico Buarque.
  • Imminent, Indeed (or Polly Peachum's Peculiar Penchant for Plosives) by Bryn Manion.
  • Mack the Knife (1989) an English language film adaption. Not commercially or critically successful, but notable for its cast: Raúl Juliá as Mack, Richard Harris as Peachum, Julie Walters as Mrs. Peachum, Bill Nighy as Tiger Brown, and Roger Daltrey as the Street Singer
  • Dogville, an even Darker and Edgier re-telling of "Pirate Jenny", directly quoting from it.
  • The third part of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Century) adopts the structure and approach of Brecht and Weill's production and features many in-panel musical numbers and whole plots based on What Keeps Mankind Alive, Pirate Jenny, Mack the Knife, The Ballad of Immoral Earnings, Cannon Song.
  • The Twopenny Opera (It's One Cheaper), a Concept Album by The Tiger Lillies.
  • For a complete German recording of all of the play's songs, the 1999 all-star Berlin performance with Nina Hagen is a great place to start.
  • Marianne Faithfull's 20th Century Blues features versions of a few Brecht-Weill songs (translated by Irish Playwright Frank McGuinness based on an earlier production). Features Mack the Knife and Pirate Jenny alongside lesser known Brecht tunes like Surabaya Johnny and The Ballad of the Soldier's Wife.

The Threepenny Opera contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: In Pabst's film, the Beggar's March which Peachum threatens and blackmails Brown with, actually does go ahead and interfere with Queen Victoria's parade. However, it loses any effect it might have to upset the order once Macheath and the Beggar King resolve their differences. The final shot, shows the beggars sullenly marching in the darkness, their exploitation continuing unchanged.
  • Affably Evil: Macheath's gang like to see themselves as this, but it's only an illusion to their depravity.
  • The Alcoholic: Mrs. Peachum.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Bobby Darin's cover of Mack the Knife projects this. Within the play, 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 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. Of course, calling Mackie an Archie is a stretch, since he pretty much uses both of them for his own purposes and ends.
  • Breakout Pop Hit: "Pirate Jenny", "What Keeps Mankind Alive", "Mack the Knife". No matter the version, Weill's music and Brecht's distinctly ironic lyrics have an ongoing afterlife in popular culture.
  • Bowdlerization: English language adaptations of Brecht's original play, inspired by its commercial success, adapted it to the Anglo-American sensibilities of its time, which on account of Popcultural Osmosis has meant that the earlier versions, made in a more timid and censorious times, has endured in cultural memory:
    • Most adaptions do the production like a Broadway Musical, make the characters Lighter and Softer, remove the political views, 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.
    • The main things that are softened is the Mack the Knife song, his general misogyny, Domestic Abuse of women, and likewise sentimentalize some of the interactions between Mack and Polly which in the play is meant to be ironic (in the German sensenote ).
  • Capitalism Is Bad: Mack the Knife is a pimp and gangster who wants to conduct his operation as a business, affects bourgeois (i.e. capitalist) habits such as consumerism, pretenses of high living and more or less treats people around him as products and employees, including his wife Polly who he sees as valuable as an appendage and front to his business. Mackie hasn't so much quit being a pimp so much as upgraded to a higher form of prostitution. Incidentally, Old man Peachum is more or less the same, running the Beggar's Guild with a profit-minded view and judging employees and giving cuts based on evaluations and returns.
  • 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 white kid gloves. Besides being stylish they help him avoid blood stains.
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning:
    • Bobby Darin's famous version of "Mack the Knife" is faithful in the first and second verses (which describes Mack as a rogue connected to mysterious murders, Undisclosed Funds, and suspicious sightings) but the following verses can be described either as propaganda or Romanticized Abuse when compared to the original, since it makes Mack the Knife's victims sound like willing conquests to a rake.
    • In the original production, the song known as Pirate Jenny was to be sung by Polly and intended to be an Imagine Spot about how much she hates her family and dreams of escape. Later productions, and the 1931 Film version, gave it to Lotte Lenya's Jenny note . By merely changing the character and singer, and especially Lenya's performance, the song acquired its now familiar meaning of an oppressed woman's fantasy Imagine Spot of revolutionary justice and retribution.
  • 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.
  • Deconstruction: Brecht's Alienation Effect was all about creating this sensibility and cultivating it among his audience:
    • The music and lyrics by Weill and Brecht mirrors, intentionally, common folk music and music hall style songs and ballads but attacks the entire genre by exposing it as best a coping mechanism for living with poverty, injustice, abuse and other crimes. Where such folk music often by means of euphemism, suggestion and implication commented on reigning issues of the day, Brecht and Weill's music directly highlights it and brings it to the forefront and only makes the characters sentimentalism about poverty even more absurd. This is made obvious in "What Keeps Mankind Alive" which is all about people ignoring or forgetting the ugliness in their own lives and society, becoming a Stepford Smiler and accepting the façade of a Crapsaccharine World.
    • Likewise, certain common archetypes to the crime genre and the Victorian era, are directly attacked and exposed. Brecht's Mack the Knife is not a Loveable Rogue but other characters project that archetype on to him and he uses that sentiment to better exploit his friends, lovers and prostitutes. Unlike John Gay's original work, where Macheath is rakish and funny, Brecht's Mackie is a violent pimp, and the play reminds the audience that Mack and Tiger Brown committed many atrocities and war crimes in India as part of the colonial service, which is somehow more legal and acceptable than his crimes in London.
  • 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 receive 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.
  • 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.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: The Dark Reprise added by Brecht to the 1931 film version which plays over the failed Beggar's March reflects this:
    ''There are some who are in darkness
    And the others are in light
    And you see the ones in brightness
    Those in darkness drop from sight."
  • Historical Domain Character: In the 1931 film, Queen Victoria actually does show up in the Beggars Protest March during her coronation parade. She is shown quite unsympathetically needless to say.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: 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.
  • Humans Are Bastards: "What Keeps Mankind Alive"
    What keeps mankind alive? The fact that millions
    are daily tortured, stifled, punished, silenced, oppressed.
    Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance
    at keeping its humanity repressed.
    For once, you must try not to shirk the facts.
    Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts.
  • Iconic Item: Mackie Messer's "white kid gloves" which is how Peachum deciphers from his wife that the Captain courting his daughter Polly is him.
  • Imagine Spot: What "Pirate Jenny" is in the Brecht-Weill original, but it paints such a vivid image that its easy to mistake it as an actual call for revolution and upliftment.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 Cannon 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. "The 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).
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Not within the play, but in a novel adaptation, The Threepenny Novel, Macheath is identified with Jack 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.
  • 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.
  • Recruiters Always Lie: "The Cannon Song" evokes this. John, Jim and George are three friends who sign up for the Call to Adventure. They end up committing atrocities against people in colonial outposts and eventually end up as Shell Shocked Veterans, disgraced for being deserters or in the case of George, shot for looting:
    Macheath: But young men's blood goes on being red
    Tiger Brown: And the army goes ahead recruiting.
  • Sinister Tango Music: Macheath and Jenny have a "romantic" tango song about their past relationship when he used to pimp her, which is mildly sinister in the traditional but bowdlerised Blitzstein English translation. The German original and later more accurate translations go even further by referring to violent abuse and back-street abortion. The differing titles reflect this. In German it is called "Zuhalterballade" (Pimp's Ballad) and in English it is called "The Ballad of Immoral Earnings" which is apt for the setting, since it is a classically Victorian euphemism.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Macheath and Tiger Brown as shown in "The Cannon Song"
    Tiger Brown: We'll meet a darker race!
    Mack: We'll fight them face to face!
    Tiger Brown Cause it is clear we're better!
    Mack: We'll kill them it doesn't matter!
  • Spiritual Successor: The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
  • Straw Nihilist: It's not that Mr. Peachum is 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.
  • Storyboarding the Apocalypse: Pirate Jenny promises a bloody naval assault on the London Docks, imprisonment by pirates and beheadings.
  • 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.
  • Threatening Shark: Discussed. The song compares Mackie to the Shark with Mackie being Eviler than Thou:
    And the shark 'ath pretty teeth, dear
    And it shows 'em pearly white
    And a jack-knife 'ath Mac'eath, dear
    But 'ee keeps it out o' sight
  • 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