Background and Analysis by Scott Miller
The Threepenny Opera focuses on the career criminal Macheath who plans to marry the innocent Polly, daughter to Mr. Peachum, the King of the Beggars, with the help of Mack’s friend Tiger Brown, the Chief of Police. So Peachum threatens to organize London’s beggars to ruin Queen Victoria’s coronation unless Tiger Brown arrests and hangs Macheath. Of course, at the last minute, the Queen pardons Mack, makes him a Baron and bestows a lifetime pension on him. Lots of double crosses and skullduggery combine into a scathing indictment of the dishonesty and cruelty of "polite society."
But it all started way back in 1728, when Englishman John Gay wrote the ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, a satirical comedy about corruption in London society, featuring many of the characters who would later appear in Threepenny. According to Richard Traubner’s Operetta: A Theatrical History, the original idea for the opera came from Jonathan Swift, who wrote to Alexander Pope in 1716, asking "...what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?" Newgate (pronounced NOO-git) was London’s central prison.
Their friend John Gay decided that it should be a satire rather than a pastoral opera, and based his central characters on real people – the notorious criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard became Jonathan Peachum and Capt. Macheath. In fact, it seems Peachum is really a mix of Wild and the pompous, long-serving prime minister Robert Walpole.
The story satirized politics, poverty and injustice, and everyday corruption at all levels of society. But The Beggar’s Opera is really more romantic comedy, laced with social commentary; while its descendant The Threepenny Opera is social commentary, laced with romantic comedy. (Laurence Olivier made a pretty decent film version of The Beggar’s Opera in the 1950s, which is now on commercial video.) Gay later wrote a sequel for Polly, set in the West Indies. The Beggar’s Opera continued to be revived for the next 200+ years.
In 1920, yet another revival of The Beggar’s Opera opened in London, and ran an impressive 1,463 performances, becoming a certified hit; then it played Austria, where it caught the attention of playwright Bertolt Brecht.
According to PBS.com:
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) offered a challenge to Aristotle’s ancient approach to theater as a spectator activity. He sought to stimulate the minds of his audience, integrating economics and politics into his plays, in hopes that those watching would respond with intellect, not emotion. As Eyre and Wright describe him, "He was a brilliant man of the theatre, highly receptive to the avant-garde of his day, quick to improve it and somewhat too precipitate to turn it into theory. He was a communist: not a left-winger, not a liberal, nor a humanitarian. From his twenties onwards, he thought and worked in terms of Marxist dialectic and he really wasn’t kidding."
Over the course of his career, Brecht developed his so-called epic theater, in which narrative, montage, self-contained scenes, and rational argument were used to create a shock of realization in the spectator. To create a distancing effect, Brecht promoted acting and staging that would merely demonstrate what was being portrayed, thus giving the audience a more objective perspective on the action. In Brecht’s plays, say Eyre and Wright, "lucidity reigns: nothing is worse than a jumble of confused impressions."
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Brecht was revered by left-leaning theatricals as a sage whose slightest jottings could be relied on as a guide to morality, politics and life itself. In the 1990s the collapse of faith in Marxism put a stop to that. But although his Mao-like status hasn’t lasted, his plays (or some of them) have quietly entered the theatrical mainstream. Whether they’ve entered as what they are, or in disguise, is harder to say. Some productions get praised for following his thinking to the hilt, others get praised for throwing his boring theories out of the window. Sometimes both are said of the same production.
In the Beginning
After seeing The Beggar’s Opera, Brecht began to co-write with Elizabeth Hauptmann a new, contemporary, sociopolitical, satirically savage updating of the show called The Three-Penny Opera, with a dark, groundbreaking, jazz score by Kurt Weill (pronounced Wile by Weill himself, but usually pronounced Vile by others). Cultural historian Stanley Crouch has said that artists who want to express adult emotions, who want to move beyond adolescent emotions, use jazz. Musical theatre historian Cecil Smith later wrote, "It proves that a small musical show can be both engrossing and magnificently entertaining without sacrificing high imagination, acute intelligence, superbly unified and thoroughly artistic production, and an underlying sense of purpose."
(An interesting side note: Elisabeth Hauptmann was originally listed as co-author of The Threepenny Opera, having purportedly written the majority of the text, and also having translated the English text of The Beggar’s Opera into German for Brecht and Weill to work on. But she gets virtually no credit today.)
Stephen Hinton writes in his book Misunderstanding The Threepenny Opera, "Weill conceived Die Dreigroschenoper as a work of experiment and reform. To use his term, it is a Zwischengattung, an ‘in-between genre,’ systematically between existing genres, historically a stepping-stone in a development toward a new type of musical theatre. . . It is not so much opera as opera about opera." In other words, it’s a meta-musical, like many of the shows it later inspired. Hinton writes about "Weill’s implicit flouting of the traditions of nineteenth-century opera and music-drama. This is not full-scale, grand opera, but a cheap ‘threepenny’ version. The old grand operatic form is suppressed by [art song], cabaret song, and ballad."
Very much like what Bat Boy and Urinetown did more recently.
Certainly, Three-Penny was a lot more adult than much of what had come before it. The show opened at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in August 1928. It was such a hit, additional companies were opened in Vienna, Budapest, Frankfurt, and Hamburg.
Bertolt Brecht was already forging a new kind of theatre in the early part of the twentieth century. He didn’t like the way most plays involved their audiences emotionally but not intellectually. Audiences laughed and cried but never thought about what was happening in the story. He wanted to create a theatre of ideas, a theatre of issues, and in order to encourage an audience’s intellectual involvement, he began to develop ways to continually remind the audience that they were in a theatre, to keep them from being too swept away by the story, to keep them from getting "lost" in the fictional reality that most other theatre writers strove to create and maintain.
Brecht would have actors step out of scenes to talk directly to the audience, and he would use songs that commented on what had just happened or was about to happen (again addressing the audience directly), rather than using only songs that sprang organically from the action. Today, this idea is not so revolutionary but when Brecht began to make theatre this way, it was bizarre. Today, concept musicals like Company, Follies, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chicago, Evita, Assassins, Rent, Bat Boy, Urinetown, The Wild Party, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot, and perhaps most of all, Sweeney Todd, are all extremely Brechtian in their construction and style.
When the mid-1950s revival of Threepenny opened in London, critic Kenneth Tynan wrote, "A Brechtian, let me explain, is one who believes that low drama with high principles is better than high principles with no audience, that the worst plays are those which depend wholly on suspense and the illusion of reality; and that the drama of the future will be a wedding in which neither partner marries beneath itself."
Dark, aggressive, and unrelenting in its social commentary, The Three-Penny Opera was a political satire for a new age and for a Germany on the brink of fascism and Nazism. The show also found success touring Europe, playing an estimated 10,000 performances over five years. One of Germany’s premier theatre critics, Herbert Jhering wrote in the Berliner Borsen-Courier:
The success of the Dreigroschenoper cannot be rated too highly. It represents the breakthrough into the public sphere of a type of theatre that is not oriented towards chic society. Not because beggars and burglars appear in it, without a thriller emerging, nor because a threatening underworld is in evidence which disregards all social ties. It is because the tone has been found that neither opposes nor negates morality, which does not attack norms but transcends them and which, apart from the travesty of the operatic model at the end, is neither parodic nor serious. Rather, it proclaims a different world in which the barriers between tragedy and humour have been erased. It is the triumph of open form.
Sounds a lot like Jerry Springer the Opera. The critic of Der Tag wrote:
Most important is what the thing as a whole attempts: to create from the dissolution of traditional theatrical categories something new that is all things at once: irony and symbol, grotesque and protest, opera and popular melody; an attempt which gives subversion the last word and which, leaving its theatrical claims aside, could represent an important phase in the otherwise directionless discussion about the form of the revue.
A decade later, Weill’s music publisher would write to him, "In certain private circles during the Nazi period, the songs of Die Dreigroschenoper were a kind of anthem and served as spiritual rejuvenation for many an oppressed soul." The show’s opening song, "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife") was based on a song form called "moritaten," literally, murder-deed song. It soon became the most popular song in Europe.
A German film version was made, Die 3groschenoper, by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and starring original cast member Lotte Lenya (the original Jenny, the wife of the composer and, not incidentally, a former prostitute). The film was an interesting preservation of the piece but not a great film, disjointed, too stagey for film and too filmic to be just a recording of the stage play, it ended up wandering somewhere in the middle. Still, some considered it a masterpiece and the German government thought it might be good anti-capitalist propaganda.
The film version’s editor, Jean Oser, said in an interview, "Three-Penny Opera was a very hot property at the time: it had come out as a big theatrical hit; in fact in was almost phenomenal how much it influenced a complete generation. It formed the entire pre-Hitler generation until 1933; for about five years every girl in the country wanted to marry a man like Mackie. Apparently, the ideal man was a pimp." The French made a film version, L’Opéra de Quat’Sous, filmed at the same time as the German film and on the same sets.
In 1933, Weill and Lenya were tipped off that they were on a list of Jewish intellectuals about to be arrested by the Gestapo. They escaped to Paris, and then to the U.S. Meanwhile, Hitler decided that Three-Penny was an attack on wholesome German family values and it was banned. In Hitler’s Museum of Degenerate Art (no kidding!), one room played songs from Three-Penny on an endless loop so that wholesome Germans could be outraged by them. But so many people came to listen to the great songs that the exhibit was hastily closed down.
The stage version of Threepenny (the hyphen now gone) was mounted in a total of 130 international productions already by 1933, when the show came to New York in a reproduction staging by Francesco von Mendelssohn. But New York was not yet ready for Brecht and it ran only twelve performances on Broadway. Critic Robert Garland wrote in The New York World Telegram, "A rebel of an operetta, it walks boldly and bitterly through the autumn in which we all reside, kicking up the leaves and applying lighted matches where lighted matches are sure to do the greatest harm. The trouble is that it does not laugh as it is doing so ... You’ll know what I mean when I say that The 3-Penny Opera is as humorless as Hitler." Wow. No wonder it ran 12 performances!
Director Brian Kulick says, "America didn’t fully understand Brecht’s black humor until Vietnam and Watergate, and in a way we’ve caught up with his humor. It was always there, but we couldn’t hear it. His ironic, one might say cynical, outlook just didn’t fit with a Rodgers and Hammerstein world. And now, post all these horrible things that have happened in the twentieth century, we’ve learned how to laugh the way Brecht laughed."
The show did better in Paris in 1937, in London in 1940, and in Milan in 1956. Desmond Vesey’s English translation of the show was preformed in America in 1945 and 1948, and later in a dual translation with Eric Bentley.
In 1934, fearing that his show would be misunderstood, Brecht wrote The Threepenny Novel, in which he expanded on his central themes, and gave us way more backstory of all the main characters. Brecht also continued to tinker with his show, making its satire, sharper, nastier, more truthful. After Kurt Weill’s death in 1950, fellow composer and lyricist Marc Blitzstein (who had written book, music, and lyrics for the very Brechtian The Cradle Will Rock, which he had dedicated to Brecht) decided to write a new translation of The Threepenny Opera. He had already worked on a few isolated songs from the score. With some strong nudging, Lotte Lenya agreed to allow a new production of Blitzstein’s translation. But they wanted her to recreate her original role of Jenny, and at age fifty-five, she didn’t think she could pull it off. Eventually she agreed to do it, and she became the cast’s stylistic advisor, teaching them Weill’s special style of speak-singing (sprechstimme), talking about the original production, about Weill and Brecht’s original intentions, and more.
The new Threepenny, directed by Carmen Capalbo, opened at the Theatre de Lys off Broadway in March 1954, using New York’s first thrust stage. Fifties Commie Hunter, Senator Joseph McCarthy, called Threepenny "a piece of anti-capitalist propaganda which exalts anarchical gangsterism and prostitutes over democratic law and order." Then the show was kicked out of the theatre after twelve weeks because of a prior booking. The public clamored for its return and so, a few months later, it came back to off Broadway in September 1955, and it ran 2,706 performances and six years, becoming the first off Broadway mega-hit, and causing a sea change in the philosophy of serious musical theatre in America.
Lotte Lenya won the 1956 Tony for her performance in Threepenny, even though the show ran off Broadway. The show itself was also given a Special Tony for "Distinguished Off Broadway Production."
Before his death, Brecht read Blitzstein’s translation and called it "magnificent." Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya mentioned in a letter to a colleague, "the admiration I have for [Blitzstein’s] work and my feeling that no other existing version gives a hint of Brecht’s poetry and power." Hans Heinsheimer, head of the opera division at Universal Edition music publishers, said, "Marc Blitzstein’s English adaptation was so true to Bert Brecht’s German original that we are hearing essentially the same piece that had taken Germany by storm twenty-four years earlier." Kim H. Kowalke writes in the Threepenny edition of the Cambridge Opera Handbooks series, "All in all, the final version of Blitzstein’s adaptation followed Brecht’s script more literally than it did Weill’s score. Although he had softened the tone of the original language in a number of places, made a few judicious cuts in the dialogue (the first preview still lasted nearly four hours), reordered some passages, and reinstated Gay’s opening to the brothel scene, Blitzstein’s script undermines the sense and shape of the 1928 libretto less obviously than does Brecht’s own literary version published in 1931 – the ‘authorized’ text, now often mistaken as the historically ‘authentic’ one."
Blitzstein’s translation also gave the world one of its greatest pop hits, "Mack the Knife." Unfortunately, stage censorship at the time prevented Blitzstein from being entirely faithful to the Brecht. Blitzstein’s version was also produced in London in 1956, and around the world since then, becoming the preferred translation. By the time it closed off Broadway, it had run longer than the longest-running Broadway musical at the time, Oklahoma! The Threepenny cast album had sold 500,000 copies, and "Mack the Knife" had forty different pop recordings, that had collectively sold over ten million copies.
In 1962 a lifeless, English-language film version was made called The Three Penny Opera (each version seems to have its own spacing and punctuation). In desperation, the producers tacked on a new, cheaply made opening to the film, in which Sammy Davis Jr. sang "Mack the Knife," and then they sold the film as "starring" Davis.
Back in Germany, Brecht’s own Berliner Ensemble finally added Threepenny to its repertoire in 1960, four years after its playwright’s death. Director Erich Engel wrote about why he revived the show, "Today, as before, it is useful, by way of consciousness raising, to utilize such a satire in order to submit to the viewer’s critique the adulteration of life under capitalism."
Threepenny returned to New York in 1976, starring Raul Julia, in a much grittier translation – free of 1950s censorship – for another 306 performances. Since that production, directors tend to cast "sexy" Macheaths, but that wasn’t what was intended. As Brecht himself wrote about his anti-hero, "He impresses women less as a handsome man than as a well-heeled one. There are English drawings of The Beggar’s Opera which show a short, stocky man of about forty with a head like a radish, a bit bald but not lacking dignity."
An excellent 1989 film version, Mack the Knife, starring Raul Julia, rock singer Roger Daltry, Richard Harris, and Julie Waters didn’t do well either, but in many ways, this version was closer to Brecht’s philosophy and theories on theatre, and his famous distancing effect. There have been other high-profile revivals, one with Sting, one with Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper, but they weren’t particularly successful.
The Living Tool of Satan
One of the surprises audiences discover when they see Threepenny for the first time, is how different the original "Mack the Knife" is musically from the pop versions we’re all used to, and also how much darker the full lyric is. Sinatra and Bobby Darin didn’t sing about Little Susie’s rape.
Marc Blitzstein’s original stage translation starts by introducing the main character and the themes of the show.
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear,
And he keeps it out of sight.
On a purely technical level, notice the sh sound repeated in the first two lines, and the ABAB rhyme pattern that’s set up, though the lyric won’t follow that consistently. These first four lines accomplish so much, in terms of content and structure. First of all, the show’s basic rules are set up right away. The Fourth Wall will be broken, the actors will directly address the audience, there will be story-songs, and there will be lots of dark, dark, dark irony.
Significantly, this very first image of the show is a shark. That tells you a great deal about what you need to know – this is a story about predators. But notice that the first line also invokes the idea of attraction with the word pretty, which acts as a hint at Mack’s seductive powers. As we watch the story unfold, we’ll remember this metaphor of a deadly predator to describe our (anti-)hero for the evening, Capt. Macheath. Then in a bit of delicious irony, we’re told that Macheath is less dangerous – he "just" has a jackknife, i.e., a switchblade, as if that’s not scary enough – and also that Mack is more discreet. Than a shark. He’s sort of bourgeois (and we’ll see more of that in the wedding scene). He doesn’t flaunt his weapon the way the shark shows off his. It’s the word just that gives this stanza its irony. There are lots of predators in the world, the lyric is saying; Macheath is the least of your worries...
But his discretion makes him all the more dangerous. You know the shark will get you. You never know when Mack will...
There are other translations. Here is the first verse from John Willett’s 1970s translation:
See the shark has teeth like razors,
All can read his open face;
And Macheath has got a knife, but
Not in such an obvious place!
This one is fairly faithful to the original German, but it’s a really terrible theatre lyric. How on earth do you read the face of a shark? And what does it mean for a shark to have an "open face"? And why put the unimportant word but on such a strong beat? Plus you have to add a note to make "obvious place" work. That’s not very good translating. Eric Bentley’s 1964 translation is just as awkward:
And the shark he has his teeth and
There they are for all to see.
And Macheath he has his knife but
No one knows where it may be.
Again, the unimportant words and and but (and others) are set on heavy beats. Set to the music, it sounds like Mack has a knife-butt, whatever that might be. The lyric just isn’t strong enough, aggressive enough to introduce this story. "There they are" is about as passive as it can be. Notice that in Blitzstein’s version, it’s "and he shows them." It’s active rather than passive. The shark has awareness. It’s also weak for Bentley to start the first song of the show with "And..." Blitzstein starts with "Oh," an exclamation.
In all fairness, Brecht’s original also starts with "And..." and is in a more passive voice. Bentley’s translation is the closest to Brecht’s, but it’s also the weakest English version. Blitzstein is true to Brecht’s images and ideas, while also writing an excellent song lyric.
Michael Feingold’s 1989 lyric adds a new idea that isn’t in Brecht’s lyric –
Oh the shark’s teeth, you can see them
Always ready to attack;
But you won’t see Mackie’s knife blade,
Till you feel it in your back.
Jeremy Sims’ 1994 version retains that extra idea:
Though the shark’s teeth may be lethal,
Still you see them white and red;
But you won’t see Mackie’s flick-knife
‘Cause he slashed you and you’re dead!
But it doesn’t totally makes sense. The shark’s teeth may be lethal? They both get to the same idea as Blitzstein, that you won’t see Mack commit the crime, but they make it a little funnier by adding that the main reason you won’t see him is he’s already killed you. But wouldn’t that also be true of the shark...? And how could you see it once you feel it in your back, anyway? Also, weirdly, Feingold makes it sound like sharks swim on the surface of the water with their mouths forever agape. You can see why we chose the Blitzstein translation.
Blitzstein’s second stanza continues the images of the first, and it starts to reveal the song’s structure...
When the shark bites with his teeth, dear,
Scarlet billows start to spread.
Fancy gloves, though, wears Macheath, dear,
So there’s not a trace of red.
Again, Mack is discreet. He doesn’t make a mess. He’s positively genteel. For a rapist-murderer. But take a look at this verse in the Willett translation:
See the shark, how red his fins are
As he slashes at his prey;
Mack the Knife wears white kid gloves which
Give the minimum away!
The first line may look okay on the page, but in rhythm, it goes, "See the shark how... red his fins are..." Also, it’s hard to sing "white kid gloves" that quickly. And once again, Willett, sets the unimportant which on a really heavy beat, and he places minimum across a half-measure rest, so in rhythm, it goes, "Give the mi-ni... mum away." That’s terrible.
Back to Blitzstein...
On the sidewalk Sunday morning
Lies a body oozing life.
Someone’s sneaking ‘round the corner.
Is the someone Mack the Knife?
As I said above, it’s that discretion that is his deadliest weapon. You never see him coming, and neither does anyone else. "He keeps it out of sight."
And in terms of craft, this stanza is so great. First, there are all those S sounds – "On the sidewalk Sunday morning, lies a body oozing life. Someone’s sneaking round the corner. Is the someone Mack the Knife?" And there are multiple terminal Z sounds in there that contribute to the effect. It almost makes Mack subliminally snake-like..
From a tugboat by the river
A cement bag’s dropping down.
The cement’s just for the weight, dear.
Bet you Mackie’s back in town.
Once again, the word just lends the verse a satiric casualness, as does the word dear throughout the song. But beyond the words, there’s a very smart structure here too. The first verse introduces the killer. In the second verse, he attacks someone ("when the shark bites"). In the third verse, the victim dies ("a body oozing life"). In this fourth verse, the body is disposed of, in the river. None of this is concretely tied to Mack, but we know it’s him.
Now the song gets more specific in its violence. Now, it’s not just "a body" – it’s women. Once the song starts mentioning names, making it personal, it gets more unsettling.
Sloppy Sadie was discovered
With a knife wound in her thigh.
And Macheath strolls down on dock street,
Looking dreamy at the sky.
Now the attacks become sexual. Beyond the knife wound, are we to believe these last two lines describe Mack’s satisfaction after a rape? Is he that stone-cold? We don’t have to wonder long...
There was rape down by the harbor.
Little Susie caused a stir,
Claiming that she’d been assaulted.
Wonder what got into her?
This may be the most disturbing verse in the song. First, this is the first time the song has actually mentioned rape, and the victim is "Little Susie." Sure, maybe that’s a whore’s nickname, but you can’t help but picture a little girl. And then it gets worse – she’s only "claiming" that she’s been assaulted, implying that it may not be true, even though the lyric stipulates that she has indeed been raped. She "caused a stir" by reporting the crime committed against her. And the verse ends with the dismissal, the trivialization of her rape – "Wonder what got into her?" That last line stings so much because it both makes light of her attack with a dirty joke, and also implies that she wouldn’t be believed if she pressed charges.
In these more aware times, as our culture grapples with the problem of rape and sexual assault, it’s probably harder to hear that verse now than at any time in the past. Especially with the upbeat music that accompanies it.
Why won’t she be taken seriously? Because it’s Mack the Knife. So we repeat the first stanza to end the song, creating musical and narrative bookends. Mackie just has a switchblade, after all. And he keeps it out of sight. Which is a big metaphor (though a first-time audience won’t know it yet) for Mack’s far-reaching political corruption. Keeping his knife "out of sight" represents, among other things, the deal he’s made with Tiger Brown to keep his offenses out of the public record.
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear,
And he keeps it out of sight.
But wait, there’s more.
The script provides us four more "alternate" verses. There are no guidelines about using them. Apparently, the original version had eleven verses. Here are the alternates:
Louie miller disappeared, dear,
After drawing out his cash.
And Macheath spends like a sailor.
Did our boy do something rash?
Sukey Tawdry, Jenny Diver,
Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown –
Oh, the line forms on the right, dear,
Now that Mackie’s back in town.
Hey, what happened to that hackie
Used to take drunks home for free?
He was last seen driving Mackie –
But says Mackie: "Why ask me?"
Big explosion at the market.
Twenty people blown to death.
In the crowd stands wide-eyed Mackie,
Only slightly out of breath.<
This first of the alternates expands on Mack’s criminal enterprises, but it doesn’t set up anything important. The second alternate is a list of Mack’s multiple women, which is a core element of the plot, and references Mack’s mysterious appeal to women. The third stanza here is like the first, interesting, but adding nothing of value. The last one is really brutal, and does add some narrative value.
Of the five different translations of Threepenny, Blitzstein’s lyrics may be tamer than Brecht’s, but they are also far and away the best stage writing and the best storytelling of all the versions. The other translations of "Mack the Knife" mostly just list a different crime in every verse, some of them rape-murders, some just robberies and other crimes. (Though again, in all fairness, so did Brecht’s original.) None of them does what Blitzstein does, introducing the character and establishing Mack’s preoccupation (what Mrs. Peachum calls his "dependency") with women, which is both Mack’s tragic flaw and the primary driver of the story.
And none of the others capture that playful, smartass charm that defines the show, nearly as well as Blitzstein. It’s Blitzstein’s version that schooled theatre artists like Sondheim, Hal Prince, Kander & Ebb, and others, on how to write an opening number for a concept musical – something which didn’t exist yet when Blitzstein translated Threepenny.
Maybe the most disturbing thing about "Mack the Knife," though it may not be registered consciously, is that his horrific litany of crime and violence represents a kind of stable balance at the beginning of our narrative. After all, this opening song essentially sets up Macheath as Jack the Ripper. This is the "balance" that the Peachums will upset, which will propel the action. Unpunished rape and murder is the "order" in this universe. And ultimately, when balance is restored at the end of the story, it restores Jack the Ripper and his unpunished rapes and murders. And that’s the fierce, pitch black social satire at the center of all of this. And it’s all there in the first song of the show. All before we even meet Mack.
But "Mack the Knife" returns at the end of the show for two more verses:
Happy ending, nice and tidy.
It’s a rule I learned in school.
Get your money every Friday.
Happy endings are the rule.
What is the song saying here at the end of the show? That we can leave the nightmare world of Macheath’s SoHo and return safely to our homes? That we can go back to our routines, safe in the knowledge that everything ends well? Well, not exactly. That’s what we think we’ll do. But like the rest of the show, nothing here is that simple. This is related to what Brecht’s final verse said, though different. Here’s a literal translation of the original ending:
And now comes the happy ending,
All are reconciled.
Is the money on hand?
Is the end mostly good?
But then Blitzstein adds another stanza that’s not in the original:
So divide up those in darkness
From the ones who walk in light.
Light ‘em up, boys, there’s your picture.
Drop the shadows out of sight.
What’s the point here? The lyric is referencing Isaiah 9:2, "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined." We’re the ones who’ve seen the great light, the sociopolitical enlightenment that Threepenny has given us. This final verse is talking about leaving behind the time of darkness and finding redemption. The show is telling us, like Scrooge on the third night, that this darkness is not inevitable, that it is in our hands to take ourselves out of the darkness, to "drop the shadows out of sight." It’s invoking a kind of existential redemption, which also connects to all the Christ references throughout the show, but it’s a redemption that relies on us, not on a savior.
Blitzstein’s final verse steps out of the world of Threepenny. Brecht’s final verse stays inside that sly, dry, capitalist satire. Maybe Brecht’s final verse was in tune with 1920s postwar Germany in the same way that Blitzstein’s final verse was in tune with 1950s postwar America, heading toward the tumultuous 1960s. Set consciously in the second-person imperative, this last lyric calls on us to "divide up those in darkness," those who are trapped in this dark fable, "from the ones who walk in light," those of us who will do something to change the world for the better.
Like "Let the Sun Shine In" at the end of the very Brechtian Hair, this is a call to action.
The Cement’s Just for the Weight, Dear
Composer Kurt Weill wrote about Threepenny:
Nearly all worthwhile operatic experiments in recent years [leading up to the late 1920s] have been basically destructive in character. With The Threepenny Opera, reconstruction became possible, since it allowed us to start again from scratch. What we were aiming to create was the prototype of music theatre. With every musical work for the stage the question arises: how is music, particularly song, at all possible in the theatre? Here the question was resolved in the most primitive way possible. I had a realistic plot, so I had to set the music against it, since I do not consider music capable of realistic effects. Hence the action was either interrupted, in order to introduce music, or it was deliberately driven to a point where there was no alternative but to sing.
The piece, furthermore, presented us with the opportunity to make ‘opera’ the subject matter for an evening in the theatre. At the very beginning of the piece the audience is told: ‘Tonight you are going to see an opera for beggars. Since this opera was intended to be as splendid as only beggars can imagine, and yet cheap enough for beggars to be able to watch, it is called The Threepenny Opera.’ Thus the Act III finale is in no way a parody. Rather, the idea of opera was directly exploited as a means of resolving a conflict and thus shaping the action. Consequently it had to be presented in its purest, most pristine form.
This return to a primitive form of opera entailed a far-reaching simplification of musical language. The task was to write music that could be sung by actors, that is, by musical amateurs. At first this appeared to be a limitation. As work progressed, however, it proved to be an enormous enrichment. Only the realization of a coherent, identifiable melodic line made possible The Threepenny Opera’s real achievement: the creation of a new type of musical theatre.
You can’t tell from these characters’ behavior who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist, between Mack and Peachum. But you can distinguish those roles through the conventions of musical comedy, by the kind of songs they sing. After all, this isn’t really an opera; it’s a musical comedy, filtered through the amazing but weirdly distorted lens of Brecht and Weill.
It’s a romantic musical comedy that doesn’t want you emotionally involved. It’s obvious Mack is never sincere, even when he’s singing a love song with Polly. Everything that makes a romantic musical comedy is here but massively subverted. This is a musical comedy that refuses to end with our hero and heroine together. Brecht and Weill were searching for new ways to tell a story with music, at just about the same time that Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern were also seeking new ways to move beyond old-school musical comedy. Like Threepenny Opera, Show Boat was a musical comedy (in its form) that forced its audience to confront intensely serious social issues.
The Threepenny Opera’s central theme is that people can’t be heroic, can’t even be humane, inside the inhumane, broken economic system of capitalism. Our world today is not far removed from the world of Threepenny.
Capitalism is not a system of morality, only a system of capital: money and labor. When morality (not to be confused with religion) is taken or kept out of our economic system, we get Ebenezer Scrooge and the Koch Brothers; and we get today’s minimum wage of $2.13 for restaurant servers. The War on Drugs was never a well thought-out policy designed to solve a problem; it began as little more than a Nixon campaign slogan, designed to terrify racist, middle-class white voters. But it created a permanent economic underclass, trapped by failed communities and oppressed by police, communities where the only viable option for many young men is crime and the drug trade. Are they that different from Filch in the show, starving on his own, till he joins up with Peachum’s criminal enterprises?
The great philosopher and teacher Joseph Campbell once said of Darth Vader, "He isn’t living in terms of humanity; he’s living in terms of a system." And that’s the crux of Threepenny, the unbalance at the heart of the story. Morality is impossible in such dire economic circumstances, Brecht is telling us. Perhaps Threepenny is a closer companion piece to Brecht’s Mother Courage than we thought.
But there’s even more here...
In an aggressive act of literary and cultural subversion, Brecht made Macheath, the thief, rapist, and serial polygamist, into a Christ figure. Stephen Hinton writes in "Misunderstanding The Threepenny Opera," an essay in the Cambridge Opera Handbooks:
The most striking irreverences in the Threepenny text concern the Bible. Sacred means are used to profane ends. ‘Wake up, you corrupt Christian,’ sings Mr. Peachum in his opening ‘Morning Hymn’. The alert listener will indeed stumble across a whole host of biblical quotations and allusions. For example: Polly’s lyric, ‘Anywhere you go, I will go with you’ in the ‘Love Song’ is lifted verbatim from Ruth 1:16 (‘Whither thou goest’ etc.). It is first of all quoted by Mr. and Mrs. Peachum with a blasphemous ‘Jonny’ tacked on the end in their ‘Instead Of Song,’ and twice parodied by Polly when she becomes ‘poetic’ before the first finale, quoting the exchanges between Macheath and Brown: ‘If you down another [cocktail], then I want to down another one, too’ and, with lavatorial euphemism, ‘If you go somewhere, then I want to go somewhere, too.’
Peachum’s ‘And when he asks for bread to eat, not get a stone.’ in the first finale is a paraphrase of Matthew 7:9 (‘Being given bread to eat and not a stone’). Macheath’s fate may even be seen to parallel in its broad contours the fate of Jesus Christ. The marriage to Polly, the beginning of the story, takes place in a stable. Presents are brought, not by kings but by gangsters. Mack, like Christ, is betrayed on a Thursday and is to be executed on a Friday. Mrs. Peachum bribes Jenny, just as the Caiaphas paid Judas. Brown, like Peter, disowns his friend. In Scene 6, Mack borrows from Luke 22:61-62: ‘I looked at him and he wept bitterly’, adding ‘I learnt the trick from the Bible.’ Jesus begs forgiveness for the sins of others; Macheath for his own. Jesus is raised from the dead; Macheath reprieved by the King’s Messenger. When asked by the magazine Die Dame in October 1928 about ‘the strongest influence’ on his work, Brecht replied: ‘You’ll laugh: the Bible.’ He was probably being serious. Not necessarily identified as such by the audience, the biblical quotations and innuendoes nonetheless strike a familiar chord as common clichés.
The bottom line is this. Threepenny is certainly an old show, first premiering in Berlin in 1928, but it is as timely and as relevant as last night’s news. This is a show that tells the truth, about then, about now, about humanity at any and all times. This is a show that pushes all our buttons to shock us into paying attention. This really is a neo musical comedy, even though it was written nearly a century ago.
The Noble Poor Are Nobly Underfed
The Threepenny Opera often drives actors and directors crazy. None of the Threepenny characters have any redeeming qualities, and that many of the lines seem trivial and unimportant. And beyond that, they don’t understand how such an angry, aggressive, even condescending show can engage and entertain an audience. But there are lots of ways to engage an audience. People don’t want only diversion. And despite what many people parrot, audiences do not want escape. More than anything, they want the truth. And they seek connection and understanding, through that truth.
Escape is disconnection. That’s not what audiences want and it’s not what Threepenny’s bookwriter and lyricist Bertolt Brecht wanted. With most shows – and in particular, most musicals – the idea is to get the audience on the hero’s side, to get them to empathize with the protagonist(s), so that they are emotionally invested in getting to the resolution of the central conflict. But Brecht very intentionally and aggressively stepped away from that basic premise of storytelling. He didn’t just step away from it. He wrestled it to the ground, took a shit on it, ran over it with his car, doused it in gasoline, and set it on fire. No, this is a horror show.
In Brecht’s theatre, the idea is to get the audience to recognize a great social truth or problem, and to understand its effects on our/their lives. Threepenny’s central argument is that it’s not possible to be a moral or decent person, and also survive, in modern capitalism. And let’s be honest, for many people in America today, that is true or at least nearly true. Half (or more) of the songs in the show are about that idea, directly or indirectly. It’s a very different animal from its source, The Beggar’s Opera, which is far more modest in its satire.
In other words, like its descendants, Bat Boy, Chicago, Cabaret, and Urinetown, Threepenny’s agenda is to present a sociological (comedy) horror show, in order to convince the audience that our economic and political systems must change. The show presents the "monsters" these systems have created, for your moral horror. It’s a Frankenstein story but we are the mad scientist. Instead of zombies robbed of their humanity, these monsters are just regular people, just like you and me, robbed of their humanity. And it’s the banality of their lives that makes the horror so potent, and the satire so funny. They’re not transformed into monsters by a supervillain or a radioactive spider, but by us, by the society that we are all part of.
We are to blame, Brecht is saying.
What makes the show most unsettling is that morality is not just subverted here; it is absent. It is an unaffordable luxury. Jenny can’t afford not to turn Mack in. The Peachums can’t afford not to get rid of the competition. The police can’t afford not to take bribes. The gang can’t afford not to steal. At least in the world of Brecht’s Threepenny. There are three "families" here, the Peachums, the Browns, and Mack’s People, and each of them has their own power. The Browns have the power of the law and the government, the Peachums have the power of the masses (and of shame?), and Mack and Co. have the power (and freedom) of amorality. Their power is in having no consequences for their actions. Brecht and composer Kurt Weill are not asking you to approve; they are asking you to understand. They’re not offering up an excuse; just an explanation.
Brecht has created a reverse morality tale, a stark, cautionary tale like Reefer Madness was supposed to be. But Brecht is serious in his comedy, and he’s arguably right. It’s not a crazy idea that a broken society creates broken people. In fact, that’s also the central theme of Bonnie & Clyde and Jerry Springer the Opera; while Rent and Hands on a Hardbody made the opposite argument, that even in a broken society, we can rise above it and find our way.
Brecht wrote this about Mr. J.J. Peachum:
The Threepenny Opera takes us into the milieu of London’s criminal districts, Soho and Whitechapel, which are still, as they were two hundred years ago, the refuge of the poorest and not always most transparent strata of London’s population. Mr. Jonathan Peachum has a novel way of capitalizing on human misery by artificially fitting out healthy human beings as cripples and sending them out to beg, thereby making a profit from the sympathy of the prosperous classes. He does not do this because he is in any way innately bad. "My position in the world is one of self-defense" – that is his principle which continually forces him to act with the utmost decisiveness.
When Brecht first read The Beggar’s Opera (the source for Threepenny), he was struck by "the danger of a society that values money over equality and justice." He saw that happening in 1920s Germany, and it’s easy to see now as well.
Brecht died in the 1950s but he’s still talking to us. He’s telling us that there is a price to pay for amoral, unfettered capitalism, for wild income inequality, and for an apathetic electorate. He’s telling us that if we don’t want our world to look like Threepenny, we have to act, we have to take power, we have to use our Democracy as it was intended, to work the will of all the people, not just the will of Tiger Brown, the Peachums, and their modern counterparts... who themselves could never begin to live on our minimum wage...
Here’s how Mack puts it in "Ballad of the Easy Life" in Act II:
A question please: Is this what you call living?
Then take a little tip from Mack the Knife.
While still a child, I heard it with misgiving:
The bulging pocket makes the easy life.
They tell you that the best in life is mental;
Just starve yourself, and do a lot of reading,
Up in some garret, where the rats are breeding.
Should you survive, it’s purely accidental.
If that’s your pleasure, go on, live that way –
But since I’ve had it up to here, I’m through.
There’s not a dog from here to Timbuctoo
Would care to live that life a single day.
So listen closely to Mack the Knife:
The bulging pocket makes the easy life.
Now once I used to think it might be worthy
To be a brave and sacrificing person.
I soon found out it wasn’t reimbursin’;
Decided to continue being earthy.
The noble poor are nobly underfed,
And being brave will bring an empty fame;
You’re all alone with no one else to blame.
You’re mingling with the great, but you are dead.
Where’s the percentage? Ask Mack the Knife:
The bulging pocket makes the easy life.
Of course, Mack’s solution to the problem is not to solve income inequality for all, just for him. He is, Brecht’s arguing, the inevitable result of the kind of selfish, amoral economics that have guided the West for much of our history, a problem we’ve created but one we aren’t willing to solve – a point driven home forcefully and comically in the show’s ridiculous ending.
Which is why the revivals of Threepenny keep coming. When Mack sings, "So listen closely to Mack the Knife," he means it. And we’d better hear him.
Such a Wonderful Lot of Terrible Things
Pamela Katz has written the book The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink, about Threepenny composer Kurt Weill, lyricist-bookwriter Bertolt Brecht, and the women who worked with them – Elizabeth Hauptmann, who worked with Brecht on the text for Threepenny and other projects; Brecht’s wife and muse, the actor Helene Weigel, who would create the role of Mother Courage; and Weill’s wife and muse, the singer and actor Lotte Lenya, who would create the role of Jenny, and then play it again in the long-running off Broadway production years later.
No doubt many actors are relieved to read one passage in particular, about the original production in Berlin:
This new form of musical drama was difficult for the actors to understand. They were accustomed to sincerity and satire as separate entities – operetta was saccharine, Berlin cabaret was scathing – and the mixture of tones was confusing. Weigel and Lenya were the only ones in the cast who had experienced Brecht and Weill’s technique of portraying and commenting simultaneously. [The actor playing Macheath] spent a lot of time in his dressing room, "alone and miserable... This is the first time in my life that I don’t know what I am doing," he said to Weill’s sympathetic friend. "They’re all maniacs. I have no idea what the whole thing is about. All I know is that it’s a disaster."
Though Brecht and Weill first set out to do a new adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera, they eventually saw that they were creating something genuinely new, that needed a new title. Here’s how they decided on one, according to Katz:
On one particularly rough day, Brecht sat imperiously in the house and openly entertained suggestions for a new title from anyone who cared to contribute. "It was the writer Lion Feuchtwanger, among the distinguished kibitzers who wandered in and out of the stalls," [Lotte] Lenya remembered, "who suggested a new title for the work, Die Dreigroschenoper." Drei means "three," and Groschen was the word used for a ten-cent coin. The word Groschen, however, was used as "penny" in English. Feuchtwanger’s title was a clear reference to an inexpensive type of book known as "penny novels" that were quite popular in the 1920s, and Brecht was quickly convinced that the title captured the play’s essence. "Since this opera was intended to be as splendid as only beggars can imagine," Brecht wrote, "and yet cheap enough for beggars to be able to watch, it is called The Threepenny Opera." The title had particular relevance in the summer of 1928. The government had recently passed a controversial measure – the Law to Protect Youth from Trashy and Filthy Writings – which attempted to ban penny novels and other forms of cheap literature. The idea of a Threepenny Opera poked fun at the conservative hatred for inexpensive mass-market books that purportedly encouraged the bad values of modern urban life.
Katz also writes:
The traditional function of a song or aria is to allow a performer to impart the emotional sensibility of their character – their feelings of love, hate, revenge, and mercy. A song allows them to bare their soul. Brecht and Weill’s songs were, conversely, the moment to stand back and analyze or satirize – often to provoke a contradictory impression. They portray a pimp who felt true love for a woman he has been beating and selling, an ingenue who is anything but innocent, a blushing bride who sings of a servant girl who dreams of murder. If the audience hadn’t yet been pulled off the "single track" that Brecht disdained, the songs and the music would surely activate the switch. But [original director Erich] Engel wasn’t sure it would be possible to engage an audience in this multilayered musical play – one that portrayed a literal story and an icy parody all at once – without some purely emotional moments. The actors had to reach the audience on that visceral level before they jumped back and exposed an equally strong satirical perspective. Engel was all for subverting the traditional suspension of disbelief, but did it have to be so relentless? Shouldn’t they be sure that the rug was properly laid, and comfortable to walk on, before pulling it out from under the audience? Shouldn’t the songs provide some of that comfort?
Finally, Engel had to ask the question of how far one could stray from psychological elements before a work becomes cold and alienating. This was a difficult judgment to make in this new form of entertainment, and it is not surprising that it caused profound conflicts. A director must be engaged with the inner psychological motivations of his actors, and Engel had to make sure an actor’s performance dominated the song and not the other way around. This came into conflict with Brecht and Weill’s strict ideas of Gestus, where the contrast between the lyrics and the music invoked analysis over emotion – where the psychological involvement of a single performer was replaced by multiple perspectives.
Now you can see why the actors can get confused by this crazy, wonderful piece of theatre. And the show is as unconventional and quirky musically as it is conceptually. Weill also mixed conventional chords with the occasional "non-chord." The typical journey over the keys of a piano sometimes veered off the harmonic pathway in unexpected directions. The individual chords aren’t abrasive in themselves – it is just that they often have an extra note or two that no traditional composer would have added, giving them a special tanginess that had never been heard before. You’ll notice that the scores of Cabaret, Company, and March of the Falsettos all use that musical signature throughout.
Weill’s music surprised the audience especially because it neither obeyed the rules of the austerely modern Schoenberg school nor was it always conventionally melodic. Weill had in fact discovered an entirely new country between tonal and atonal music. The music fused with the lyrics to signal the future, simultaneously waving a clear and conscious goodbye to the past. Whether they were tourists or scholars, reviewers or musicologists, it was obvious to everyone who heard Lenya sing the "Alabama Song" [from Mahagonny] that this style had entered the world to stay.
And lest we leave out Brecht’s lyrics, Katz writes, "Brecht had done what no one had done before. He had caught the sound of everyday speech without sacrificing the power of great poetry."
The musical theatre today is far more sophisticated and realistic in content than it was in the 1920s, but even today, Threepenny’s content seems so dark and still so unconventional. In many ways it feels as fresh as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which uses many Brecht-Weill devices. Katz writes:
Brecht and Weill had already shocked the elite music crowd by introducing prostitutes, drinkers, and gamblers into an opera [Mahagonny] at an esoteric festival. By offering sophisticated social satire in the context of a popular and entertaining musical, they were just as fiercely challenging the conventional expectations of the popular theater. This original mixture of high and low elements was fast becoming their signature. Since existing genres of musical drama no longer related to the modern world, boundaries and borders had to be blended, redrawn, and, quite often, simply erased.
The theatre critic Walter Benjamin was very insightful in comparing Threepenny to its much older source, The Beggar’s Opera. writing, "Brecht grasped that 200 years had not been able to loosen the alliance that poverty had sealed with vice, but rather that this alliance is as enduring as a social order whose consequence is poverty... The counter-morality of the beggars and rogues is bound up with the official morality... Thus, [Threepenny] which on account of its picturesque setting appeared distant, became at a stroke something of considerable relevance."
Macheath is an immoral representative of an amoral world, and the ambiguous nature of morality itself forms the essential core of the play’s thematic landscape. This was best expressed by one of Brecht’s most staggering explosions of poetic genius: the line "First comes food, then comes morality" [in "What Keeps a Man Alive" in the Act II finale]. The most obvious interpretation of this phrase is that in a world where people are hungry, they are entitled to break the law, or any moral code, in order to eat. The only cure is social justice. And yet, as the play made clear, crime is not limited to the hungry or to the lower classes. If anything, corruption is more rampant, and certainly more hypocritical, among the wealthy. The poor steal to stave off poverty, the rich steal to remain rich. Pointedly, it is Macheath and Mrs. Peachum who sing the lyrics – two characters who are distinguished by their greed and bourgeois ambitions – proving that Brecht was not claiming that stealing is only a consequence of poverty.
According to The Partnership, "Ever since Brecht’s father had criticized him for failing to contribute to society with his work, the angry son felt driven to prove that his writing was as valuable as a loaf of bread, or as useful as the paper upon which it was written. With the advent of New Objectivity, artists would no longer be seen as bohemian dreamers but instead as construction workers helping to build a better world. Art must deal with the problems of the age and have a direct, practical influence on contemporary life."
That Old-Fashioned Love Tickle
Aaron Skirboll’s book The Thief-Taker Hangings: How Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Wild, and Jack Sheppard Captivated London and Created the Celebrity Criminal, gives us some insights into the real people who became characters in The Beggar’s Opera and Threepenny, Jonathan Wild, real-life model for Jonathan Peachum; Capt. Jack Sheppard, real-life model for Capt. Macheath; Prime Minister Jonathan Walpole, who apparently is satirized through both characters; and some other real people who may be the models for Tiger Brown and Mrs. Peachum. It’s fascinating to see how these real people became characters in The Beggar’s Opera, then characters in Threepenny, and also to see what elements of character and story come from real life.
Skirboll writes, "Whatever the people of London thought of crime, they all shared an unquenchable longing for news in general, and specifically for stories about the lives of criminals." That sort of makes The Beggar’s Opera and Threepenny thematic companion pieces to Chicago and Natural Born Killers. Skirboll also writes, "Men and women went to jail for being poor and came out criminals." Exactly what’s happening right now with nonviolent drug offenders.
Skirboll describes Wild/Peachum and Shepard/Macheath this way: "An eighteenth-century Al Capone, Jonathan Wild was the first man to organize crime for profit and the first criminal whose name everyone in the city knew. A burglar and a prison breaker, Jack Sheppard had much in common with John Dillinger. In late 1724, a manhunt for him grabbed the city’s attention like no other story and drove newspaper sales skyward. Sheppard the housebreaker ran, and thief-taker Wild chased him."
A thief-taker in the early 1700s, when The Beggar’s Opera opened, was essentially what we now call a bounty hunter. Wild would track down criminals and bring them in for the reward money. Skirboll writes, "In short time, Wild made himself useful to many different bands of thieves, and he did so ingeniously, without ever partaking in the thievery himself. He became a manager of sorts, and as he’d promised himself, he learned to make a profit with his head and not his hands. He used the information presented to him and advised and directed individual gang members into paths of profit. Various gangs depended on him to plan their schemes."
It’s amazing how close Peachum is to Wild, in so many details: "With his crew on board, Wild began keeping track of all the illicit action going on in the city. In essence, he was sharpening a tactic he had learned while roaming the streets with [Charles] Hitchen [a possible model for Tiger Brown], who always made sure to query his mathematicians as to where they’d been so as to know the corners where each set of rogues normally worked. Wild took this technique further, religiously recording every detail in a logbook: name, inventory, location, etc. By observing Hitchen, Wild also learned about the art of patience when negotiating. He saw that Hitchen lacked that skill, and when the marshal couldn’t agree to terms with a client, he looked to unload the goods some other way. Wild, on the other hand, stayed the course when looking to strike a deal. In fact, he often compelled the client to wait under the pretense that he was running himself ragged over the ordeal, thus driving up the price."
So how did the real Peachum become who he became? He met Mary Milliner, who may be the model for Mrs. Peachum: "In The Tyburn Chronicle, Mary Milliner is described as ‘a common streetwalker’ who had ‘run the whole circle of vice, knew all the ways of the town, and most of its felonious inhabitants.’ But Milliner was more than a whore. She knew how to earn money from an array of shady activities. Both well versed and well connected, she usually didn’t stay locked up for long. She was too smart for that. Milliner was the wife of a Thames waterman, but the underworld knew her as a ‘buttock and file’ as well – a prostitute and a pickpocket. Skilled at her work, she often pursued both functions simultaneously, robbing some poor sot while she had sex with him.
"Before meeting Milliner, Wild had been stockpiling knowledge of the underworld. Now he realized how little he knew. She revealed a whole new world to the young debtor. Milliner’s domain consisted predominantly of thieves and whores. She introduced her new beau around, and soon he was learning myriad new techniques for making money.
"Under Milliner’s tutelage, Wild made numerous friends and associates. His aptitude concerning thievery had grown to the point where other inmates often called on him for advice, telling him the particulars of their plans. Wild’s counsel often proved beneficial to the thieves, and like an ace handicapper, he became the man to see. One contemporary account referred to him in his new Compter role as ‘a kind of Oracle amongst the Thieves.’". . .
. . . "Wild’s pardon was announced in the London Gazette on November 4, 1712. Come December, he was a free man again. He and Milliner moved in together, shacking up in Lewkenor’s Lane, Covent Garden. Both were already married, but the two lived together as a married couple, Milliner the second of six Mrs. Wilds. The new lovers opened a brothel, and Wild officially began his life as a career criminal."
As you might expect if you know Threepenny, Wild and Milliner’s marriage didn’t last very long... "By the end of 1714, Wild’s relationship with Milliner had run its course. The pair split just before the New Year. Some accounts say little to nothing before moving on to Wild’s next wife; other accounts speak of a violent parting, such as the 1768 The Tyburn Chronicle: Or, The Villainy Display’d in All Its Branches, which says of Milliner: "She had some time so provoked him to wrath, that he swore he would mark her for a bitch, and thereupon drawing his sword, he cut off one of her ears. This occasioned a divorce." The author then stated that Wild gave Milliner a weekly pension after their parting, "in a grateful consideration of the service she had done him, by bringing him into so large an acquaintance."
In The Partnership, Katz writes, "Pointedly, the play does not judge the individually corrupt natures of Peachum, Tiger Brown, and Macheath; it instead provokes the audience to judge the structures of power. And once corruption is exposed, the audience can yearn for change. A central element of the dramatic experience, Brecht realized, was to reveal a world that was not only imperfect but also changeable. The ability to recognize the flaws of society offered the possibility for improvement. Only plays that delivered the harshest critique could inspire the spectator’s hope for the future." And this was one hell of a harsh critique. Katz writes, "The power of the play was in the impossibility of figuring out who is good and who is bad." Just like real life.
So Learn the Simple Truth from This, Our Song
Even geniuses have moments of doubt.
On the morning of Threepenny’s opening night in 1928, Bertolt Brecht was in a panic. Would people like Threepenny? Would they understand it? Would they ponder its issues the way he wanted? In a move of pure desperation, he told the set designer, he needed a life-sized, mechanical, metal horse for the Queen’s messenger to ride in on, at the end of the show.
It was built, they couldn’t get it to work right, time was ticking away, and they had other tech issues still to work out before opening a few hours later. Begrudgingly, Brecht agreed to cut the horse. After it fell off the stage into the audience. But he was still terrified that his great experiment would fail.
Brecht and Weill were both utterly disappointed in the theatre they saw around them and they wanted to change it all, to lay siege to all that came before and start fresh. And that’s pretty much what they did. Perhaps that same impulse led us into this new Golden Age for the musical theatre, starting back in the mid-1990s. What were Rent, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Hedwig, Floyd Collins, Noise/Funk, Songs for a New World, if not the rejection of the bombast and superficiality of musical theatre in the 80s?
Threepenny was the first commercial success to employ Brecht’s famous (infamous?) distancing effect. More than most, this is a piece of theatre that demands you think about what you’re seeing and hearing. Here’s a freaky, satiric scene that was cut from Threepenny, which was supposed to happen after Mack’s march to the gallows, right before the finale. (In the final version, all this dialogue is replaced by a short speech by Peachum.)
ACTOR PLAYING MACHEATH: Well, what happens now? Do I go off or not? That’s something I’ll need to know on the night.
Pretty wild, huh? And this is 1928!
ACTOR PLAYING PEACHUM: I was telling the author only yesterday that it’s a lot of nonsense, it’s a heavy tragedy, not a decent musical.
ACTRESS PLAYING MRS PEACHUM: I can’t stand this hanging at the end.
WINGS RIGHT, THE AUTHOR’S VOICE: That’s how the play was written, and that’s how it stays.
ACTOR PLAYING MACHEATH: It stays that way, does it? Then act the lead yourself. Impertinence!
AUTHOR: It’s the plain truth: the man’s hanged, of course he has to be hanged. I’m not making any compromises. If that’s how it is in real life, then that’s how it is on the stage. Right?
ACTOR PLAYING MRS PEACHUM: Right.
ACTOR PLAYING PEACHUM: Doesn’t understand the first thing about the theatre. Plain truth, indeed.
ACTOR PLAYING MACHEATH: Plain truth. That’s a load of rubbish in the theatre. Plain truth is what happens when people run out of ideas. Do you suppose the audience here have paid eight marks to see plain truth? They paid their money not to see plain truth.
ACTOR PLAYING PEACHUM: Well, then, the ending had better be changed. You can’t have the play end like that. I’m speaking in the name of the whole company when I say the play can’t be performed as it is.
AUTHOR: Alright ladies and gentlemen, you can clean up your own mess.
ACTOR PLAYING MACHEATH: So we shall.
ACTOR PLAYING PEACHUM: It’d be absurd if we couldn’t find a first-rate dramatic ending to please all tastes.
ACTRESS PLAYING MRS PEACHUM: Right, then let’s go back ten speeches...
Katz writes about this section of the show:
Brecht’s hope was that the audience would engage in just the kind of critical commentary he had written into the epilogue. But in those final hours [before opening night], the prospect of losing it invoked the very same fears that had inspired the mechanical horse. Did he respect the audience enough to cut the ending? Threepenny’s story of love, betrayal, and crime had intentionally activated the usual theatergoing senses, but would the precise tension between sincerity and irony – especially in the songs Brecht had created with Weill – force the spectators to synthesize the disparate elements in an entirely new way? What if they walked out humming those seductive melodies instead of analyzing the play’s actual meaning? Finally Brecht was forced to admit that if he needed the epilogue, he had failed. It had to go. With this decision he challenged The Threepenny Opera to confirm his deepest belief: that the audience doesn’t have to hang up ‘its brains in the cloakroom along with its coat’ when they come to enjoy an evening in the theater.
What he didn’t understand is that audiences will take from the show what they need. If they are deep thinkers, they will find oceans to ponder here. If they themselves feel oppressed by the government and other social forces, they will find here a forceful critique of the status quo. If they’re musical theatre lovers, maybe they’ll see the line of evolution that stretches back from some of our most powerful contemporary musicals, all the way back to Threepenny.
And if they’ve just had a really bad day, Threepenny will allow them to laugh at the darkness we all encounter to one degree or another, every day. Because more than anything, Threepenny does tell the truth. It’s an ugly truth, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Or Course I’m Telling You the Truth
The cynicism in Threepenny is almost overwhelming. It makes Sondheim look like Hammerstein. All the way to the Act III finale, the show double-crosses us, then triple-crosses us. But to be fair, it’s cynicism in the service of idealism, Brecht’s horror tale to urge us toward a better future. Still, along the way, it’s sure a dark, cynical slog. If not for the quirky songs and the black humor, it would be too much.
And maybe that’s why it’s a masterpiece. It nimbly walks that artistic tightrope like no other show ever has. As Kulick puts it, "Brecht is a smuggler. He knows that if he tells a joke, or has a song, in between the joke and the song, a message can come through. That, to me, is black-market dramaturgy."
After two and a half hours of watching Mack act like an epic dick to everyone, his time finally runs out. He’s going to hang. Oh, whoops. Nope, Brecht and Weill are gonna double-cross us, with an aggressively ridiculous, last-minute deus ex regina, a dramatic coitus interruptus right at the climax of the show. Why? Because life is pandemonium, as the Spelling Bee kids would put it.
And we see there is truth in the double-cross. We realize that it’s really only a double-cross because (in Brecht’s view) theatre doesn’t usually tell the whole truth about the random callousness of life. They’ve double-crossed the theatre (and the theatre audience), by telling the messy truth the theatre will not tell. And then our writers double-cross us again and make it even worse. Not only does Mack escape punishment; he gets money and presents. And perhaps most cynical of all, he gets respectability.
At first it all feels like a fuck you to the audience. But it’s not really. It’s a fuck you to storytelling that doesn’t tell the truth, to shallow operas and operettas, to fantasy and romantic comedy. Many bad deeds do go unpunished in real life. And life is rarely resolved, all nice and tidy. It’s also a fuck you to tolerated public corruption. Of course this is wrong!, Brecht is screaming at us. Whaddya gonna do about it?
Mostly, Brecht is always asking us: What good is storytelling if we don’t learn from it? If it doesn’t move us to act? So just as Natural Born Killers and Chicago become the thing they’re commenting on, to make their point (and to implicate us, along the way), so does Threepenny. It becomes the cynicism it argues against. It becomes the ugliness to make us see the ugliness. This 1928 show still feels more adventurous, more cutting edge than any of the shows that descended from it – Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, BBAJ, Chicago, The Scottsboro Boys, Company, The Visit...
Audiences are continually surprised – and often delighted – at how challenging a piece of theatre this is. It really is ugly, and at the same time funny, quirky, outrageous, charming. And damn, is it cynical. Look at this lyric in the Act I finale:
Oh, sad to say, he tells the truth:
The world is mean, and man uncouth.
That’s a hell of a broad and dark statement. But these two lines aren’t just describing two facts about the world. They are drawing a conclusion. This lyric isn’t saying, "The world is mean, and also man is uncouth." It’s saying, "The world is mean, and so, man is uncouth." The world is a jungle, and so, man is an animal. Not just coincidence, but cause and effect.
The same point is driven home in the Act II finale, "What Keeps a Man Alive?", which in some translations is called "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" I mention that because this isn’t a song about the morality of Mack or any other single person. It’s about the morality of all of us, of our collective humankind.
What keeps a man alive? He lives on others;
He likes to taste them first, then eat them whole, if he can;
Forgets that they’re supposed to be his brothers,
That he himself was ever called a man...
This is Brecht’s central theme, that it’s impossible to be a moral person and also survive, in modern capitalism. Same idea as "A Little Priest" in Sweeney Todd (also a rousing act ender). The right-wing press called Threepenny "literary necrophilia" and "a political horror ballad." Well, yes, it is.
Those last two lines of the stanza are the real meat of it. In less poetic terms, it’s saying that we all (man, mankind) do not treat others with common humanity (we "forget" that they are "our brothers"), that we’re all the same underneath. And in the last line, they’re telling us that we’ve also forgotten our own humanity; we’ve lost our empathy. In other words:
[He] forgets that they’re supposed to be his brothers,
[And he forgets] that he himself was ever called a man...
Of course "He" is us. In other words, we fall down on both ends of the compassion equation. How could we have a moral society under those circumstances?
Among the more subtle running jokes in the show is the last line of each of Mrs. Peachum’s verses in "Ballad of Dependency" and its reprise. Both times she sings it, the song is about how Mack (as a stand-in for all men) thinks he’s strong, independent, powerful, but he’s literally addicted to women, and utterly at their mercy. The lyric is littered with sexual references. She describes his bragging about his strength and self-control, then each of her verses ends with night coming ("then dusk descends," "appears the moon," "comes stilly night"), and Mack fails to control himself ("and once again, he’s lying").
He’s lying, as in not telling the truth, because he swears he’s not addicted, and his actions prove otherwise. But also, he’s lying, as in lying down, because he fails the test every night by ending up back in bed with another woman. In other words, Mack is lying about lying – and that will prove to be his ultimate downfall.
As with much of Threepenny, these lines are saying two things at once, both very revealing of character. One of the surprising character traits revealed here is Mack’s complete lack of self-awareness. We see it again, perhaps most blatantly, in "Tango Ballad." It hasn’t even occurred to Mack that Jenny’s experience throughout their relationship has been less than positive. He can see nothing but his own interests. And sure, he’s a monster, but we made him.
Maybe what keeps an audience engaged in Threepenny (against Brecht’s wishes?), and they really have been engaged, is how fascinating and complex these people and their relationships are, endlessly tangled and interconnected. Just like real life. Even though 1838 London is a long way from our lives today, we recognize these people and their economy. Mack belongs on Springer. Maybe what keeps people engaged is that today we’re really just as cynical as Macheath and the Peachums. Certainly parts of our culture are, anyway. J.J. Peachum is surely close cousin to Rupert Murdoch. We all see truth in this show. And that, above all, is what audiences want. Tell them the truth and they’ll go anywhere with you.
Considering the thousands of different productions of this show throughout the last century, in many styles, in many languages, it’s funny that some critics become Instant Brecht Experts (just add water) when they review Threepenny, declaring what a production did "right" and "wrong," where it was sufficiently "Brechtian" and where it fell short.
But these types misunderstand something basic about making theatre. There’s no fun or challenge in imitating other productions. Anybody can do that. And there’s never only one way to do a show. What spoke to audiences in 1928 Berlin is different from what speaks to audiences today. Our cultural markers are different, storytelling conventions are different, the role of women in society is different, conversations about rape are different... even though some economic and moral issues may be the same. Brecht knew that. In 1941, he made plans for an "all-Negro" Threepenny set in Washington DC during a Presidential inauguration, though the production never happened.
These reviewers often don’t understand that what Brecht wrote about theatre was often pretty different from what Brecht actually did in the theatre. Throughout his career, Brecht worried because people enjoyed Threepenny too much, they got engaged more than he thought they should, they cared about the characters too much, etc. And all that is true because Brecht was a great writer, and he couldn’t help but write engaging, emotional, truthful human drama. Just like Mother Courage and his other plays. Still, Katz writes:
Even less compatible with American theater was Brecht’s refusal to invoke the Aristotelian concept of empathy with the main character and the attendant comfort of catharsis. In Aristotelian theater, the hero’s ability or inability to overcome his weaknesses determines his fate. In Brecht’s epic theater, man is not defined by his psychological or spiritual condition but instead is elevated or defeated by his society. In order to change the fate of men, men must change the society that determines their fate. The epic theater provokes action, Brecht contended, while Aristotelian theater encouraged passivity. Attendant upon this redefinition of the building blocks of drama is a transformation of the dramatic experience. Rather than suspending the audience’s disbelief, Brecht made sure that as they became aware of the social structure, they simultaneously became aware of the apparatus of the theater itself. They had to be able to judge the events onstage with the full recognition that these events are being consciously performed for them. They had to judge the presentation and the presenter simultaneously.
But all that said, Pamela Katz writes, "The possibility of misunderstanding Threepenny was part of its charm." That may sound really strange, but it’s true. Maybe that’s the most cynical thing about Threepenny – it doesn’t give a shit if you get it or not. This show still (or maybe once again) speaks to the choking economics of our times and the corrupting power of money in our government. More than at any other time in recent memory, Threepenny speaks to today’s America.
Some critics and scholars decide that Threepenny’s "happy ending" is a cop-out. But, on the contrary, Mack’s pardon from the Queen is perhaps the most morally disturbing moment in the show. When the rapist-murderer-bigamist-thief gets a pardon, cash, and prizes, that’s no happy ending. Which makes the "Mack the Knife" reprise at the end so much darker and more ironic:
Happy ending, nice and tidy,
It’s a rule I learned in school.
Get your money every Friday,
Happy endings are the rule.
If you think about it even for a second, you recognize that this ending is not happy, it’s not nice, and it’s definitely not tidy. It’s a dark parody of a happy ending. The murderer-rapist will be back on the street, richer and safer than ever. The second line of the stanza may be the most ironic in the show. Brecht has subverted every rule he ever learned, every convention. It’s only a happy ending for Mack, who once again has escaped real justice and will be getting his pension payment "every Friday."
But these four lines are also saying something else. They’re also saying your happy ending isn’t the same as our happy ending. From the point of view of the world of Threepenny, a happy ending means you don’t starve or freeze out in the cold. It means food and shelter, which requires money. It doesn’t mean love and romance. Think of the last two lines this way: "[As long as you] get your money every Friday, [then] happy endings are the rule." Nice and tidy.
It’s like Brecht is saying, You want a happy ending? Okay, I’ll give you a really fucked-up happy ending that will offend every moral teaching you know. Money buys happiness. After all, this is Brecht’s moral horror story. He wants to horrify us into making our world a better place. The end of the story is a happy ending for Mack, but it’s horror for the rest of us.
Not exactly a cop-out, is it?
Copyright 2015. Excerpt from Scott Miller's upcoming, untitled book on musical
theatre. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of
Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre
Deconstructing Harold Hill
Rebels with Applause
Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR
From Assassins to West Side Story
, and Sex, Drugs,
Rock & Roll, and Musicals.