THE THREEPENNY OPERA

By Bertolt Brecht
English book by Desmond Vesey
English lyrics by Eric Bentley
New York: Groves Press, 1960
110 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett September 2012

The Threepenny Opera was a cooperative venture of Bertolt Brecht writing the script and Kurt Weill composing the music. It premiered in Berlin in 1927 and was an immediate hit.

Macheath, Mackie or Mack the Knife, however one wishes to refer to him, is king of most of the petty thieves and whores of London. He organizes and protects them. On the eve of the coronation of the queen he is both married and arrested. The marriage is extremely informal to put it mildly, and Mac doesnít worry about the arrest since he has a close buddy in high places within the police and he knows he will be released in minutes.

But things donít quite go as usual since the parents of his new bride are not a part of his gang and donít want their daughter connected with Mack and his gang. Pressure is put on the police to arrest Mack for real, and this time he canít beat the rap.

However, a Brecht tells us in the script, this is a play after all, and different rules apply. Mackie doesnít hang and lives happily ever after.

Itís a thin and very fun plot, but the essence of the play is a funny and brutal attack on middle class values and the rigged social system which serves the interests of the rich and keeps others in line. Mack and his gang have a totally different social system, and Brecht wants to defend that social world against the ravages which mainline society presents to it.

When it really looks like Mack will be hung, he resigns himself to his death and defends his life and the lives of these dropouts of traditional society. As he heads to the hangman he says to his assembled friends:

We will not keep the people waiting. Ladies and gentlemen, you see here the vanishing representative of a vanishing class. We bourgeois artisans, who work with honest jimmies on the cash boxes of small shopkeepers, are being swallowed up by large concerns backed by banks. What is a pickpocket to a bank share? What is the murder of a man to the employment of a man?

That late speech sort of sums up Mackís view. The standard view of mainline bourgeois society looks on Mack and his sort as the criminals, the underground, and the people to be defended against. Mack sees them as the free people living in rebellion against mainline society, and the play has given us an inside look at their lives and ways and complaints.

The play is thought provoking, exciting, funny, irreverent, challenging and thought provoking. I loved reading it, however, now I want to hear the music and the songs. I plan to get the 1931 German film of the play. While I wonít be able to catch all the lyrics in the German, I am confident that Weillís music will speak for itself even if I canít get the full understanding of the lyrics. If Iím able to find a copy of the film and do get to hear the music, then I plan to append a few notes to these comments.

In any case, I highly recommend this short play to any who havenít yet read it.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu