The Threepenny Opera

by Pericles Lewis

In 1928, the same year in which he proclaimed himself a Marxist, Bertolt Brecht had his first international success with The Threepenny Opera, an adaptation of the eighteenth-century Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, which Brecht wrote in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann, who co-wrote several of his early plays and after the war participated in his theatrical company, the Berliner Ensemble. Brecht set the opera in the criminal underworld of Victorian London; in it, he satirized the respectable bourgeoisie as no better than the gangster Macheath (Mac the Knife). Mac elopes with Polly Peachum, the daughter of the beggar king, who has organized the beggars of London and taught them more effective techniques for begging, in exchange for a cut of their profits. Like the boorish and primitive poet in Brecht’s Baal, Mac seduces various women; he is imprisoned twice but eventually reprieved and knighted by the Queen.

One of the central themes of the play is hypocrisy, and Brecht wrote that “just like two hundred years ago we have a social order in which virtually all levels, even if in a wide variety of ways, pay respect to moral principles not by leading a moral life but by living off morality.”[1] The play is a “ballad opera,” making use of popular music, written by Kurt Weill, a pioneer of “new music” who composed simple tunes appropriate for didactic purposes. The song “Mac the Knife” became part of the standard jazz repertory, performed by Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and others. Brecht intended the songs to distance the audience from the action, to “take up a position,” but the music also arguably contributed to the humor and good fun of the play, which is Brecht’s most popular but not his most politically effective.[2]

  1. ↑ Bertolt Brecht, Collected Plays, ed. Ralph Manheim and John Willett, vol. 2 (New York: Vintage, 1977), p. 322.
  2. ↑ Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 38. This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), p. 190.