My Two Cents Worth on

The Threepenny Opera

by John Mucci

Program notes for a production of Die Dreigroschenoper presented at Hunter College by Il Piccolo Teatro dell'Opera, 1997.

On the seismograph of world theatrical events, the appearance of Die Dreigroschenoper in 1928 created a spike of unexpected force. Because it addressed poverty and justice from such a refreshingly slanted perspective, graced with some of the most captivating and energizing music of its day, its influence spread immediately. Because of the Nazi's insistence on considering it 'degenerate art' and its subsequent suppression in the '30's and '40's, some mystery was cast about it, and because of the explosive 1956 revival from the Theatre de Lys, with Lotte Lenya in the role of Jenny, The Threepenny Opera has not left the purview of the world's repertoire of musical theatre.

So many stones have been overturned writing about the genesis of this extraordinary work, that one walks on a peculiarly trammeled beach, searching not only for new teritory, but trying to assess what the terrain looked like before. There looms large the two dynamos who created it, Kurt Weill the composer, and Bertolt Brecht, the author. One had best leave it at that, before we hear stories about Brecht's magpie-like borrowings from divergent sources such as François Villon, Rudyard Kipling, and Brecht's brilliant assitant, Elisabeth Hauptmann, who made a translation of John Gay's original, 18th century play, The Beggar's Opera. Worse yet, we hear rumors that it was Brecht who wrote the music (borrowing tunes, also), and Weill only transcribed it—which is certainly not true. The effect is one which leads to a feeling that creating this masterpiece was as chaotic as the tottering Weimar Republic under which its creators worked. The creation of Threepenny Opera sprang from an amalgam of talents, smelted white-hot into whatever mold seemed appropriate, and as in the best of collaborations, left a mass of contradictions in its wake. Audiences have proved the indominability of the work as it is. The rest is infinite subtlety, to be savored by those who are further entertained by research.

One sure sign that it is a work for all time is that no one seems to leave it alone. During the authors' lifetimes, changes and little addaptations abounded. Even Weill, who was so opposed to updating either score or text, wrote new numbers for the Paris production, in a style that was wholly appropriate only to a production in France. As in all good theatre, each country makes the piece its own, in this case down to the title. The English Threepenny Opera is an honest downgrade from the German (where it is, after all, not Die Dreipfennigoper— 1 Groschen = 10 Pfennigs), but in France it is known as the Opéra de Quat'sous, and in Mexico of dos centavos, and Italy, tre soldi. Written at a time when Germans were just recovering from a Mark so inflated that bushels of them were baled and never untied, carried in barrows to make simple transactions; when butter was the most stable measure of value, and when the postal authorities surprinted stamps again and again into the billions of Marks to keep up with an economy completely out of control— this Beggar's Opera was indeed thoughtful entertainment for the modern Everyman. Brecht said that it 'dealt with bourgeois conceptions in a bourgeois manner', and it certainly at once is an indictment of modern life and a celebration of its common experiences.

The history of The Threepenny Opera is that it began as a parody of Handel, when John Gay and Johann Pepusch wrote The Beggar's Opera in 1728. It was enormously popular, and proved to be so even up to the early 1920's when it was revived in London. It was this production which piqued the curiosity of Elisabeth Hauptmann, who translated it and showed it to Brecht, who noodled with it a while. When a young producer approached Brecht for a new piece to re-open the old Schiffbauerdamm Theater in Berlin, the author impulsively offerd his half-hearted sketches derived from Gay—which were accepted, to his surprise. Quickly finished, and re-worked up to the last minute, Die Dreigroschenoper was predicted to be a flop on opening night, until apparently the audience caught the spirit of the piece during the "Cannon Song" and enthusiastically hailed it a hit, starting what was eventually known as "Threepenny Fever" all over Germany and Europe at large.

The story of the Opera is as brilliant as it is simple. J.J. Peachum operates a coalition of beggars as efficiently as though he were organizing a union. He gives them costumes, makeup, prosthetics, full corporate support in exchange for fealty. He heads an otherwise commonplace bourgeois family, with his wife and his daughter, Polly. Apposite to him is the dapper, notorious gang leader Macheath, known as Mack the Knife, who, having his eye on Polly, "marries" her. Enraged at his daughter's submission, Peachum wants Macheath arrested, and engages Police Chief Tiger Brown to do so, although macheath and Brown are old army buddies.

Macheath is indeed arrested, being found at his usual time in the usual brothel. He escapes from jail, is re-arrested (same time, same brothel), and is only saved from hanging through a purposefully absurd reprieve from the Queen— which might well satisfy a beggar's idea of a happy ending, since so few beggars lives could end up so happily in reality.

Although Weill's musical forms in The Threepenny Opera are varied—chorale, tango, fugue, foxtrot, the "Boston", shimmy, and a hymn—its melodies engage both heart and brain, where nothing is as simple as it sounds, and where the musical complexities break down to very simple elements, conceived and arranged by a master of composition.

There is no string section in the orchestra: this is an opera accompanied by a jazz band. Perhaps Johnny Spielt Auf was an earlier Jazz Opera—rather, it was a romantic opera that used Jazz techniques here and there, but I think Weill's is probably the first musical play to use both a bandoneon and a banjo seriously, a fact opening night critics pounced upon, some with enthusiasm, some with acrimony, and certainly a factor in its being later labeled Entartete, "degenerate".

Although the play and lyrics have the trademark borrowings that Brecht loved, it is full of idiosyncratic poetry and original touches. It is probably the only opera which makes a statement about character through rhyme scheme. Listen for Macheath's ballads (the words of which are derived from Villon), the lines having the rhymes a-b-b-a. In Michael Finegold's translation:

"The daring ones who go on great adventures
And risk their necks fulfilling dreams of glory
Then gladly tell the waiting world the story
So stay-at-homes can sigh and suck their dentures?"
To displace the initial rhyme for three lines is not a usual scheme for songs in general—nonetheless a "shimmy". Yet, when the a-b-b-a rhymes appear again, as Macheath faces the gallows, his former jazzy paean to life is transformed into a dirge and the cynical outlook on his demise:
And do not curse me, as you see me swinging,
Or hate me, like the judge, as a disgrace—
Not every man can plead a decent case;
Forgive the life to which you see me clinging."
It is a collaborative touch which never was heard before, and never fails to move the listener today.

Perhaps "Mack the Knife" has been heard too much lately: recently it was assessed by a travel magazine as the lounge song that all singers must learn, because everyone in the audience knows the melody—even though the author avers no one remembers the words. Weill said the principal melody for it came to him while listening to the traffic of Berlin from atop a double decker bus. It's been heard in every reincarnation from Bobby Darrin to the commercials for Big Macs on television, making it a musical icon, and as such dilutes its purpose when heard in context, but it does not diminish the power of the score, as a whole.

One of the most haunting Brecht/Weill numbers, the quintessential "Pirate Jenny," is also one with an odd history. In the context of the play, this song, with its imagery of washing glasses and being a mistress to a bloodthirsty pirate—seems out of place. In the original production, it was meant to be sung at the wedding, by Polly, but was taken over by Lotte Lenya, and sung in the bordello scene. It helped to catapult her to world fame as a chanteuse, but caused endless conflicts with the script. In neither position in the story does it illuminate the plot: it certainly alienates the audience in the manner Brecht advocated. "Pirate Jenny" is, at heart, an expression of power—fulfilled only in fantasy—by one who feels utterly powerless. It is a song which likely adumbrated the helpless feelings of just about everyone sitting in the Schiffbauerdamm theatre in 1928. At that time, there was no team better suited to express such a dichotomy. And if the other Brecht/Weill works did not quite make the same impact (there were six other collaborations, plus individual songs)— we can only attribute that to an audience now accustomed to their style, rather than being goaded from pain and complacency with such ideas as:

"Be careful how you punish wrong, for surely
Cold-hearted deeds will freeze and die away. Remember that our life on earth is purely
A cold dark place where sorrow cries all day."
—sung at the end of this parody of sadness and madness.