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You're about to hear an opera for beggars. And because this opera was created so glamorously, the way only beggars can dream something up, and because it should still be so cheap that only beggars would pay for it, it's called The Threepenny Opera.
The play centers around the marriage of Polly Peachum (daughter of "Beggar King" Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum) to notorious gangster, rapist, and aspiring gentleman Macheath (better known as Mack the Knife). Mack is best friends with Jack "Tiger" Brown, the London chief of police, whose daughter Lucy he's dating on the side. He's also chummy with his former live-in girlfriend Spelunken-Jenny, a whore he still visits on Thursdays (hey — a gentleman is entitled to his habits). And he's got great plans: instead of robbing banks and stabbing men, he now wants to found a bank and hire men. After all, true grand scale thievery can only be done by the bourgeoisie. Mack is ready to climb out of the criminal slums and into criminal nobility. And Polly is just the right kind of wife to have by his side for it.
The only problem in his plan is Jonathan Peachum, who not only hates Macheath, but will do anything to get his daughter back — after all, she's valuable goods, and he's invested a lot of time and money in her proper upbringing. Peachum devises a plan to blackmail Tiger Brown and convince him to arrest Macheath. Since the Queen's coronation is due in a few days, Brown has his hands full trying to keep the beggars off the streets. Which Peachum decides to use to his advantage in blackmailing Brown: imagine thousands of beggars, crawling out of the gutters, crowding around the Queen...
Mack tries to flee, but can't shake his Thursday habit at Jenny's brothel and is consequently arrested by a reluctant Brown. And when Lucy Brown shows up, apparently married to Macheath and pretending to be pregnant, Polly starts to realize that the marriage was a huge mistake.
Things turn out alright for Mack and Polly, though. Just when Mack's about to be hung, Peachum announces that they're going with a different ending: the Queen's Messenger arrives to knight Macheath and grant him and Polly eternal wealth. But as the crowd is cheering, Peachum bitterly steps forward to explain that real life doesn't simply provide happy endings. When criminals become bourgeois and the bourgeoisie becomes criminal, beggars die, the poor are trampled, while the rich only get richer. Curtain.
The play has been notoriously misinterpreted by audiences worldwide, who consider Macheath the good guy. As a Take That, Brecht went on to write the scathingly satirical Threepenny Novel (1934), in which Macheath's popularity is compared to that of Hitler and Polly is madly in love with the idea of a suave, gorgeous Macheath (and sorely disappointed when he turns out to be a old bald bastard).
Theatres also tend to completely ignore Brecht's stage directions: he specifically wrote that Macheath needs to be old and ugly, Polly needs to come off as virtuous and agreeable, Mr. Peachum is not a miser but simply a nihilist, and the Queen's messenger absolutely needs to be on horseback as satire of classic bourgeous opera endings. Instead, Macheath tends to be handsome and young in most productions, Polly is commonly portrayed as a gangster moll, Peachum is portrayed as a miser, and the horse is nowhere to be seen. (Nowadays, even Brecht's own theatre in East Berlin performs the play this way.)
Various movie adaptations have been made, one of which actually involved Brecht, Weill and Lenya (Dreigroschenfilm / Threepenny Movie, 1933). Due to Executive Meddling, however, it was severely Bowdlerised.
Adaptations and re-interpretations by others include:
- Ópera do Malandro by Chico Buarque.
- Imminent, Indeed (or Polly Peachum's Peculiar Penchant for Plosives) by Bryn Manion.
- Dogville, an even Darker and Edgier re-telling of "Pirate Jenny", directly quoting from it.
- Watchmen, which was hugely influenced by "Pirate Jenny" and includes its own analysis of Brecht's work.
- League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910.
- The Twopenny Opera (It's One Cheaper), a Concept Album by The Tiger Lillies.
- The Threepenny Opera by Nick Cave, starring Andy Serkis (upcoming).
The Threepenny Opera contains examples of:
Sukey Tawdry, Jenny Diver, Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown, ...
- Anachronism Stew: The story nominally takes place in 1904. While the "Cannon Song" and its discussion of colonial warfare would seem to place the story in the mid to late 1800s, the coronation the play is centered around is that of Queen Victoria, thus implying an earlier date. Not to mention that the play its adapted from was written and set in the 1700s. Oh, and Macheath in this play tends to dress as a Roaring Twenties gangster.
- Bawdy Song: "Pirate Jenny" and to a lesser extent "Barbara Song", and "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" are all in a genre of "cabaret music" sung by women at those clubs; for a different kind of Bawdy Song, the "Cannon Song" is based on rousing soldier music in the manner of Kipling's "Barrack-Room Ballads" (Brecht was a Kipling fan), and is intended as a Deconstruction of them.
- Betty and Veronica: Polly and Lucy
- Breakout Pop Hit: Mac The Knife. Hilariously so.
- Cat Fight: Between Polly and Lucy in the "Jealousy Duet". Mostly musical in the stage directions, but tends to be "spiced up" in productions, especially the 1960s movie version.
- Deadpan Snarker: The narration of the Threepenny Novel.
- Deus Ex Machina
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Although the play was intended as a vicious attack on capitalism, it is quite popular with non-communists.
- Eight Deadly Words: All of the characters are intentionally unsympathetic.
- Everything's Even Worse with Sharks Macheath is compared to a shark.
- Evil Versus Evil: Macheath versus Peachum; the former tends to get sympathy mostly because of being more charismatic.
- Expy: Jenny from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny would even be considered a straight-up transplant of Spelunken-Jenny, if the stories took place in the same universe. Both parts were originated by Miss Lotte Lenya.
- Ho Yay: Mack and Brown. Brecht has admitted that it's on purpose: Brown's love for Macheath is what keeps him going, but it's damaging to his job as a keeper of the peace.
- Jack the Ripper: Not within the play, but in a novel adaptation, The Threepenny Novel, Macheath is identified with the Ripper. As a Shout-Out, Macheath also appears in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and is presented either as a Jack the Ripoff, or maybe the actual Jack the Ripper.
- Join the Army They Said: "The Cannon Song"
- Karma Houdini: Macheath. As mentioned in the summary above, this is a major plot point.
- Kavorka Man: Macheath is an unattractive cutthroat, physically abusive and, as Brecht described him, "bald, old, humorless, with a face like a turnip". Still, women seem to throw themselves at him. Modern ensembles (including Brecht's own ensemble in Berlin) instead cast young and attractive actors for the part.
- Knife Nut: Mac Heath
- Lighter and Softer: English translations of the Moritat tend to erase the verses that describe Mack the Knife's more heinous crimes, like statutory rape and an arson that killed seven children.
- Murder Ballad: "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer", obviously (Moritat is the German word for a Murder Ballad).
- Nietzsche Wannabe: Mr. Peachum. It's not that he's a miser — he simply doesn't believe that money or anything can save him, so he may as well make the best of what little money he's got. It's not that he doesn't like his daughter — it's just that his opinion of her, just like his opinion on the rest of humanity, is "already at its lowest possible point". And it's not that he particularly likes the Bible — he just figures he should have it in front of him to remind him of how rotten the world's Christians are.
- Pirate Girl: Becoming this is part of Jenny's fantasies of revenge on society for her miserable life, about which she sings the song "Seeräuber-Jenny".
- The Queen's Latin: While productions in translation tend to give the rest of the cast a Cockney accent, which makes sense given the setting, Peachum and sometimes the rest of his family often gets a Scottish accent. This is because one historical stereotype of Scots is that they are Bible-beating misers, which describes the common interpretation of Peachum perfectly.
- Sociopathic Soldier: Macheath and Tiger Brown as shown in the "Cannon Song"
And when it rained / and we met a new race / a brown one or a pale one / maybe we'd use them to make our steak tartare!
- Spiritual Successor: The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
- Stylistic Suck: This was a device deliberately used in a lot of Brecht's work to achieve the proper "alienating" effect on the audience, and among other things, he wanted the music discordant and the cast to sing off-key.
- Tenor Boy: Macheath is sometimes played like this ironically, and many performances have him singing the "Epitaph" in a sincere tenor, just to accentuate what a two-faced bastard he is.
- Villain Protagonist: Basically everyone but Polly, whom even Brecht the arch-pessimist stressed to be a "virtuous and agreeable girl" in his notes on playing the parts.
- Weird Trade Union: Peachum's guild of beggars
- Word of Gay: Yes, Brown loves Mack.