The Threepenny Opera (Mack the Knife)
Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera is a masterpiece of musical theater that grew out of its writers’ experience of Weimar Germany, the period between the World Wars when Germany struggled to establish a working democracy in the face of economic malaise and the bitterness of military defeat.
First performed in Berlin in 1928, Brecht’s text is sardonic and brittle. He creates a world of beggars, thieves, and prostitutes in which there is no honor; every character would sell out any other if an advantage is to be gained.
A man who sees another man on a street corner with only a stump for an arm will be so shocked the first time he’ll give him sixpence. But the second time it’ll only be a threepenny bit. And if he sees him a third time, he’ll have him cold-bloodedly handed over to the police.
(By not so surprising chance, those lines function nicely as a precis of the 1990s relationship of American municipalities to the homeless.)
Macheath (“Mack the Knife”) heads up the thieves division. His men tremble before him, he’s got the police well greased, and women compete for his sexual attentions. He has impregnated his lover, Lucy, he marries Peachum’s daughter Polly, and he still has a passionate connection with hooker Jenny.
For this cynical scenario, Weill wrote a score that has become part of Western culture’s consciousness: jazzy, syncopated, dissonant, and full of inventive melody, it captures the essence of the mocking, ironic tone of the book.
The Threepenny Opera is a highly stylized piece. It is not a show about production values. On the contrary, it is the kind of show that, if performed with the right tone and the appropriate sense of style, could be done effectively on a bare stage.