The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht, English book by Desmond Vesey, English lyrics by Eric Bentley
Although I have long been familiar with Brecht as a writer, most notably because he shows up as a lamentable example of a socialist dramatist whose political views greatly informed his writing, this is the first play of his that I have read. It is also clear, in reading this book, that what is best about this play is that which is stolen, namely the general morality play that this book contains, and what is less than insightful is the author’s political views. This play has an interesting importance in the English-speaking world as being responsible for the song “Mack The Knife,” which was famously sung by Bobby Darin and turned into a massive hit because audiences were likely unaware of its violent meaning in the face of its solid pop hooks. And in general this play has the same sort of feeling of being a work of popular drama that steals enough to be easy to relate to, and filled at the same time with insidious messages that are hostile to the “middle classes” that socialists and leftists in general are filled with such contempt for.
The play itself is a three act drama which begins with a foreword by Lotte Lenya which points out that the play was a vehicle in her own rise to stardom (apparently if you know her you know her because I had never heard of her before) and the way that the play came together. The first act shows Macheathe (nicknamed Mackie The Knife) marrying Polly Peachum, the daughter of a banker of sorts, in a rather ramshackle sort of wedding filled with a lot of male posturing between the groom and his untrustworthy criminal associates. The second act consists of the new bride being immediately left to her lonesome as her husband engages in criminal activities and consorts with prostitutes, where he is caught by the corrupt polices but immediately escapes. In the third act, he engages in more criminal activity and finds himself facing death by hanging, and shows himself to be a temperamental coward who is a bully when he is feeling strong, as is often the case, and unable to use his usual means of bribery and corruption to make himself free as the people of London look forward to his imminent demise.
As far as plays go, this is not a particularly convincing one. The author fancies himself to be more insightful about matters of the criminal class as well as the middle classes than he really is. He also seeks to make the point that capitalist figures like Mr. Peachum and the criminal classes like Macheathe are supposedly equally villainous and evil, the one through embedding oneself in the socioeconomic structure and the other in quixotic and opportunistic opposition to it. Moreover, there aren’t really any “good guys” here to appreciate at all. Macheathe and his associates are untrustworthy criminals who are allies of convenience but ready to turn on each other in an instant to save their own miserable skins. The Peachum family is shown as being either naive or particularly harsh in looking down at the lower orders. The police shown are hopelessly corrupt to the power of bribes, while the common people are shown to be looking for bloodlust or spectacle. Even Queen Victoria, dimly portrayed, is viewed as being ineffectually merciful rather than wise and discerning in the fashion of Lope de Vega’s plays. This work is, overall, a disappointing one that shows a misguided political worldview and a rather dark moral perspective on the part of the playwright, where there are plenty of notes, but ones which ring false because of the author’s worldview errors.