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The Shark has Pretty Teeths: Bertolt Brechts The Threepenny opera reread

By David Prieth

Teckning av Bertolt Brecht av Yuma. CC
Teckning av Bertolt Brecht av Yuma. CC

Bertolt Brecht is still one of Germany’s best-known playwrights, poets, theatre directors and political voices of the 20th century. His influential style of writing, arranging and directing plays not only influenced contemporary and aspiring authors, but also directors, film makers and an astonishing number of musicians. With the development of his Epic theatre Brecht created a counterdraft to the traditional naturalistic approach represented by theatre directors such as Constantin Stanislavski, and also left behind the Aristotelian tradition of tragedy composition.

But although Brecht was not only known for writing plays, but also for theoretical essays, Lehrstücke, poetry and even screenplays, one of his best-known pieces of work remains the Threepenny Opera (Dreigroschenoper) which premiered on August 31st 1928. The play gained international attention, was translated into 18 languages and its songs were covered by international stars such as Nick Cave, Frank Sinatra, Sting and Robbie Williams, with some of them eventually becoming world hits (e.g. Mack the Knife and Pirate Jenny). Consequently, the play has also been examined in terms of its connection to historical and political events, its production history and following adaptions. Yet, in order to comprehend what makes the Threepenny Opera and its poetic songs so interesting in terms of content and style, it is rewarding to take again a closer look on the play’s background, Brecht’s ideas behind it, the working process and its legacy.

Just as a considerable amount of his output in general, also the Threepenny Opera was not written by Bertolt Brecht alone. It is well-known that Brecht employed a writers-collective, which amongst others also included his various life partners Elisabeth Hauptmann, Ruth Berlau and Helene Weigel. In 1928 together with this collective and his friend and composer Kurt Weill, he adapted John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and the music of Johann Christoph Pepusch written in 1728 and combined it with his understanding of sensible dramatisation. The first performance was a huge success and a great deal of this accomplishment was due to the performed songs in the play which Brecht frequently used in his work to comment on the events happening on stage. The songs, which to a great extend vary in their natures (e.g. duets, terzets, solos, love songs, murder ballads) and genre (e.g. Jazz, Blues, Tango) (Csampai 1987: 35), function as recurring breaks in the opera’s plot and add to Brecht’s intended alienation effect, vital to his idea of the Epic theatre. The songs at these break points in the play work as the means to transport Brechtian social criticism.

Från Göteborgsoperans uppsättning av tolvskillingsoperan. Foto: Ola Kjellbye.
Från Göteborgsoperans uppsättning av tolvskillingsoperan. Foto: Ola Kjellbye.

Speaking of the songs it is vital to know that Brecht, in regard to his vision of the epic theatre, preferred the songs to be sung by ordinary actors and not by professionally trained singers (there even exist early recordings of songs sung by Brecht himself). He always wanted to avoid that his plays created the atmosphere of an illusory world which would merely entertain and lull its viewers (which was also part of the reason why he strongly disliked the film adaption of the Threepenny Opera). A central point of the epic theatre was making the audience very much aware that the play was indeed simply an artificial performance and that the texts and actions on stage represented problems referring to those in the real world. As a consequence these problems also ought to be discussed and, as the case may be, changed.

The first and best-known song in the play, titled ”Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (Mack the Knife), introduces protagonist Mackie Messer (Macheath) and sheds light on his crimes and shady character. One of the most widely spread English translations dates back to the year 1954 (written by Marc Blitzstein) and pretty much correlates to a literal English translation from the German original. To illustrate their correlation it is sufficient to take a closer look on the first stanza.

And the shark, it has teeth,

And it wears them in its face,
And Macheath, he has a knife,
But the knife one doesn’t see
(Literal translation from German)

And the shark has pretty teeth dear
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has Macheath dear
And he keeps it ouf of sight
(Blitzstein, 1954)

There exist a couple of varying translations with most of them aiming at preserving the metre and the rhyming pattern of the German original and keeping it in a 4/4 musical scale. Mack the Knife in most of its nine stanzas refers to a murder or another crime and frequently mentions protagonist Macheath, who although obviously being involved in the deeds, always manages to avoid prosecution due to his dishonest character. This already becomes apparent in the first stanza, where the criminal is compared to a shark, which in contrast to a corrupt human does not have the possibility to hide his dangerous teeth. A shark is always forced to wear his murder instruments in his face and for everyone to see, whereas shady Macheath wears fancy gloves and hides his knife in order to stay undercover. This motif is even more interesting when Brecht’s political agenda and his relationship to Marxism is taken into account. Brecht’s disgust for the damage caused by “invisible” capitalist methods is immanent in the play and even directly addressed in Act 3, Scene 3 when Macheath asks the famous lines:

Originalomslaget till Brechts TOlvskillingoperan.
Originalomslaget till Brechts TOlvskillingoperan.

What is a picklock to a bank share?
What is the burgling of the bank to the founding a bank?
What is the murder of a man to the employment of a man?

It is striking that just like a banker the gangster Macheath likes to think of himself as a businessman. The business he runs, in his eyes it is not that much different to that of other kinds. In a conversation with his beloved Polly Peachum he states at one point: “Between ourselves, it’s only a question of weeks before I switch to banking exclusively. It’s safer as well as more profitable”, which directly links to Brecht’s personal notes to the play in which he says “ the only difference between the gangster and the businessman is that the former ‘is often no coward’” (Brustein 1964: 435).

At this point it seems rather ironic that ”Die Moritat von Mackie Messer”, a song originally attacking capitalism, bourgeois bogus morality and the purchasability of the individual, would eventually become one of Brecht/Weill’s best selling songs. What makes it even more peculiar is that the original music to the song, the instrumentation by Kurt Weill, who