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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 was originally known for his compositions in the New Objectivity movement and his atonality in the 1920’s, was widely changed to an easy going Swing version and is nowadays considered to be a Jazz standard. The ballad had originally been arranged and composed in the style of a traditional Moritat, an old theatrical form reaching back to medieval times.1

A Moritat is related to the old practice of Cantastoria, deriving from the Italian “canta historia”, which translates to “sung (his)tory”. Cantastoria was a common pratice in Europe until the 19th century, performed by travelling singers at public places, such as fun fairs, market squares or harbours. The character of the Moritat is essential to the song, as the music composed by Weill aims at imitating a classic hand organ (in the manner of those often used by singers and narrators at old fun fairs) and the words tell the story of Macheath’s murder deeds.

To this day the Threepenny Opera is still very present in contemporary theatre. A quick look on theatre browsing sites already lists four different performances in various German cities within four weeks (May and June 2012). On these grounds it is no wonder that there has already been written and even more thought about the play and its songs.

One aspect of the play, not aiming at its content or its depiction of political issues, but about its genesis and writing history, might especially be interesting in contemporary discussions about copyright issues (e.g. ACTA, Pirate Party, etc) and intellectual property, as the songs in the play used by Brecht also were the reason for a big discussion about originality in the middle of the 20th century. After the play premiered, the well-known and very influential critic Alfred Kerr praised the performance and was especially fond of the songs. However one year later Kerr, after reading the printed version of the songs, accused Brecht of plagiarism, because he had included verses of the French poet FrançoisVillon in his songs without giving credit to a source. Indeed, Brecht had used 25 verses of Villon’s ballads and poems of the German translation by Karl L. Ammer. When asked for a justification he simply published a comment in Die schöne Literatur, saying that this happened due to his careless attitude towards intellectual property (Mayer 1965: 42).

In order to illustrate the dimension of Brecht’s use of Ammer’s translation it is interesting to compare the two German versions (the first one being a translation by Ammer of Villon’s Epistre à ses amis) which also to a non-native speaker of German should appear of striking visual similarity.

Nun hört die Stimme, die um Mitleid ruft,
Villon liegt hier nicht unterm Hagedorn,
Nicht unter Buchen, nein, in einer Gruft!
Hierher verschlug ihn des Geschickes Zorn.
Und Gott, Gott hat ihm nicht gewehrt…
Ihr Dichter von Rondeaus und Melodien,
Ist er gestorben, kocht euch Eierwein.
Zu ihm dringt weder Blitz noch Sturmwind hin
Und dicke Mauern schließen ihn fest ein –
Ihr wollt, daß seine Marter ewig währt?
(Villon 1930: 25)

Nun hört die Stimme, die um Mitleid ruft,
Macheath liegt hier nicht unterm Hagedorn,
Nicht unter Buchen, nein, in einer Gruft!
Hierher verschlug ihn des Geschickes Zorn.
Geb Gott, daß ihr sein letztes Wort noch hört!
Die dicksten Mauern schließen ihn jetzt ein!
Fragt ihr denn gar nicht, Freunde, wo er sei?
Ist er gestorben, kocht euch Eierwein.
So lang er aber lebt, steht ihm doch bei!
Wollt ihr, daß seine Marter ewig sei?
(Brecht 2004: 79)

The life of the French criminal and poet also influenced Brecht on varios other levels (e.g. in his very erotic/obscene poems or in his play Baal and in several other monologues). Also, just as some other important German writers, such as Thomas Mann or Georg Büchner, Brecht did not care too much about the issue of plagiarising. Even Goethe once said that his Mephistopheles in Faust is singing passages of texts by Shakespeare and asked why he should bother to come up with a song of his own, if the Shakespeare text was just good enough for the intended purpose (Matteotti 2007: 30).

Reklamaffisch för Mahagonny.
Reklamaffisch för Mahagonny.

So although we see that Brecht did not write all of his texts alone and that he sometimes not even gave credit to the sources he had consulted in order to be able to create his work, a lot of artists were directly inspired by his texts and explicitly paid tribute to him. Especially in the “high culture” sector of popular music, it became common practice to cover Brecht songs of various works, not only those of the Threepenny Opera. A very popular example is the Alabama Song, written by Brecht in 1927 for his Hauspostille and translated to English by Elisabeth Hauptmann. In the same year Kurt Weill arranged the musical instrumentation to the song, which then was used in the Brecht/Weill opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The song was covered by numerous artists such as The Doors, David Bowie and Marilyn Manson. Its famous recurring line “Oh show us the way to the next whiskey-bar! Oh don’t ask why, oh don’t ask why!” seems to have already entered the subconscious of high-culture discourse decades ago. Other Brecht/Weill fans, who have recorded some of their poems and songs, include Tom Waits, Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull. His songs and plays are nowadays analysed and rethought by artists around the world.

It might not exclusively be his work as an author that makes Brecht so attractive to be included into so many artists’ works. His rebellious spirit, high-quality work for “ordinary people” and steadfast will to raise questions, to show up new perspectives and present them with in an either tongue-in-cheek or dead-serious fashion are an excellent breeding ground for new ideas and reinterpretation. All this becomes especially comprehensible, if the revolutionary aspect of Brecht is taken into consideration. This revolutionary spark has in a long tradition been a key feature of avant-garde art and high culture, which not uncommonly aimed at deconstructing established morals and antagonizing oppressive “sharks” in the upper classes. Brecht’s intention to make people aware of their social context and to bring back their attention to the sharks’ teeth is therefore as relevant today as it has been 70 years ago. Taking all this into consideration, it might appear attractive to take one’s dusty Brecht copies from the shelf, put on some classic Jazz records and enjoy the verses of one of the most important German poets with renewed enthusiasm.

David Prieth lives in Austria and studies Comparative Literature, Anglistics and American Studies at the University of Innsbruck. While also being involved in some experimental art projects, the constant search for good literature, music and broadening of the mind remains to be a main part in his life.

1. Moritat: etymologically related to the German “Mordtat”, meaning “murder deed”.

Literature

Brecht, Bertolt. 2004. Die Dreigroschenoper (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp)

Brecht, Bertolt. 1983. ‘The Threepenny Opera’ in Our Dramatic Heritage: Classical Drama and the early Renaissance, edited by Philip George Hill (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press)
Brustein, Robert. 1964. The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama (London: Taylor & Francis)
Csampai, Attila & Holland, Di