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The Maker of Mack the Knife

Bertolt Brecht and The Threepenny Opera

by Roger Brunyate

Threepenny at Theatre Project, March–April, 2003

Other essays by Roger Brunyate

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne…”. The voice cuts through the speakers as though it would shred them, snakelike, with glittering scales and poisonous fangs. The song describes another scaly predator, the shark:

Oh, the shark’s teeth, you can see them
Always ready to attack;
But you won’t see Mackie’s knife-blade
Till you feel it in your back.

There is a CD issued by VAI (VAIA 1193) which brings together a number of early recordings of The Threepenny Opera. It contains five different versions of its opening song, the famous Moritat von Mackie Messer, or Ballad of Mack the Knife. We hear it sung by Kurt Gerron, its original performer. We hear it from Lotte Lenya, wife of its composer, Kurt Weill. We hear it from a French chanteuse, in sultry night-club style. We hear it arranged for wind band, conducted by Otto Klemperer. But best of all, we hear it sung by the man who wrote those immortal words, Bertolt Brecht himself. Singing in a knife-sharp Bavarian accent, with trilled Rs that cut like a buzz-saw, Brecht etches the picture of his criminal hero in acid, putting danger into every syllable.

Photo of Bertolt Brecht  
Bertolt Brecht
Brecht dressed like a predator also, in black leather with a cap pulled low over his head. One of his contemporaries, Willy Haas, wrote: “He had the profile of a Jesuit,… the close-cropped hair of a convict, and the tattered leather jacket of an old member of the Bolshevik party.” Although born in a middle-class home (his father managed a paper factory), he revolted strongly against bourgeois values, adopting an aggressively proletarian air as a way to shock. His self-created image became iconic, reflected in angry young men for most of the rest of the century: think of Mick Jagger and James Dean. A man of the theater, he made his own life into a theatrical role, complete with the appropriate props. In his biography of Weill, Ronald Taylor tells how the composer once picked up a book in Brecht’s apartment with “Karl Marx: Das Kapital” on the slip-cover. Inside was an Edgar Wallace mystery novel!

Nevertheless, although he may have exaggerated the trappings, Brecht’s Marxism was more than skin-deep. Unlike Weill, who was two years younger, Brecht served in the First War, though his poor health confined his role to that of medical orderly. The experience gave him an intense awareness the plight of the proletariat and the cynical manipulations of the controlling elite; as he once said, “It is easier to rob by setting up a bank than by holding up a bank clerk.” This view underlies the satire of his first collaboration with Weill, the Mahagonny Songspiel, which the Peabody Chamber Opera presented at Theatre Project last year. Their second major collaboration, the full-length Threepenny Opera, is set entirely in a lower-class milieu, and the range of social and political subjects which it skewers is that much greater.

Josef Aufricht, the impresario of The Threepenny Opera, noted of Brecht that although “the unkempt proletarian garb that he adopted… tended to put one off, he nevertheless attracted people.” And attract he certainly did, especially women. It is said that at no point in his adult life did Brecht have fewer than three mistresses (and often a wife as well). As Ronald Taylor puts it, he “exercised his droit de seigneur over the young actresses in his plays and over the wives of his friends and colleagues.” Mack the Knife, the Threepenny Opera hero, seems almost a reflection of the author, with his louche down-market charm, and his entourage of women: Polly, to whom he is secretly married; Jenny, the whore who warms his bed; Lucy, the police chief’s daughter who springs him from jail; and the bevy of whores who vie for him and ultimately betray him.

Yet Mackie was not Brecht’s original creation. Even the idea of The Threepenny Opera was not his, but was suggested to him in 1928 by Elisabeth Hauptmann, one of the more enduring of his throng of willing women. With her knowledge of English, she had been searching through material for him to use, and had come across The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay’s hugely successful 1728 parody of Italian opera, made by taking popular songs of the day and singing them to new satirical texts, lampooning politicians and opera singers alike. Gay’s central figure, the highwayman Macheath, became Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife. The world of bars and brothels which he inhabits was ideally suited to Brecht and Weill, who had already explored this milieu in Mahagonny. One of Brecht’s changes was to make Mackie’s nemesis (and father-in-law) Peachum, a fence of stolen property in the Gay, into the capo of a beggar mafia that controls most of London crime. Nobody who has seen (as I have) the episode in Brecht’s last production of the opera with his Berliner Ensemble when the entire stage is filled with deformed and scrofulous beggars will be likely to forget it, although its panoramic scope is quite out of keeping with the modest scale of the original production.

A rare photograph of Brecht and Weill together
A rare photograph of Brecht and Weill

Brecht was not merely a writer, but a performer too. He had learned to play the guitar quite well, and would perform before friends, and later in political cabarets, singing his poems to tunes of his own devising. A contemporary described his voice thus: “It has a brutally sensuous quality on the one hand and a tender melancholy on the other: something vulgar, nasty, but with a sense of doom-laden grief—savage wit alongside plaintive lyricism.” Simon Parmet, a conductor who worked closely with Brecht, wrote: “He was not musical in the deepest sense, but he had an infallible instinct when it came to imagining what sort of music would best match his kind of drama.… Sooner or later I would find myself captivated by the tune he proposed, and would realize that that, and only that, was the melody appropriate for the scene under discussion.” Parmet also says that Weill’s tune for “Mack the Knife”—a last-minute addition to the show, which became its best-known number—was in fact a Russian folk-tune found by Brecht and given to Weill along with the words. I cannot find independent evidence for this, but there is a recording of Brecht’s melody for the “Pirate Jenny” song, which eventually became part of The Threepenny Opera but was written before he ever met Weill, whose refrain is virtually identical to Weill’s setting in the show. Writing after the success of the Mahagonny Songspiel and before Threepenny, Weill himself spoke of “the strong interaction of my music with his poetry,” and went on to describe his excitement at developing “a completely new form of stage work… whose appeal will be unusually broad… [and] whose strongest force in the spoken drama is Brecht.” So the two artists were, for a time at least, astonishingly close in both their dramatic and their musical sensibilities.

It was one of Brecht’s principles to prevent audiences being too easily drawn into the romantic context of what they saw on stage, and so become forgetful of the content of the words and implications of the action. He later enunciated this as his famous theory of the “alienation effect”—a theory which wits would say he put into practice in his own off-putting dress and manner. For the most part, this is what Weill’s music does, by playing not with the text, but against it. So the ballad catalogue of Mack’s career or robbery, rape, and murder is sung to a laid-back blues tune. The show’s most tender moment, Mack’s farewell to Polly, is not sung but spoken, the thin voices floating over the orchestral music like already-distant memories. The most conventionally operatic piece, the Jealousy Duet between Polly and Lucy, begins in a cat-fight, but ends in sugary harmony which deliberately belies the meaning of the words.

  The finale of the opera
The finale of the opera
Photograph from the original production
And it is in the words that Brecht’s fangs most clearly show. For example, his view of the military-imperialist ethos is succinctly stated in the Cannon Song sung by Mackie and the police chief, reminiscing over their army service:
When they come face to face
With a different kind of fellow
Whose skin is black or yellow
They quick as winking chop him into
      Beefsteak tartare!

This song, incidentally, was the one that first brought the premiere audience to their feet and told the authors that they had written a hit.) Or there is the chorus to the song “What keeps a man alive?”:

For once you must not try to shirk the facts:
Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts.

But do these points really come over in performance? Do Brecht’s words spur to action, or merely remain as clever commentary? Does Weill’s music—despite his best intentions—not turn it all too neatly into just another show? The Nobel laureate Elias Canetti wrote that what the audiences around him enjoyed at the first production was the permission to see the darker sides of their own society presented so cleverly on the stage. One thinks of the high society of John Gay’s time going to watch the madmen in Bedlam as an afternoon’s entertainment. But need this necessarily be so? Need the last stanza of Brecht’s Mack the Knife ballad be as true in the theatre as it is in life? —

For there’s some who are in darkness,
And there’s others in the light;
But you see the ones in brightness,
While the others drop from sight.

That is the challenge of any production of The Threepenny Opera which refuses to allow it to become mere titillation, but presents it as the venomous exposé that we can hear so clearly in Brecht’s singing voice.

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