Bertolt Brecht’s play, ‘The Threepenny Opera’ is set in nineteenth-century Victorian London during a period of great corruption and poverty. The play is based upon central character Mac the Knife along with different characters of diverse status in society. The play is often referred to as a great example of ‘epic theatre’; ‘The Threepenny Opera’ was created with the intention to educate the audience rather than serve as pure entertainment for the audience to feed upon (also known at the alienation effect).
The audience is left with an unexpected ending and are forced to think about the raised issues for themselves; Brecht’s style causes constant questioning of situation and character at any possible moment. The play is introduced to the audience with a prologue, a song sung about central character, ‘The ballad of Mac the knife’ is heard whilst the stage is filled with the different characters one would find in lower-class Victorian London; beggars, thieves and prostitutes are displayed ‘working’ whilst the song commences.
The lyrics of the song reveal things about the character of Mac the Knife, swaying our judgement of this character before we are even introduced. Words in the song convict Macheath with acts of murder and rape; the prologue ends with a man stepping out of a crowd whilst one of the whore’s tells the audience that the man was, indeed Mac the knife. It can be seen that the song sets the tone of the play with a menacing feeling, which is contrasted by the crude jokes made about Macheath’s crimes that are entwined within the lyrics.
Instantaneously the audience are thrown into the world of the play just by listening to the song and are left to question what is right and wrong almost immediately. Brecht wastes no time in introducing the alienation effect, in the opening he sends the audience into an unfamiliar setting, unfamiliar to a modern audience but unrecognisable to the intended German audience of 1928. The setting he creates allows the audience to make comparisons of the events against modern day, or the audiences own time period. Act one begins properly when the song finishes and the scene is switched to Mr.
Peachum’s business, an outfit shop designed for beggars. He delivers a monologue to the audience which describes how difficult his business is; he explains that humans no longer have any sympathy and his business is suffering because of this. Peachum’s speech breaks the fourth wall between actor and audience and challenges them to think of status in society, for example Peachum and the beggars which work for him. The theme of mankind and morality is arisen somewhat biblically; this is typical of Brecht as it again gives the audience the opportunity to think about these ideas.
Peachum’s beliefs are disclosed further with the arrival of Filch, a character who wishes to work for Peachum and his wife. At the end of this scene we learn that Peachum’s daughter, Polly, has gone missing, Peachum deplorably expresses that he is not concerned for his missing daughter but is instead more concerned that he will no longer be able to make money from Polly; upon hearing this, the audience begins to form a mixed opinion of the character. Scene two is set at a stable, it is here that we are properly introduced to Macheath and Polly; we discover that the two characters are celebrating their marriage.
We meet Mac’s gang of criminals who enter excitedly talking about the goods they have stolen and the people who were harmed attaining these goods; this upsets Polly as she does not want to start her new life with her husband as criminals. The character of Poly can be determined as naive as she is willing to accept the crimes of Macheath due to her love for him, even though he is unfaithful to her. The audience realises the brutality of Mac’s gang but waves this aside as their characters become likeable due to their comedic nature.
The gang sing songs about a couple who wed but do not know each other; this furthers the plot without actually showing the event of this. A song named ‘Pirate Jenny’ is sung by Polly, the song portrays Polly’s view of this unknown character, introducing Jenny from Polly’s perspective. Excitement and suspense is created upon the arrival of the police and Sheriff Jackie (Tiger) Brown; a character not originally apparent in the original version of the ‘Beggar’s Opera’, but an adaptation used to convey a corrupt authority in the city of Soho.
Tiger Brown, to the surprise of his gang, is greeted warmly by Macheath, he rants enthusiastically about his relationship with the Sheriff, stating that Tiger Brown often lets his crimes slide on account of this relationship; it is here that the audience realise the corrupt nature of Soho and begin to question integrity. In scene three Mr and Mrs Peachum find out about Polly’s new marriage to Macheath upon her arrival at the outfitting shop.
Polly tells her parents of this through song and their anger is apparent after she tells them this news however, unusually, they are not angered at the marriage but instead that their daughter can no longer continue working as a prostitute, slicing their income. Mr Peachum hatches a plan to frame Macheath thus getting him caught and sentenced to death, however Polly comments that his plan will not prevail, creating a strange relief in the audience as they find themselves wanting Mac to escape. The irony in this is apparent as the audience is aware of his criminal nature, yet they want him to be reprieved.
The act ends with the final song ‘The first Threepenny Finale on the uncertainty of Human Circumstances’ which once again forces the audience to question how they feel about Peachum’s plan and Mac’s actions; the fourth wall is once again broken at the conclusion of this song. Act two commences with Polly entering the stable where Macheath is waiting; she tells him that her father has been to see Tiger Brown and that Mac needs to leave to avoid being caught. Mac remains calm about her news and instead asks Polly to lay with him in bed, in attempt to calm her down he boasts that he has no record at Scotland Yard.
Polly reminds Macheath of his crimes and continues to persuade him to leave; Mac begins to realise the seriousness of the situation and tells Polly that she will have to run his business whilst he is away. He tells her how to handle the business and informs her that she must fire some of his gang members, perhaps conveying the mistrust he has of them now that he is condemned. At this, Mac takes his leave and scene two begins. It is in the beginning of this scene that we are introduced to Jenny; Mrs Peachum is instructing her to turn Macheath in to the authorities.
Jenny has her doubts that Mac will show up at the brothel but is reminded that he is ‘A mighty genius stuck on prostitution’; as predicted Macheath enters the brothel where the girls are working. We become known that Mac is a regular visitor at the whorehouse, highlighting the significance of sex and how it remains as a driving human force. We can only guess that Brecht includes this force as sources suggest that he had many partners and liked to experiment himself. The girls laugh as Jenny reads his palm, foreshadowing her inevitable betrayal, making crude comments throughout.
The rough nature of the whores portray another social cast in the play, the whores make the audience feel uneasy but allow them to become aware of Victorian society. Jenny leaves the house to find the authorities to betray Mac; the whores are left listening to a song which Mac sings about his past with Jenny. It is in this song that the audience becomes aware of Jenny’s reasoning to rat out her past lover as the song’s lyrics reveal Mac’s physical abuse of Jenny. This song gets the audience to query their liking of Macheath but remain fairly swayed with his natural charm despite his violence.
Jenny presents an ironic twist; she can be seen as a prostitute with a good heart, ironic as prostitutes are rarely perceived in this way. Jenny is willing to hand over Macheath in exchange for money which again highlights the corrupt society they live in; she cannot help putting herself first, a natural human instinct. After the song Macheath is seen to be chased and eventually captured by Constable Smith. Scene three begins with this Tiger Brown anxiously awaiting Mac’s arrival, he enters ignoring his old friend, a trick he had learnt from the bible; ironic as Mac’s previous actions can hardly be deemed as religious.
Brown exits and his daughter Lucy (who is evidently pregnant) enters. She enters making accusations of Macheath’s affair with Peachum’s daughter; he insists that he is not married to her but only kissed her and that she is spreading lies of their marriage; at this Polly enters. She rushes to her husband asking him why he did not leave like they had planned, Mac does not respond to Polly and Lucy proceeds to call her a slut, the two characters commence to fight and sing the ‘Jealousy duet’ where both women fight over who Macheath truly loves.
The fight becomes more heated and Mrs Peachum enters ordering Polly to leave. At the end of the scene Mac escapes from the cell only to be chased by Smith once again. Once they clear the stage Tiger Brown enters expressing his relief that his friend managed to escape. Mr Peachum joins Brown at his side expecting his reward for the capture of Macheath to which Brown replies that he has escaped and that there is nothing he can do about it. Angry, Peachum tells Brown that he will cause chaos throughout Soho, threatening Brown’s reputation; Brown realises he must re-capture Mac in order to save his dignity as a Sheriff.
The following morning, now scene three of the play is the morning of the Queen’s coronation; at Mr Peachum’s outfitting shop he orders the beggars to make signs. These signs portray Peachum’s intent to evoke sympathy and pity in the upper class of Soho, this intent reminds the audience of the division between social classes at the time, the upper class people are made out to be selfish and somewhat cold hearted. Filch enters the shop followed by Jenny and the rest of the whores who are all demanding their money for whereabouts of Macheath, they find out that Peachum will not pay them because Mac had managed to escape.
At this point we see a side of Jenny that we know existed but she, up until this point in the play, does not express; she rants about how Macheath is a gentleman and the Peachum’s are not fit to ‘Blacken his boots’. She recounts that he had come to comfort her after she had cried herself to sleep and that he had then gone on to comfort Suky Tawdry (a friend of Jenny’s) too, she lets slip that he was still with her. Peachum takes advantage of this slipped information and orders Filch to tell the police of Mac’s location whilst the whores have a cup of tea.
Peachum order’s his beggars to hurry up and make the signs but before they can continue Filch bursts back into the shop and announces that the cops are on their way; knowing the threat that the policemen hold, he orders his beggars to hide and to play music at the word ‘harmless’. Brown enters with the intention of arresting the beggars and Peachum, who insists that the beggars were just playing music, practicing for the coronation. This is clever as Brown knows he cannot arrest them after being threatened with thousands of suffering people surrounding the coronation gates; Brown is soon convinced that he must arrest Macheath.
At the end of this scene Jenny sings the ‘Song of Solomon’, a song designed by Brecht to continue the alienation effect that is withheld in the play; he wants the audience to stop being caught up in the action and instead listen to the lyrics of the song and question the morality of the words as well as question their own values amongst others that were proposed in the song. Meanwhile, in the next scene Polly and Lucy have a battle of will where Lucy finally confesses that she is not pregnant and that she were just pretending to convince Mac to stay with her.
Polly looks out the window to find that Mac has been caught once again and is being taken to the Gallows to be sentenced to death by hanging. The scene changes to the Gallows where Mac is held in front of the public, ready to be hung. It is at this point where Mac asks Constable Smith whether or not he could pay off his execution to which he answers that he can, if he could afford it; this moment is important as is conveys the importance of money in such a corrupt society.
Macheath delivers his final speech to the public, confessing his criminality but insists that he has stolen nothing more than a bank, his speech ends with him thanking everyone for attending and the scene begins to prepare for Macheath’s seemingly imminent death. Whilst the audience prepare themselves for the action, Peachum suddenly steps out of character and begins to talk to the audience, exclaiming that the play will be ending differently announcing that a royal official will now appear on his horse. This royal official has with him an order from the Queen announcing that Macheath is reprieved.
The official can be looked at as a ‘deus ex machina’ which is a Latin term literally meaning ‘God out of the machine’; this device was used in ancient Greek theatre where a ‘God’ would be lowered to the stage using a machine, this God would solve all the problems occurring at the time, in this case Macheath’s death penalty. The ‘deus ex machina’ used in this play is very raucous due to the loose ends that had been tied by the characters, such as Lucy forgiving Macheath, this conclusion seemingly spelt out imminent death for Macheath, but the audience is mistaken.
The play comes to an end with a final speech from Peachum who delivers a final moral. Brecht takes a very unfamiliar approach as Peachum’s words force the audience to not become caught up in the emotion of Macheath’s freedom, he asks the audience to accept the happy ending which in real life would have been seldom. Peachum’s final words make the audience leave the play considering the issues that arose throughout ‘The Threepenny Opera’.