About a week ago, I introduced my youngest daughter to one of my favorite musicals: The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It tells the story of Mack the Knife, a thief in Victorian London who marries Polly, daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who controls the city’s beggars. Peachum goes to the police for help and discovers that Mack is protected by the Chief of Police. Even so, the Chief of Police has a price and agrees to hunt Mack. Mack flees into the arms of his longtime lover, a prostitute named Jenny. This really only scratches the surface of the play’s story. A lot goes on in a very compact narrative.
The play was written in 1928 in Germany as Nazis and communists were vying for control of the Weimar Republic. Brecht was a communist and adapted an English play called The Beggar’s Opera into a critique of capitalism. Whenever a character in The Threepenny Opera has a choice, they will always take the one that will bring them the most money or the most personal pleasure, regardless of what it means for those around them. Being a little vague to avoid spoilers, the ending calls up a deliberate deus ex machina that encourages the audience to realize that real life would give no happy ending for characters that behave this way. It also challenges the audience to ask that if it related to the thieves, beggars, and the prostitutes of the story, they should be careful about treating them as sub-human worthy of no sympathy. I believe the lessons of the play are as valuable and relevant today in the United States as they were in 1928 Weimar Germany.
As it turns out, members of the German Communist Party were among Brecht’s harshest critics at the time the play was released. They wanted the play to include a depiction of the proletariat uprising against the bourgeoisie. I suspect it’s precisely because the play didn’t go this direction that it remains relevant today.
The play has been translated into English multiple times with varying degrees of success. The version represented by the poster at the top of the post was translated by Wallace Shawn, famous as Vizzini in The Princess Bride and starred Alan Cumming as Mack and Cyndi Lauper as Jenny. Unfortunately, Shawn’s translation hasn’t been published, nor was there a cast recording of the show. Fortunately, plenty of other recordings exist including the Mannheim and Willet translation of the 1970s, which features Raul Julia as Mack.
As far as I know, the musical has only been made into a movie three times. Probably the most famous and widely available is the 1931 version. Among the high points, Kurt Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya reprises her role as the original Jenny in this early version. Unfortunately, this version drops many songs and changes the play’s ending. I’ve never seen the 1960’s version, but haven’t been able to find a recommendation from a fan. My personal favorite is the 1989 film Mack the Knife starring Raul Julia as Mack, Richard Harris as Peachum, Julie Walters (best known as Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter films) as Mrs. Peachum, and Roger Daltry as the street singer. This version is still quite flawed. It also drops songs, is very dark and muddy looking, and has several unnecessary dance numbers. Despite all that, it seems to capture the essence of the play better than the 1931 version. Sadly, the movie was only released on VHS and no DVD version has appeared.
As it turns out, my novel The Pirates of Sufiro takes some inspiration from The Threepenny Opera. Captain Firebrandt’s portrayal as the stylish pirate captain, owes a lot to Mack the Knife, who is called Captain Macheath to his face. Also, Firebrandt’s lover Suki is named for Sukey Tawdry, one of Mack’s lovers in the play. The Pirates of Sufiro is available for free at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. My preferred edition of the ebook is available as a PDF directly from my publisher.