Posted by Joseph Vincent Mach on January 20, 1999 at 22:50:27:
Few plays have spread into global notoriety, especially modern ones. A Mid Summer Night's
Dream is about as popular in China as Boris Gudinov is in France. Bertolt Brecht's ThreePenny
Opera is a rare example of a play that has touched almost every part of the earth and covered
almost every medium: theater, film, and novel. Originally from an old English play called The
Beggar's Opera, the main character "Macheath" was a traditional British, Robin Hood like hero.
The disastrous effects of World War One and Brecht's unique style made his adaptation, with
the help of Weill's musical score, one of the most popular plays in the world. He turned the
Swashbuckler "Macheath" into an anti-hero, a common criminal and product of the time, but still
seemed to arouse the audiences' pity. From Moscow and Berlin to New York, this play has stood
the durability of time and has influenced many, either positively or negatively. And from it's meager
start, the play as made Macheath the star of hit records and fast-food commercials.
Macheath was birthed in The Beggar's Opera by John Gay (June 30, 1685-December 23,
1732). Gay was an English playwright and poet who lived in the eighteenth century and gained
fame as a satirist on the contemporary society. A friend of famous writers as Johnathan Swift and
Alexander Pope, who usually outshine Gay in the history books, but three of the most popular
works of the period: The Fables, which have been printed in over 350 editions; Trivia, which
went into five editions in the poets lifetime and is sometimes regarded as the best poem about
London life ever written; and of coarse The Beggar's Opera, probably the century's most beloved
play, are Gay's most famous works. The opera was conceived in a letter that Swift wrote to Pope
on August 30, 1716. The letter asks, "...what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves
and s there?" Pope suggested to hand the idea to Gay, but make it a comedy; A comedy by
The Beggar's Opera has a partial setting in Newgate Prison. This may also be a result of the
stories a young Gay heard about his Aunt Martha, who in a failed economic gamble spent about
three years in that location. As a boy he and his friends used to hang around the sailors in town
to hear stories. In 1694 Gay's mother and father died within months of each other, and so he was
given to his uncle Thomas. It is at this time that he grew a huge interest in literature that interfered
with and caused him to lose his apprenticeship. He began to write plays, but his first success
didn't come until late 1714 with The What D'ye Call It. It was replayed almost every season until
1750. The play was a parody of the popular tragedies of the time, but it was so subtle that the
audience took the work seriously and in some cases weeping occurred. But the most significant
part of this play was the ballad that he wrote to music by Handel. Being reprinted for years, the
ballad had success on it's own. It is this ballad that began Gay's fame as a lyricist and predicts the
songs that were to appear in his Beggar's Opera.
After a few years writing plays for the royal court, he completed The Beggar's Opera and it
opened on January 29, 1728. The basis for this opera is that the thieves and other low-lives that
inhabit Newgate prison are the same as to be found in the government. The play was a theatrical
success and became the most popular play of that century. It's first season had an unprecedented
run of sixty-two nights (it appears that Pope was wrong when he counted sixty-three) and
became the English stage's first hit. It had a near continuous run from the year 1728 through
1886. This ballad opera was the first of it's kind to be produced in England and has caused such
a fad that it's influence can still be seen today in almost all musical comedy. Deeper than it's
music, which can stand on it's own, the play is a harsh satire that daringly strikes against cl
distinction and members of the royal court. Gay's sly move of inverting the cles was the key
to his genius. The harlots, burglars, and cutthroats are more important than the national
governors. These low-lives have the manners of proper English lords and ladies, and gain power
in much the same ways, proving that human nature is a constant through out the world. It also
pokes fun at the judicial system of the period. There was a high crime rate at that time in English
history. The death penalty was handed out for the theft of pennies from a person, but acts of
murder and arson were mere misdemeanors.
The lead character of The Beggar's Opera is the swashbuckler called Macheath. He is a
smooth romantic with qualities of both a gentleman and a highwayman. He is the love of the
s. Macheath takes the hand in marriage of Lucy and Polly and in the end "four wives more"
claim him. He says "I must have women" since "I love the ". A paradox of a character that
speaks King's English and dresses well, but prefers to live in the faith and company of
cutthroats. He is polite to the people he mugs and steers away from violence. Even though he
cheats on the adorable Polly, the audience call still believe his love for her is true. The actor who
played Macheath was supposed to be James Quinn, but he suffered from an inability to sing, so
Thomas Walker took the part. Walker became the hero of the London youth and was honored in
various taverns and other amusement places.
A short non-descript synopsis of the play will find a simple narrative that connects the mive
forty-five scenes that the play contains. The opening prologue is a dialogue between The Player
and The Beggar, who is posing as the play's author. They make humor of the Italian opera,
especially the conflict of two diva's of that period. The first scene takes place in Peachum's
establishment. Peachum sings a hymn about the dishonesty of everyone. Peachum is alarmed at
the marriage between his daughter Polly and Macheath. His objection is for purely business
reasons, for Peachum is a "fence" of stolen goods who occasionally informs on his patrons for
the reward. He fears both the loss of Polly from his business, who he related to a pretty
bartender bringing in money from drunkards, and of Macheath's learning of any business
Act II has Macheath and his men outside Newgate. He states his problem with Peachum, but
when his gang want to do Peachum in Macheath explains how he is a necessary evil and that
"Business cannot go on without him". Macheath's goal is to trick Peachum into believing he has
left the gang, but when he embles eight ladies for a party the ladies call the constable and
have him arrested. In jail he bribes Lockit, the jailer, for looser chains. Macheath however, is a
lover of Lucy Lockit, the daughter of the jailer. He promises her marriage in turn for his excape
and she agrees. The plan is almost thrown off track when Polly goes to the jail looking for
Macheath, but he successfully tricks Lucy again and he excapes at the end of the Act.
The Third Act begins with Lockit discovering his daughter's part in Macheath's excape. He and
Peachum find Macheath's hiding place and go to re-capture him. As Macheath is brought back
into custody, both Lucy and Polly beg their father for his life, but to no avail. Macheath is led off
to Old Bailey for a trial. In prison Macheath drinks wine and sings portions of nine songs. Two of
his gang come to pay respects and he instructs them to have Peachum and Locked hanged.
When Polly and Lucy come to visit he tells them to travel to the West Indies and have "a
husband apiece". At this moment a jailer calls that four more wives have come to see him and a
fellow gang member call desperately for a hangman because at this moment Macheath will really
need one. At this point the Beggar and the Player enter to argue whether Macheath dies or not.
The Beggar states that Macheath must be hanged for poetic justice. The Player states that this
would make the play a tragedy and operas have happy endings. The Beggar finally agrees and
Macheath is released. The play concludes with Macheath stating that he is legally married to
Polly alone and there is a joyful dance.
Gay tried to cash in on the play's success by writing a sequel titled Polly. This play was not as
good. It had a new setting of a colonial plantation, but tried to carry over it's satire on the nobels
of England. As a result, this humour seemed out of place. Gay rushed the writing of this play
and it's humour or message is less clear than in Beggar's Opera. In this new play, Macheath is
disguised as a negro and doesn't have even a hint of a hero that he originally had. Polly
marries a native American. The irregular ballads have telltale signs of being rushed and are far
below Gay's previous standards. Although the play became popular, it isn't comparable to The
The Beggar's Opera was not just a success in Eighteenth Century England. This was the first
musical play to be produced in colonial New York. It was George Washington's favourite play. In
1920 the play was revived in London and New York. 1923 was the year that the Beggar's Opera
Club opened serving members who have seen the play a minimum of forty times. There were
modern revivals of the play: 1940 (London), 1950 (New York), and 1958 (also New York). A
movie version of this play starred Sir Laurance Olivier as Macheath. Olivier insisted on performing the stunts and recording the songs himself. The film was a failure and lost its entire investment. Duke Ellington wrote music for an adaptation in 1946 titled The Beggar's Holiday. Alfred Drake played Macheath as a dashing New York gangster in Ellingtonís adaptation. The Beggar's Holiday closed after only 14 weeks. No adaptation has been more popular than Bertolt Brecht's ThreePenny Opera first seen in Germany, late August 1928.
The adaptation by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was composed in the Weimar Period of post
World War One Germany. The World War had drastic effects on society's view of the arts and
was the final that toppled the kingdoms of Europe. Starting with industrialism and ending
with the war, new cles were rising to replace the aristocracy and peasantry. These cles
were the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. New art movements called the avant-garde rose to
address the new modern society. One of the big changes was in the concept of a "hero" in plays
and literature. Before the outbreak, people thought of war as nobel and honorable, a statement
of national pride. Wars had to this point been quick, from six to eight weeks in length. But World
War One lasted for six long years, destroyed a generation of European youth, and left a dirty
scar across the earth between France and Germany that is still present to remind people today.
After the disastrous war, novels like Schweik, The Good Soldier by Jaroslav Hasek began to
spring forth. No longer was the military looked upon like crusading knights. Schweik was an anti-
hero. An overweight inept army man who would hide out a battle until both sides had macred
each other. Being the last man standing, his army would bestow medals and honors upon him for
defeating the enemy troops, when in fact he was a coward.
Anti-heroes like Schweik were the kind of leading man avant-garde playwrights and theater
directors like Bertolt Brecht were looking for. He did do an adaptation of Schweik, but his most
famous work is The ThreePenny Opera, an adaptation of Gay's play with alterations to suit the
new theater. It started when his collaborator, Elisabeth Hauptmann, noticed a successful revival
of a very interesting play in Hammersmith during the early Twenties. The play was The Beggar's
Opera and had great potential to be converted into the avant-garde. Even though it was over a
century old, this unusual play had everything the avant-garde looked for. Gay's rapid change of
scenes was similar to the montage effect that Brecht and others were trying to achieve in the arts.
Gay's satire was an ironic reversal of the royal government and the criminals of old England, that
could easily be converted to fit the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. In November of 1927, Elisabeth
Hauptmann began to translate the English play to German for Brecht. Brecht began to transform
Gay's Macheath into his own Mackie Messier, also known as Mack the Knife.
Brecht took many liberties in ThreePenny Opera. It is by no means just a translation of Gay's
play. The London setting is replaced by a dockside Noho in Victorian England. Peachum
becomes a beggar king, outfitting, taxing, and reporting on his beggars for the reward. He prays
on people's sympathies and quotes Biblical verses with ironic dark comedy. Scenes are added,
such as a wedding scene between Mac and Polly set in a stable with stolen goods for the
reception. The police chief Tiger Brown, Brecht's Lockit, an old army buddy of Mac's stops in to
pay his respects. But most important is the changes that make Mack the Knife.
Brecht's version of the character bears little resemblance to Gay's Macheath. Mackie is
unmannerly, cynical, and a toughened criminal. He is a gangster who refers to himself as a
"businessman". He praises efficiency, organization, and even keeps books. He stated that the
only difference between a gangster and a businessman is that the gangster is "often on coward".
Although he never enters the legitimate business world, he tells Polly that in a few weeks he will
switch to banking because it is safer and more profitable. Thieves like himself are being edged
out of the market by business and banks: "We artisans of the lower middle cl who work with
honest jimmies on the cash boxes of small shopkeepers, are being ruined by large concerns
backed by the banks. What is a picklock to a bank share? What is the burgling of a bank to the
founding of a bank? What is the murder of a man to the employment of a man?" He has become
thoroughly bourgeoisie, not like Gay's dashing romantic hero. Brecht states in the plays notes
that he based his character on an original English drawing of Macheath as "a squat but thickset
man in his forties with a radish like head, somewhat bald already, but not without dignity." Polly
even states that he is "not handsome."
At this time Brecht had been working with Kurt Weill (1900-1950) on a musical. The
collaboration worked so well that they stayed together for The ThreePenny Opera. Together they
worked on the music, usually Brecht handled the lyrics and Weill wrote the songs, or re-wrote
would be more accurate. Most of the traditional hymns were replaced with jazzy foxtrots and
tangos. A song was taken from a Brecht play that preceded this one called Man is Man, the
song titled Cannon Song. Four tunes were pirated from the German version of Villon. Only one
song, the first hymn of Gay's play sung by Peachum, remained intact. But this seems to fit with
Gay's style because he too borrowed music from composers like Handel. Of coarse, the most
famous song from the show is The Ballad of Mack the Knife, sometimes called the most famous
tune written in Europe during the last century.
The song was composed for the egotistical actor Harold Paulsen. Paulsen veinly demanded
that his entrance be built up, So Brecht wrote the verses overnight. To spite Paulsen, Brecht
wrote into the play that the song was to be sung by the street singer, and not Macheath. It began
in a dispute between Paulsen and Brecht. Paulsen threatened to leave the cast if he did not get
the last word about his costume. On the play's small budget the rest of the cast had to wear
leftover costumes, but Paulsen required a double-ed black suit from Berlin's most
expensive tailor. Also his outfit included gleaming lacquered black shoes, blinding white spats, a
very stiff collar, a sword-cane and a black bowler hat. A sky blue cravat was also added because
it matched Paulsen's eyes. Brecht finally said "Let him keep it, Weill and I will introduce him with
a moritat that will describe his crimes, and that way he will appear even more frightening with that
The song was to be a Moritat, modeled after the Moritaten ("Mord" meaning murder and "tat"
meaning deed) and given to Kurt Gerron to sing. The day after Brecht handed the lyrics of the
song to Weill, Weill turned up at the theater for rehearsal with a hurdy-gurdy to crank out the
music. It has long since been argued whether Brecht or Weill wrote the better half of the song.
The song's strict male orientation and it's portrayal of causal violence against women, as well as
anyone in Mackie's way seems to point to Brecht more that Weill as the father of the lyrics. Also,
the confusion between sharks and the murder Macheath appears to be artist George Grosz's
influence on Brecht. Grosz worked as set designer with Brecht, and his 1921 drawing of Berlin
brothels is called Haifische, or "sharks". Kurt Gerron played both the Street Singer and Police
Chief Tiger Brown, Brecht's re-write of Gay's Lockit. This added more irony to the already
complex play because the same man who builds up Mack the Knife's evil accomplishments is also
the corrupt speaker for law. Special lighting accompanied Gerron as he cranked out the song on
a side stage. As he sang, he pointed to crude images illustrating the crimes Mack the Knife
committed such as: Theft, murder, arson, and .
The last verse of the song describes how Mac violates a young girl when she is sleeping. This
happens just as the first scene begins where Mac leaves a house and follows Polly
Peachum down the street. The intersection of the Moritat and the beginning of the acting is
significant of how Brecht's new "Epic" avant-garde theater was enhanced by Weill's music. The
stage for the play had large canvases in the background where text was projected as a narration
to the scene below. It is at this intersection that the narration is depicted and sung. Not only can
one ume stagitory will occur by his following of young Polly and the knowledge of his
criminal tendencies, but the audience is being told and shown a picture as well. This kept the
viewer from being involved in the character and left him or her as the observer of the character.
Brecht's new style of theater allowed for the play to be more brutally harsh in it's satirical attacks
on the cles than Gay's play could achieve. Brecht allowed the audience to observe, judge,
and decide how things could and should be different where as Gay's audience got too involved
with the characters to ume there was a choice. Brecht offers alternatives in life rather than
Gay's mocking charactures that just make the viewer laugh at their folly. Brecht wanted to make
his characters amoral, but not immoral. Morality has nothing to do with action. To emphasize this
point he switched the goals of his characters to be food and money, not power and like in
Gay's play. "Eat first, morals later" Mac says.
It is not just coincidence that this sounds like Marxist theory, but Brecht did not have a utopian
view like communists in Russia. He did however, have strong anti-capitalist views. While his play
was a hit in Germany, successful in bringing many from the working cl into the theaters, much
of the audience were middle cl and did not understand that the humor was at their expense.
Within a week of it's opening, the play was booked in more than fifty theaters in Germany. By the
end of the next year it was preformed in Italy, Poland, Hungry, France, Switzerland, and Russia.
The 1930 Moscow production was received with mixed response.
The Soviet production was put on by Alexander Tairov in the Kamerny Theater. The play
resumed the title The Beggar's Opera. Tairov's production was designed by the Stenberg
brothers, Avant-garde artists who built an elegant stage setting, but Yuly Khmelnitsky preformed
Macheath as a charismatic adventurer and not an anti-hero. Brecht saw the Moscow production,
but was unsatisfied. He usually was by other productions of his plays.
The Soviet government was also unsatisfied, but for another reason. They thought his message
was not strong enough. By 1930 Brecht had been offered to make a film of The ThreePenny
Opera, and he thought he would help the Communist cause by making his Marxism more
obvious and turning the film into almost propaganda. Jean Oser, the film's editor remembers
"ThreePenny Opera was very hot property at the time: it had come out as a big theatrical hit; in
fact in was almost phenomenal how much it influenced a complete generation... It formed the
entire pre-Hitler generation until 1933; for about five years... Every girl in the country wanted to
be like Mackie. Apparently, the ideal man was a pimp."(Although the film kept the title The
ThreePenny Opera, It will be called "The ThreePenny Movie" to avoid confusion between it and
The Nero Film Company bought the rights to produce the story from Brecht and Weill, on the
condition that Brecht would furnish the story outline and retain the right to reasonably alter the
final screenplay. The ThreePenny Movie was to be directed by G.W.Pabst and written by Leo
Lania, who worked with Brecht adapting Schweik. Brecht wrote in the screenplay a more radical
anti-capitalist Macheath. The screenplay of the story was called The Bruise and disposed all of
what was left of the Beggar's Opera. Everything now is on a large scale. Mac's gang is 120
strong and Peachum heads a begging trust. The gang and the beggars are at war, symbolised
by the bruise inflicted on a beggar named Sam. Peachum forces Brown to secure Macheath's
arrest after a bucolic picnic and a car chase with a car full of cops following a car full of s.
No escape and no second arrest happens. Polly directs the gang to take over the National
Deposit Bank and convert itself into a group of solemn financiers. The "Mounted Messengers"
are now bankers who bail Macheath out. To avoid disappointing the crowd Peachum has Sam
hung in Mac's place. Mac, Peachum, and "Tiger" Brown all leave the stage arm in arm because
as capitalists, all the conflicts between them were just business.
Pabst and Brecht had very different ideas on how the film was to look and it soon became
obvious that they were too incompatible to work together. Nero Films offered to buy the rights
from Brecht outright, but he refused. Work on the ThreePenny Movie had already begun and
much money had been invested. Nero decided to continue with Pabst in charge. Brecht and
Weill sued the company with mixed results. Weill won his case and had all the changes to his
musical score erased. Brecht on the other hand lost. The opposing lawyers brought up the fact
that Brecht had taken from Villon and thus his call for literary property rights was a bit
hypocritical. When the ThreePenny Movie was finished. The Film incorporated much of Brechtís
re-write of the story, but failed to present it in his style. Oser states "In this case I agree with
Brecht, you donít make a million-dollar movie out of a story which should be practically shot in a
The ThreePenny movie was shot at the same time with a French version, alternating between
day and night the use of the set. The two films are similar. Although the French is usually far
outshadowed by the German now, at the time of release the French was extremely popular and
the German was attacked by the critics. Albert Prejean played Macheath in the French version,
but Rudolph Forster was Mac in the German film. Pabst created the largest set built in Germany
before 1931 for this film. The opening sequence starts with a shot of solid brick buildings like
warehouses and offices. One can ume the docks are behind them due to the dock workers
and lower middle-cl people walking about. Two people catch the camera's eye, Polly and Mrs.
The camera tracks them from behind as they p a building's entrance. Above the door are a
sigh reading "Higate Marsh" and a red light. Mac enters the doorway with a in his arm.
Notes from the "Tango Ballad" can be heard. This is obviously a brothel. Polly and Mrs. Peachum
continue walking out of the picture. The do not notice Macheath, but they catch his eye and his
gaze follows them down the street. At that moment he perks up, pushes the aside and
follows the two ladies. As Mac pes a ground floor window next to the door another
reaches out and hands him a cane. Mac takes this without looking at her, but the handle slips to
reveal a blade.
A frontal close-up of Mac now appears, keeping pace with him as his steps quicken in pursuit
of the ladies. The women turn onto a side alley and Mac follows. One can hear music as they
near a town square where a crowd has formed around a street singer. The singer cranks out
music on a barrel-organ, The Ballad of Mack the Knife. Mac joins the crowd peering over it for
the two women. (In the screen play there is a man in a tophat obstructing Mac's view. Mac flicks
the hat and it slides down over the man's ear. This was most likely to demonstrate how Mac
knocks off people in his way. This however seems redundant as we have already established his
character by the cane-knife and the lyrics sung by the street singer.) The shot switches to
Mackie's view of the singer illustrating words with pictures of horrible acts. In the front row is
Polly, who's face the camera and Mac see for the first time.
The camera zooms up to the singer and his pictures. The singer dances about making comic
gestures as a small girl cranks the organ. The camera pans across the crowd and as the man in
the tophat hears of the murderous deeds his mouth drops and he straightens his hat. Still being
behind the man, Mac's face disappears behind the hat. Mac travels in a large half-circle through
the crowd to stand behind Polly and the camera follows. Mackie comes up behind and pushed
his way through to Polly. Polly doesn't notice her as he gazes and pushes closer. The
impression is given that Mac wants to touch her. Polly turns in Mac's direction. He looks up,
laughs, and sings along with the tune.
Mrs. Peachum begins to leave and drags Polly with her. Polly is fascinated by Mac and
cannot stop staring. This only forces Mac to follow her more. The three of them go off screen as
the singer finishes the last lines of the song. (translated: And the widow, under age/ The one
who's name we know so well/ d one night while she lay sleeping/ Mackie how much could
you tell). The camera then tracks Mackie's smiling face.
One can tell Pabst's film is an extremely different view of Mackie than Brecht's play gives him
or her. Rather than presenting a man for all to see, Pabst puts the viewer in the character. How
can one not help but feel a little nostalgic for the underage widow? Mac's adventures become our
own and are presented to us in song. A song that Mac himself can sing along to, as if he were
remembering those experiences with us. Herbert Ihering, a friend of Brecht, stated that the
ThreePenny Movie "has such a -tail-like effect and is told with such charm and humour that in
the end one completely disregards the intended meaning and just enjoys the story..." Brecht
wrote two pieces on this event. One was The ThreePenny Novel. In short, his intended film, that
is the more Marxist Revolutionary screenplay in book form. The other was The ThreePenny
Lawsuit, describing the trial and how his failing was due to the inherent evils of a capitalist
society. Even after the film rights returned to his ownership, he never did another ThreePenny
After the film was made in 1930, a "3-Groschen bar" (ThreePenny bar) opened in Berlin. It
played only "ThreePenny" music. One could also buy "ThreePenny" wallpaper, depicting scenes
and characters. It came in three shades: light pink, light green, and light yellow. "ThreePenny"
mania was sweeping Germany. A record could be bought containing the most popular
"ThreePenny" songs recorded with a voice and piano. A recording of the performance on
December 5, 1930 kept Kurt Gerron as the Street Singer, but Macheath was sung by Willy
Trenck-Tre. After seeing L'opera de quat' sous (The French version of The ThreePenny
Opera) Simone de Beauvoir remembered in her autobiography "We knew nothing about Brecht,
but we were enchanted by the way he depicted the adventures of Mack the Knife. The work
seemed to reflect a totally anarchic attitude... Sarte knew all Kurt Weill's songs by heart and we
often used to quote the catch phrase about grub first and morality afterwards." The ThreePenny
Opera was not limited to Europe. It soon crossed the Atlantic to America.
In America the play was preformed many times. In 1933 a version translated by Gifford
Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky was preformed in New York City, the script to this production has
long sense been lost. American's were not ready for theater in this style, but critics praised
Weill's music and he became one of the leading composers of Broadway. In Illinois, Desmond
Vesey's translation was preformed in 1945, 1948, and in a dual translation with Eric Bently, 1954
and 1956. 1954 and 1955 also saw opening of Marc Blitzen's translation on the New York City
stage. Blitzen's shows ran a smashing six years. It established the play as a popular favouret,
but it is an adaptation and at the time changes had to be made to suite the America of the
Eisenhower era. After a sixteen year lull Joseph Papp commissioned a new translation by Ralph
Manheim and John Willett. Because of the stage censorship, Blitzen's lyrics were softened and
thus changed many of Brecht's meanings around. The new translation had to be faithful to
Brecht, abrasive and unsparing. In Blitzen's version of the Ballad of Mack the Knife he neglects
to even mention the crime of the "Ghastly fire in Soho". The late Raul Julia preformed as
Macheath in this version with the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1976.
A jazzy version of Weill's Ballad became popular. It's beginnings are from the opening night in
August, 1928. As Kurt Gerring was singing and cranking the hand organ, the organ failed to
work. Not until the song's second verse did the Lewis Ruth Band spring to action an accompany
the singing to music. The moritat hides it's complexity, and thus it's appeal to the jazz musicians.
Dance elements from the blues tradition are fused with it's sixteen measure melody. After the
first two stanzas, altered instrumentation, rhythmic patterns, dynamics, and countermelodies piece
together new musical attire.
The moritat's real fame came from the vocals of Louis Armstrong and the lyrics from Blitzen's
adaptation. Armstrong has a deep, raspy, southern black man's voice. He sings slowly of the
murders and a list of the s names but makes no mention of the or fire that left seven
dead. The song is a catchy tune, and perfect for the American public of the Ninteen-Fourties with
it's cleaned lyrics. This was a time in American history when the thought of murder visualized by
a black males voice was enough to send shivers across one's skin.
In 1960 Bobby Darin re-recorded this song. A popular rock and roller already, he succeeded in
bringing this jingle into the white public's acceptance. Darin's youthful style is louder, faster, and
has more flash. One almost overlooks the criminal lyrics and is caught up in the upbeat tempo of
the music and casual singing. But it wasn't until the 1980's that this tune truly became a
"commercial" song. McDonald's fast food company created the character "Mac Tonight" to sell
it's "Big Mac" hamburgers. Mac Tonight is a suave rock star/lounge singer. His head is a crescent
moon and he wears black sungles as he soars through the night sky playing the piano. He
seems the essence of cool with his white dress shirt, red tie, and black satin jacket. This strayed
far away from Brecht's intentions, but unlike the ThreePenny Movie, Mac Tonight was
unsuccessful and McDonalds dropped it's campaign after only a year or so.
Others have tried to cash in on the movie of ThreePenny Opera. In 1962 a re-make called The
Three Penny Opera (Note the space between Three and Penny). This little known movie starred
Sammy Davis Jr. It wasn't terribly successful. Nor was the 1989 film Mack the Knife. This film was
filled with stars. Raul Julia again took the part as Mac. Roger Daltrey, the former singer from the
rock group "The Who", Played the street singer. The famous British actor Richard Harris also
appears in this film. This film, directed by Menheim Golan, is more like a re-make of Pabst's
ideas about the story rather than Brecht's. There is too much singing, and way too much
dancing. The set is elaborate and expensive, submersing the viewer into the Victorian English
underworld. The music is still Weill's with Blitzen's translations, but is arranged to sound more
like flashy Broadway show tunes. This film is so rare that it must be ordered from the company at
a price of almost a hundred dollars.
Bobby Darin and Roger Daltrey are not the only Rock musicians to be seduced by the
charming Macheath in ThreePenny Opera. In 1989, the Grammy winning Sting, former lead
singer of "The Police", ironically took the role of the infamous murder Mack the Knife on the stage.
Sting had previously sung The Ballad of Mack the Knife on a 1985 album remembering the works
of Kurt Weill called Lost in the Stars. He also sang a rendition of The Ballad with the Hamburg
State Orchestra in 1987. This 1989 revival claims to be the closest to Brecht and Weill's
intentions than any American production has been. It comes closer than even the original 1928
Berlin show because Lucy's Aria was cut from the original production due to the actresses'
leaving of the cast. The Aria was included in the 1989 production. Sting stated, "One of
Macheath's basic messages to the audience is that you can't judge people morally until they're
fed, until they're equals."
Macheath has found his place in popular culture. From his English birth two hundred years ago
he has been continually updated to fit in the place and time he has been brought. From his
German transformation, he was written to fit a Marxist role to fit Moscow's needs. America found
him to be to harsh at first and he was made less cruel, but as America became less puritanical,
Mackie returned to his character of the German production. He has entered theater, film,
literature, popular music, and commercials. But as Sting said, "If people are coming [To see
ThreePenny Opera] expecting to hear Bobby Darin or Louis Armstrong, They'll get a nasty
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