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The Threepenny Opera

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English Literature

The Threepenny Opera is a three-act musical drama by Bertold Brecht with music by Kurt Weill. The play was adapted from four ballads from François Villon, and from Elisabeth Hauptmann's translation of The Beggar's Opera (1728) by John Gay. The Threepenny Opera premiered on August 31st 1928 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin.

The Threepenny Opera: overview

AuthorBertolt Brecht
Original title in GermanDie Dreigroschenoper
Written in1928
First stage performance1928
Adapted fromThe Beggar's Opera (1728) by John Gay Four ballads by François Villon
GenreMusical dramaEpic theater playParody
StyleMontage
Dramatic devicesDramatic ironyThe V-effect (the Alienation effect) ProjectionsSongs and music
Literary devicesSymbolismSatireForeshadowingPersonification

The Threepenny Opera: summary

Set in Victorian London, The Threepenny Opera is about the criminal Macheath.

In Act I, we are introduced to Peachum, who is the owner of a beggars emporium, where people who are looking to become beggars can purchase a license and learn pity-inducing tricks. Preachum and Peachum's wife, Mrs Peachum, realise that their daughter, Polly, is involved with none other than the infamous Macheath himself. Meanwhile, Polly and Macheath celebrate their elopement. The police arrive, but Macheath is not worried. The sheriff, Tiger Brown, is an old friend of his and the two of them have an agreement: Macheath pays Tiger Brown to keep quiet about his crimes. The following day, Polly tells her parents that she's married to Macheath. They're not happy, and they try to make her see that Macheath is not good for her. Polly begs them to accept her marriage but, instead, they plan to get Macheath arrested.

Act II opens with Polly warning Macheath about her parents. Macheath decides to flee and gives instructions to his men to follow Polly's orders while he's gone. Polly worries that he might be unfaithful to her, but Macheath promises her that she's the only woman in his life. Meanwhile, Mrs Peachum meets with the prostitute Ginny Jenny who works at a brothel owned by Macheath. Mrs Peachum urges Jenny to report Macheath to the police when he comes to the brothel. The prostitute doesn't think that Macheath would come there since he's in hiding, but Mrs Peachum turns out to be correct. Macheath shows up, and he and Ginny Jenny sing a duet that reveals their past together. While still singing, Jenny meets with Mrs Peachum who's waiting outside with a police officer, Constable Smith. Constable Smith catches Macheath, but one of the gangster's thugs witnesses this and runs to let the rest of the gang know.

Constable Smith takes Macheath to the Old Bailey (the Central Criminal Court). When Macheath is put in his cell, Tiger Brown's daughter, Lucy Brown, enters and berates him for leaving her on her own while she's pregnant with his baby. Polly arrives, and the two women verbally attack each other after realising that they have been double-crossed by Macheath. Soon, Mrs Peachum takes Polly away. Macheath convinces Lucy that he will send for her if she helps him escape. She trusts him, and he escapes. Peachum arrives, ready to take his reward, only to find the embarrassed Tiger Brown. Peachum threatens the sheriff with death by the Queen's decree if he doesn't catch Macheath as soon as possible.

In Act III, Peachum organises a beggars' protest to disrupt the new Queen's coronation. Ginny Jenny enters and tells the Peachums of Macheath's suspected whereabouts. Tiger Brown and the police come to arrest Peachum for organising a protest, but they're convinced by Peachum to put their energy into capturing Macheath. Meanwhile, Polly Peachum visits Lucy Brown. Polly apologises to Lucy, and Lucy reveals that she lied about being pregnant. The two women can get along now that they've realised that they both love Macheath and would work together to keep him alive. They hear voices saying that he has been arrested again.

The following morning, Constable Smith informs Macheath that he will be hung in an hour. Macheath tries to bribe Smith, but the Constable doubts that Macheath would be able to get the money on such short notice. Some of Macheath's thugs visit him, and he asks them to withdraw the money from their accounts. They admit that they've spent most of it, but they promise to get what they can. Polly enters and professes her love for Macheath, but all that Macheath does in return is ask her for money. Smith drags Polly away. Tiger Brown comes to share Macheath's last meal with him. The two men get into an argument that ends with the sheriff ordering Constable Smith to take Macheath to his execution. While they walk in that direction, Smith reminds Macheath that he can still escape if he gives him the money. Macheath, however, doesn't have it.

As Macheath is taken to the gallows, everyone comes to say their goodbyes and even those who hated him before are now sad to see him go. At the last moment, Tiger Brown enters and reads a letter from the new Queen which says that she not only pardons Macheath, but also gives him a title, property, and a pension for life. Everyone is happy. Peachum breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, telling them that this is a play and the endings in plays are better than those in real life.

The Threepenny Opera: themes & quotes

Capitalism

Peachum: [...] the rich of the earth indeed create misery, but they cannot bear to see it.

(Act 3, Scene 1)

Here, Peachum is talking to the beggars before the protest he organises. Peachum, himself, has adapted to a way of survival that profits from those who are poorer and weaker than him.

The play exposes the brutality of the capitalist system. In a society that revolves around money, the characters use any and all means to succeed with no consideration for other people. All noble feelings, such as loyalty and love, are overshadowed by greed. Peachum has built a business out of people's pity. Ginny Jenny claims to be loyal to Macheath, but she immediately changes her mind when she is offered money to betray him. As for Macheath, he embodies the vices of capitalism – he's only after his self-interest, not caring who he tramples on in the process. In a completely illogical ending, Macheath is not only pardoned but also rewarded for his crimes. This is Brecht's way of showing us that, in such a system, the rich will only get richer, no matter what crimes they have committed to gain their profit.

Through the use of the Alienation effect, Brecht communicates to the audience that The Threepenny Opera is not simply a story about Victorian London. At the time that the play was written, it was a critique of capitalism in Germany in the 1920s.

Alienation effect: also called the V-effect or Verfremdungseffekt, the Alienation effect is a term coined by Bertold Brecht to describe the method he used to encourage heightened audience engagement with his plays. The Alienation effect is produced by interrupting the illusion of the play and drawing the audience's attention to its reality (such as by having actors directly addressing the audience). As a result, the audience are forced to recognise the play's artificiality and their own role within it. Brecht saw this as a useful tool – although the Alienation effect distances the audience from their immersion in the story, it brings them closer to questioning their own role within the topics explored by the play, both on and off the stage.

Corruption

Peachum: For the wickedness of the world is so great you have to run your legs off in order to avoid having them stolen from under you.

(Act 1, Scene 3)

Peachum says this to Polly after she has announced that she's married to Macheath. Polly shares with her parents that Macheath is friends with sheriff Tiger Brown. This shows them the level of corruption that Macheath is involved with.

The reason why Macheath ultimately gets his 'happy ending' is because of corruption. Tiger Brown is a corrupt sheriff who, instead of abiding by the law, helps Macheath in exchange for money. Additionally, Constable Smith is willing to let Macheath escape his execution if he bribes him with a large enough sum.

Practically all of the characters keep the cycle of corruption going, Brecht doesn't pose judgement on any of them. The message of the play is that, although there is no excuse for the characters' immoral actions, the capitalist society is to blame for corruption. In such a brutal system, the characters resort to all kinds of criminal doings in order to survive.

Love and lust

Polly: Love is the greatest thing in the world!

(Act 1, Scene 3)

Polly tries to convince her mother, Mrs Peachum, why her marriage to Macheath is a good idea. Polly has a naive faith in love.

Macheath's inability to control his lust is what has him arrested twice. First, he marries Polly Peachum which angers her parents and makes them go after him. Then, the police catch him because a woman he has wronged many times, Ginny Jenny, betrays him. Moreover, when he's supposed to be hiding, Macheath goes to the brothel instead. His lust is contrasted with the love Polly and Lucy have for him. However, both love and lust are presented as weaknesses. Love is blind and lust is uncontrollable, and they both make the characters lose their grip on reality.

The Threepenny Opera: symbols

Moon

The moon is a symbol of guidance. Throughout the play, the characters look up to the moon for answers. For example, Polly has a dream featuring the moon which tells us, in a symbolic way, that Macheath is not being faithful to her.

Penny

The penny symbolises money as a whole. The image of the penny is compared with the image of the moon. When Polly dreams of the moon, she describes its appearance as thin, similar to a penny that has been worn away. This reveals that money always comes in the way of love because money is the true guiding force in the characters' lives.

White gloves

Throughout the play, Macheath wears white gloves that are typically worn by members of the aristocracy. On one hand, this foreshadows that Macheath will be given a noble title by the end of the play. On the other hand, the gloves symbolise the corruption of a capitalist society in which even a criminal can pass as an aristocrat if he plays his cards right.

The Threepenny Opera: characters

Macheath

Macheath, also known as Mackie the Knife, is London's most infamous gangster. He's a thief, murderer, pimp, and it's even implied that he's a rapist. In Dramatic theatre, the audience expects to root for the main character, who's usually a protagonist or at least a tragic hero with redeemable qualities. Brecht turns this concept upside down in his Epic Theatre. Macheath is an antihero who manages to get his 'happy ending' and even have the other characters support him, despite everything that he has done to them. Macheath is a product of the capitalist society he's a part of he excels in it because he would use whatever brutal means it takes to get his way. Through the use of the Alienation effect, Brecht repeatedly reminds us that, if we root for Macheath, we are rooting for the unjust and brutal system that made him.

Polly Peachum

Polly Peachum is the Peachums' only daughter. She marries Macheath, although it's not clear whether their marriage is actually legalised. Polly is enamoured by Macheath; she believes the best of him, and, in her naivety, she ignores the signs of his infidelity. She remains loyal to him, even after she finds out about his other lovers and his visits to the brothel. Polly is the personification of the saying, 'love is blind'. For Brecht, both love and lust are distractions – only keeping a clear head could allow someone to take actions to change society.

Peachum

Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum is Mrs Peachum's husband and Polly Peachum's father. Peachum owns a beggars emporium which makes him the leader of the London beggars. In his own way, Peachum is just as powerful and cunning as Macheath. Like the gangster, he's also had to stoop low in order to make enough money to support his family in a corrupt system. While, at first, Peachum goes after Macheath because the gangster has eloped with his daughter, soon it becomes less about Polly and more about the money. Peachum is excited by the prospect of getting a reward for helping the police catch Macheath. Thus, Peachum also serves as a critique on capitalism by reminding us that everything revolves around money.

Mrs Peachum

Mrs Peachum is Polly's mother and Peachum's wife. She's worried about her daughter being with Macheath and she stands by her husband's decision to catch the criminal. She helps Peachum by striking a deal with Ginny Jenny. Mrs Peachum is more or less an archetypal mother figure.

Tiger Brown

Tiger Brown is the sheriff of London and Macheath's old friend from the army. Brown takes money from Macheath and, in exchange, he warns Macheath when there's a police raid coming. Furthermore, their relationship doesn't simply depict corruption. Tiger Brown and Macheath have a strong, almost brotherly bond. However, even such a bond can't survive the corrupt ways of capitalism. By the end of the play, the two friends get into an argument because Brown insists on settling Macheath's outstanding debts before he's executed. Macheath, on the other hand, has slept with Brown's daughter, Lucy, and then left her. This shows that, despite their friendship, both men are first and foremost after their self-interest.

Lucy Brown

Lucy Brown is Tiger Brown's daughter and one of Macheath's lovers. Lucy calls what she and Macheath have a 'marriage', which implies that Polly is not the first woman the gangster has tricked into such a situation. Lucy lies that she's pregnant to make Macheath come back to her. When they find out about each other, Lucy and Polly turn against one another, but eventually, they put aside their differences over their love for Macheath. Like Polly, Lucy is also blindly in love.

Ginny Jenny

Ginny Jenny is a prostitute at Macheath's brothel. In their shared duet, it's revealed that Ginny used to be Macheath's lover, but then he started pimping her out to other men and, when she wouldn't make enough money, he would beat her. Despite how brutal Macheath has been to her, Ginny Jenny looks back at their past with nostalgia. However, at the end of the day, she betrays Macheath because Mrs Peachum offers her money.

Ginny Jenny expresses herself solely through song.

Constable Smith

Constable Smith is a London police officer. He helps Mrs Peachum and Ginny Jenny to capture Macheath. Like almost all other characters, Constable Smith only helps other people when it serves his own interests. He's corrupt, and he's willing to help Macheath escape his execution in exchange for a large sum of money. Smith symbolises the workings of corruption on all levels in society.

How has The Threepenny Opera influenced culture today?

The Threepenny Opera is Brecht's first success. The Berlin premiere in 1928 was followed by performances in Europe and in the United States in the 1930s. Today, this musical drama remains one of Brecht's most well-known works. It has been translated into 18 languages, and there are probably numerous performances of it in different countries happening right now!

Have you seen the Netflix series You (2018–)? The main character, Joe Goldberg, is a dangerous criminal who manages to escape the law every time. The story is told from his perspective, and the audience is drawn to him, despite their better judgement. Does this sound familiar? You may be surprised to learn that the show has many similarities with The Threepenny Opera.

The Threepenny Opera - Key takeaways

  • The Threepenny Opera is a musical drama by Bertold Brecht with music by Kurt Weill. The play was adapted from four ballads by François Villon and The Beggar's Opera (1728) by John Gay. The Threepenny Opera premiered in 1928 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin.
  • Set in Victorian London, The Threepenny Opera is about the gangster Macheath who is unjustly rewarded for his crimes.
  • The play is a critique on capitalism.
  • The main themes in The Threepenny Opera are capitalism, corruption, love, and lust.
  • The main symbols in the play are the moon, the penny, and the white gloves.
  • The main characters in the drama are Macheath, Polly Peachum, Mrs Peachum, Tiger Brown, Lucy Brown, Ginny Jenny, and Constable Smith.

The Threepenny Opera

The message of The Threepenny Opera is that a capitalist society breeds corruption and injustice. In a capitalist system, the rich will only get richer, no matter what crimes they have committed to gain their profit.

The main themes in The Threepenny Opera are capitalism, corruption, love, and lust.

The Threepenny Opera is important because it it Brecht's first success and the first play in which he implemented his Epic theatre techniques.

No, Macheath is not executed. Instead, he is pardoned and rewarded by the Queen.

Brecht wrote The Threepenny Opera in 1928.

Final The Threepenny Opera Quiz

Question

Where was The Threepenny Opera first performed?

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Answer

 Berlin

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Question

True or false: The Threepenny Opera is an adaptation of the works of other authors.

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Answer

True.

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Question

True or false: The Threepenny Opera is set in 1920s Berlin.

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Answer

False.

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Question

How many acts does The Threepenny Opera consist of?

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Answer

3

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Question

True or false: Macheath deserves his 'happy ending'.

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Answer

False.

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Question

True or false: the play is a socialist critique on the capitalist system.

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Answer

True.

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Question

True or false: love in the play is presented as a strength.

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Answer

False.

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Question

What does the moon symbolise in The Threepenny Opera?

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Answer

 Guidance

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Question

Macheath is...?

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Answer

An antihero 

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Question

True or false: both Polly Peachum and Lucy Brown love Macheath, despite the way he has treated them.

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Answer

True.

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Question

True or false: Peachum cares about his daughter, Polly, more than he cares about money.

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Answer

False.

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Question

True or false: Tiger Brown is the sheriff of London.

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Answer

True.

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Question

True or false: Lucy Brown is pregnant with Macheath's baby.

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Answer

False.

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Question

True or false: Ginny Jenny never sings.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Which of these is NOT one of the main themes in The Threepenny Opera?

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Answer

The Royal family 

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