On this date in 1928 the musical, The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) by dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill opened at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. It was adapted from an 18th-century English ballad opera, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and offers a socialist critique of the capitalist world. By 1933, when Brecht and Weill were forced to leave Germany by Hitler’s Machtergreifung, the work had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times on European stages. Songs from The Threepenny Opera have been widely covered and become standards, most notably “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (“Mack the Knife”) and “Seeräuberjenny” (“Pirate Jenny”).
To my mind, the translation of The Beggar’s Opera to The Threepenny Opera is near perfect. Gay’s original was revolutionary in its day. The Beggar’s Opera satirized Italian opera, which had become popular in London. Instead of the grand music and themes of classic opera, the work uses familiar tunes from the streets, and characters who were ordinary people. The audience could hum along with the music and identify with the characters. The story critiqued politics, poverty, and injustice, focusing on the theme of corruption at all levels of society. Furthermore there was no recitative; the characters spoke their lines between musical numbers (and it was in English). Thus an audience of ordinary Londoners could follow along with no trouble. The upper classes were not exactly thrilled with the piece but it was an enormous success and enjoyed the longest run of any theatrical production of its day. Since its opening in 1728 it has never been out of production, with several 20th century revivals enjoying great success. Arguably The Beggar’s Opera is the prototype for modern musical theater.
I have a particular love for The Beggar’s Opera partly because of its historical place in musical theater, and partly because of its social message. Well, there’s also the fact that I once played Macheath in an upstate New York production by Delaware Valley Opera. The problem nowadays is that the social impact of the opera is largely lost on modern audiences who do not live in a world of swaggering highwaymen and open brothels. Nor are the numerous allusions to the practices and politics of its day intelligible any more. Brecht and Weill’s reworking of Gay’s original is a masterpiece of cultural translation.
The Threepenny Opera is set in nineteenth century London and follows the general outline of The Beggar’s Opera reasonably closely. The lead character is Macheath (Mack the Knife), who is an amoral antihero and the darling of the women of the underworld. In the opening act he meets with Polly Peachum, and his gang stage a mock wedding for the couple, stealing everything they need for the banquet. Polly’s parents, who fence stolen goods, are not happy with the union and arrange to have Macheath arrested. In the next act Polly warns Macheath of her father’s intentions, so he decides to skip town. On the way he stops at a brothel to meet Jenny, a former lover. Unfortunately Polly’s parents have paid Jenny to turn Macheath in, so he is captured and taken to prison. The chief of police, Tiger Brown, is an old army mate of Macheath, and his daughter Lucy is another of Macheath’s “wives.” Lucy arranges to have Macheath sprung. In the final act Jenny goes to the Peachums to receive her bribe money, and tells them that even though he has escaped he can be found with Suky Tawdry – yet another old lover. Peachum puts pressure on Brown to re-arrest Macheath who is condemned to hang. His gang is unable to raise enough money for bribes to release Macheath. On the gallows a the last minute he receives a deus ex machina pardon from the queen and is made a baron with a castle and a lifetime income.
The Threepenny Opera is justifiably famous. It is grand theater with themes that continue to resonate and music that continues to please. Its score is deeply influenced by classic jazz and the original orchestration is superb, involving a small ensemble of 7 players covering a total of 23 instrumental parts. The opening and closing number, “The Ballad of Mackie Messer” (“Mack the Knife”) was written just before the Berlin premiere, when actor Harald Paulsen (Macheath) threatened to quit if his character did not receive an introduction. This creative emergency resulted in what would become the work’s most popular song, covered by countless musicians. Click here to hear it sung (in the original German) by Lotte Lenya. Lenya was Weill’s wife who played Jenny in the original cast, a role that made her famous.
Despite an initially poor reception, The Threepenny Opera became a great success, playing 400 times in the next two years. In the United Kingdom, it took some time for the first fully staged performance to be given (9 February 1956, under Berthold Goldschmidt). A French version produced by Gaston Baty and written by Nicole Steinhof and André Mauprey was presented in October of 1930 at the Théâtre Montparnasse. It was rendered as L’Opéra de quat’sous; (quatre sous, or four pennies being the idiomatically equivalent French expression for Threepenny and, by implication, cut-price, cheap). Georg Wilhelm Pabst produced a German film version in 1931 called Die 3-Groschen-Oper, and the French version of his film was again rendered as L’Opéra de quat’sous. Both originals are now available, cleaned up, on a DVD set – well worth the price of admission.
Here is a 1920’s Berlin beer hall favorite, pork sausages in beer. Serve these with a heap of mashed potatoes, hearty mustard, and a stein of bock beer. Sauerkraut simmered in a little beer also makes a good side dish.
Berliner Würstchen im Bier
2 cups boiling water
18 pork sausages
1 tbsp butter
4 medium onions, peeled and sliced thin
freshly ground black pepper
2 cups German beer
3 tbsps flour
Pour the boiling water over the sausages and then dry them with paper towels.
Melt the butter in a heavy skillet. Prick the sausages well with a sharp fork and brown them on all sides over medium-high heat. Set them aside.
Add the onions to the skillet and sauté them until they are golden brown.
Return the sausages to the skillet and add the beer and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer gently over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes. Check to make sure the sausages are cooked through.
Mix the flour thoroughly with a small amount of water to make a slurry and add it to the skillet. Stir well to thicken. Cook for an additional 5 minutes.