Earlier this summer I went to see the New Line Theater's production of The Threepenny Opera in St. Louis. It was the first time I had seen the anti-opera in about a decade. While I enjoyed the production I do not feel up to the task of reviewing it per se. I do not know enough about the production end of theater, or the many other historic variations of The Threepenny Opera to review it properly, although New Line is one of the finest companies in St. Louis. What follows, instead, are some preliminary notes that I hope may be useful in discussing the play, and its co-author, Bertolt Brecht, among the new generation of Marxists and radical artists.
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Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, one of the most important Marxist cultural artifacts of the last century, was first performed 87 years ago this month, adapted, in large part, from John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, which had premiered two-hundred years earlier in a London barn. Gay's Beggar's Opera presented (artistic) evidence, as Walter Benjamin would later argue, of the "countermoralities" that run throughout bourgeois society:
When the powers that be disseminate a hypocritical morality, the socialist Charles Fourier observed, a countermorality immediately springs up among the oppressed, who close ranks around it to resist their oppressors. The English poet John Gay (1685-1732), whose Beggar’s Opera was first performed in 1728, had special knowledge of the countermorality prevalent in the London underworld. But it was not easy for him to pass this knowledge on. No theater was daring enough to stage his play. In the end, a private citizen put up the funds, which made it possible to have a barn fitted out for the performances of the play. Its success was enormous.
Like its ancestor, The Threepenny Opera was a hit (despite the utter chaos of its production). By the end of its first season fifty more productions sprang up across Europe. In 1931 G.W. Pabst produced a film adaptation (one disliked by both Weill and Brecht). Some two dozen records were released in Germany alone. By the time the Nazis seized power in 1933 The Threepenny Opera had been produced more than a hundred times around the world. The play struck a cord in Weimer-era Germany; a country polarized between an increasingly ineffectual communist and socialist left and an increasingly fascist right. “You could hear those songs,” George Grosz recalled, “wherever you went in the evening.” But, as Eric Bentley notes:
In an article in Die Weltbuehne in 1930, the… satirist Kurt Tucholsky identified the enemies of the Threepenny Opera as the middle-aged who long for the good old days and who loathe "socialism, Jews, Russia, pacifism, abortion, threats to their morale and business."
The Nazis, of course, swelled with such people, and banned Threepenny on seizing power. Infamously, the “Threepenny room” of the Nazi “Degenerate Music” exhibit in Dusseldorf was closed early because too many people wanted to hear the forbidden music. Brecht, a Marxist, and Weill, a Jewish avant-garde music composer, fled Germany. Weill arrived in the United States in 1935. Brecht, after stays in Scandinavia, and a brief stop in the USSR, arrived in the U.S. in 1941 (before fleeing the anti-communist witch-hunts in 1947).
The earliest U.S. productions of the play were critical and box office failures (due to poor translations and productions that failed to understand the dynamics of the play) until Marc Blitzstein’s translation became popular in the 1950s. Lotte Lenya, who played Jenny in the original Berlin production, argued: “Blitzstein has come closest to capturing the power of Brecht’s book and lyrics. He has kept the slang and the sting…” The Blitzstein off-Broadway production in Greenwich Village (1954-1961) featured actors like Bea Arthur, Jerry Stiller, Ed Asner and Jerry Orbach.
Misery as a Commodity
Like The Beggar’s Opera, in which Gay satirized (and copied) the pretense of Handel’s operas, Threepenny ridiculed haute culture and the morality that went with it. In both plays Macheath (“Mack the Knife”) goes unhung and unpunished for his crimes. While this might seem sentimental it is not. Macheath is established, to different degrees in each play, as a ruthless criminal. To the delight or horror of audiences (depending), “[h]ere is a villain-hero who gets away with murder to thunderous applause from the mob (Eric Bentley)." Gay's "opera" split opinions of the English literary class. Charles Dickens thought it a “dangerous idealization of crime.” It even managed to insult the English Prime Minister (who attended the premiere). Gay's opera, it should be noted, tended to lampoon nationally recognizable figures. Brecht and Weill's represented various social archetypes.
Brecht and Weill kept much of the original play, but also made substantial changes, particularly around characters, decisions largely informed by Brecht’s newfound Marxism. There is some debate about "just how Marxist" the play is, as Brecht was still in the process of "becoming" the Brecht we know today. Nevertheless, Brecht shaped the play, in some ways equally, with his youthful hedonism and adult Marxism. For example, he added the figure of Tiger Brown, the corrupt sheriff of London, a war buddy of Macheath. Together, at Macheath’s wedding to Polly Peachum, they sing the “Army Song” (“Cannon Song” — a song, see below, lifted in no small part from the imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling), about their bloody experience in the British empire:
Centrally, the nature of morality (and immorality) is different in the two plays. Brecht’s Macheath is completely amoral from the start. Gay’s Macheath, however, was presented as the “good criminal” in The Beggar’s Opera because, unlike his nemesis Jonathan Peachum, he abided by a criminal code ("honor among thieves"). Peachum was “the bad criminal” because he ratted out his fellow conspirators. Brecht’s Macheath follows no such code, himself ratting out his associates early in the play, telegraphing a less sentimental world.
Brecht does contrast Macheath and Peachum. Firstly, Macheath is presented as a sexual being, which ultimately gets him turned into the police (after Peachum’s wealth and influence overcomes Macheath’s corrupt relationship with Tiger Brown). "The audience witnessed not just their ensnarement in corrupt business practices but also the demise of Macheath, the sex addict," Stephen Parker writes, "Brecht understood Macheath's predicament and inserted the 'Ballad of Sexual Slavery' [sometimes translated as 'The Ballad of Sexual Dependency']: 'Who does him down, thats done the lot? The women. / Want it or not, he can't ignore the call. / Sexual slavery has him in its thrall.'"
Peachum, by contrast, has become more or less sexless, his miserly paternal anger stoked by Macheath’s secret marriage to Peachum’s daughter Polly (in his eyes another commodity to exploit, albeit via "respectability"). Macheath, despite his thuggery, is still human. Peachum has become the personification of capital (to borrow a phrase). It is, however, a particular kind of capital. Peachum is defined by his exploitation of misery. He is the stand in for the banker and the bourgeois, as the “organizer,” along trade lines, of London’s beggars. He outfits them and takes fifty percent of their take. And notably it is Peachum who protests, at the play’s conclusion, against Macheath’s cheating of the hangman’s noose on “realistic” grounds. “[Peachum] is undoubtedly a villain, and indeed a villain in the convention of the old-fashioned theater,” Bentley argues, “His crime consists in his conception of the world…. He regards misery as a commodity.” This mirrored Brecht's contempt for the opportunistic socialist playwrights and directors of the day:
For 3000 marks a month
He is prepared
To put on the misery of the masses
For 100 marks a day
The injustices of the world.
Jonathan Peachum defends himself in Threepenny:
Let's practice goodness: who would disagree?
But sadly on this planet while we're waiting
The means are meager and the morals low.
To get one's record straight would be elating.
But our condition's such it can't be so.
And Macheath echoes Peachum:
However much you twist, whatever lies you tell
Food is the first thing. Morals follow on.
Against “Culinary Theater”
Brechtian Theater is always about, at one level, the unity of opposites. It is about contradiction, and therefore can be read, as relates to theory, in three mistaken ways. The angular Marxist can emphasize merely the didactic nature of the work. The aesthete or literary can read into the brilliant turns of phrase and Brecht’s exposition of the “human condition.” Related, but somewhat different, the liberal academic can abstract Brecht’s theatrical approach into a sort of “universal truth” of the human experience. All these are mistaken. For Brecht the political, totalizing and abstract truth is in constant communication with the personal, psychological and individual experience of that truth. Brecht learned his Marxism from the apostates Fritz Sternberg and Karl Korsch (who was purged from the German Communist Party [KPD] in 1926). Brecht, like his friend Walter Benjamin, never officially joined the KPD (or any of its offshoots). Moreover, Brecht’s Marxism was marked by Korsch’s emphasis on historic specificity; which helps explain Brecht’s anthropological approach to his subject matter (and Korsch's expulsion from the KPD). Therefore Anthony Squires is partially correct when he writes:
For Brecht, emotional pleasure is shallow and its use is based on an assumption of the audience’s incapability to derive meaning from reason. Brecht rejects this saying, "[t]he one tribute we can pay the audience is to treat it as thoroughly intelligent. It is utterly wrong to treat people as simpletons when they are grown up at seventeen… I appeal to reason."
But this did not mean that Brecht did not care about human emotion. As Brecht argued in his polemics with Georg Lukács:
Even those writers who are conscious of the fact that capitalism impoverishes, dehumanizes, mechanizes human beings, and who fight against it, seem to be part of the same process of impoverishment: for they too, in their writing, appear to be less concerned with elevating man, they rush him through events, teat his inner life as quantité negligeable and so on. They too rationalize as it were. They fall in line with the "progress" of physics. They abandon strict causality and switch to statistical causality, by abandoning the individual man as a causal nexus and making statements only about large groups. They even — in their own way — adopt Schrödinger’s uncertainty principle. They deprive the observer of his authority and credit and mobilize the reader against himself, advancing purely subjective propositions, which actually characterize only those who made them (Gide, Joyce, Döblin). One can follow Lukács in all these observations and subscribe to his protests.
“Man does not become man again by stepping out of the masses,” Brecht continues, “but by stepping back into them."
For Brecht scientific socialism, in relationship to art, does not stand separate from the interior life of the actual proletarian individual. Brecht reproduces within his work the contradictions of proletarian subjectivity as they are actually expressed and experienced. His distancing techniques cannot be read as a one way street. His exposure of the artifice of the theater — breaking the fourth-wall, leaving the stage curtain partially drawn, placing the musicians on the stage itself, undermining the tropes of “culinary theater” (theater meant for entertainment more than enlightenment), mocking "high opera" with Weill's appropriation of popular music — does not work without the existence within his plays of the fourth-wall and the tropes of historic theater. Likewise it is the “back and forth” (between the science of the social and the “spirit” of the individual) that creates the particular unity of Brecht’s plays.
This approach did not lend itself to the theoretical certainty (and simplicity) demanded by most Communist "thinkers" after the rise of Stalin. Brecht himself repeatedly tore up drafts of his theory of Epic or Dialectical Theater, unable to pin down certain key elements. Additionally the "alienation" affect (and effects) that Brecht would hone in later years, were only beginning to be fully seen in Threepenny. Nevertheless, like the breathing of a lung (alienation followed by suspension of disbelief, repeat on various levels), it is what gives the play life, and endows it with a sort of unified but democratic chaos.
In Threepenny, for example, the use of song to create narratives within the play is of particular interest. During the wedding feast of Macheath and Polly, Polly sings “Jenny the Pirate,” a story about a maid exacting merciless revenge all those she believes have wronged her. This, of course, takes us out of the moment (the wedding feast). And while this foreshadows Polly’s ruthless streak, which she will employ when Macheath hands over the “business” to her, it also takes us into an entirely different story; the dreams of a proletarian woman for revenge. They are not collective dreams. She does not possess class-consciousness per se. Instead she dreams the way workers often dream; that she would be personally in charge; that she would dole out the justice. This is the emotional (and quite frankly, political) intelligence that Lukács, tending to see workers in aggregate, could not comprehend.
Thus Brecht presents us with a social vision, but not one of homogeneity. He presents the carnivalesque (in the sense described by Mikhail Bahktin); a differentiated totality, a democratic totality, the working-class, poor and middle-class as it actually is, in movement, sometimes toward historically progressive ends, but not always, usually pulling in a hundred different directions. Brecht produces theatrical "monuments," but unlike fascist or Stalinist monuments, they do not speak in a single voice. Nor do they avoid the judgment of history (as post-modern monuments attempt to do). As Douglas Kellner writes:
Brecht distinguished his separation of words, music, and scene from the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, which fused the elements into one seductive and overpowering whole in which word, music, and scene work together to engulf the spectator in the aesthetic totality. Conversely, in his "separation of elements," each aesthetic component retains its autonomy and 'comments' on the others, often in contradiction, to provoke thought and insight. (8)
Such contradictions are reproduced throughout The Threepenny Opera, with evocations of sentiment and the traditional theater in constant battle with the hard material truths of the world. “For instance, in The Threepenny Opera,” Kellner writes, “first Mac and Polly, and then Mac and Jenny, sing of love and romance. But the scene is first a warehouse full of stolen goods and then a brothel, and the plot is one of deception and betrayal.”
In order to achieve such effects Brecht was, notably, a ruthless plagiarist, looting the historical theater as well as contemporary culture, staying true to his maxim, “don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones” but always managing to incorporate both. Aside from the rewriting of The Beggar’s Opera, Brecht lifted entire passages from the Bible, Francois Villon and Rudyard Kippling (forcing him to pay royalties to Villon’s translator). He also worked in collaboration, not just with Weill; also with his actors, friends, other playwrights, on each step of production. It was not Brecht, but another playwright, who actually gave Threepenny its name. "Brecht reflected that plagiarism was a form of art," Parker notes, "and that every Golden Age of art was characterized by the energy and innocence of its plagiarism."
The Bad New Things
“Capitalism has the power immediately and continually to turn the poison that’s thrown into its face into a drug, and then enjoy it.” — Bertolt Brecht
"Brecht also realized that two hundred years [since the first production of John Gay's Beggar's Opera] had not been enough to loosen the alliance formed between poverty and vice and that, on the contrary, this alliance is precisely as durable as a social order which results in poverty. The Threepenny Opera therefore shows even more clearly how than Gay's work how the counter morality of beggars and rogues is intertwined with the cant of official morality.” — Walter Benjamin
Benjamin and Brecht (above) help explain, fairly succinctly, something that I had always wondered: Why is that we organized Marxists say so little, generally speaking, about the most important European Marxist poet/playwright of the inter-war period? Perhaps, the organized revolutionary left is too optimistic about the potential of the exploited and oppressed (at the present moment). It may be a prerequisite of the project of practical organization (at least in its primitive stages). But as noted above, Brecht's fidelity is not merely to the abstract revolution, but to the actually existing exploited and oppressed. In this he has far more in common with (certain strands of) Hip Hop and Punk, (certain kinds of) gangster movies and noir novels; and far less in common with the socialist hosannahs of the faltering 20th century left.
The bourgeois academy, by contrast, is free to reify Brecht, to separate him from his commitment to the working-class and its revolution, and celebrate the dead communist as a literary figure. The poison can become a drug.
Moreover, what do our countermoralities mean when the system itself has disposed of (much of) its official cant? After all, neoliberalism requires a fragmented official morality; at least until there is a crisis (at which point moral absolutes become absolute). Moreover, many celebrated Americans are already criminals (of one degree or sort). It is the logical extension of a culture that celebrates all things petit-bourgeois. Now that middlebrow culture (HBO, The New Yorker, etc.) officially hails this criminality, what is left for the counter-morality of the “criminal" poor? What was radical in 1928 is no longer radical, but metabolized by post-post modern culture.
Of course, the more productive “counter-morality” of socialist parties and union halls has been liquidated by decades of economic restructuring and the failure of so-called “actually existing socialist” states.
This raises the question of reasserting proletarian morality. But, in art, this cannot be done in a ham-fisted manner (in the absence of the revolutionary proximity that created it in the past). It can only be done through a kind of myth construction — the formation of metanarratives, total installations and speculative fictions. Much of the educated and thinking populace (an overlapping but not identical demographic) already agrees with Brecht, “the world is mean and man uncouth." (It should be noted a decent percentage of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois theater goers agreed with him in 1928). What they don't believe is the other part of Brecht’s moral dialectic: that something else is possible, even if that fight takes centuries.
The middlebrow tendency, in contemporary culture, is to celebrate the barbarism, to engage in a hagiography of gangsters, rather than to strip “naked the conditions in which we live, removing the drapery of legal concepts [which Brecht did, more or less, from the point of view of an anthropologist from a socialist future].” In Brecht, Benjamin writes, “The properly human emerges from these [present] conditions as naked as it will be when it is handed down to posterity."
The job of Marxist writers and artists today is, in part, to reproduce this method in very different circumstances; to lay bare the barbaric truth of today, not from the vantage point of the cynical post-modern, but the vantage point of a future in which, if we are lucky, our grandchildren might become fully human.
- Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings Volume Three: 1935-1938, (Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002)
- Eric Bentley, “Two Hundred Years of Macheath,” The Threepenny Review, No. 8 (Winter, 1982)
- Brecht Against Lukács, 86, online: http://blogs.ubc.ca/latstudies201/files/2015/01/Brecht_Lukacs.pdf
- Douglas Kellner, “Brecht’s Marxist Aesthetic,” online: https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/essays/brechtsmarxist.pdf
- Stephen Parker, Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life (London and New York: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014)
- Anthony Squiers, The Social and Political Philosophy of Bertolt Brecht, Dissertation, Western Michigan University: http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1126&context=dissertations
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Adam Turl is an artist, socialist and writer currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an editor at Red Wedge and is a founding member of the November Network of Anti-Capitalist Studio Artists.