Study Guide

The Threepenny Opera

By Bertolt Brecht

The Threepenny Opera Introduction

A costume shop where beggars go to make themselves look more pitiful; London's most wanted man and his best buddy, the chief of police; the prostitutes that love them—these are the elements that make Bertolt Brecht's play The Threepenny Opera a perennial favorite. (That means audiences keep coming back for more.)

The play premiered in 1928 in Berlin, and has been staged in many languages all over the world since then. Not impressed? Check out Cindy Lauper's recent version on Broadway. Yeah, we mean that Cindy Lauper.

The Threepenny Opera tells the story of Macheath (a.k.a. Mac the Knife), a notorious killer, thief, and arsonist, who "marries" Polly Peachum. ("Marries" is in quotes because it's not exactly a legal ceremony.) Her father, Mr. Peachum, tries to get his revenge by throwing Mac in jail, but to his chagrin the chief of police is Mac's BFF. So, yeah, it's hard to get him thrown in jail. Mayhem ensues.

Berlin was roaring in the 1920s, and The Threepenny Opera tries to shake up the jazz scene a little, showing the injustices of society and the corruption of the government. Its left-leaning themes, like most of Brecht's plays, got the playwright into trouble—not only with the Nazis but also with the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. Sheesh.

Brecht's theatre is famous for its groundbreaking use of what he called the "alienation effect," where audiences are constantly reminded that they are watching a play. The idea is that spectators shouldn't identify too closely with characters because then they can't be critical of what they're seeing, or of the world around them. So Brecht breaks things up with title cards, songs, and unusual lighting. The Threepenny Opera is one of the earliest examples of these techniques.

The play has been adapted for the big screen in 1931, 1962, and 1989, but that's not its only effect on pop culture. From Sweeney Todd to Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, even to Sting, the play has crept into the Western imagination with its songs and social commentary.

What is The Threepenny Opera About and Why Should I Care?

Okay, it's hard to exaggerate just how important Brecht's Threepenny Opera has been for Western culture in the twentieth century. The play has been adapted countless times to fit tons of socio-historical contexts, and that's not just a coincidence. It's powerful stuff. The play accuses the government of being in the pocket of criminals and, even more scandalous, accuses the middle class of being just like criminals and prostitutes. Oh, my.

So next time you go to the midnight sing-along showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show you might bring along your copy of Threepenny Opera and see where all those crazy songs and direct-audience address might have come from. Even Frank Zappa got some rock-opera inspiration from Brecht.

If that's not convincing, try out Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, or Tom Waits' album Rain Dogs. And that's not to mention the million and one versions of "Mack the Knife" that have been recorded, straight outta the play (Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Bublé, even Robbie Williams).

Even if you don't read The Threepenny Opera, you're still swimming in it just by living in the twenty-first century. So you might as well find out what the fuss is all about and dive in—just watch out for sharks and their teeth-teeth.

The Threepenny Opera Resources

WEBSITES

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About The Threepenny Opera but were Afraid to Ask
Here's a comprehensive site dedicated to the play.

About the Author
Dig this bio of our buddy Brecht.

Behind the Music
Here's the NPR Music Kurt Weill page, the man behind the music in The Threepenny Opera.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

East Side
Here's an East German, 1931 film production of the play.

Au Francais
This is another 1931 version, in French.

Who Are You?
This 1989 production features The Who's Roger Daltrey.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Mystery Health Problems
Brecht's death might have been caused by a childhood illness.

"Bertolt Brecht's Influence Cannot Be Overestimated"
There you have it, folks.

VIDEO

Brecht on Trial
Bertolt Brecht testifies at the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

First Prize
Here's a performance from The Threepenny Opera at the 2006 Tony Awards.

AUDIO

Mack the Knife
Learn about the hit song from the play.

Great Life, Man
Download a biography of Brecht.

Not Cool
Brecht might have "borrowed" lots of his ideas from his lovers.

IMAGES

Cigar and Specs
Here's a classic picture of Brecht.

For Your Collection
Check out the original album cover of the recording of the play.