Study Guide

The Threepenny Opera Criminality

By Bertolt Brecht


Fair in Soho.

The beggars are begging, the thieves are stealing, the whores are whoring. (P.2-4)

The stage directions set the scene for the play. In this case, at a fair in Soho, the setting is saturated with dirty deeds. All of the activities that make up the background of the play are illegal. Get the feeling you're in a bad part of town? That's kind of the idea.

On a beautiful blue Sunday

See a corpse stretched in the Strand.

See a man dodge round the corner…

Mackie's friends will understand. (P.17-20)

Not to beat a dead horse, but here we go again with the contrast between the sound of the song and its content. The now-familiar tune of "Mack the Knife" might make you think of Ol' Blue Eyes, but if you read the verses you'll see how the real, horrible results of rampant criminality are part of the song's charm.

POLLY. But you can't be meaning to have our wedding here? Why, it is a common stable. You can't ask the vicar to a place like this. Besides, it isn't even ours. We really oughtn't to start our new life with a burglary, Mac. Why, this is the biggest day of our life. (1.1.22-26)

Polly might seem innocent until you remember that she's a character in a play by Brecht, so you know that her words have to be significant. She protests that her life with Mac begins as a criminal act, stealing not only the furniture but the space itself. It's like their entire marriage is illegal (or at least just not legal—sorry, Polly!).

PEACHUM. And now I'll tell you who this gentleman with the gloves is—Mac the Knife! He runs up the stairs to Polly's bedroom.

MRS. PEACHUM. God in Heaven! Mac the Knife! Jesus! Gentle Jesus meek and mild—Polly! Where's Polly? (1.1.213-217)

Mrs. Peachum doesn't really know who her daughter's boyfriend is. She just knows he dresses up in nice gloves. She doesn't ask any questions about where he or his money come from, maybe because she doesn't want to know. But when he's named as the notorious criminal Mac the Knife, she suddenly wakes up to the frightening facts.

MATTHEW. All over London they'll be saying this is the most daring job you've ever pulled, Mac, enticing Mr Peachum's only child from his home.

MAC. Who's Mr Peachum?

MATTHEW. He'll tell you he's the poorest man in London. (1.2.17-21)

Mac's "jobs," as Matthew calls them, are his criminal acts: robbing, raping, murdering, and now kidnapping, in a sense. Matthew thinks that his convincing Polly to "marry" him is the most brazen of all of Mac's history. In comparison to killing, it seems kind of mild, but if it's that impressive it must be a big deal.

JAKE known as Crook-fingered Jake. Congratulations! At 14 Ginger Street there were some people on the second floor. We had to smoke them out.

BOB known as Bob the Saw. Congratulations! A copper got done in the Strand.

MAC. Amateurs.

NED. We did all we could, but three people in the West End were past saving. Congratulations! (1.2.38-45)

Nice names. These guys sound like professional wrestlers with their criminal nicknames. "Crook-fingered Jake" is probably good at snatching things that don't belong to him, and we don't really want to know how Bob got his nickname.

POLLY. Is this our wedding feast? Was the whole lot stolen, Mac?

MAC. Of course. Of course.

POLLY. I wonder what you will do if there's a knock at the door and the sheriff steps in. (1.2.104-107)

So many questions, and the answer to all of them is, "yes." From whether or not this is a wedding to whether or not her new husband has stolen every single one of their possessions, Polly is hitting the nail right on the head with her questions. But the last question's answer might surprise you. The sheriff is just as much a crook as her new groom, so there won't be any problem when he shows up.

PEACHUM. So she's associating with criminals. That's lovely. That's delightful.

MRS. PEACHUM. If you're immoral enough to get married, did it have to be a horse-thief and a highwayman? That'll cost you dear one of these days! (1.3.69-73)

Well, that's not the answer you might expect from the mother of the bride. Mrs. Peachum equates marriage to stealing horses and highway robbery. As earlier, when Polly realizes her wedding is a sham, it seems like these little subtle comments are a criticism of the institution of marriage, the basis of society. It's like all of civilization rests on theft of private property. Hmm…

BROWN. Very well, if you insist. Well, first of all the rewards for murderers arrested thanks to you or your men. The Treasury paid you a total of…

MAC. Three instances at forty pounds a piece, that makes a hundred and twenty pounds. One quarter for you comes to thirty pounds, so that's what we owe you. (3.9.184-189)

The sheriff and the death row inmate are so matter-of-fact about their accounting that you might not even realize that they're calculating how much Mac owes Jackie in bribes. Yep, the top cop is on the top crook's payroll, and his only job is to look the other way. Corruption feeds criminality in The Threepenny Opera.

PEACHUM. Saviours on horseback are seldom met with in practice. And the man who's kicked about must kick back. Which all means that injustice should be spared from persecution. (3.9.366-369)

Peachum is a funky figure because, even though he's a crook himself, he seems to believe that he is somehow above murderers and thieves like Mac, or corrupt officials like Jackie. Instead, he sees himself as someone who's been kicked and is therefore justified to kick back.