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The Threepenny Opera is a lot like the television show The Wire. It focuses on the members of society who are supposed to be the worst-of-the-worst: In 1920s Germany, this meant beggars, thieves, and killers. But like The Wire, The Threepenny Opera ultimately paints a picture in which the corruption of so-called criminals is only as bad as the corruption of those in power—and sometimes a little more heroic.
In The Wire, the gang leaders and drug-lords often display more moral consistency than the cops and state representatives. What's more, they're portrayed as human beings: they have charm, wit, humor, and complexity. We see the same thing in the show The Sopranos, in which murderous mobsters are the protagonists, and in countless other mobster films that have struck a chord in popular culture. The idea of a "bad guy" who is also a charming protagonist is the theme of "Mack the Knife," which rather miraculously went from being a sassy show-tune in a leftist German opera to becoming one of the most popular songs in the 20th-century United States.
"Mack the Knife" was composed on a whim by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill while they were putting the finishing touches on Die Dreigroschenoper in 1928. As the story goes, the diva-esque tenor who was playing the part of Mackie Messer, a.k.a. Macheath or Mack the Knife, suggested that a whole song should be written to introduce his character before he comes on stage.
As one columnist recently wrote, "the essence of the song is: Oh, look who's coming onstage, it's Mack the Knife—a thief, murderer, arsonist, and rapist." (Source) The song, which became the opening number, was composed in less than 24 hours and added to the show at the final hour. Little did Weill and Brecht know it would be one of their most well-known legacies.
In some ways, The Threepenny Opera, tagged by Brecht and Weill as a show "by and for beggars," revolutionized musical theater. Die Dreigroschenoper was revolutionary because it was a fun musical that doubled as biting satire, throwing stone after stone at the corruption of the German government and its supporters without naming any names. It also integrated contemporary trends like tango and foxtrot.
It was also historically fascinating because it was actually a re-write of a musical composed a full 200 years before, John Gay's Beggar's Opera. In the early 1700s, the Beggar's Opera—which poked light fun at London's bourgeois classes—became wildly popular as the first comic opera. The parody, which featured a Robin Hood-type Macheath who stole from the rich, was later popular in the British colonies in New York and was supposedly enjoyed by George Washington. The Beggar's Opera was translated into German and became a popular play in 1920s Berlin because it spoke to the excesses of post-World War I Germany.
Not surprisingly, Brecht and Weill were pushed out of Germany by the Nazis in 1933, and their works were banned. They both ended up in the U.S. after seeking refuge in several European countries. Given that his life as a writer was devoted to calling out corruption and that he spent about a decade hiding from the Nazis, it is ironic that Brecht, who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1940s, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and fled the U.S. for fear of political persecution.
Brecht and Weill's interpretation of the John Gay play is more sinister and intense than the amusing Robin Hood themes that showed up in the original. Macheath, the show's antihero, goes from being a bit of a crook to being a pretty serious one: He's portrayed as a murderer, rapist, and arsonist who is openly frightening but butters up the people around him, especially women, to keep on their good side. In The Threepenny Opera, he is known as Mackie Messer (Messer is German for knife).
"The Threepenny Opera turns the accepted values of the good life upside down" (source), says theater critic Brooks Atkinson. In particular, Mack the Knife turns these values upside down: you want to hate and fear him, but you can't help but like him a little bit. Mack the Knife embodies the ambiguous bad guy famously. And "Mack the Knife," the cheery and ubiquitous pop song that topped the charts in 1959, is his theme song.
The song cheerfully announces that Mack the Knife is on his way to town, followed by untraceable dead bodies floating up the river, blood on the sidewalks, and the disappearance of rich people and their cash. But, like the guys in The Sopranos, The Godfather and The Wire, you can't help but like him at least a little bit.
It might be possible to see the popularity of "Mack the Knife" in the 1950s as a sort of pre-cursor to the massive popularity of gangsta rap in the 1990s. There are certainly some overlapping themes: the wiles it takes to survive on the streets, violent lifestyles, and a bit of womanizing to boot. And "Mack the Knife" got some reactions that remind us of gangsta rap, getting banned from certain radio stations and TV circuits for being too violent even as Bobby Darin's version was climbing to the very top of the charts to stay for nine whole weeks at the end of 1959.
Darin was a rising pop star with a smooth, sleek voice and a desire to dominate the world of pop music. His interpretation of "Mack the Knife" built off of Louis Armstrong's upbeat jazz version released in 1956, but added even another layer of flippancy.
Historian Will Friedwald describes Darin's live performances of the song as containing a "near-hysterical level of irreverence." The song is done in an absurdly cheerful way. He continues, "Why should a dead body bother anyone, you almost begin to wonder. Darin does everything he can think of to informalize, almost trivialize, the lyrics, taking his irreverent attitude to a completely manic level, and, as the singer intended, it has precisely the opposite effect. The more you sing about death and destruction in a happy, carefree tone, the more sinister it seems." (Source, 96)
Sinister it is—but the song's familiar tune and slowly climbing verses (each new verse changes key by a half-step up) is also strangely uplifting.
The Sopranos can be uplifting. So can gangsta rap. For some reason, it seems, audiences like to dabble in a little bit of psychologically-complicated evil, and have liked this for a long time—from Cain and Abel in the Hebrew Bible to Shakespeare's King Lear. Maybe it's because we see a bit of ourselves in every evil character; there is a paradoxical comfort in the discomfort of identifying with other people's scariness. Maybe it's because we know that there really is a lot of violence and suffering in the world, and complex characters who are also violent help us understand or even justify it. Or maybe it's because attractive "bad guys" are just plain fun: the tension in their personalities makes for good entertainment.
This last point is certainly true in "Mack the Knife," where the upbeat sound rubs against the darkness of the lyrics to create a delightful tension. You can't wait to meet this guy, but you don't want to meet this guy—especially not in a dark alley at night.
Macheath's murder ballad came into the world in England in 1728, returned anew in Germany 1928, hit off-Broadway fame in the U.S. in the early 1950s, and topped the pop charts in 1959. The song has had a popular cover made of it every few years since, and inspired its fair share of parodies.
Although "Mack the Knife" didn't by any means start the tradition of the antihero, the character and his song have become a timeless contribution to the beloved archetype.