A half-century has now passed since The Threepenny Opera was presented for the first time at the Schiffbauerdamm Theater in Berlin. During the years of German revivals and foreign adaptations, it has become clear that this patchwork of borrowings, imitations, and parodies has grown into Brecht’s most popular work. Other plays of his—Mother Courage, for example, or The Caucasian Chalk Circle—may cut deeper into the economics, politics, and social compassions of life with which Brecht, as dramatist and Marxist, was concerned, but none maintains so workable a balance between drama and didactics as this Lehrstück about thieves and beggars who practice the morality of society while in the very act of breaking its laws.
That The Threepenny Opera is so frequently performed and happily received throughout the world is an achievement that many commentators on Brecht feel should be qualified by the fact that it has been generally misunderstood by the public that gives its presentations long runs and substantial profits. The misunderstanding, the commentators maintain, consists in the audience’s seeing only a collection of amiable rogues bustling about the stage in situations that make their criminal and venal acts seem socially harmless. This audience—always posited by Brechtian purists as a collective, middle-class mind—fails to perceive that the entertaining thieves, whores, beggars, and murderers embody an attitude, social and moral, larger than that of the back streets of Soho, and that their betrayals, swindles, lies, and cold-blooded calculations are imitations of the methods used by a social system that laughs at a Mack the Knife in the theater, endorses his values in its commerce, and votes for his capital punishment in its legislatures.
Now while this point of view, which at once affirms the dimness of the theater public’s mind and the precedence of politics over theatricality in Brecht’s stage philosophy, possesses some basis of truth, it overlooks several important facts about The Threepenny Opera in particular and Brecht’s work in general. The first of these is that Brecht the theoretician and Brecht the dramatist often give conflicting artistic testimony. Thus, for example, in Brecht’s notes to performers of The Threepenny Opera, he states quite clearly that Macheath personifies the middle-class business ethic, that his distaste for bloodshed is based on the pragmatics of public relations rather than on any romantic outlaw morality, and that while he breaks the law, he also values it and the status quo it protects. Still, however acute and subtle this social analysis may be, it does not divest Macheath of his appealing swagger and delightful duplicities which Brecht created in a traditional dramatic manner and which, in performance at least, far outweigh Macheath’s darker realities. If Macheath had only a social persona—if, that is, he had been fashioned without any artistic affection—then he might indeed be an unsettling chastisement of the system he and the audience supposedly share. However, as he did with the character of Mother Courage, Brecht created an aspect of human nature rather than an accident of economic theory. In so doing, he transcended his ideological principles and, happily for the audience, produced an image of life both laughably human and resistant to political rehabilitation.
This conflict between theory and practice also crops up whenever the purely theatrical values of Brecht are under discussion. His concept of epic theater, of alienating the spectator in order that he might observe, without emotional befuddlements, the dramatic arguments presented to him, has led to critical squabbles whenever a Brecht play is produced. If the interpreters are accused of performing in a tedious agit-prop manner, they inevitably respond with claims of faithfulness to the author’s austere theatrical manner; and if they present a performance too rich with human and old-fashioned theatrical details, they are accused of traducement by Brechtian experts whose bona fides must always include at least a week’s attendance of a Berliner Ensemble rehearsal.
Faced with such a dark antithesis of opinion, each production of The Threepenny Opera must be prepared for some disapproval. However, it is also a fact that, as in the case of Brecht’s confounding his political and theatrical intentions, The Threepenny Opera is so endowed with basic stage virtues that it transpires charm even if encased in such a tentative mixing of styles and attitudes as the present Joseph Papp-New York Shakespeare Festival production directed by Richard Foreman.
The issue of the right and wrong ways to perform and appreciate Brecht is joined in this presentation at the Vivian Beaumont Theater even before the play begins, A flyer, inserted in the program, entitled “The Real Threepenny Opera,” informs the audience that, although Joseph Papp retains fond memories of the Marc Blitzstein version that ran for many years in the 50’s at the Theater de Lys, he has since come to discover that it was not at all like the German original. In further explaining why he has gone to a new translation by Ralph Manheim and John Willett, he states that Blitzstein was guilty of “neutralizing much of the bite of Bertolt Brecht,” and that although “the lyrics of Blitzstein may be more ‘singable’ than Brecht’s rugged, gutter lyrics, they are clearly at odds with the dramatist’s purpose and dramatic sensibilities.”
He then gives the following examples of how, in his opinion, the earlier version softened Brecht, comparing them with the present production’s translation. The first is from a song that the head of the beggars union and his wife sing; the second is from “The Cannon Song” sung by Mack the Knife and his old army buddy, Tiger Brown, who is now Sheriff of London. The German, omitted from the flyer, I have added.
Instead of, instead of
Goin’ about their business and
They make love, they make love;
Till the man is through
And then she’s sorry that she
No they can’t, no, they can’t
See what’s good for them
and set their minds on it.
It’s fun they want, it’s fun
So they end up on their arses
in the shit.
Sie was täten, was ‘nen Sinn
hat und ‘nen Zweck
Machen sie Spass
Und verrecken dann natürlich
glatt im Dreck.
The following, in the program, is prefaced by Papp’s telling us how the new version restores important “references to colonialism and racism.”
If we get feeling down
We wander into town.
And if the population
Should greet us with indignation
We chop ’em into bits
Because we like our hamburgers
When they come face to face
With men of a different color
With darker skins or duller
They quick as a winking
Chop them into beefsteak tartare.
Wenn es mal regnete
Und es begegnete
Ihnen ‘ne neue Rasse
‘ne braune oder blasse
Da machen sie vielleicht daraus
ihr Beefsteak Tartar.
Now to anyone who knows German, both the above translations are as far removed from Brecht’s original as they often are from English. (The notion that “quick as a winking” captures Brecht’s “rugged, gutter” quality, indicates an insensitivity to language on so many levels that one wonders if Papp even has a native tongue.) However, I did not provide the quotations simply in order to show how badly Brecht can be translated, or merely to challenge the arrogance of a producer who thinks that by mistranslating “Dreck” as “shit” he is giving us the “real” Threepenny Opera or that by turning “blasse” (pale) into “duller,” he is restoring to us Brecht’s hard-hitting ideas on the color question. All this could simply be based on ignorance, a quality that has clouded a good many Shakespeare Festival productions before this one. But when Papp insists on his fealty to Brecht, and then reassigns a song written for one character to another—a reassignment that proved in the Blitzstein version to have been successful—then one must suspect that Papp simply has no feelings about the text stronger than those that have to do with his desire for commercial success while maintaining his good standing in the community of jejune political commitment.
The reassignment I’m speaking of involves giving the well-known “Pirate-Jenny Song,” originally sung by Polly Peachum at her wedding feast, to the whore Jenny, with whom Macheath, à la Villon, had once set up house in a bordello. Not only does the Papp production allow this switch of singers—which at least in the Blitzstein version had the virtue of giving Lotte Lenya an extra tour on stage—but it also has it performed in a lurid, tearfully-proud manner that changes a bitter little ballad of a working-class girl’s dreams of revenge into something like a Marseillaise for the world’s downtrodden whores.
But enough of Papp and his politics, theatrical and social. For when all the battles over the Brechtian contribution to The Threepenny Opera are done, one is still left with the extraordinary Kurt Weill score. As much as any of Brecht’s innovations and lyrics, the dry, crackling melodies and sourly severe and ironic orchestrations have become part of one’s long acquaintance with, and enjoyment of, this modern, urbanized opera. Recent history has tipped interest toward the text, but it may some day be seen that perhaps the most important fact behind Threepenny’ s popularity is the unique musical structure that Weill found to encompass not only Brecht’s, but also all the other voices from the worlds of outcasts and poetry that run through the text.
The world of Guys and Dolls, though as marginal as that of The Threepenny Opera, is mercifully free from the burdens of theory and significance that can make even the expression of enjoyment a heavy critical task. Sky Masterson, Harry the Horse, Nathan Detroit, Miss Adelaide, Big Julie—these are characters from the land of Damon Runyon who pretend to nothing but an existence meant to entertain us. But such entertaining! Imbued with music and dance, they gather on stage to create perhaps the best musical comedy Broadway has ever produced.
Having seen the original, I could make a few critical comparisons with the present revival with an all-black cast that is now running successfully at the Broadway Theater. However, I will only say that, except for the number “Sue Me,” the ethnic transition is smooth enough to make comparative caviling a barren impertinence. So I will put aside my analytic tools and say that although Lindy’s may be gone, the complexion of its spirit, in spite of superficial changes, remains as colorful as ever. And as for Frank Loesser’s songs—“Fugue for Tinhorns,” “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game,” “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along,” “Luck Be a Lady”—just naming a few of them should be sufficient for those who know the work to have grateful memories, and for those who don’t to arrange immediately to see one of the real examples of theatrical excellence and intelligence.