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The Threepenny Opera

From Academic Kids

The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) was a revolutionary piece of musical theatre written (in German) by the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht in collaboration with the composer Kurt Weill in 1928.

It directly challenges the audience by breaching the "fourth wall" with what he called Verfremdung, or alienation technique. For example, slogans are projected on the back wall and the characters sometimes carry picket signs, or stand at times with their backs to the audience. The play challenges conventional notions of property as well as theater. It asks the central rhetorical question, "Who is the bigger criminal: He who robs a bank or he who founds one?"

Despite the title and alienating techniques, it is as much a musical comedy as it is an opera. Except for the "Overture", the songs are relatively simple in form and the orchestra is a distinctly jazzy small combo. The score, by Kurt Weill, was deeply influenced by jazz. The opening song, "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer", was adopted by Louis Armstrong as "Mack the Knife", which later became a pop hit for Bobby Darin.

The opera is based on the English poet John Gay's 1728 operatic satire, The Beggar's Opera. The central character in both is MacHeath, who is an elegant highwayman in Gay's work and a vicious and violent anti-heroic criminal who sees himself as a businessman in the Brecht-Weill version.

In the Threepenny Opera, MacHeath (Mack the Knife), marries Polly Peachum. This displeases her father, Jonathan Peachum, who controls the beggars of London, and he endeavours to have MacHeath hanged. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that the chief of police, Tiger Brown, is an old friend of MacHeath's. Peachum exerts considerable political influence, and eventually MacHeath is arrested and imprisoned, escapes, then imprisoned once more. At the point of execution, in an unrestrained parody of a happy ending, a hard-riding messenger from the Queen (Victoria) dramatically arrives at the last minute, and MacHeath is pardoned and given a baronetcy. (Another Brecht-Weill work is titled Happyend.)

In 1954 Lotte Lenya won a Tony Award for her role as Jenny in a somewhat softened version of the Threepenny Opera by Marc Blitzstein that played on and off Broadway for many years. Blitzstein translated the work into English, and Lenya, who was married to Weill, had also played the role of the "Pirate Jenny" in the original German production. Her ballad fantasizing leaving her work as a barmaid to lead a pirate assault on the city is the second best known song in the work with its chorus, "And the ship with black sails, and with 50 cannons, will besiege the city". (Und das Schiff mit acht Segeln und mit fünfzig Kanonen wird beschiessen die Stadt.)

The original German version was very popular. It was performed more than 10,000 times and translated into 18 languages. Interestingly, when this play was translated into French, it was given a name in French that means "The Fourpenny Opera", L'Opéra de quat'sous. It has been translated into English several times, most notably by Blitzstein in 1954, noted Irish playwright and translator Frank McGuinness in 1992, and by Jeremy Sams for a production at London's Donmar Warehouse in 1997. Ralph Mannheim and John Willett produced an English translation in 1979.

There have been at least four film versions. German director Georg Wilhelm Pabst made German- and French-language versions simultaneously (a common practice in the early days of sound films) in 1931. Another version was directed by Wolfgang Staudte in West Germany in 1962 (scenes with Sammy Davis, Jr. were added for the American release). The most recent one was an American version (renamed Mack the Knife) in 1990, directed by Menahem Golan, with Raúl Juliá as Mackie and Roger Daltrey as the Streetsinger.

Discography

fr:L'Opéra de quat'sous pl:Opera za 3 grosze sv:Tolvskillingsoperan

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