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What is the Threepenny Opera?

The Threepenny Opera is a groundbreaking musical theatre piece by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, blending biting social critique with cabaret jazz. Its story of antihero Mack the Knife and the seedy underbelly of Victorian London challenges audiences to ponder morality and capitalism. Intrigued? Discover how this revolutionary work continues to resonate with modern viewers. What will it reveal to you?
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

The Threepenny Opera, Die Dreigroschenoper in German, is play with music. It consists of a prologue and three acts, and is credited to composer Kurt Weill, playwright Bertolt Brecht, and translator Elisabeth Hauptmann, whose version of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was the basis for the new work. To John Gay’s assortment of sources — musical works by composers such as Henry Purcell, George Handel, and John Eccles — for which he provided new words, Brecht added poems by French poet François Villon and British poet Rudyard Kipling. Except for one setting from Gay’s version, Weill completely rescored the work.

The premiere of The Threepenny Opera took place in Berlin at Theater am Sciffbauerdamm on 31 August 1928, as the first performance of Ernst Josef Aufricht’s new theater company. The principle roles were played by actors drawn from spoken theater, cabaret, and operetta, and Weill’s score for 23 instruments was played by the seven-person jazz band called the Lewis Ruth Band. The role of Jenny was created by Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya.

Bertolt Brecht is one of three people credited by the Threepenny Opera.
Bertolt Brecht is one of three people credited by the Threepenny Opera.

The story of The Threepenny Opera begins as The Beggar’s Opera does, with a frame. In the Prologue, the Ballad Singer shares the ballad of Mack the Knife with the audience, and Jenny, a whore, points him out. Act I opens with Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, outfitter of a band of beggars, negotiating with a new beggar for entrance into his gang. His thoughts are elsewhere, however — on his daughter Polly whom he is afraid is growing too close to a highwayman named MacHeath, but better known as Mack the Knife.

The Threepenny Opera includes poems by Rudyard Kipling.
The Threepenny Opera includes poems by Rudyard Kipling.

Peachum’s concerns are warranted, for Polly and MacHeath are celebrating their wedding in a stable nearby. The wedding guests include the off-duty chief constable of London, "Tiger" Brown, an old friend of MacHeath’s. At home, Polly tells her parents of her marriage, and Peachum, afraid that his daughter will betray his professional secrets, plans to have MacHeath arrested and hung. The First Finale closes the act.

In Act II of The Threepenny Opera, Polly goes to MacHeath’s hideout to warn him of her father’s plan. He tells her how to run his business while he’s gone. MacHeath, predictably, goes to find Jenny Driver, and she betrays him to Mrs. Peachum and a constable. MacHeath, taken to prison, dismisses a tearful Brown, and lies to Brown’s daughter Lucy, with whom he had previously broken up, telling her that he is not married to Polly. His lie is revealed when Polly enters, and the two women argue.

Meanwhile, MacHeath pays off the warder to get his handcuffs removed. Mrs. Peachum comes and forces Polly to leave, and MacHeath convinces Lucy to help him escape. Reminded by Peachum that the public will blame him, Brown realizes he must have MacHeath rearrested. The second finale ends the act, pointing out that the need to eat supercedes morality.

Act III of The Threepenny Opera opens in Peachum’s shop as the beggars are preparing to create a scene at the Coronation. Jenny, again, betrays MacHeath’s whereabouts, and when Brown comes in to arrest Peachum and the beggars to keep the Coronation undisturbed, they give him Jenny’s tip and deflect his attention to MacHeath.

Trying to figure out where MacHeath is, Polly affects a polite visit to Lucy. Mrs. Peachum takes her away to put on mourning, since MacHeath has been condemned to hang. MacHeath has no money left for bribes. MacHeath bids the world farewell, but as he is about to be hanged, Peachum interrupts and explains that an opera should have a happy ending. Brown enters as the royal messenger, reprieving MacHeath, and raising him to the peerage.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the plot of The Threepenny Opera?

The Threepenny Opera is a satirical musical play that critiques capitalist society. It follows the story of Macheath, a notorious criminal in London, who marries Polly Peachum, much to the dismay of her father, who controls the city's beggars. The plot weaves through themes of corruption, morality, and hypocrisy as Mr. Peachum conspires to have Macheath hanged, while Macheath navigates his relationships with various women and the law.

Who wrote The Threepenny Opera and when was it first performed?

The Threepenny Opera was written by Bertolt Brecht, with music composed by Kurt Weill. It is an adaptation of John Gay's 18th-century English ballad opera, 'The Beggar's Opera'. The play premiered on August 31, 1928, at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin, which is now home to the Berliner Ensemble, a company founded by Brecht himself.

What is the significance of the song "Mack the Knife" in The Threepenny Opera?

"Mack the Knife" is the opening number of The Threepenny Opera and has become its most famous song. It introduces the character of Macheath, also known as Mack the Knife, and describes his criminal deeds in a darkly humorous tone. The song's popularity has transcended the opera itself, becoming a standard recorded by many artists, including Bobby Darin and Ella Fitzgerald, and contributing to the enduring legacy of the play.

How did The Threepenny Opera influence modern musical theatre?

The Threepenny Opera had a profound impact on modern musical theatre by blending biting social commentary with the musical form. Its innovative approach to storytelling, use of song to advance the plot, and the incorporation of complex characters broke away from the escapist musicals of its time. This paved the way for future musicals that tackled serious themes and sought to provoke thought as well as entertain.

Is The Threepenny Opera still relevant today?

Yes, The Threepenny Opera remains relevant today as its central themes of social inequality and critique of capitalism continue to resonate with contemporary audiences. Its portrayal of a society rife with corruption and the struggles of the underprivileged reflects ongoing societal issues. The play's dark humor and satirical edge also continue to appeal, ensuring its place in the repertoire of modern theatre companies worldwide.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...

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    • Bertolt Brecht is one of three people credited by the Threepenny Opera.
      By: Allie_Caulfield
      Bertolt Brecht is one of three people credited by the Threepenny Opera.
    • The Threepenny Opera includes poems by Rudyard Kipling.
      By: nickolae
      The Threepenny Opera includes poems by Rudyard Kipling.