With music by Kurt Weill and words by Bertolt Brecht, Die Dreigoschenoper premiered in Berlin in 1928. By 1933, when Brecht and Weill were forced to leave Germany, the musical comedy which offers a socialist view of a capitalist world had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times. We of course are more familiar with the English title, The Threepenny Opera.
And we’re mostly familiar with the opening song which has been sung by practically everyone, most notably, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald in a grammy-winning performance, and Bobby Darin who made it the top song of 1959 – “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (“The Ballad of Mack the Knife”). The song was added just before the premiere, when the actor playing Macheath threatened to quit if his character did not receive an introduction.
At the beginning of the play, we meet Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, a London entrepreneur who runs the city’s begging operation, training the beggars and taking a nice chunk of their earnings. He is the perfect capitalist, a man who today would work for Goldman Sachs.
But Peachum has problems: his grown daughter Polly did not return home the previous night, and Peachum fears she has been misbehaving, and worse still, misbehaving with the ne’er-do-well Macheath. Peachum does what any worried father would do – he determines to thwart this budding relationship by taking away her cell phone and having her paramour hanged.
Fade to Macheath who is preparing to marry Polly once his gang has stolen her trousseau. After the gang has stolen some food and a table, and they all enjoy a wedding banquet. Polly entertains with a charming little song about a maid who becomes a pirate queen and executes her former bosses and customers. The Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, joins the party. It seems he had served with Macheath during the wars and had, over the years, exerted his influence to keep Macheath out of jail. He and Macheath sing. Polly returns home and lays the fact that she has married Macheath on her parents who are not amused. She sings a charming little song advising them to go fuck themselves, bringing the first act to a conclusion.
In Act Two, Polly warns Macheath that her father is gunning for British bear and that he must leave London. He agrees and leaves his gang in Polly’s hands. On his way out of town, Macheath stops at his favorite brothel, where he sees his ex-lover, Jenny. They sing a charming little song (“Pimp’s Ballad”) about their days together, but (the plot having thickened) Jenny has been bribed by Mrs Peachum to turn him in. Despite Brown’s apologies, he’s powerless and must drag Macheath away to jail. Macheath sings a charming little song about his life being over. Another girlfriend, Lucy (Brown’s daughter) and Polly arrive at the same time from stage right and stage left, respectively. A nasty argument ensues and together they sing a charming little duet about scratching each other’s eyes out. After Polly leaves, Lucy engineers Macheath’s escape, bringing the act to a tidy conclusion.
In Act Three, Jenny selfishly demands her money for the betrayal of Macheath, which Mrs Peachum refuses to pay. Jenny nevertheless reveals that Macheath is at Suky Tawdry’s house, and he is once again arrested. Back in jail and scheduled to be executed, Macheath desperately tries to raise the bribe money to get out again, even as the gallows are being erected. But no one comes to his aid, and Macheath prepares to die. He laments his fate in a charming little song. But what’s this? A deus ex machina enters stage left. Peachum announces that in this opera mercy will prevail over justice, and in a parody of a happy ending, a messenger from the Queen arrives to pardon Macheath and grant him a title, a castle and a pension. The play then ends with a plea that wrongdoing not be punished too harshly as life is harsh enough.