Threepenny Opera – 1976 – Columbia Records

Threepenny Opera - 1976 - Columbia Records

This record was my first good introduction to Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. It was a full cast recording of a production by the New York Shakespeare Festival which, contrary to its name, as well as Shakespeare has presented the works of many writers over the years including Brecht, Sam Shepard, Anton Chekov, Samuel Beckett and Euripides. This production starred Raul Julia as Macheath or Mack the Knife. The translation by Ralph Manheim and John Willett isn’t watered down. It is harsh and at times offensive. Obscenities fly thick and fast and the disturbing aspects of the main character, Mack the Knife, are retained. Over the years some versions of the song Mack the Knife have made him a loveable rogue when originally the character was capable of any act of violence and depravity. There’s nothing pleasant or loveable about him (in this translation mention is made of him starting a “ghastly fire in Soho” that killed seven children and of sexually assaulting a child). In a way I view Threepenny Opera as a precurser to A Clockwork Orange. In both works the main characters are vile but we are coaxed into identifying with them, we’re in many ways made to feel complicit in their actions which has the effect of making us more revulsed by them and it forces us an an audience or listener to think about the wider implications of those actions and of a society which created such vile individuals. In both the Threepenny Opera and in A Clockwork Orange the society that has created these protagonists is portrayed as even more disturbing. Macheath’s crimes cannot compare to the industrialized slaughter and colonialism of the military “The troops live under / The cannons’ thunder / From Sind to Cooch Behar / Moving from place to place / When they come face to face / With a different breed of fellow / Whose skins are black or yellow / They quick as winking chop them into beefsteak tartare”. Macheath, Mr Peachum and his army of beggars are just a microcosm of the wider culture which is seen as currupt. Humanity, we are told in one of the songs, is kept alive through bestial acts – “what keeps mankind alive? The fact that millions / Are daily tortured, stifled, punished, silenced, oppressed / Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance / In keeping its humanity repressed.”

It is odd that the song Mack the Knife became so watered down so much over time that it was almost a novelty song. I love Louis Armstrong and I even love his version but it’s all wrong. It misses the point. The other direction that portrayals of Brecht’s work have gone in lately is that they embrace the violence and the darkness, celebrating those aspects, sort of like an exploitation flick would. In these versions Brecht’s work becomes violence chic. Darkness is apparently cool these days though it feels just as empty when it’s approached in this manner as when it’s approached as a novelty song. When it’s stripped of all context it becomes meaningless. The whole point of The Threepenny Opera is that the dehumanization and commodification of individuals through societal conventions and norms breeds characters like Macheath who thrive in such a society. In many ways Brecht’s work is a critique of capitalism as he saw it and of the structures that he viewed as enforcing it and protecting it. This production didn’t water down Brecht’s vision nor did it make the mistake of celebrating its darker aspects. I don’t speak nor do I understand German but I have read and seen as many different translations of The Threepenny Opera as I have been able to and I feel that of all the versions in English that I know this has the most focus and the most punch. This production makes Brecht’s intentions and his arguements clear. I love this record. It is great.

Raul Julia also starred in a 1989 film production of the Threepenny Opera called Mack the Knife. I haven’t seen all of it but what I have seen didn’t thrill me much. The songs, translated by Marc Blitzstein, Menahem Golan and Dov Seltzer lost some of their sting and it doesn’t have a great look to it. The dance numbers are over the top, out of place, annoying and distracting. The 1931 film by Pabst, though hated by Brecht, is remarkable and well worth checking out. It is one of the best things I have ever seen.