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Mack The Knife

Bertolt Brecht

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The history of Mack the Knife
2002-06-22
Added by: Joseph Vincent Mach
for more info, please visit:
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THE HISTORY OF MACK THE KNIFE

Few plays have spread into global notoriety, especially modern ones. A Mid Summer Night's Dream is about as popular in China as Boris Gudinov is in France. Bertolt Brecht's ThreePenny Opera is a rare example of a play that has touched almost every part of the earth and covered almost every medium: theater, film, and novel. Originally from an old English play called The Beggar's Opera, the main character "Macheath" was a traditional British, Robin Hood like hero. The disastrous effects of World War One and Brecht's unique style made his adaptation, with the help of Weill's musical score, one of the most popular plays in the world. He turned the Swashbuckler "Macheath" into an anti-hero, a common criminal and product of the time, but still seemed to arouse the audiences' pity. From Moscow and Berlin to New York, this play has stood the durability of time and has influenced many, either positively or negatively. And from it's meager start, the play as made Macheath the star of hit records and fast-food commercials.

Macheath was birthed in The Beggar's Opera by John Gay (June 30, 1685-December 23, 1732). Gay was an English playwright and poet who lived in the eighteenth century and gained fame as a satirist on the contemporary society. A friend of famous writers as Johnathan Swift and Alexander Pope, who usually outshine Gay in the history books, but three of the most popular works of the period: The Fables, which have been printed in over 350 editions; Trivia, which went into five editions in the poets lifetime and is sometimes regarded as the best poem about London life ever written; and of coarse The Beggar's Opera, probably the century's most beloved play, are Gay's most famous works. The opera was conceived in a letter that Swift wrote to Pope on August 30, 1716. The letter asks, "...what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?" Pope suggested to hand the idea to Gay, but make it a comedy; A comedy by a beggar.

The Beggar's Opera has a partial setting in Newgate Prison. This may also be a result of the stories a young Gay heard about his Aunt Martha, who in a failed economic gamble spent about three years in that location. As a boy he and his friends used to hang around the sailors in town to hear stories. In 1694 Gay's mother and father died within months of each other, and so he was given to his uncle Thomas. It is at this time that he grew a huge interest in literature that interfered with and caused him to lose his apprenticeship. He began to write plays, but his first success didn't come until late 1714 with The What D'ye Call It. It was replayed almost every season until 1750. The play was a parody of the popular tragedies of the time, but it was so subtle that the audience took the work seriously and in some cases weeping occurred. But the most significant part of this play was the ballad that he wrote to music by Handel. Being reprinted for years, the ballad had success on it's own. It is this ballad that began Gay's fame as a lyricist and predicts the songs that were to appear in his Beggar's Opera.

After a few years writing plays for the royal court, he completed The Beggar's Opera and it opened on January 29, 1728. The basis for this opera is that the thieves and other low-lives that inhabit Newgate prison are the same as to be found in the government. The play was a theatrical success and became the most popular play of that century. It's first season had an unprecedented run of sixty-two nights (it appears that Pope was wrong when he counted sixty-three) and became the English stage's first hit. It had a near continuous run from the year 1728 through 1886. This ballad opera was the first of it's kind to be produced in England and has caused such a fad that it's influence can still be seen today in almost all musical comedy. Deeper than it's music, which can stand on it's own, the play is a harsh satire that daringly strikes against class distinction and members of the royal court. Gay's sly move of inverting the classes was the key to his genius. The harlots, burglars, and cutthroats are more important than the national governors. These low-lives have the manners of proper English lords and ladies, and gain power in much the same ways, proving that human nature is a constant through out the world. It also pokes fun at the judicial system of the period. There was a high crime rate at that time in English history. The death penalty was handed out for the theft of pennies from a person, but acts of murder and arson were mere misdemeanors.

The lead character of The Beggar's Opera is the swashbuckler called Macheath. He is a smooth romantic with qualities of both a gentleman and a highwayman. He is the love of the whores. Macheath takes the hand in marriage of Lucy and Polly and in the end "four wives more" claim him. He says "I must have women" since "I love the sex". A paradox of a character that speaks King's English and dresses well, but prefers to live in the faith and company of cutthroats. He is polite to the people he mugs and steers away from violence. Even though he cheats on the adorable Polly, the audience call still believe his love for her is true. The actor who played Macheath was supposed to be James Quinn, but he suffered from an inability to sing, so Thomas Walker took the part. Walker became the hero of the London youth and was honored in various taverns and other amusement places. A short non-descript synopsis of the play will find a simple narrative that connects the massive forty-five scenes that the play contains. The opening prologue is a dialogue between The Player and The Beggar, who is posing as the play's author. They make humor of the Italian opera, especially the conflict of two diva's of that period. The first scene takes place in Peachum's establishment. Peachum sings a hymn about the dishonesty of everyone. Peachum is alarmed at the marriage between his daughter Polly and Macheath. His objection is for purely business reasons, for Peachum is a "fence" of stolen goods who occasionally informs on his patrons for the reward. He fears both the loss of Polly from his business, who he related to a pretty bartender bringing in money from drunkards, and of Macheath's learning of any business secrets.

Act II has Macheath and his men outside Newgate. He states his problem with Peachum, but when his gang want to do Peachum in Macheath explains how he is a necessary evil and that "Business cannot go on without him". Macheath's goal is to trick Peachum into believing he has left the gang, but when he assembles eight ladies for a party the ladies call the constable and have him arrested. In jail he bribes Lockit, the jailer, for looser chains. Macheath however, is a lover of Lucy Lockit, the daughter of the jailer. He promises her marriage in turn for his excape and she agrees. The plan is almost thrown off track when Polly goes to the jail looking for Macheath, but he successfully tricks Lucy again and he excapes at the end of the Act.

The Third Act begins with Lockit discovering his daughter's part in Macheath's excape. He and Peachum find Macheath's hiding place and go to re-capture him. As Macheath is brought back into custody, both Lucy and Polly beg their father for his life, but to no avail. Macheath is led off to Old Bailey for a trial. In prison Macheath drinks wine and sings portions of nine songs. Two of his gang come to pay respects and he instructs them to have Peachum and Locked hanged. When Polly and Lucy come to visit he tells them to travel to the West Indies and have "a husband apiece". At this moment a jailer calls that four more wives have come to see him and a fellow gang member call desperately for a hangman because at this moment Macheath will really need one. At this point the Beggar and the Player enter to argue whether Macheath dies or not. The Beggar states that Macheath must be hanged for poetic justice. The Player states that this would make the play a tragedy and operas have happy endings. The Beggar finally agrees and Macheath is released. The play concludes with Macheath stating that he is legally married to Polly alone and there is a joyful dance.

Gay tried to cash in on the play's success by writing a sequel titled Polly. This play was not as good. It had a new setting of a colonial plantation, but tried to carry over it's satire on the nobels of England. As a result, this humour seemed out of place. Gay rushed the writing of this play and both its humour and message are less clear than in Beggar's Opera. In this new play, Macheath is disguised as a negro and doesn't have even a hint of a hero that he originally had. Polly marries a native American. The irregular ballads have telltale signs of being rushed and are far below Gay's previous standards. Although the play became popular, it isn't comparable to The Beggar's Opera.

The Beggar's Opera was not just a success in Eighteenth Century England. This was the first musical play to be produced in colonial New York. It was George Washington's favourite play. In 1920 the play was revived in London and New York. 1923 was the year that the Beggar's Opera Club opened serving members who have seen the play a minimum of forty times. There were modern revivals of the play: 1940 (London), 1950 (New York), and 1958 (also New York). A movie version of this play starred Sir Laurance Olivier as Macheath. Olivier insisted on performing the stunts and recording the songs himself. The film was a failure and lost its entire investment. Duke Ellington wrote music for an adaptation in 1946 titled The Beggar's Holiday. Alfred Drake played Macheath as a dashing New York gangster in Ellington?s adaptation. The Beggar's Holiday closed after only 14 weeks. No adaptation has been more popular than Bertolt Brecht's ThreePenny Opera first seen in Germany, late August 1928.

The adaptation by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was composed in the Weimar Period of post World War One Germany. The World War had drastic effects on society's view of the arts and was the final blow that toppled the kingdoms of Europe. Starting with industrialism and ending with the war, new classes were rising to replace the aristocracy and peasantry. These classes were the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. New art movements called the avant-garde rose to address the new modern society. One of the big changes was in the concept of a "hero" in plays and literature. Before the outbreak, people thought of war as nobel and honorable, a statement of national pride. Wars had to this point been quick, from six to eight weeks in length, but World War One lasted for six long years, destroyed a generation of European youth, and left a dirty scar across the earth between France and Germany that is still present to remind people today. After the disastrous war, novels like Schweik, The Good Soldier by Jaroslav Hasek began to spring forth. No longer was the military looked upon like crusading knights. Schweik was an anti-hero. An overweight inept army man who would hide out a battle until both sides had massacred each other. Being the last man standing, his army would bestow medals and honors upon him for defeating the enemy troops, when in fact he was a coward.

Anti-heroes like Schweik were the kind of leading man avant-garde playwrights and theater directors like Bertolt Brecht were looking for. He did do an adaptation of Schweik, but his most famous work is The ThreePenny Opera, an adaptation of Gay's play with alterations to suit the new theater. It started when his collaborator, Elisabeth Hauptmann, noticed a successful revival of a very interesting play in Hammersmith during the early Twenties. The play was The Beggar's Opera and had great potential to be converted into the avant-garde. Even though it was over a century old, this unusual play had everything the avant-garde looked for. Gay's rapid change of scenes was similar to the montage effect that Brecht and others were trying to achieve in the arts. Gay's satire was an ironic reversal of the royal government and the criminals of old England that could easily be converted to fit the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. In November of 1927, Elisabeth Hauptmann began to translate the English play to German for Brecht. Brecht began to transform Gay's Macheath into his own Mackie Messier, also known as Mack the Knife.

Brecht took many liberties in ThreePenny Opera. It is by no means just a translation of Gay's play. The London setting is replaced by a dockside Noho in Victorian England. Peachum becomes a beggar king, outfitting, taxing, and reporting on his beggars for the reward. He prays on people's sympathies and quotes Biblical verses with ironic dark comedy. Scenes are added, such as a wedding scene between Mac and Polly set in a stable with stolen goods for the reception. The police chief Tiger Brown, Brecht's Lockit, an old army buddy of Mac's stops in to pay his respects. But most important is the changes that make Mack the Knife.

Brecht's version of the character bears little resemblance to Gay's Macheath. Mackie is unmannerly, cynical, and a toughened criminal. He is a gangster who refers to himself as a "businessman". He praises efficiency, organization, and even keeps books. He stated that the only difference between a gangster and a businessman is that the gangster is "often on coward". Although he never enters the legitimate business world, he tells Polly that in a few weeks he will switch to banking because it is safer and more profitable. Thieves like himself are being edged out of the market by business and banks: "We artisans of the lower middle class who work with honest jimmies on the cash boxes of small shopkeepers, are being ruined by large concerns backed by the banks. What is a picklock to a bank share? What is the burgling of a bank to the founding of a bank? What is the murder of a man to the employment of a man?" He has become thoroughly bourgeoisie, not like Gay's dashing romantic hero. Brecht states in the plays notes that he based his character on an original English drawing of Macheath as "a squat but thickset man in his forties with a radish like head, somewhat bald already, but not without dignity." Polly even states that he is "not handsome."

At this time Brecht had been working with Kurt Weill (1900-1950) on a musical. The collaboration worked so well that they stayed together for The ThreePenny Opera. Together they worked on the music, usually Brecht handled the lyrics and Weill wrote the songs, or re-wrote would be more accurate. Most of the traditional hymns were replaced with jazzy foxtrots and tangos. A song was taken from a Brecht play that preceded this one called Man is Man, the song titled Cannon Song. Four tunes were pirated from the German version of Villon. Only one song, the first hymn of Gay's play sung by Peachum, remained intact. But this seems to fit with Gay's style because he too borrowed music from composers like Handel. Of coarse, the most famous song from the show is The Ballad of Mack the Knife, sometimes called the most famous tune written in Europe during the last century.

The song was composed for the egotistical actor Harold Paulsen. Paulsen veinly demanded that his entrance be built up, So Brecht wrote the verses overnight. To spite Paulsen, Brecht wrote into the play that the song was to be sung by the street singer, and not Macheath. It began in a dispute between Paulsen and Brecht. Paulsen threatened to leave the cast if he did not get the last word about his costume. On the play's small budget the rest of the cast had to wear leftover costumes, but Paulsen required a double-breasted black suit from Berlin's most expensive tailor. Also his outfit included gleaming lacquered black shoes, blinding white spats, a very stiff collar, a sword-cane and a black bowler hat. A sky blue cravat was also added because it matched Paulsen's eyes. Brecht finally said "Let him keep it, Weill and I will introduce him with a moritat that will describe his crimes, and that way he will appear even more frightening with that blue necktie."

The song was to be a Moritat, modeled after the Moritaten ("Mord" meaning murder and "tat" meaning deed) and given to Kurt Gerron to sing. The day after Brecht handed the lyrics of the song to Weill, Weill turned up at the theater for rehearsal with a hurdy-gurdy to crank out the music. It has long since been argued whether Brecht or Weill wrote the better half of the song. The song's strict male orientation and it's portrayal of causal violence against women, as well as anyone in Mackie's way seems to point to Brecht more that Weill as the father of the lyrics. Also, the confusion between sharks and the murder Macheath appears to be artist George Grosz's influence on Brecht. Grosz worked as set designer with Brecht, and his 1921 drawing of Berlin brothels is called Haifische, or "sharks". Kurt Gerron played both the Street Singer and Police Chief Tiger Brown, Brecht's re-write of Gay's Lockit. This added more irony to the already complex play because the same man who builds up Mack the Knife's evil accomplishments is also the corrupt speaker for law. Special lighting accompanied Gerron as he cranked out the song on a side stage. As he sang, he pointed to crude images illustrating the crimes Mack the Knife committed such as: Theft, murder, arson, and rape.

The last verse of the song describes how Mac violates a young girl when she is sleeping. This happens just as the first scene begins where Mac leaves a whorehouse and follows Polly Peachum down the street. The intersection of the Moritat and the beginning of the acting is significant of how Brecht's new "Epic" avant-garde theater was enhanced by Weill's music. The stage for the play had large canvases in the background where text was projected as a narration to the scene below. It is at this intersection that the narration is depicted and sung. Not only can one assume stagitory rape will occur by his following of young Polly and the knowledge of his criminal tendencies, but the audience is being told and shown a picture as well. This kept the viewer from being involved in the character and left him or her as the observer of the character.

Brecht's new style of theater allowed for the play to be more brutally harsh in it's satirical attacks on the classes than Gay's play could achieve. Brecht allowed the audience to observe, judge, and decide how things could and should be different where as Gay's audience got too involved with the characters to assume there was a choice. Brecht offers alternatives in life rather than Gay's mocking charactures that just make the viewer laugh at their folly. Brecht wanted to make his characters amoral, but not immoral. Morality has nothing to do with action. To emphasize this point he switched the goals of his characters to be food and money, not power and sex like in Gay's play. "Eat first, morals later" Mac says.

It is not just coincidence that this sounds like Marxist theory, but Brecht did not have a utopian view like communists in Russia. He did however, have strong anti-capitalist views. While his play was a hit in Germany, successful in bringing many from the working class into the theaters, much of the audience were middle class and did not understand that the humor was at their expense. Within a week of it's opening, the play was booked in more than fifty theaters in Germany. By the end of the next year it was preformed in Italy, Poland, Hungry, France, Switzerland, and Russia. The 1930 Moscow production was received with mixed response.

The Soviet production was put on by Alexander Tairov in the Kamerny Theater. The play resumed the title The Beggar's Opera. Tairov's production was designed by the Stenberg brothers, Avant-garde artists who built an elegant stage setting, but Yuly Khmelnitsky preformed Macheath as a charismatic adventurer and not an anti-hero. Brecht saw the Moscow production, but was unsatisfied. He usually was by other productions of his plays.

The Soviet government was also unsatisfied, but for another reason. They thought his message was not strong enough. By 1930 Brecht had been offered to make a film of The ThreePenny Opera, and he thought he would help the Communist cause by making his Marxism more obvious and turning the film into almost propaganda. Jean Oser, the film's editor remembers "ThreePenny Opera was very hot property at the time: it had come out as a big theatrical hit; in fact in was almost phenomenal how much it influenced a complete generation... It formed the entire pre-Hitler generation until 1933; for about five years... Every girl in the country wanted to be like Mackie. Apparently, the ideal man was a pimp."(Although the film kept the title The ThreePenny Opera, It will be called "The ThreePenny Movie" to avoid confusion between it and the play.)

The Nero Film Company bought the rights to produce the story from Brecht and Weill, on the condition that Brecht would furnish the story outline and retain the right to reasonably alter the final screenplay. The ThreePenny Movie was to be directed by G.W.Pabst and written by Leo Lania, who worked with Brecht adapting Schweik. Brecht wrote in the screenplay a more radical anti-capitalist Macheath. The screenplay of the story was called The Bruise and disposed all of what was left of the Beggar's Opera. Everything now is on a large scale. Mac's gang is 120 strong and Peachum heads a begging trust. The gang and the beggars are at war, symbolized by the bruise inflicted on a beggar named Sam. Peachum forces Brown to secure Macheath's arrest after a bucolic picnic and a car chase with a car full of cops following a car full of whores. No escape and no second arrest happens. Polly directs the gang to take over the National Deposit Bank and convert itself into a group of solemn financiers. The "Mounted Messengers" are now bankers who bail Macheath out. To avoid disappointing the crowd Peachum has Sam hung in Mac's place. Mac, Peachum, and "Tiger" Brown all leave the stage arm in arm because as capitalists, all the conflicts between them were just business.

Pabst and Brecht had very different ideas on how the film was to look and it soon became obvious that they were too incompatible to work together. Nero Films offered to buy the rights from Brecht outright, but he refused. Work on the ThreePenny Movie had already begun and much money had been invested. Nero decided to continue with Pabst in charge. Brecht and Weill sued the company with mixed results. Weill won his case and had all the changes to his musical score erased. Brecht on the other hand lost. The opposing lawyers brought up the fact that Brecht had taken from Villon and thus his call for literary property rights was a bit hypocritical. When the ThreePenny Movie was finished. The Film incorporated much of Brecht?s re-write of the story, but failed to present it in his style. Oser states "In this case I agree with Brecht, you don?t make a million-dollar movie out of a story which should be practically shot in a back yard."

The ThreePenny movie was shot at the same time with a French version, alternating between day and night the use of the set. The two films are similar. Although the French is usually far outshadowed by the German now, at the time of release the French was extremely popular and the German was attacked by the critics. Albert Prejean played Macheath in the French version, but Rudolph Forster was Mac in the German film. Pabst created the largest set built in Germany before 1931 for this film. The opening sequence starts with a shot of solid brick buildings like warehouses and offices. One can assume the docks are behind them due to the dock workers and lower middle-class people walking about. Two people catch the camera's eye, Polly and Mrs. Peachum.

The camera tracks them from behind as they pass a building's entrance. Above the door are a sigh reading "Higate Marsh" and a red light. Mac enters the doorway with a whore in his arm. Notes from the "Tango Ballad" can be heard. This is obviously a brothel. Polly and Mrs. Peachum continue walking out of the picture. The do not notice Macheath, but they catch his eye and his gaze follows them down the street. At that moment he perks up, pushes the whore aside and follows the two ladies. As Mac passes a ground floor window next to the door another whore reaches out and hands him a cane. Mac takes this without looking at her, but the handle slips to reveal a blade.

A frontal close-up of Mac now appears, keeping pace with him as his steps quicken in pursuit of the ladies. The women turn onto a side alley and Mac follows. One can hear music as they near a town square where a crowd has formed around a street singer. The singer cranks out music on a barrel-organ, The Ballad of Mack the Knife. Mac joins the crowd peering over it for the two women. (In the screen play there is a man in a tophat obstructing Mac's view. Mac flicks the hat and it slides down over the man's ear. This was most likely to demonstrate how Mac knocks off people in his way. This however seems redundant as we have already established his character by the cane-knife and the lyrics sung by the street singer.) The shot switches to Mackie's view of the singer illustrating words with pictures of horrible acts. In the front row is Polly, who's face the camera and Mac see for the first time.

The camera zooms up to the singer and his pictures. The singer dances about making comic gestures as a small girl cranks the organ. The camera pans across the crowd and as the man in the tophat hears of the murderous deeds his mouth drops and he straightens his hat. Still being behind the man, Mac's face disappears behind the hat. Mac travels in a large half-circle through the crowd to stand behind Polly and the camera follows. Mackie comes up behind and pushed his way through to Polly. Polly doesn't notice her as he gazes and pushes closer. The impression is given that Mac wants to touch her. Polly turns in Mac's direction. He looks up, laughs, and sings along with the tune.

Mrs. Peachum begins to leave and drags Polly with her. Polly is fascinated by Mac and cannot stop staring. This only forces Mac to follow her more. The three of them go off screen as the singer finishes the last lines of the song. (translated: And the widow, under age/ The one who's name we know so well/ Raped one night while she lay sleeping/ Mackie how much could you tell). The camera then tracks Mackie's smiling face.

One can tell Pabst's film gives an extremely different view of Mackie than Brecht's play gives of him. Rather than presenting a man for all to see, Pabst puts the viewer in the character. How can one not help but feel a little nostalgic for the underage widow? Mac's adventures become our own and are presented to us in song. A song that Mac himself can sing along to, as if he were remembering those experiences with us. Herbert Ihering, a friend of Brecht, stated that the ThreePenny Movie "has such a fairy-tail-like effect and is told with such charm and humour that in the end one completely disregards the intended meaning and just enjoys the story..." Brecht wrote two pieces on this event. One was The ThreePenny Novel. In short, his intended film, that is the more Marxist Revolutionary screenplay in book form. The other was The ThreePenny Lawsuit, describing the trial and how his failing was due to the inherent evils of a capitalist society. Even after the film rights returned to his ownership, he never did another ThreePenny Movie.

After the film was made in 1930, a "3-Groschen bar" (ThreePenny bar) opened in Berlin. It played only "ThreePenny" music. One could also buy "ThreePenny" wallpaper, depicting scenes and characters. It came in three shades: light pink, light green, and light yellow. "ThreePenny" mania was sweeping Germany. A record could be bought containing the most popular "ThreePenny" songs recorded with a voice and piano. A recording of the performance on December 5, 1930 kept Kurt Gerron as the Street Singer, but Macheath was played by Willy Trenck-Trebitch. After seeing L'opera de quat' sous (The French version of The ThreePenny Opera) Simone de Beauvoir remembered in her autobiography "We knew nothing about Brecht, but we were enchanted by the way he depicted the adventures of Mack the Knife. The work seemed to reflect a totally anarchic attitude... Sarte knew all Kurt Weill's songs by heart and we often used to quote the catch phrase about grub first and morality afterwards." The ThreePenny Opera was not limited to Europe. It soon crossed the Atlantic to America.

In America the play was preformed many times. In 1933 a version translated by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky was preformed in New York City, the script to this production has long sense been lost. American's were not ready for theater in this style, but critics praised Weill's music and he became one of the leading composers of Broadway. In Illinois, Desmond Vesey's translation was preformed in 1945, 1948, and in a dual translation with Eric Bently, 1954 and 1956. 1954 and 1955 also saw opening of Marc Blitzen's translation on the New York City stage. Blitzen's shows ran a smashing six years. It established the play as a popular favouret, but it is an adaptation and at the time changes had to be made to suite the America of the Eisenhower era. After a sixteen year lull Joseph Papp commissioned a new translation by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. Because of the stage censorship, Blitzen's lyrics were softened and thus changed many of Brecht's meanings around. The new translation had to be faithful to Brecht, abrasive and unsparing. In Blitzen's version of the Ballad of Mack the Knife he neglects to even mention the crime of the "Ghastly fire in Soho". The late Raul Julia preformed as Macheath in this version with the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1976. While an excellent actor to begin with, Julia?s thick Hispanic accent came at a time when the stereotype of a Puerto Rican as being ?stabby? could only add to the dangerousness of the character Macheath.

A jazzy version of Weill's Ballad became popular. It's beginnings are from the opening night in August, 1928. As Kurt Gerring was singing and cranking the hand organ, the organ failed to work. Not until the song's second verse did the Lewis Ruth Band spring to action an accompany the singing to music. The moritat hides it's complexity, and thus it's appeal to the jazz musicians. Dance elements from the blues tradition are fused with it's sixteen measure melody. After the first two stanzas, altered instrumentation, rhythmic patterns, dynamics, and countermelodies piece together new musical attire.

The moritat's global fame came from the vocals of Louis Armstrong and the lyrics from Blitzen's adaptation. Armstrong has a deep, raspy, southern black man's voice. He sings slowly of the murders and a list of the whores? names but makes no mention of the rape or fire that left seven dead. The song is a catchy tune, and perfect for the American public of the Ninteen-Fourties with it's cleaned lyrics. This was a very racist time in American history when the thought of murder visualized by a raspy black man?s voice was enough to send shivers across one's skin.

In 1960 Bobby Darin re-recorded this song. A popular rock and roller already, he succeeded in bringing this jingle into the white public's acceptance. Darin's youthful style is louder, faster, and has more flash. One almost overlooks the criminal lyrics and is caught up in the upbeat tempo of the music and casual singing. But it wasn't until the 1980's that this tune truly became a "commercial" song. McDonald's fast food company created the character "Mac Tonight" to sell its "Big Mac" hamburgers. Mac Tonight is a suave rock star/lounge singer. His head is a crescent moon and he wears black sunglasses as he soars through the night sky playing the piano. He seems the essence of cool with his white dress shirt, red tie, and black satin jacket, as if to say McDonald?s wasn?t just a lunch or dinner for the lower classes, but also an evening stop for the theater going crowd. This strayed far away from Brecht's intentions, but unlike the ThreePenny Movie, Mac Tonight was unsuccessful and McDonalds dropped its campaign after only a year or so.

Others have tried to cash in on the movie of ThreePenny Opera. In 1962 a re-make called The Three Penny Opera (Note the space between Three and Penny). This little known movie starred Sammy Davis Jr. It wasn't terribly successful. Nor was the 1989 film Mack the Knife. This film was filled with stars. Raul Julia again took the part as Mac. Roger Daltrey, the former singer from the rock group "The Who", Played the street singer (he played Macheath in a theater production of Beggar's Opera). The famous British actor Richard Harris also appears in this film. This film, directed by Menheim Golan, is more like a re-make of Pabst's ideas about the story mixed with a little Oliver Twist rather than Brecht's. There is too much singing, and way too much dancing. The set is elaborate and expensive, submersing the viewer into the Victorian English underworld. The music is still Weill's with Blitzen's translations, but is arranged to sound more like flashy Broadway show tunes.

Bobby Darin and Roger Daltrey are not the only Rock musicians to be seduced by the charming Macheath in ThreePenny Opera. In 1989, the Grammy winning Sting, former lead singer of "The Police", ironically took the role of the infamous murder Mack the Knife on the stage. Sting had previously sung The Ballad of Mack the Knife on a 1985 album remembering the works of Kurt Weill called Lost in the Stars. He also sang a rendition of The Ballad with the Hamburg State Orchestra in 1987. This 1989 revival claims to be the closest to Brecht and Weill's intentions than any American production has been. It comes closer than even the original 1928 Berlin show because Lucy's Aria was cut from the original production due to the actresses' leaving of the cast. The Aria was included in the 1989 production. Sting stated, "One of Macheath's basic messages to the audience is that you can't judge people morally until they're fed, until they're equals."

Macheath has found his place in popular culture. From his English birth two hundred years ago he has been continually updated to fit in the place and time he has been brought. From his German transformation, he was written to fit a Marxist role to fit Moscow's needs. America found him to be to harsh at first and he was made less cruel, but as America became less puritanical, Mackie returned to his character of the German production. He has entered theater, film, literature, popular music, and commercials. But as Sting said, "If people are coming [To see ThreePenny Opera] expecting to hear Bobby Darin or Louis Armstrong, They'll get a nasty shock."

Kurt Gerron - Mack the Knife
2003-03-05
Added by: Karen Gut
I understand that Gerron was forced to sing the song he made famous on his way to the gas chamber in Auschwitz. Does any one know if this is true?
bobby Darrin correction
2003-06-01
Added by: susan
bobbydarrin.net gives
December 1958 as the recording date. The song was
#1 for 9 weeks in 1959

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