“The Threepenny Opera” (“Die Dreigroschenoper”) is a “play with music” by Bertolt Brecht, adapted from a translation of John Gay‘s 18th-century English ballad opera, “The Beggar’s Opera”, with music by Kurt Weill.
Brecht did far more than just translate Gay’s play, he reworked it to reflect the decadence of his period and of the Weimar republic. The piece combined musical and biting satire against the capitalist world, the corruption of the German government and its supporters.
Weill wrote or adapted the music replacing Gay’s eighteenth-century ballads with contemporary trends like tango and foxtrot
The play premiered on 31 August 1928 in Berlin and was really successful because of its bizarre cast of characters and its sharp social critique. Later, in 1933, it was banned by the Nazis, who outlawed any publications by its authors.
The work’s opening and closing lament is “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (the lyrics can be found here).
A ‘moritat’ (from “mord” meaning murder and “tat” meaning deed) is a kind of medieval ballad, traditionally sung by travelling minstrels, which tells the crimes of notorious murderers.
The song was a last-minute addition to please tenor Harald Paulson, who played Mackie and had threatened to leave if his character did not receive an important introduction.
However, the ‘moritat’ was not performed by him, but by the ballad singer, to introduce Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife (Messer is German for knife) a character based on Gay’s Macheath.
Brecht-Weill version of this character was far more cruel and sinister than Gay’s.
The moritat singer compares him to a shark with the difference that this predator fish brandishes its weapon in plain sight, while Mack keeps his knife well hidden. The song cheerfully announces that Mack the Knife is on his way to town, because a lot of murders have started happening again: there are untraceable dead bodies floating up the river, blood on the sidewalks, as well as the disappearance of rich people and their cash.
In the original John Gay’s Opera (written exactly two hundred years earlier, in 1728) the character of Macheath was based on the exploits of a real person: Jack Sheppard (1702 –1724) He was an English thief and jail-breaker operating in London in the 1720s, almost a folk hero renowned for his attempts to escape from the prisons where he was jailed for his crimes.
Mackie might be another Jack : ‘Jack The Ripper‘ the serial killer who terrorized London’s East End between 1888 and 1891, and brutally murdered five prostitutes.