The Threepenny Opera

For the 1931 film, see The Threepenny Opera (1931 film). For the 1990 film, see Mack the Knife (film).
The Threepenny Opera

Original German poster from Berlin, 1928
Music Kurt Weill
Lyrics Bertolt Brecht
Book Elisabeth Hauptmann
Bertolt Brecht
Basis John Gay's The Beggar's Opera
Premiere 31 August 1928: Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin

The Threepenny Opera[1] (Die Dreigroschenoper) is a "play with music" by Bertolt Brecht, adapted from German dramatist Elisabeth Hauptmann's translation of John Gay's 18th-century English ballad opera, The Beggar's Opera, with music by Kurt Weill and insertion ballads by François Villon and Rudyard Kipling. The work offers a Socialist critique of the capitalist world. It opened on 31 August 1928 at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm.

Songs from The Threepenny Opera have been widely covered and become standards, most notably "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife") and "Seeräuberjenny" ("Pirate Jenny").



Brecht was first motivated to prepare a version of The Beggar's Opera by the successful revival of the original by Nigel Playfair in London in 1920. He offered the idea to the impresario Ernst Josef Aufricht who was seeking a production to launch his new theatre company at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin. The score by Weill uses only one of the melodies which Johann Pepusch wrote for the original Beggar's Opera. The title Die Dreigroschenoper was determined only a week before the opening; it had been previously announced as simply The Beggar's Opera (in English), with the subtitle "Die Luden-Oper" ("The Pimp's Opera").[2]

Writing in 1929, Weill made the political and artistic intents of the work clear:

With the Dreigroschenoper we reach a public which either did not know us at all or thought us incapable of captivating listeners [...] Opera was founded as an aristocratic form of art [...] If the framework of opera is unable to withstand the impact of the age, then this framework must be destroyed....In the Dreigroschenoper, reconstruction was possible insofar as here we had a chance of starting from scratch.[3]

This reworking of opera/music theatre traditions is in line with Brecht's style of "epic theatre", where "in place of an illusion of real action" audiences were confronted with "narrative, montage,and direct exhortation" to produce an effect of alienation (in German, "Verfremdung").[4] Weill claimed at the time that "music cannot further the action of the play or create its background", but achieves its proper value when it interrupts the action at the right moments."[5]


Weill's score shows influence of jazz and German dance-music of the time.[6] The orchestration involves a small ensemble with a good deal of doubling-up on instruments (in the original performances, for example, some 7 players covered a total of 23 instrumental parts, though modern performances typically use a few more players).[7]


Playbill of the premiere performance at Theater am Schiffbauerdamm Berlin, 31 August 1928. The name of Lotte Lenya, who played Jenny, was omitted by mistake.


The Threepenny Opera was first performed at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in 1928 on a set designed by Caspar Neher. Despite an initially poor reception, it became a great success, playing 400 times in the next two years. The performance was a springboard for one of the best known interpreters of Brecht and Weill's work, Lotte Lenya, who was married to Weill. Ironically the production became a great favourite of Berlin's 'smart set' - Count Harry Kessler recorded in his diary meeting at the performance an ambassador and a director of the Dresdner Bank (and their wives), and concluded "One simply has to have been there."[8]

By 1933, when Weill and Brecht were forced to leave Germany by the Nazi seizure of power, the play had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times on European stages.[9]

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the first fully staged performance was given on 9 February 1956, under Berthold Goldschmidt, although there had been a concert performance in 1933, and a semi-staged performance on 28 July 1938. In between, on 8 February 1935 Edward Clark conducted the first British broadcast of the work. It received scathing reviews from Ernest Newman and other critics.[10] But the most savage criticism came from Weill himself, who described it privately as "... the worst performance imaginable … the whole thing was completely misunderstood". But his criticisms seem to have been for the concept of the piece as a Germanised version of The Beggar's Opera, rather than for Clark's conducting of it, of which Weill made no mention.[11][12][13]


America was introduced to the work by the film version of G. W. Pabst, which opened in New York in 1931.[14]

The first American production, adapted into English by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky and staged by Francesco Von Mendelssohn, featured Robert Chisholm as Macheath. It opened on Broadway at the Empire Theatre, on April 13, 1933, and closed after 12 performances. Mixed reviews praised the music but slammed the production, with the critic Gilbert Gabriel calling it "a dreary enigma".[15]


A French version produced by Gaston Baty and written by Ninon Steinhof and André Mauprey was presented in October 1930 at the Théâtre Montparnasse in Paris. It was rendered as L'Opéra de quat'sous; (quatre sous, or four pennies being the idiomatically equivalent French expression for Threepenny).[16]


In 1930 the work was premiered in Moscow at the Kamerny Theatre, directed by Alexander Tairov. It was the only one of Brecht's works to be performed in Russia during his lifetime. Izvestia disapproved: "It is high time that our theatres ceased playing homage to petit-bourgeois bad taste and instead turned to more relevant themes."[17]


The first Italian production, titled L'Opera da tre soldi and directed by Giorgio Strehler, premiered at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan on 27 February 1956 in the presence of Bertolt Brecht. The cast included: Tino Carraro (Mackie), Mario Carotenuto (Peachum), Marina Bonfigli (Polly), Milly (Jenny), Enzo Tarascio (Chief of Police). The conductor was Bruno Maderna. Set designs were by Luciano Damiani and Teo Otto; costume design by Ezio Frigerio.[18]


Role Voice type Premiere cast, August 31, 1928[19]
(Conductor: Theo Mackeben)
Macheath ("Mackie Messer"/"Mack the Knife"), London's greatest and most notorious criminal tenor/baritone Harald Paulsen
Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, the "Beggar's Friend", controller of all the beggars in London; conspires to have Mack hanged baritone Erich Ponto
Celia Peachum ("Frau Peachum"), Peachum's wife; helps him run the business mezzo-soprano Rosa Valetti
Polly Peachum, the Peachums' daughter; after knowing Mack for only five days, agrees to marry him soprano Roma Bahn
Jackie "Tiger" Brown, Police Chief of London and Mack's best friend from their army days baritone Kurt Gerron
Lucy Brown, Tiger Brown's daughter; claims to be married to Mack soprano Kate Kühl
Jenny ("Spelunken-Jenny"/"Low-Dive Jenny"/"Ginny Jenny"), a prostitute once romantically involved with Macheath; is bribed to turn Mack over to the police mezzo-soprano Lotte Lenya
Filch, a misfit young man who approaches the Peachums in hopes of beggar training tenor Naphtali Lehrmann
Street Singer ("Moritatensänger"), sings 'The Ballad of Mack the Knife' in the opening scene baritone Kurt Gerron
Smith, a constable baritone Ernst Busch
Walter tenor Ernst Rotmund
Matthias tenor Karl Hannemann
Jakob tenor Manfred Fürst
Jimmie tenor Werner Maschmeyer
Ede tenor Albert Venohr
Beggars, gangsters, whores, constables



Set in Victorian London, the play focuses on Macheath, an amoral, antiheroic criminal.

Macheath ("Mackie," or "Mack the Knife") marries Polly Peachum. This displeases her father, who controls the beggars of London, and he endeavours to have Macheath hanged. His attempts are hindered by the fact that the Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, is Macheath's old army comrade. Still, Peachum exerts his influence and eventually gets Macheath arrested and sentenced to hang. Macheath escapes this fate via a deus ex machina moments before the execution when, in an unrestrained parody of a happy ending, a messenger from the Queen arrives to pardon Macheath and grant him the title of Baron. The details of the original 1928 text have often been substantially modified in later productions.[20]

A draft narration by Brecht for a concert performance begins: "You are about to hear an opera for beggars. Since this opera was intended to be as splendid as only beggars can imagine, and yet cheap enough for beggars to be able to watch, it is called the Threepenny Opera."[21]


A street singer entertains the crowd with the illustrated murder ballad or Bänkelsang, titled "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ("Ballad of Mack the Knife"). As the song concludes, a well-dressed man leaves the crowd and crosses the stage. This is Macheath, alias "Mack the Knife".

Act 1

The story begins in the shop of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, the boss of London's beggars, who outfits and trains the beggars in return for a slice of their takings from begging. In the first scene, the extent of Peachum's iniquity is immediately exposed. Filch, a new beggar, is obliged to bribe his way into the profession and agree to pay over to Peachum 50 percent of whatever he made; the previous day he had been severely beaten up for begging within the area of jurisdiction of Peachum's protection racket.

After finishing with the new man, Peachum becomes aware that his grown daughter Polly did not return home the previous night. Peachum, who sees his daughter as his own private property, concludes that she has become involved with Macheath. This does not suit Peachum at all, and he becomes determined to thwart this relationship and destroy Macheath.

The scene shifts to an empty stable where Macheath himself is preparing to marry Polly once his gang has stolen and brought all the necessary food and furnishings. No vows are exchanged, but Polly is satisfied, and everyone sits down to a banquet. Since none of the gang members can provide fitting entertainment, Polly gets up and sings "Seeräuberjenny", a revenge fantasy in which she is a scullery maid turning pirate queen to order the execution of her bosses and customers. The gang becomes nervous when the Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, arrives, but it's all part of the act; Brown had served with Mack in England's colonial wars and had intervened on numerous occasions to prevent the arrest of Macheath over the years. The old friends duet in the "Kanonen-Song" ("Cannon Song" or "Army Song"). In the next scene, Polly returns home and defiantly announces that she has married Macheath by singing the "Barbarasong" ("Barbara Song"). She stands fast against her parents' anger, but she inadvertently reveals Brown's connections to Macheath which they subsequently use to their advantage.

Act 2

Polly warns Macheath that her father will try to have him arrested. He is finally convinced that Peachum has enough influence to do it and makes arrangements to leave London, explaining the details of his bandit "business" to Polly so she can manage it in his absence. Before he leaves town, he stops at his favorite brothel, where he sees his ex-lover, Jenny. They sing the "Zuhälterballade" ("Pimp's Ballad") about their days together, but Macheath doesn't know Mrs Peachum has bribed Jenny to turn him in. Despite Brown's apologies, there's nothing he can do, and Macheath is dragged away to jail. After he sings the "Ballade vom angenehmen Leben" ("Ballad of the Pleasant Life"), another girlfriend, Lucy (Brown's daughter) and Polly show up at the same time, setting the stage for a nasty argument that builds to the "Eifersuchtsduett" ("Jealousy Duet"). After Polly leaves, Lucy engineers Macheath's escape. When Mr Peachum finds out, he confronts Brown and threatens him, telling him that he will unleash all of his beggars during Queen Victoria's coronation parade, ruining the ceremony and costing Brown his job.

Act 3

Jenny comes to the Peachums' shop to demand her money for the betrayal of Macheath, which Mrs Peachum refuses to pay. Jenny reveals that Macheath is at Suky Tawdry's house. When Brown arrives, determined to arrest Peachum and the beggars, he is horrified to learn that the beggars are already in position and only Mr Peachum can stop them. To placate Peachum, Brown's only option is to arrest Macheath and have him executed. In the next scene, Macheath is back in jail and desperately trying to raise a sufficient bribe to get out again, even as the gallows are being assembled. Soon it becomes clear that neither Polly nor the gang members can, or are willing to, raise any money, and Macheath prepares to die. He laments his fate and poses the 'Marxist' questions: "What's picking a lock compared to buying shares? What's breaking into a bank compared to founding one? What's murdering a man compared to employing one?" (These questions did not appear in the original version of the work, but first appeared in the musical Happy End, another Brecht/Weill/Hauptmann collaboration, in 1929 - they may in fact have been written not by Brecht, but by Hauptmann).[22] Macheath asks everyone for forgiveness ("Grave Inscription"). Then a sudden and intentionally comical reversal: Peachum announces that in this opera mercy will prevail over justice and that a messenger on horseback will arrive ("Walk to Gallows"); Brown arrives as that messenger and announces that Macheath has been pardoned by the queen and granted a title, a castle and a pension. The cast then sings the Finale, which ends with a plea that wrongdoing not be punished too harshly as life is harsh enough.

Musical numbers

Marcia Edmundson as Low-Dive Jenny in Brad Mays' 1982 Baltimore production


1 Ouverture
2 Die Moritat von Mackie Messer ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife" – Ausrufer – Street singer)

Act 1

3 Morgenchoral des Peachum (Peachum's Morning Choral – Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
4 Anstatt dass-Song (Instead of Song – Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
5 Hochzeits-Lied (Wedding Song – Four Gangsters)
6 Seeräuberjenny (Pirate Jenny – Polly)[N 1]
7 Kanonen-Song (Cannon Song – Macheath, Brown)
8 Liebeslied (Love Song – Polly, Macheath)
9 Barbarasong (Barbara Song – Polly)[N 2]
10 I. Dreigroschenfinale (First Threepenny Finale – Polly, Peachum, Mrs Peachum)

Act 2

11 Melodram (Melodrama – Macheath)
11a Polly's Lied (Polly's Song – Polly)
12 Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit (Ballad of Sexual Dependency – Mrs Peachum)[N 3]
13 Zuhälterballade (Pimp's Ballad or Tango Ballad – Jenny, Macheath)
14 Ballade vom angenehmen Leben (Ballad of the Pleasant Life – Macheath)
15 Eifersuchtsduett (Jealousy Duet – Lucy, Polly)
15b Arie der Lucy (Aria of Lucy – Lucy)
16 II. Dreigroschenfinale (Second Threepenny Finale – Macheath, Mrs Peachum, Chorus)[N 4]

Act 3

17 Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens (Song of the Insufficiency of Human Struggling – Peachum)
17a Reminiszenz (Reminiscence)
18 Salomonsong (Solomon Song – Jenny)
19 Ruf aus der Gruft (Call from the Grave – Macheath)
20 Grabschrift (Grave Inscription – Macheath)
20a Gang zum Galgen (Walk to Gallows – Peachum)
21 III. Dreigroschenfinale (Third Threepenny Finale – Brown, Mrs Peachum, Peachum, Macheath, Polly, Chorus)
  1. In the original version, "Pirate Jenny" is sung by Polly during the wedding scene, but is sometimes moved to the second act and given to Jenny. In the 1956 Off-Broadway production starring Lotte Lenya, Polly sang a version of the "Bilbao Song" from Brecht's and Weill's Happy End in the first act wedding scene. Sometimes (i.e. in 1989 recording) it's sung by Polly in the first act and by Jenny in the second act between song 13 and 14 according to the list above.
  2. In the Marc Blitzstein adaptation, this song was moved to the second act and sung by Lucy.
  3. The 2016 adaptation by Simon Stephens at the National Theatre, London, included "Surabaya Johnny" from the Brecht/Weill play Happe End (sung by Jenny)
  4. In the 2016 National Theatre, London, adaptation, this song was moved after the Tango Ballad as the finale to act one and sung by Mrs Peachum, Macheath and Chorus.


Opera or musical theatre

The ambivalent nature of The Threepenny Opera, derived from an 18th-century ballad opera but conceived in terms of 20th-century musical theatre, has led to discussion as how it can best be characterised. According to critic and musicologist Hans Keller, the work is "the weightiest possible lowbrow opera for highbrows and the most full-blooded highbrow musical for lowbrows".[23]

The Weill authority Stephen Hinton notes that "generic ambiguity is a key to the work’s enduring success", and points out the work's deliberate hybrid status:

For Weill [The Threepenny Opera] was not just ‘the most consistent reaction to [Richard] Wagner’; it also marked a positive step towards an operatic reform. By explicitly and implicitly shunning the more earnest traditions of the opera house, Weill created a mixed form which incorporated spoken theatre and popular musical idioms. Parody of operatic convention – of Romantic lyricism and happy endings – constitutes a central device.[2]

"Mack the Knife"

The work's opening and closing lament, "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer", was written just before the Berlin premiere, when actor Harald Paulsen (Macheath) threatened to quit if his character did not receive an introduction; this creative emergency resulted in what would become the work's most popular song, later translated into English by Marc Blitzstein as "Mack the Knife" and now a jazz standard that Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé, Robbie Williams, Ray Quinn, and countless others have all covered. Another well-known song, recorded by Nina Simone, Judy Collins, and Marc Almond, is "Pirate Jenny", which was also recorded by Steeleye Span under the alternative title "The Black Freighter". The Pet Shop Boys,[24] Tom Waits, and William S. Burroughs have recorded "The Second Threepenny Finale" under the title "What Keeps Mankind Alive?". In 2015 the Library of Congress added "Mack the Knife" by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin to the National Recording Registry.



At the end of WWII the first theater performance in Berlin was a rough production of The Threepenny Opera at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. Wolf Von Eckardt described the 1945 performance where audience members climbed over ruins and passed through a tunnel to reach the open-air auditorium deprived of its ceiling. In addition to the smell of dead bodies trapped beneath the rubble, Eckardt recollects the actors themselves were "haggard, starved, [and] in genuine rags. Many of the actors … had only just been released from concentration camp. They sang not well, but free."[25]


In 1946, four performances of the work were given at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and Northwestern University gave six performances in 1948 in Evanston, Illinois.[26] In 1952, Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert performance of the work in the Adolph Ullman Amphitheatre at Waltham, Massachusetts, to an audience of nearly 5,000. Marc Blitzstein, who translated the work, narrated.[27]

At least five Broadway and Off-Broadway revivals have been mounted in New York City.

Regional productions include one at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Massachusetts, in June and July 2003. Directed by Peter Hunt, the musical starred Jesse L. Martin as Mack, Melissa Errico as Polly, David Schramm as Peachum, Karen Ziemba as Lucy Brown and Betty Buckley as Jenny. The production received favorable reviews.[31][32][33][15]

United Kingdom

In London, West End and Off-West End revivals include:

In 2014, the Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams translation toured the UK, presented by the Graeae Theatre Company with Nottingham Playhouse, New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, Birmingham Repertory Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse.[39]


The Pabst film was shown in its French version in 1931. In 1937 there was a production by Aufricht at the Théâtre de l'Étoile which failed, even though Brecht himself had attended rehearsals. The work was not revived in France until after World War II.[40]

Film adaptations

There have been at least three film versions. German director G. W. Pabst made a 1931 German- and French-language version simultaneously (a common practice in the early days of sound films). Another version was directed by Wolfgang Staudte in West Germany in 1962 starring Curd Jürgens, Gert Fröbe, and Hildegard Knef. Scenes with Sammy Davis Jr. were added for its American release.[41] In 1989 an American version (renamed Mack the Knife) was released, directed by Menahem Golan, with Raúl Juliá as Macheath, Richard Harris as Peachum, Julie Walters as Mrs Peachum, Bill Nighy as Tiger Brown, Julia Migenes as Jenny, and Roger Daltrey as the Street Singer.[42] Andy Serkis planned a collaboration with musician Nick Cave on a planned motion capture film of The Threepenny Opera in 2010, but as at 2016 this has not materialized.[43]


Recordings are in German, unless otherwise specified.

See also



  1. The word "threepenny" refers to a coin in Britain's pre-decimal currency; the work's title in its English-language translation reflects the common pronunciation of that coin ("THREP-penny"). The coin was discontinued in 1971 after the decimalization of sterling.
  2. 1 2 Hinton 2013.
  3. Cited in Brook (1996), pp. 471-2.
  4. Taruskin (2010), p. 534.
  5. Taruskin (2010), p. 535.
  6. Hinton (1990), p. 161.
  7. Ross (2008), p. 192.
  8. Hinton (2009), p. 56.
  9. Chamberlain, Jane H. "Threepenny Politics in Translation" (PDF). ATA Source (45): 20–31. Newsletter of the literary division of the American Translators Association. Summer 2009
  10. Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, p. 159
  11. Hinton 1990, p. 72.
  12. Bertolt Brecht, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht – A Study from Eight Aspects, p. 30
  13. Philip Reed, On Mahler and Britten: Essays in Honour of Donald Mitchell on His Seventieth
  14. Hinton (1990), p. 81.
  15. 1 2 3 4 The Threepenny Opera in America, "The Threepenny Opera" website, accessed 19 September 2016
  16. Hinton (1990), p. 63.
  17. Hinton (1990), pp. 64-65.
  18. Piccolo Teatro di Milano accessed 27 June 2015.
  19. "Almanacco del giorno di Gherardo Casaglia".
  20. Hinton (1990), pp. 50-77.
  21. Hinton (1990), p. 1
  22. Hinton (1990), pp. 28-29.
  23. Hinton 1990, p. 146.
  24. Pet Shop Boys: Alternative, disc 2, track 8
  25. Von Eckardt, Wolf; Gilman, Sander (1975). Bertolt Brecht's Berlin. ISBN 978-0-385-05501-7.
  26. Hinton (1990), pp. 97-99.
  27. Hinton (1990), p. 104.
  28. Hinton (1990), pp. 108-115.
  29. Threepenny on Broadway official site
  30. Feingold, Michael. "The Threepenny Opera Enters the Dead Zone: Robert Wilson whips out his embalming fluid at BAM", The Village Voice, October 12, 2011
  31. Sommer, Elyse. A CurtainUp Berkshire Review: The Three Penny Opera",, June 28, 2003
  32. Portantiere, Michael. "Berkshires Review: The Threepenny Opera",, June 30, 2003
  33. Brantley, Ben. "The Fine Art Of Slumming It", The New York Times, July 4, 2003
  34. Hinton (1990), pp. 71-72.
  35. "The Prince Of Wales Theatre, Coventry Street, London, W1 Formerly The Prince's Theatre". Retrieved 2016-09-11.; Hinton (1990), p. 74.
  36. Hinton (1990), pp. 75-76.
  37. Meech, Anthony (2011-01-01). Baines, Roger; Marinetti, Cristina; Perteghella, Manuela, eds. Staging and Performing Translation. Cultural Criminology. Palgrave Macmillan UK. pp. 126–138. ISBN 9781349310036.
  38. "The Threepenny Opera | National Theatre". Retrieved 2016-09-11.
  39. "The Threepenny Opera | Graeae Theatre Company". Retrieved 2016-09-25.
  40. Hinton (1990), p. 63.
  41. Die Dreigroschenoper (1962) at the Internet Movie Database
  42. Mack the Knife (1989) at the Internet Movie Database
  43. "Serkis, Cave plan motion-capture Opera" by Mike Goodridge, (15 February 2010)


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