'Threepenny Opera': Where's the Brecht?

Seattle Shakespeare Co. revives a too-sugary version of Brecht's acid adaptation of John Gay's musical satire. We get the smiles, but not the snarls.

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John Bogar as Macheath in "The Threepenny Opera," and Allison Standley as Polly Peachum.

Seattle Shakespeare Co. revives a too-sugary version of Brecht's acid adaptation of John Gay's musical satire. We get the smiles, but not the snarls.

Shakespeare had been dead for over a century when John Gay wrote "The Beggar's Opera" in the tradition of musical satires that skewered public corruption and hypocrisy to the melodies of Italian opera. Its plot may have been shop-worn even then, but the characters (Macheath, Polly Peachum, Tiger Brown) were fresh and immediately popular. Berthold Brecht picked up the notion at the end of Germany's dark decade after World War I, teaming up with composer Kurt Weill for an updated "Threepenny Opera," which the Seattle Shakespeare Company is presenting this season for the first time in 30 years.

The scene may be Elizabethan London but the real subject of Brecht's satire is the Weimar Republic. In the exceedingly bland version that Mark Blitzstein adapted for Off-Broadway in the early 1950s, it's familiar territory: a mashup of "Oliver's" lovable orphans and kindly Fagin, and "Cabaret's" cheerful Sally Bowles and suave emcee. Much was lost. The gritty underworld described by Dickens wasn't a chirpy "It's a Hard-Knock Life"; Christopher Isherwood's menacing "Berlin Diaries" and "I Am A Camera" weren't about the harmless distractions of nightlife in Berlin.

This revival-of-a-revival marks the first time Seattle Shakespeare has mounted a production at Intiman, an encouraging new collaboration. The staging is rather austere, with more attention to faux-shabby costumes and lighting than expensive scenery. The cast — a dozen stalwarts of local theater, directed by Stephanie Shine — share a variety of roles (thieves, beggars, whores, police). John Bogar plays Macheath as an amiable cad, no more menacing than Rhett Butler's not giving a damn and with no hint of his murderous doings. Russell Hodgkinson (the hapless George Aaronow in last season's "Glengarry Glen Ross") plays Peachum as a beleaguered small businessman; he's much better in drag as one of the girls in the brothel.

The worst offense of the Blitzstein adaptation is that it smooths the edges of Brecht's angry lyrics. One example: the heart of the text is in the third act's "Song of the Insufficiency of Human Struggling": Denn für dieses Leben / Ist der Mensch nicht schlecht genug / Drum ist all' sein Streben / Nur ein Selbstbetrug. Literally, this translates as  "For this life, man isn't nearly bad enough / All his striving is but self-deception." Blitzstein replaces this cynical view for a hokey dance number: "Useless, useless / Our kind of life's too tough / Useless, useless / Trying ain't enough."

Brecht's play, 80 years ago, derived its power from a language with startlingly original juxtapositions of words: "Soldaten wohnen / Auf den Kanonen" (literally, "Soldiers live on the cannons"). This turns into Blitzstein's light-hearted "Let's all go barmy / Live off the army." Better would be the version attributed to the musician Stan Ridgway: "The troops live under / the cannon's thunder."

You can fault Brecht for a nihilist sensibility and a didactic, Marxist approach to drama, but that was what his times called for. And you can recognize that Blitzstein's adaptation, too, was a product of its Eisenhower era.

But today? If you're going to resurrect a period piece (especially one that took its form from an earlier period piece), I question why you would want to sugar-coat it. We've sat through "Oliver!" and "Cabaret" and come out humming its cheerful tunes. The real meat of "Threepenny Opera" lies in its dark worldview — gloomy, pessimistic, cynical, bitter.

Although they were selling "Art Isn't Nice" tee shirts in the lobby and Shark Bite cocktails at the bar, mordant satire was not to be found on stage. Despite its pearly white smile, this "Threepenny Opera" is too toothless.

If you go: Seattle Shakespeare Company presents "The Threepenny Opera" at Intiman Theater, 201 Mercer St., Seattle, through March 6. Performance times: Thursday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m. with selected Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2. Tickets are $15-$40 for adults and $15-$25 for seniors and students. For reservations, call the Seattle Shakespeare Company box office at 206-733-8222 or go online, www.seattleshakespeare.org.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).