For many, ‘Mack the Knife’ is a song that been covered to death. The truth, however, is far darker. And yes, it involves death.
Forget Bobby Darin. This Mack the Knife is far darker.
London’s seedy underbelly is the setting for The Threepenny Opera, created by German composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and poet/dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). Premièring in Berlin in 1928, it’s based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), itself a political satire of its time, and is really more musical theatre than opera. Weill incorporated jazz and cabaret melodies into his innovative score and he and Brecht imbued their work with a kind of gritty Marxist anti-romanticism.
The best-known piece – our so-called aria for today – is Mack the Knife and is performed by a “street singer” before the action starts. It’s meant to give us an insight into the charming yet menacing figure of the anti-hero, Macheath. The song has been covered by Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Nick Cave and many others, but for me, the definitive version belongs to singer/actress Lotte Lenya (1898-1981). She was also Weill’s wife and played Jenny in the original production.
The song is a “moritat”, a murder ballad, so there’s a certain irony in its upbeat melody and usually cheerful renditions. It might be performed somewhat jauntily but that belies its sinister content – a long list of crimes committed by Mack the Knife, including rape, robbery and cold-blooded murder. It’s really very dark. Many interpret the song and indeed the whole opera as a comment on what was going on in Germany in the late 1920s. It’s not surprising to learn that in 1933, Weill and Lenya fled Germany, Brecht following soon after. It didn’t take long for the Nazis to ban all their theatrical works.
The plot of The Threepenny Opera goes like this: Jonathan Peachum runs a shady business. He’s like a pimp for beggars – he protects London’s beggars and in return gets half their takings. At the start of Act I, Peachum learns that his daughter Polly has run off to marry Macheath – Mack the Knife – who heads up a gang of criminals and thugs. Their wedding takes place in stable chock-full of pilfered goods. When London’s chief of police, Brown, turns up, there are a few freaked out petty crims, but it turns out he’s an old army buddy of Macheath’s, so no worries lads, she’ll be right.
Polly’s parents are not happy about the marriage, and Peachum decides to get Macheath arrested because he sees him as business rival. Amazingly he has the influence to do this, so Polly implores Macheath to lie low somewhere while she runs the business. Macheath bunks down in a brothel little knowing that Mrs Peachum has bribed Jenny, Mack’s ex-lover, to dob him in to the police. In spite of their friendship, Brown arrests Mack and tosses him into jail. Brown’s daughter Lucy throws a bit of a tanty because it seems Mack had promised to marry her; she and Polly have a blue after which Polly goes home while Lucy helps Mack escape from jail.
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- Tenor translator: La Traviata
- Tenor translator: Verdi’s Rigoletto
Wouldn’t you know it’s Queen Victoria’s coronation day and Brown’s in charge of security, so when Peachum discovers Macheath’s no longer behind bars, he threatens Brown with the prospect of ruining the coronation parade by sending all his beggars out to spoil the festivities. “Blast!” thinks Brown, “the pressure’s on.”
Meantime, Jenny demands her betrayal payment from the Peachums and tells them Mack is at the house of another prostitute, Suky Tawdry, and that’s indeed where he’s picked up by Brown, and sentenced to be hanged. Hoo boy, this is serious! Mack tries to bribe his way out of prison, but time’s run out. He farewells Polly and his trusty band of thieves and vagabonds and prepares for the gallows.
But that old QV, she’s a brick! At the last minute, Macheath gets himself a royal pardon and is given a pension. What?
It’s an interesting device. Everyone rejoices at Macheath’s pardon – which is odd considering his felonious nature. Peachum ends the opera by telling the audience that unrealistic things happen in both fiction and in real life, and that we must learn to deal with it. The curtain comes down.
Forget the Bobby Darin version for now. You can read the real words here.