Die Dreigroschenoper

Die Dreigroschenoper; The Threepenny Opera (written and performed 1928, published 1928, revised version 1931)

Co-author: Elisabeth Hauptmann

Music: Kurt Weill

The Dreigroschenoper premièred at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin on 31 August 1928 with Harald Paulsen as Macheath, Roma Bahn as Polly and Lotte Lenya as Jenny.

The first published edition of the work, which appeared in 1928, states that the text is a translation by Elisabeth Hauptmann of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), adapted by Bert Brecht. Unlike Gay’s work, the setting of the Dreigroschenoper is not 18th century London, however, but London at the time of the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838.

As Stephen McNeff points out (see below, McNeff, p. 78), the Dreigroschenoper is not an opera: the music is disunited and interspersed with theatrical scenes. It is closer to being a musical, although because it is so deliberately unlike most American musicals, it would be more accurate to call it an anti-musical. Kurt Weill deliberately wrote the music so that it could be sung by actors, and not by trained opera singers (see below, Weill, p. 578).

The Dreigroschenoper exuberantly exposes the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality and the justice system. The career criminal, Macheath, is outmanoeuvred by the more devious, so-called ‘respectable’ characters: the police chief Tiger Brown and the charitable businessman, Jonathan Peachum.

In 1931, Brecht published a new edition of the Dreigroschenoper which contained a number of very significant changes. Most printed editions in circulation are based on the revised 1931 text, and not on the original 1928 text. For a detailed analysis of the changes made by Brecht between the editions of 1928 and 1931, see reading list below, Steve Giles (1989). According to Giles (p. 257), in the revised version of 1931 the characters have become more ideologically self-aware, and there is a greater emphasis on the conflicting behaviour of the characters. In the 1931 version, Macheath also announces in Scene 4 that he plans to become a banker, because it is safer and more profitable. This anticipates his development in the Dreigroschenroman; Threepenny Novel of 1934.

The Prologue features the famous ‘Moritat von Mackie Messer’; ‘The Ballad of Mac the Knife’.

Act One

In Scene 1 we are introduced to Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who sells costumes and begging licences to beggars; anyone who tries to beg in London without a licence from Peachum gets beaten up. Peachum informs Frau Peachum that their daughter Polly’s new boyfriend is Mackie Messer (Mac the Knife). The couple sing ‘Der Anstatt-Dass-Song’; ‘The Instead-Of Song’.

In Scene 2 Macheath (Mac) and Polly get married in a stable. The stable is furnished with goods which have been stolen by Mac’s men. Polly sings ‘Seeräuber-Jenny’; ‘Pirate Jenny’. Tiger Brown, the police chief arrives; he and Mac sing ‘Der Kanonen-Song’; ‘Cannon Song’. Tiger Brown tells Mac that Scotland Yard does not have any evidence against him.

In Scene 3 Polly faces her parents, the Peachums, who disapprove of her marriage to Macheath. Peachum says he will denounce Mac to the police and claim a reward; Frau Peachum says she will go to Turnbridge and persuade the prostitutes there to inform the police if Mac visits them. Polly and her parents sing ‘Über die Unsicherheit menschlicher Verhältnisse’; ‘On the Uncertainty of Human Conditions’.

Act Two

In Scene 4 Polly warns Mac that Scotland Yard is about to arrest him. Mac decides to leave town. He leaves Polly in charge of his gang, and bids her farewell. This scene is followed by an interlude in which Frau Peachum bribes Jenny to inform on Mac. The pair sing ‘Die Ballade der sexuellen Hörigkeit’; ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’.

In Scene 5 Mac visits the prostitutes in Turnbridge. Jenny sneaks out to alert the police. Then she and Mac sing the ‘Die Zuhälterballade’; ‘The Pimp’s Ballad’. Mac is arrested by the police.

In Scene 6 Mac enters prison, sees Tiger Brown, and stares at him accusingly. Mac is visited by his two wives, Lucy (the daughter of Tiger Brown) and Polly, who sing ‘Das Eifersuchtsduett’; ‘The Jealousy Duet’. Lucy claims she is pregnant by Mac. Mac escapes from prison. Peachum arrives and tells Tiger Brown that he had better catch Mac. Mac and Jenny sing ‘Denn wovon lebt der Mensch?’; ‘What keeps a man alive?’. This song contains the famous line ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral’; ‘First comes feeding, then morality’.

Act Three

In Scene 7 Peachum prepares an army of beggars to disrupt the coronation procession. Jenny and the whores arrive and demand their money for betraying Mac. Frau Peachum refuses, since Mac has escaped. Jenny replies that Mac is now with Suky Tawdy. Tiger Brown and his men arrive and threaten to arrest the beggars. Peachum sings ‘Das Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens’; ‘The Song about the Inadequacy of Human Endeavour’. Peachum tells Tiger Brown there will be a riot if he does not arrest Mac. Brown gives in and heads to Oxford Street to arrest Mac. Jenny sings the ‘Salomon-Song’.

In Scene 8 Polly visits Lucy in the Old Bailey and butters her up. She asks Lucy where Mac is; Lucy doesn’t know and admits that she is not pregnant. She looks out of the window and sees that Mac has been recaptured. Frau Peachum arrives with a widow’s dress for Polly.

In Scene 9 Macheath is in his cell, about to be hanged. He asks his men Matthias and Jakob to bring all their money so that he can bribe the guard, Smith, to let him escape. Matthias and Jakob return too late. A huge crowd has gathered to witness the execution. Mac sings a farewell ballad, but he is saved by the royal messenger who announces that Mac is acquitted and made a member of the nobility.

Brecht wrote thirteen tips (‘Winke’) for actors appearing in the Dreigroschenoper; amongst other things, he advises them to read the ballads of the great French poet François Villon (1431-circa 1463), which helped to inspire some of the songs.

The best sound recording of the Dreigroschenoper was made in 1958 by the Sender Freies Berlin Orchestra, conductor and director Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg, with Erich Schellow as Macheath, Johanna von Kóczián as Polly and Lotte Lenya as Jenny. It is available as a CD and download: 01-042637-10.

In 1934, whilst in exile from Hitler and the Nazis, Brecht published the Dreigroschenroman; Threepenny Novel, a fictional reworking of the opera in which Macheath becomes a successful businessman and the director of a bank.

Film Version and Court Case (Dreigroschenprozeß)

Brecht and Weill sold the film rights to the show to Nero Film AG, signing a contract on 21 May 1930. The contract included a ‘Mitbestimmungsrecht’; ‘right of co-determination’, in the production of the film. On 18 August 1930 the film company tried to persuade Brecht to withdraw from the film in return for payment. Brecht refused, and Nero Film AG claimed he was in breach of contract. 23 August 1930 the company’s lawyer informed Brecht that the film would be made without his participation. Brecht sued Nero in the civil courts and the case was heard from 17 to 21 October 1930. Brecht lost the case and he was ordered to pay costs. The film, directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, premiered on 19 February 1931, with Rudolf Forster as Macheath, Carola Neher as Polly and Lotte Lenya as Jenny.

Brecht wrote an account of the case, ‘Der Dreigroschenprozeß’, which contains reflections on modern media (see Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe (BFA), vol. 21, pp. 448-514). For a full study of the court case and Brecht’s essay on it, see reading list below, Steve Giles (1998).

The second film version of the Dreigroschenoper appeared in 1962, directed by Wolfgang Staudte. An English language adaptation, Mack the Knife, directed by Menahem Golan, appeared in 1990. The work was also made into a TV film in 2004.

Further Reading

Joy H. Calico, Brecht at the Opera (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2008)

Peter W. Ferran, ‘The Threepenny Songs: Cabaret and the Lyrical Gestus’, Theater, vol. 30, issue 3 (2000), 5–21

Steve Giles, ‘Rewriting Brecht: Die Dreigroschenoper 1928-1931’, Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch 30 (1989), 249-79

Steve Giles, ‘From Althusser to Brecht: Formalism, Materialism and The Threepenny Opera’, in New Ways in Germanistik, ed. by Richard Sheppard (Oxford: Berg, 1990), pp. 261-77

Stephen Hinton (ed.), Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera, Cambridge Opera Handbooks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Peter Hutchinson, ‘Brecht, Die Dreigroschenoper’, in Landmarks in German Drama, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2002)

Alan Lareau, ‘The Genesis of “Jenny”: Prostitute Songs, the Mythology of Pimps, and the Threepenny Opera’, in Commodities of Desire: The Prostitute in Modern German Literature, ed. by Christiane Schönfeld (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 2000), pp. 167-90

Stephen McNeff, ‘The Threepenny Opera’, in The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, ed. by Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 78-89

Ronald Taylor, ‘Opera in Berlin in the 1920s: Wozzeck and The Threepenny Opera’, in Culture and society in the Weimar Republic, ed. by Keith Bullivant (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), pp. 183-99

Kurt Weill, ‘Correspondence about The Threepenny Opera’ [first published 11 January 1929], in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimendberg (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 576-78

Further Reading on the Film Version and Court Case (Dreigroschenprozeß)

Steve Giles, Bertolt Brecht and Critical Theory: Marxism, Modernity and the Threepenny Lawsuit, 2nd revised edn (Bern: Peter Lang, 1998)

Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism (Winchester and Washington, DC: O Books, 2008), Chapter 4: 'Alienation Affects', pp. 97-118

Further Reading in German

Bertolt Brecht, ‘Der Dreigroschenprozeß. Ein soziologisches Experiment’, in Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe (BFA), vol. 21: Schriften 1. 1914-1933, pp. 448-514

Web Links in English


The Threepenny Opera - playing at the National Theatre in London until October 2016


The Threepenny Opera website

Web Links in German


Brecht sings his song ‘Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens’ (‘Song about the inadequacy of human effort’) from the Threepenny Opera; music by Kurt Weill [in German]


Lotte Lenya sings the ‘Moritat von Mackie Messer’; ‘The Ballad of Mac the Knife’ [in German]


Lotte Lenya sings ‘Die Seeräuber-Jenny’; ‘Pirate Jenny’ in the original film version (1931) [in German]


Brecht sings two songs from the Dreigroschenoper: ‘Die Moritat von Mackie Messer’ (‘The Ballad of Mac the Knife’) and ‘Ballade von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens’ (‘Song about the inadequacy of human effort’) [in German]