Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny; Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (written 1928-29, performed 1930)

Co-authors: Elisabeth Hauptmann, Caspar Neher

Music: Kurt Weill

The opera was premiered in Leipzig, 9 March 1930.

Brecht and his co-authors produced three versions of the text, in 1927, 1929 and 1931. Published editions are based on the 1931 version. For textual variants, see the English translation by Steve Giles (below).

Mahagonny is a ‘net-city’ founded by human sharks in order to extract money from suckers and fools. The main character is Paul Ackermann, a woodcutter, who goes to Mahagonny. When he runs out of money, he is doomed, because in Mahagonny, the worst crime is poverty.

The opera includes the famous song ‘Moon of Alabama’, which has been sung by many great performers including Lotte Lenya, Nina Simone, Jim Morrison, Nina Hagen and David Bowie.

Brecht’s most concise definition of what he means by epic theatre can be found in his notes to Mahagonny.

In Scene 1, Leokadia Begbick, Willy the Chief Clerk and Trinity Moses are on the run from the police. They decide to build a new city: Mahagonny. It will be a ‘Netzestadt’, literally a ‘net-city’: a trap designed to catch human beings.

In Scene 2, Jenny and six girls appear. They sing ‘Moon of Alabama’.

In Scene 3, Willy and Trinity Moses mount a publicity campaign in the big cities, to persuade people to go to Mahagonny.

In Scene 4, four lumberjacks are on their way to Mahagonny: Paul Ackermann, Jakob Schmidt, Heinrich Merg and Joseph Lettner.

In Scene 5, the men arrive in Mahagonny and are greeted by Begbick, Jenny and the six girls. Jenny sings ‘Ach, bedenken Sie, Herr Jakob Schmidt’; ‘Do please bear in mind, Mr Jakob Schmidt’.

In Scene 6, Jenny asks Paul about his preferences.

In Scene 7, Begbick, Willy and Trinity Moses are desperate for cash.

In Scene 8, Paul tries to leave Mahagonny, but his friends drag him back.

In Scene 9, the hotel is full of regulations. Paul complains that Mahagonny is too peaceful.

In Scene 10, a hurricane approaches Mahagonny.

In Scene 11, Paul tells Begbick that her regulations and prohibitions were wrong – everything must be allowed.

In Scene 12, the hurricane passes by Mahgonny. The people of Mahagonny adopt a new slogan: ‘Du darfst’; ‘You’re allowed to’.

In Scene 13, Jakob Schmidt eats himself to death.

In Scene 14, Paul and Jenny sit on chairs and discuss the cranes flying in the sky.

In Scene 15, Joseph Lettner (‘Alaska Wolf Joe’) and Trinity Moses fight in a boxing match. Paul bets all of his money on Joe, who is killed.

In Scene 16, Paul buys drinks for the men in the bar. He turns a billiard table into a ‘ship’ and pretends that they are sailing back to Alaska. When it is time to pay up, he admits that he has no money. Harry and Jenny refuse to help him. Jenny sings ‘Denn wie man sich bettet..’ (As you make your bed..), in which she proclaims (twice) that ‘Ein Mensch ist kein Tier’; ‘A human being is not a beast’. This is ironic, because the song is a justification of beastly behaviour. Paul is taken into custody.

In Scene 17, Paul sits in prison and awaits judgment.

In Scene 18, a murderer called Tobby Higgins bribes the judge and is acquitted. Paul is tried and condemned to death. The death sentence is justified as follows: ‘Wegen Mangel an Geld / Was das größte Verbrechen ist / Das auf dem Erdenrund vorkommt.’ (‘For having no money / Which is the most heinous crime / That we can encounter in our world.’ – translation by Steve Giles, see below, pp. 52-53).

In Scene 19, Paul is made to sit in the electric chair. Jenny and four men perform the play of ‘God in Mahagonny’. Paul makes a final speech, and is executed.

In Scene 20, Mahagonny descends into political anarchy and economic ruin. Crowds of demonstrators confront each other with placards. The so-called ‘golden age’ is coming to an end.

English Translation

Bertolt Brecht, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, trans. by Steve Giles (London: Methuen, 2007)

Further Reading

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

Rowland Cotterill, ‘In defence of Mahagonny’, in Culture and Society in the Weimar Republic, ed. by Keith Bullivant (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), pp. 190-200

Steve Giles, ‘Materialism and Modernity in Mahagonny: Brecht’s Double Dystopia’, Brecht Yearbook/Das Brecht-Jahrbuch 29 (2004), 306-23

Steve Giles, ‘Recycling Brecht: The Contemporary Reception of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny’, Brecht Yearbook/Das Brecht-Jahrbuch 42 (2018), 35-48

Lydia Goehr, ‘Hardboiled Disillusionment: Mahagonny as the Last Culinary Opera’, Cultural Critique 68 (2008), 3-37

Rebecca Hilliker, ‘Brecht’s Gestic Vision for Opera: Why the Shock of Recognition Is More Powerful in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny than in The Three Penny Opera’, in Karelisa Hartigan (ed.), Text and Presentation (Lanham, MD: University Presses of America, 1988), pp. 77-92

Pamela Katz, The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink (New York: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2015)

Karla L. Schultz, ‘Utopias From Hell: Brecht’s Mahagonny and Adorno’s Treasure of Indian Joe’, Monatshefte 90:3 (1998), 306-16

Marc Silberman and Florian Vassen (eds.),, Brecht Yearbook/Das Brecht-Jahrbuch 29 (2004) (Madison, WI: International Brecht Society / University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)

Web Link

Production of Mahagonny at the Royal Opera House in London from 10 March - 4 April 2015