Threepenny Opera Revisted


By Larry Fyffe

As previously noted, singer/songwiter Bob Dylan mixes the religious, albeit amusing, outlook of the TS Eliot-based musical ‘Cats’ with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Marxist-oriented musical ‘The Three Penny Opera’. According to Eliot, though life on Earth be dark, the light of Heaven awaits all souls who pray for God to take pity on them. According to Brecht/Weill, everyone under the capitalist system is forced to worship the Golden Calf, for better or for worse.

The Opera makes the point that the consciousness of individuals is determined by the class system imposed upon them by profit-centred economics; everything becomes a commodity. In the musical play, Polly’s father, a clever entrpreneur, makes money off of ‘pity’, while the mass of the people who are in dire straits admire hoodlums as  heroes.

As in the song below:

John Wesley Harding
Was a friend unto the poor
He travelled with a gun in every hand
All along the countryside
He opened many a door
But he was never known
To hurt an honest man
(Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding)

Polly’s father is a ruthless Bible-thumping businessman who organizes beggars, and charges them a fee for doing so. Polly falls for and marries the charming, but murderous thief, a bigamist to boot, named Macheath; she looks up to him beause he is not cowardly; even after she discovers that Miss Lucy Brown (the daughter of the ‘on-the-take’ policeman who’s in league with Macheath) is also married to him.

The two women spat, but it’s Lucy who helps Macheath escape from jail; he’s then turned-in for money by prostitute Jenny Diver, another one of Macheath’s girlfriends. With minds held in the vice of its psychology, these individuals have little hope of escaping the negative consequences of the capitalist-imposed ideology of self-interest above all else.

So Brecht/Weill, with a wink and a nudge, give their initially dark story a happy ending:

Now, Jenny Diver, yeah, Sukey Tawdry
Oooh, Miss Lotte Lenya, and ole Lucy Brown
Oh, the line forms on the right, babe
Now that Macky's back in town
(Bobby Darin: Mack The Knife)

The motif of who is really the legitimate wife of Macky is picked up in the following song:

It was known all around that Lily had Jim's ring ....
(Rosemary) was tired of the attention, tired of playing
the role of Big Jim's wife
(Bob Dylan: Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts)

In the song, the Jack Of Hearts is a charming, clever thief like Macheath, perhaps even dangerous like him too; Big Jim takes the place of Polly’s father as a symbol of materialistic greed:

Big Jim was no one's fool, he owned the town's
only diamond mine
(Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts)

Lucy Brown helps Macheath escape from jail in the hope that she might finally have him all to herself. On the other hand, Rosemary takes the blame for stabbing Big Jim in the hope that Lily and the Jack Of Hearts might get together.  After the fashion of some of Charles Dickens’ characters, Rosemary sacrifices herself for the good of others.

Jenny Diver dreams of paying in blood, but it’s not going to be hers:

Your fine philosophy, good sirs, you may proclaim
But till you feed us, right and wrong can wait!
Or is it only those who have money
Can enter in the land of milk and honey?
(Brecht/Weill: The Threepenny Opera, Act ll, sc. iii)

Bob Dylan pays his respects to the musical play, stamping the tribute with what I call the “Dylanesque rhyme twist”~ ‘money’/’honey’; ~’honey’/’money’:

It's undeniable what they'd have you think
It's indescribable, it can drive you to drink
They said it was the land of milk and honey
Now they say it's the land of money
(Bob Dylan: Unbelievable)

The medieval poet (and thief) Francois Villon cheekily proclaims to those in authority, “For if you take pity on wretches like us, the sooner will God have mercy on you”; Polly, referencing Macheath:

And as he was not rich
And he was not nice
And even his Sunday collar was black as a crow
And he didn't know how he should treat a real lady
I couldn't tell him "no"
(Brecht/Weill: The Threepenny Opera, Act I, sc. iii)

Thus speaks Zimmerman, the neoRomantic Modernist singer/songwriter:

Right now, I don't read too good, don't send me
No letters - no
Not unless you mail them from
Desolation Row
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

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