Mack the Knife
“Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife has old Macheath, babe,
And he keeps it out of sight”
These words and their familiar melody bring memories of a very suave Bobby Darrin to mind, clicking his fingers and moving smoothly across the stage.
When I saw the song shared on a Facebook page, it triggered me to want to write a story about sharks, because at the time (and since, as it was then March 2014 in Perth), sharks were headline news. It made sense to have a “quick” look into the history of the song, because I knew nothing about “The Beggar’s Opera”.
What a roller coaster of a ride!! I hope you enjoy the story.
The Beggar’s Opera
In March 2014, it was impossible to escape news about sharks, their teeth, and other matters marine. Often since then and especially in Western Australia.
It is highly unlikely when John Gay (1685 – 1732) created the character of Macheath for “The Beggar’s Opera” that great white sharks were on his mind. When it first appeared, in 1728, it was in a performance designed to lampoon and make cartoon characters of notorious criminals of the day, as well as a notable Whig political leader, and politicians in general.
He was bitterly disappointed at his failure to find a place of patronage at the Court of either George I or George II in London. After fourteen years in the Court and finally awarded a lowly position, he wrote “The Beggar’s Opera”. The clarity of the message made him an enemy of the English crown. Written to clearly remind those in high places that corruption spreads and cannot be contained once it starts, it deals with social inequity by comparing low-class thieves and whores with those you might consider their “betters”.
Surprisingly, the iconic song we associate the most with this historic opera, “Mack the Knife” was written almost two hundred years later, when it became “The Threepenny Opera”.
Politics at play.
George Washington’s favourite play was “The Beggar’s Opera” because of its scathing review of the British Monarchy.
England banned the performance of “The Threepenny Opera” sequel “Polly” (1929) for fifty years.
Cast as the captain of a group of highwaymen, but also an employee of his nemesis Peachum, Macheath is a criminal. Running his own gang of thieves, prostitutes and highwaymen, Peachum was not above turning them into the “law” if the reward offered was greater value than their earnings.
The marriage of his own daughter Polly, to Macheath, a known philanderer, is enough for him to turn Mackie in, not the least reason being that, now married, Polly is not available for bait.
Brecht’s mistress translates the opera into English, almost two hundred years later.
Almost two hundred years later, Ernst-Joseph Aufricht booked the renowned German director Erich Engel to bring Bertolt Breckt’s play “Man Equals Man” to the Theatre am Schiffbaurerdamm, in Berlin. His father had gifted him 100,000 marks and he used the money to rent the theatre. Engel had already produced other Brecht’s work and was a foremost interpreter of his writing, in Germany. Heinrich Fischer was acting as a deputy to Engel; “Man Equals Man” was not proceeding well and Aufricht had a theatre, but no play.
At the time, one of Brecht’s mistresses (Elizabeth Hauptmann) was in the process of translating “The Beggar’s Opera” from English into German. Fischer knew that six years previously a revival had been very successful in London. He decided to let Breckt work on getting the production ready for the Berlin season. A great comedy of errors, incidents, and accidents followed while the work was being finalised. As “The Threepenny Opera”, a German musical drama, it opened on 31 August 1928 in Berlin, with a Socialist view of a capitalist world.
Not all the drama was in the opera.
With lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill, they wrote the song, the “Ballad of Mack the Knife”, on the day of the premiere to satisfy the demands of Harald Paulsen. Playing the role of Mackie Messer, (German for Mack the Knife), he felt his character needed a more forceful introduction into the drama. He threatened to quit if he was not given his own song, despite already having a particularly outstanding wardrobe.
The song was not sung by him, although he saw himself as the star. It was sung by the narrator and that’s still the mode today.
Mackie inspires a new style of musical theatre.
With a variety of narrators and set at a fair in Soho around the time of Queen Victoria’s Coronation, the opening song tells the story of a notorious bandit and womanizer, Mackie Messer. “The Threepenny Opera” was immediately a huge hit.
Deeply influenced by the jazz of the day, it inspired a new style of musical theatre, now seen in “Cabaret” and “Chicago”. Who can forget the voice of Lisa Minnelli in Cabaret?
Brecht’s German presentation changed the setting of the story quite dramatically. In 1928, Macheath became, not a highway man but a thief and gangster, one who reflected Brecht’s deep childhood preoccupation with gangsters, cabaret, jazz and sporting types. Still developing his Communist beliefs, he was very interested in Socialist politics and current events.
In Germany, almost a complete generation grew up from 1928 to 1933, with girls wanting a “Mackie” to love them and boys wanting to be like him.
At the same time, in the US, theatregoers were watching Elmer Gantry, Dorian Gray, and the drama Porgy, that years later became the musical Porgy and Bess.
Translations and stage censorship lost its original social meaning.
Originally produced in German, “The Threepenny Opera” was a rework of “The Beggar’s Opera”, following Hauptmann’s translation from English. The German version has been translated into English several times.
A 1933 English-language production was not a success in the US and in 1954, Marc Blitzstein adapted Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera”. An American composer, lyricist, and librettist, Blitzstein firmly believed true art belonged to the intellectual elite. A self-proclaimed and unrepentant artistic snob, he was a musical genius at an early age. He was strident in denouncing Kurt Weill, and others, as composers who “sold out their art” for popularity.
Given the height of discord between the classes and the conflict between the “haves” and the “have nots” in the play, the discord between Blitzstein and Weill must surely have heightened the tension of the production, but it was wildly successful and played Off-Broadway for six years. Blitzstein’s version was, for twenty years, accepted as the standard. Although witty and clever, it did not deliver the harsh social interpretation of Bertolt Brecht, and stage censorship meant softening his lyrics.
We think we know The Mack the Knife. It’s a shock to find that we may not.
The song, Mack the Knife, sung by Louis Armstrong in 1955 became a huge hit. In 1958, Bobby Darin’s #1 chartbuster won a Grammy as best song two years running. Presented as jazz, rock and as a ballad, the song lends itself to easy impromptu variations. Sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and many others, we know it well, or so we think!
For many great singers, it is a favourite in nightclubs and swing / jazz performances. However, as a song, “Mack the Knife” has two distinctly different versions. The cabaret version we know is tough, but not nearly as blood chilling as the original.
In 1976, Ralph Manheim and John Willett received a commission for a new English translation more faithful to Brecht’s original German adaptation. Avant-garde playwrights and theatre directors in the 70’s were looking for anti-heroes, as had Brecht in his day.
The new translation had to be faithful to Brecht, abrasive and unsparing.
“If people are coming to see “The Threepenny Opera”, expecting to hear Bobby Darin or Louis Armstrong, they will get a nasty shock!” said Sting, of his own Broadway show. Thanks to Willett, Mackie really was back.
I recommend Nick Cave’s version on YouTube, because it captures the original darkness of the story and the music. When you read the full words of the song, it’s certainly a long way from the stories I write for children.
Lyrics – Mack the Knife
See the shark with teeth like razors
And he wears them in his face
And Macheath has got a knife
But not in such an obvious place
Now see the shark, how red his fins are
As he slashes at his prey
Mack the Knife wears fancy gloves
Which give a minimum away
By the Thames’ turbid waters
Men abruptly tumble down
Well is it plague, or is it cholera
Or because Macky’s in town?
On a shining sky-blue Sunday
See a corpse stretched in the strand
See a man dodge ’round the corner
Macky’s friends will understand
And Schmul Maier posted missing
Like so many wealthy men
Mack the Knife acquired his cash box
God knows how and God knows when
Jenny Towler turned up lately
With a knife stuck through her breast
While Macheath walks the embankment,
Where is Alfonse Gleet the cabman?
Who can get that story clear?
Someone may lay information
But Macheath has no idea
And the child bride, in her nighty
Whose assailant’s still at large
Violated in her slumbers
Macky how much did you charge?
In the ghastly fire in Soho
Seven children had a go
In the crowd stands Mack The Knife
But he isn’t asked and he don’t know
In the crowd stands Mack The Knife
But he ain’t asked and he don’t know
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 Part of this story was originally published in Swan Magazine under the heading “The Idler” in March 2014. That story, as it was published, is included here from an older version of this website
 These lyrics are copied from a comment on the YouTube hosting of Nick Cave’s recording of the song.