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
It has been impossible to escape news about sharks, their teeth, and other matters marine in the past few weeks. 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”. It was immensely popular, becoming George Washington’s favourite play, while England banned the performance of its 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.
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. 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 and had threatened to quit if he was not given his own song, in spite of already having a particularly outstanding wardrobe.
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”.
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.
“The Threepenny Opera”, produced in German, having been reworked from “The Beggar’s Opera”, written in English, 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, and 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.
The song, Mack the Knife, sung by Louis Armstrong in 1955 and followed by Bobby Darin’s 1958 #1 chartbuster that won a Grammy as best song two years running, has been presented as jazz, rock and as a ballad. Mack the Knife is a standard for many great singers and a favourite in nightclubs and swing / jazz performances, but as a song, “Mack the Knife” has two distinctly different versions.
In 1976, a commission to Ralph Manheim and John Willett to create 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.
In the 1970’s, when the ballad singer introduced the character, staying true to the original design of 1928, his words could well have been paraphrased as “Oh, look who’s coming onstage, it’s Mack the Knife – a thief, murderer, arsonist, and rapist.” In Blitzen’s version of the Ballad of Mack the Knife he neglects to even mention the crime of the “Ghastly fire in Soho”.
From Willett’s translation, the last two stanzas of “Mack the Knife” not included in the 1950 version by Blitzstein would challenge any “gangster rap” of the current day.
And the ghastly fire in Soho,
Seven children at a go-
In the crowd stands Mack the knife, but
He’s not asked and doesn’t know.
And the child bride in her nightie,
Whose assailant’s still at large
Violated in her slumbers-
Mackie how much did you charge?
To quote Sting, “If people are come to see “The Threepenny Opera”, expecting to hear Bobby Darin or Louis Armstrong, they will get a nasty shock!” It’s not an idle thought. Thanks to Willett, Mackie is back!
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