Wednesday, April 27, 2011

13 Used from $8.95 !!!

It is a shame that this play is not further realized for its political implications. Outside of study groups, I am curious as to whether people simply take the actions, songs, and messages at face value; or if they are more hungry for meaning. While it seems that the point would be hard to miss, I was myself surprised that it took much prodding—even for me—to really get to the meat and meaning of this play.

It is true, as previously discussed, that the blatant use of deus ex machina does much to drive home the point that: No, this is not reality. Yet, in the build up to Mac’s execution I can’t help but feel like Brecht and Co. have played with the audience a bit; goading them into caring about Mac’s fate. (What will happen if he’s really hanged?! Who will ultimately ‘win’? What about poor Polly? So on and so forth…) With that in mind, the second to last scene of this play almost leans towards the Aristotelian tradition; even despite its use of alienation through song.

It is for this reason that I believe audiences, original and present, tend to gloss over the rather heavy-handed social messages of the piece. Granted, the end will leave us all wondering why the particular choices were made; but what of the people who are involved? They seek forgiveness, and they just want to survive and thrive. What’s to stop them from doing so? What’s to stop us? When everyone is looking for enjoyment in their lives, what is to stand in the way of getting it no matter the consequence. Should audiences be made to feel guilty for attending the theatre? Is an enjoyable spectacle a privilege we should feel guilty for partaking in? These are all questions that arise for me when considering the success of this play.

On, the 1997 cast recording is ranked number 13 of all “Broadway & Vocalists” as well as number 23 for all “Movie Soundtracks.” This is a fact that would either make Brecht turn in his grave or laugh. However; I’m fairly certain that the former is the case. I cannot understand how this direct commentary has been turned into an entertainment. Though I do believe that civilized society has taken a shift. Rather than identifying the abhorrent traits within the criminal bourgeoisie depicted in this play, ticket holders now distance themselves, and identify with the comedy and empathy that they are used to as theatre going audiences. (Imagine the tourists hitting the Broadway strip, who only a day earlier took in “The Lion King” with the kids, only to slip out the next night for an adult show such as “Threepenny.”) These audience members will leave the theatre, through the gift-shop, and buy the soundtrack; perhaps even a t-shirt. This was not the aim.

All we can hope for is that those who have effectively ‘bought into’ “Threepenny” have a chance to reflect in what it means down the line. Who’s to say if it will ever change them, or really affect them. But, just as Brecht called this work one of his greatest failures; we cannot overlook the fact that it helped him pay the rent. Was this an instance of selling out? Was Brecht Mr. Peachum, or did the war and his exile serve as the messenger on a horse which allowed him to write his greatest plays?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Man on a Horse [Spoiler Alert]

At the conclusion of “The Threepenny Opera” Mac is saved. Tiger Brown rides up on a horse and announces that all is well, and with the Queen’s blessings nonetheless. Mac will not be hanged, and we are left to wonder just what his future dealings will entail. After such a grand public gesture, we can only imagine that Mac’s power will be greater than before. In a sense, this day has become his coronation; and all thanks to Brecht’s deus ex machina.
In early Greek drama this very device entailed the intervention of a deity, in order to resolve or cast judgment on a situation. While in the plays of Euripides and Aeschylus (for example) this device was a device and nothing more. At the time of their presentation, people still championed and feared the power of their deities. It was the people’s explanation for natural events—all which they didn’t understand. Though, in the case of “Threepenny” there is very little mention of ‘God’. The characters in this play are secular, and it is through the Mac’s stay of execution, and Brecht’s literally labeled deus ex machina that we are given a chance to further examine the true intention of this Opera: to properly characterize bourgeois and the prevalence of injustice which exists among ‘civilized people’.
This argument may seem lose, but let’s consider the elements of the last act. In the beginning, Mac is free and the peasant revolution is all but ready to happen. This is followed by Peachum’s amendment that he must once again go into custody. As this is set into action, and he is indeed once more incarcerated, we are given an indication that all hope is lost. The evil man will indeed be punished. His many friends can’t help him, and he is a lost cause. I.E.- the threat of a revolution has proven too much. Though, as the act progresses, forgiveness is asked, lust is somewhat rationalized—albeit from varied prospective—, and standing threats are re-examined. For most of this act, Brown stands as a powerless figurehead, much as the Queen herself, and the analytical observer can infer that this was not a mistake. A fine example of this would be Brown’s seemingly defeated admission that he must wear his official uniform on the day of the Coronation.
Act III is by no means lacking in humor. It’s themes however are amplified through the dialogue and songs. Moreover, from the third finale of deus ex machina we are given a clear example of what Brecht set out to achieve. It is a farce in which the bestial acts we’ve already heard so much about are repaid with exoneration. In the end the worst of the worst (the capitalists) prevail; the beggars return to begging; and the upset wives still have questions. It is a mirror of the upper echelon which reveals an untold ugliness, now told. It is no wonder why Brecht considered the jovial reception of this play as a smudge on the reputation of his oeuvre.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

“What Keeps Man Alive?”

In the conclusion of act II of “Threpenny” we learn that man is kept alive through “Bestial acts.” Why is this important? Well, namely because of how Brecht chooses to illustrate this throughout the act. In this collection of scenes we are shown reflections on fornication, jealousy, treachery, and revolt (just to list a few). What seems most curious to me, however, is the blaring theme of justice's role in the pursuits of capitalism. While this theme is handled rather slyly—and with comedy to boot—it is one that cannot be overlooked.
This act deals with Mac's fleeing for safety, only to be turned in by those he trusted and later incarcerated. Although he does manage to escape from his dire circumstances, he fails to adequately preserve his relationship with Polly, and unknowingly exact further revenge on the Peachum's (who I'll get to in a moment). Throughout this act the struggle is fairly clear. Mr. Peachum has vowed to have Mac hanged. Polly, of course disapproves; caring only for the safety of her new husband. Through the Peachums actions, both on stage and off, we learn of just how important a figure Mac is. Granted, by this point we know that he is the captain of his 'industry', and that he is a relentless pursuant of his own fortune. In essence, Mac is the 'star above the city', and Peachum a bland, yet daring, proponent of capital. Both men threaten each others' trade and way of life, as honest or dishonest as they may respectively be.
Enter justice. The opposing lynch-pin of this entire act is the involvement of Chief Tiger Brown: a man who is both 'the law' and its servant. By all accounts Brown could be considered a central figure in London—this fact being illustrated through his constant concern for the coming Coronation ceremony. (Let's not forget the symbolic power of a Coronation in this particular episode.) This fact alone shows us that Brown is indeed at the behest of the Monarchy. In addition, these scenes more clearly define that he is also at the mercy of Mac, his friend, and Peachum, the 'Beggar King' of London; both of whom he will end up alienating by default. Aside from the disagreement between Mac and Peachum, we now know that Brown is in the middle and will lose. Justice will not prevail—as if it had earlier—and by the end of the act we can smell the desperation. Mac is on the lose again, Polly is beyond reproach, and Peachum has invoked the might of the lowly classes.
I'm hungry to know which way this desperation will lead the characters. Though, from this act's finale I can only trust that someone, if not all parties, is going to 'take it too far'. In a theatrical context this is what we want from a play. And, in the Brechtian context, it is clear that politics are clearly coming into play. Some favorite lines which drive this point home are Mac's exchange with Jake, upon being presented with the new charges against him:

MAC: Finished?
JAKE: No, I just got to the rapes.

This above conversation, in a whorehouse. Lastly, line-wise, is Peachum's invocation of Egyptian history to imply Brown's fate for letting Mac escape:

PEACHUM: ...On the death of Ramses II, the police Captain of Nineveh, or was it Cairo, committed some minor offence against the lower classes of the population. Even at that time the consequences were terrible. As the history books tell us, the coronation procession of the Semiramis, the new Queen, 'developed into a series of catastrophes thanks to the unduly active participation of the lower orders'. Historians still shudder at the cruel way Semiramis treated her police captain...snakes she fed on his bosom.

If this isn't an overtly political statement then—well, OK, I'm quite certain that this is an overtly political statement. If nothing else, it is a brilliant way of setting the scene for whatever bestial acts are sure to follow. For, at this point, we know that all of our characters are relentless here, and no one is pulling any punches, rather throwing them. I can hardly wait to see what will transpire. But, I doubt that they will be tame.