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.

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