BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE 3 PENNY OPERA

By • Sep 18th, 2007 •

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One does not always “get” a great piece of art when one is first introduced to it. When I first read The Importance of Being Earnest, I could not believe how stupid it was—what was all this fuss about the name Ernest? Who cared? And a great piece of art is not necessarily perfect, either; it may be huge, unwieldy, and not easy to access, like the later work of James Joyce, or small, intriguing, and mysteriously incomplete, like Buchner’s Woyzeck. Ultimately a great piece of art is one that opens a lot of doors. You don’t even have to like it, but it has to rouse you in some way, either speaking to you intimately, or else getting under your skin, like a grain of sand gets into an oyster, and irritating you until you suddenly realize that this irksome thing you’ve been harboring has transformed into a revelation.

I initially disliked both the live stage play, and then later, the movie version of The Threepenny Opera. I disliked it when I was first presented with the cast album—I was used to my parent’s recordings of golden age Broadway musicals, which I loved. This certainly was not that. The overture—with woodwinds blaring—assaulted me. Surely those instruments were out of tune! However, I thought it was just possible that admitting, at the age of twelve, to disliking Brecht and Weill might be the same as admitting to hating the taste of alcohol or brie—so childish!—so I lied to the person who gave me the album and told her I loved it.

But, shortly thereafter, my parents took me to see a student production of Threepenny at Bard College. I was thirteen and, for the first time in my life, wearing winter boots that had been chosen for fashion, not function. My feet were blocks of ice, but nonetheless, surrounded by exotic college students, I felt like I’d landed on the cutting edge of the avant garde. The production was done in black and white silent movie style, actors with heavily mascaraed eyes and rouged lips and cheeks, monochromatic sets. I’d never seen this conceit realized on stage before, and I was fascinated. When live actors and musicians gave voice to the cynical, nasty, and abrasive score, I got it, realizing that what I was listening to was not dissonant, but bracing, daring, compelling, and alive.
A little while later I became aware that the recording my sophisticated friend had presented me with was none other than the original cast album from the 1950s American production that had been presented at the Theater De Lys (currently called the Lucille Lortell) in New York City. That production starred among others Lotte Lenya (Kurt Weill’s wife) and Beatrice Arthur (Maude, Golden Girls). Unlike the original American production, which opened in 1933 and survived only twelve performances, this one was a hit. I was born in New York City, right around the corner from the De Lys. Threepenny opened in the year of my arrival, and later played for six additional years. Once I knew that, I listened to the recording incessantly (I would be remiss if I did not make brief mention of the other notable NYC productions of this property, with Mac the Knife played by Raul Julia, Sting, and, in 2006, Alan Cumming.)

A decade or so later, I was introduced for the first time to the German movie that is archived on this disc collection. I cannot even remember where I saw it—revival house? Underground festival at college?—but I was so disappointed. It seemed to me that by changing the plot and removing some of the music, whoever the filmmaker was had perverted the piece, and thereby defiled Brecht and Weill. I dismissed it. (Little did I know that all these decades later I would re-encounter the film, and learn that the material, or at least its author and librettist, had not been betrayed in the manner I assumed.)

Jump cut forward two decades, after some more encounters with Brecht’s words and theories, and I find myself in a tiny college town in upstate New York, performing in this now sexagenarian play as part of our theater company’s residency. Brecht would have been proud, I suppose, because we certainly did not lull the townspeople into a narcoticized haze with our production. In spite of the fact that Threepenny was then older than many classic plays of the American theater, it managed to offend and raise the ire of the audience. They found it even weirder than I did at age twelve. Granted, it may have been our unpolished performances rather than the material itself that put people off. (We did use the Ralph Manheim translation of the lyrics, rather than the popular Marc Blitzstein version [the one used at the theater De Lys], definitely a cruder take.)

So here I am with this long and checkered history with this play, which has grown into one of my favorites, facing the Criterion collection’s new double disc release of the movie. With trepidation, suspicion, and maybe a bit of antipathy. The booklet and extras included with this DVD will provide you with a lot of background and context, but I will give you a thumbnail here. Threepenny Opera was derived from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a popular English operetta during the 1700s. Elizabeth Hauptmann, girlfriend and collaborator to Brecht, was responsible for calling it to his attention, and also for translating it. By all accounts Brecht was a real character—brilliant, arrogant, radical, unfaithful, unreliable, greedy—but, it’s not hard to understand why a person with his theatrical beliefs and political bent would consider Beggar’s Opera to be good source material. Unlike plays from the nineteenth century or the twentieth, The Beggar’s Opera is neither straight melodrama, nor psychological realism. It begins with a framing device: two beggars talking to the audience—thereby acknowledging its “playness”; a positive for a playwright and theatrical theorist who never wanted the audience to forget that they were watching an artificial event. The cynicism of The Beggar’s Opera must have appealed as well. There’s really no such thing as a good person in John Gay’s world. Here’s a quote from Peachum, in the source material: “A lawyer is an honest employment, so is mine. Like me, too, he acts in a double capacity, both against rogues and for ‘em; for ‘tis but fitting that we should protect and encourage cheats, since we live by them.”

Brecht used Hauptmann’s translation as the basis for the play he was writing to fulfill a commission. Because The Beggar’s Opera was an operetta with lots and lots of music, Threepenny would also need music, which is why Brecht invited Kurt Weill, with whom he had worked once before, to participate in the project. It was an instant hit in Germany when it opened in 1928 and it became a film in 1930.

In order to understand what my objection to the movie is, and why this disc set turned me around, it’s necessary to see how the plot of Threepenny the movie relates to its source material. In the Opera’s world where lawyers and crooks are equally “honest,” Mr. Peachum runs a business that supervises beggars. He outfits them and gives them back stories that will evince the most pity and the most cash from passersby, and he assigns them districts. In another part of 17th century London, Mac the Knife directs the activities of a gang of criminals, also a thriving small business. One day, Mac encounters Polly, Peachum’s beautiful daughter. They are immediately attracted to each other, and decide to marry. (Mac does not bother mentioning to his Polly that he may well be married to several other women already.) In the film, the marriage takes place at 2:00 in the morning, in an old warehouse down by the harbor. It is a gorgeous set—the vast empty space stuffed with a jumble of furniture and trinkets, stolen for the occasion by Mac’s gang, the tangle of ships masts on the horizon—and it is a complete studio fabrication. Into this den of iniquity walks Tiger Brown, the chief of police. But Mac’s gang need not worry; Brown and Mackie are best buds—they were in the army together.

The next day when the Peachums find out what their daughter has done, they go straight to Brown and ask him to arrest Mac, who is, after all, a notorious criminal. But, Brown says the police have no charges on file against Mac. Peachum reminds Brown that the Queen’s coronation day is nearing, and wouldn’t it be a shame were that to be spoiled by thousands of marching beggars? Alarmed, Brown protests that he might arrest Mac if he knew where to find him, but—

Mrs. Peachum suggests that Mac will be with his whores. “A mother-in-law ought to know where her son-in-law can be arrested,” she explains cheerfully.

In the meantime, Polly, who knows what her parents are up to, has warned Mac of his impending arrest and begs him to flee. But alas, his mother-in-law knows him well; he cannot forgo a visit to the cathouse, where he is arrested. This is where the film takes a very different course than either of its sources. Polly, left in charge of the gang, uses the loot to purchase a bank (“One can rob a bank, or one can use a bank to rob others.”), and in an instant, everyone becomes respectable. Mackie gets out of jail, now a pillar of society rather than a pariah. Tiger Brown and Peachum join forces with him and one imagines that their business, if not the population of London, will flourish.

The original ending of The Threepenny Opera (stage play) is very similar to the finale of The Beggar’s Opera. Mac the Knife, about to be executed for his crimes, is improbably reprieved. The reprieve in The Beggar’s Opera is arbitrary; in an aside one of the characters explains that the play cannot end with an execution because then it will be a tragedy and will not meet the audience’s expectations; so a happy ending is imposed. In the stage play Threepenny Opera, the Queen’s messenger arrives with a pardon at the penultimate hour; however, the final song warns us that in real life, such turns of fortune do not occur and everything will end badly.

And yet, that ending is weirdly uplifting; the music soars triumphantly, and the singers’ voices come together in mellifluous harmony as they intone “Remember: this whole vale of tribulation/Is black as pitch and cold as any stone.” (Eric Bentley translation) As an audience member, I feel like I have been goosed, and I love it; the cynical players give me a happy ending, telling me this is what I came for, then they take it away from me by warning me it is a fairy tale, then they give it back to me in spades by offering me a lovely melody, but the music is merely a beautiful sugar coating for the bitter pill that is Threepenny’s message for humanity: “The reply to a kick in the pants is just another kick in the pants” (Marc Blitzstein translation). In Brecht’s universe, there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance for redemption, under any circumstance, man is rotten (Which has always struck me as incompatible with the idea that we can somehow go forward and form this great Communal society, but that is part of what makes the contrarian playwright so fascinating.)

In all versions of Beggars/Threepenny Opera, there is a parallel between criminal activities and bourgeois business, in fact, that point may be the strongest in the original Beggar’s Opera, where all the enterprises—begging, thieving, pimping, and policing, are part of one, large industry. One of my problems with the plot change in the film is that this theme is really hit over the head. Polly buys the bank with Mac’s profits, and all the crooks become respectable members of society, their cheating of the public now legitimized in the hallowed halls of big business. Sure, I got the parallel between criminals and suits—but that’s already there, I didn’t need the screenplay to spell it out for me. And I was quite disappointed that the filmmaker was telling me that these characters preferred societal acceptance to their outsider/outlaw status. My Polly, my Mac, my Mrs. Peachum might take on middle class airs for comic effect, but I had no doubt that they would always prefer midnight vows in a purloined warehouse to a noon wedding in a rented chapel. I concluded that Brecht had been misused by the studio—after all, I know how far down in the pecking order writers are in the movie business. Later I found out that Brecht and Weill actually brought lawsuits against the filmmakers, and this clinched it for me, this movie was not the REAL Threepenny.
So imagine my surprise when I learned, from the extras that accompany this Criterion disc, that I had the story all wrong. At the time that Brecht wrote the stage play, he was just beginning his Marxist studies. So, while the plot of Beggar’s Opera supplied Brecht with plenty of opportunities to be funny and cynical, it did not have a socialist or communist message, nor did Brecht add one. When the filmmakers sought the rights to Brecht’s property, they agreed to pay him to adapt the script for the screen. Brecht apparently saw this as a great opportunity to revise his play so that it did reflect his political views. To my astonishment the bank business actually comes from Brecht. When he turned in his screenplay, the producers were appalled because it was so very different from the stage play. Brecht sued because he wanted them to produce his screenplay, while they wanted to do something that was closer to the play. Brecht did not win his case; however, the film was made with many of the plot changes that Brecht had introduced. So what I believed all these decades, concerning the dismemberment of the play at the hands of ignorant film people, proved to be false.

Weill’s reason for bringing suit against the filmmakers (he won) seems quite reasonable to me. As one of the Brecht experts interviewed in the documentary states, there are 55 minutes of music in the play, and a mere 28 in the movie. And some of the music is used incidentally—for example, when Mac and Polly first “go out”—to a bar, there is piano music playing as they go down the stairs to the barroom. This is how they treated the philosophical and sassy “Ballad of the Easy Life”? The song I was allowed to sing when I assayed the role of Mrs. Peachum, “The Ballad of Dependency,” is nowhere to be found. I was quite disturbed that the music was so minimalized.

In addition to the beautiful film transfers, this two disc set is loaded with extras. The new documentary on the disk one, Brecht Versus Pabst, contains interviews with theater scholar Eric Bentley, Pabst scholar Jan Christopher Horak, director of the Kurt Weill Foundation Kim Kowalke, and Pabst son, Michael Pabst. These talking heads are intercut in a lively and informative manner. Besides correcting my misperception of the movie’s provenance, this documentary provides some interesting facts about Weill and the approach he took to composing the songs in Threepenny. The inclusion of this information helps to mitigate the fact that the film itself dispenses with so much of the music that it seems more a drama with incidental music than an operetta.

Finally, the fact that this disc set contains both the German and the French versions of Threepenny is great. I was astounded to learn that back in the thirties, rather than dubbing or captioning films for a foreign market, studios would actually shoot the same film over again, with a different cast, speaking a different language. For Threepenny, both the German and the French cast were on set at the same time, alternating scenes. And the scenes pretty much matched, shot for shot. Except that the tone differed quite a lot and there is very good documentary on the second disc that compares the two productions and explains why the lighting and the casting of the German Threepenny is different than the French—of course, it all has to do with marketing the film for its intended audience.

The German version has a commentary track, a conversation between Harvard professor and Pabst scholar Eric Rentshler and Cornell prof and Brecht scholar David Bathrick. They have much to say about the film itself—how the set, art direction, and camera angles provide context and commentary on the characters and the story. They also share some of their vast knowledge about the Threepenny trial and its repercussions. Their backgrounds also make them perfect candidates to point out how Brecht’s famous theories about performance (including alienation theory) relate to this film. That’s not something I would have thought of myself as the German version of this film, especially, seems to ask the viewer to identify with the main characters. When Mac and Polly exchange glances, the actress Carola Neher seems to be absolutely mesmerized by her costar Rudolf Forster, and I immediately experienced and identified with her attraction to brutality (seventy-five years later, it’s still hot), which seems to me to be exactly the opposite of what Brecht would have wanted. But the scholars on this commentary track have a much more sophisticated understanding of Brecht’s ideas than I do, of course, and they offer really interesting thoughts concerning how the film does and does not fulfill them.

If I have spent much less time speaking about the French version, it’s because this piece has always struck me as fundamentally German (strange, since I have usually listened to English versions), and although the stars (Florelle, Albert Préjean) were quite famous in French cinema, they do not for me have the iconic presence of someone like Lotte Lenya, for example. Still the French version is good, and as always, it is wonderful to see how different two things can be, when in most fundamental ways (sets, costumes, shots, cuts) they are exactly the same.

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