Wednesday, February 01, 2012


When the shark has had his dinner
There is blood upon his fins.
But Macheath he hs his gloves on:
They say nothing of his sins.

--Bertolt Brecht, translated by Eric Bentley

Mac the Knife is the best known song from the musical "The Threepenny Opera" by Bertolt Brecht (words) and Kurt Weill (pronounded vile), music

Eric Bentley's translation is different than the most sung English version, including having a different title, but the spirit remains the same.

On a blue and balmy Sunday
Someone drops dead in the Strand.
And a man slips round the corner.
People say: MacHeath's on hand.
--Bertolt Brecht, translated by Eric Bentley

Three different women named Jenny are in "The Threepenny Opera." The first is in the song about Mackie the Knife that starts the show.

Jenny Towler was discovered
With a jackknife in her breast.
And Macheath strolls down the dockside
Knows no more than all the rest.

The second is a character in the play, a woman who works as a prostitute for Macheath, Ginny Jenny.

The third is Pirate Jenny who is sung about by Polly, Macheath's main squeeze. Before she sings it she says she learned what is in it from a woman working in a waterfront bar. Polly has the men around her play parts of Pirate Jenny's customers, who ask her "When is your ship coming home, Jenny?" and "Do you still wash up the glasses, Pirate Jenny?"

She starts to sing, the actress playing Polly as Polly as Pirate Jenny, and sings that, yes, she still washes up the glasses and still gives a curtsey for a tiny tip. So, she sings, people might wonder why she is smiling.

"And a ship with eight sails and fifty great cannon sails into the quay."

As the song goes on the ship opens fire with its cannons and destroys all the buildings in the town except the one where Jenny works. The pirates round up all men in town and ask Jenny which to kill. She says, "All of them."

Later in the play the only one of the three Jenny's who is a characater in the play, the prostitute Ginny Jenny, betrays her employer, Macheath, to the police. The song about bar maid Pirate Jenny has set it up. Why does Ginny Jenny sell out Macheath?

The fifty great cannon and armed men of a poor woman's dreams haven't showed up yet, so Ginny Jenny does what she can, fingers Macheath.

One old man and seven children
Burnt to cinders in Soho.
In the crowd is Captain Mackie who
Is not asked and does not know.
--Bertolt Brecht, translated by Eric Bentley, from the translation in English of "The Threepenny Opera" with the book (dialogue) translated by Desmond Vesey and the lyrics by Eric Bentley.

Bertolt Brecht (German) was about nine years younger than Adolph Hitler (Austrian), so he would have gotten to see what Hitler was up to. And to hear it in the original language, the language they shared. One thing Hitler was up to was sweeping people away. Using his voice, using lighting technology and public amplification technology with great skill, Hitler wanted people to feel they were one and part of one thing, and that one thing was Hitler's dream.

Bertolt Brecht wrote poetry, some, but mostly worked in the theatre and he really, really, really didn't want to use his skills to sweep people away.

In his notes for performing "The Threepenny Opera," he says that the performer must not slide into a song like the character is still speaking and doesn't really know he's performing. The performaer must make it clear that the performance of a song in this musical is a performance.

Brecht is all over making it clear that a performance is a performance. He wants people to remember and know at all times that they are in a theatre, watching other people perform. I haven't read anything he's written about reacting against Hitler's world poisoning communication skills, but I think that had to be part of what he was thinking about.

Give the people watching back to themselves at all times. Don't sweep them away and out of thinking with your skills.

That's hard to do. It is also hard to want. It's fun if one has communication skills to cast a trance over the watchers. When it works, it's a high for sender and receiver. But is it a good high?

Can it be a good high?

Brecht was always working against, in a way, the work he was doing. It's only a theatre. These are only actors.

But regardless of theory, skill brings a trance anyway. Brecht demands that we at least try to wake people back up.


I first heard Pirate Jenny's song on a Judy Collins' album, with no context except how good it was. It blew me away and pretty much blew up everything else on the album, excellent though much of it was. Let's get right down to the rage of the people day after day being part of the process of stomping on themselves--the rage they often forget themselves. When it comes out, it's huge. Kill "all of them," which in a way includes the singer as she is part of the process of keeping herself down.

She's waiting for the big change, when the sympathetic pirate ship comes into the harbor of the city where she works at a bar and everyone sneers at her.

Brecht, I learn, was good at sneering at people he worked with, people who helped him, including Elisabeth Hauptmann.

Elisabeth Hauptmann had a lot to do with writing "The Threepenny Opera" and wasn't credited, and could have been. I mean, she went along with herself not being credited. Like abused women do, she went along with it.

Brecht was charming and talented and had a very, very difficult time finishing anything longer than a twenty line poem.

Until Elisabeth Hauptmann became part of his scene. Then he could finish longer things. Then he could work with material written English, or somebody could. "The Threepenny Opera" was based on the English "The Beggar's Opera."

Brecht would write scraps, often brilliant, and go out for the day. Hauptmann would string the scrap together into one thing, Hauptmann would more and more, write most of the one thing.

She wrote a lot of the words of "The Threepenny Opera," probably including Jenny's angry song. Someday, there will be justice and we will kill "all of them."

I wrote the first part of this in June. In February, I wrote this second part from reading the mid-1990's book "Brecht and Co. and the Making of Modern Drama" by John Fuesi.

There are many trances to be wakened from.

"The Threepenny Opera" was an instant huge hit, some of the songs worldwide hits. All of a sudden people working and scraping in alternative art land in Germany in the twenties were famous, except for Elisabeth Hauptmann. Who felt that was okay. Who felt would marry her real soon now and everything would be wonderful and she was helping with the great project.

Yeah, well, she wasn't picking up enough on that one reason the great project was great was her particular work. Not just putting bits together in finished form, which Brecht's writing as he produced it desperately needed, but creating new and wonderful words, pictures, combinations, indispensable parts of a great play.

She also didn't get that Brecht was one of those guys who went through lots of women and often said he'd marry them and didn't.

Pirate Jenny was in dire straits, not a pirate but a very poor woman, and no ship was going to come into the harbor to ask her who we should kill, to make her part of that kind of we.

Elisabeth Hauptmann was not in that kind of situation, but she was in that abused person crazy place and stayed and stayed and gave her work away under his name. There was nothing sneaky going on. That was okay with both of them.

Really many trances to break. Must be sure to shake out of my own when it's even slightly possible, when suddenly I know I'm part of some vast inaccuracy. The ship is my will, my ability to know the way out is,like the Buddha said, through the door. No death necessary except of illusion and strangely self-serving laziness.

There's a woman in the news now who looks pretty abused. There's an old buddy I see rarely who always talk about her marriage and to me vibes abused, with her saying no words about it. I can't do stuff about them, I don't think. I haven't been hit.

But that level of being inside a delusion and being unable to leave the delusion--that's available to all of us in many ways. Gotta watch out for that, and do better than that when I can.