“The Threepenny Opera” – premiere
Evil and The Threepenny Opera have two things in common. First, to put it mildly, they are irresistible. The play, for example, literally traveled the world, an unqualified success, even in the lifetimes of Brecht and Weill. It is still perhaps the most successful play in the German language, and has inspired films, comics, and cover versions, from Sinatra to Lars van Trier.
And the attraction of the evil: aren’t villains crucial to every story? What would humanity be without the Serpent, Superman without Lex Luthor, Twardowski without the Devil (not to mention Prada). Surely because it rebels against the system, which gave Baudelaire’s fallen angels the flair of the avant-garde, evil is the other, the seductive, the vampire, the femme fatale, the unusual, the sexual, possible only in fantasies, and even there, forbidden…
Is this also the reason for the success of The Threepenny Opera: the exoticism of the villain, playing with fire? Certainly: the play is tremendously effective as theatre. Over time, the champagne of wit in Shakespeare or Moliere’s comedies may have lost some of its fizz: but these London gangsters bubble viciously and insinuatingly, as only Brecht, the master poet of the big city, could write them. And Weill is just as shameless and jazzy, he is quirky, flirtatious, androgynous as the Roaring Twenties themselves.
Regardless of the irresistibly wicked humour, the pull of the songs—perhaps it is also important that The Threepenny Opera entirely consists of murderers, whores, corrupt policemen, swindlers, and blackmailers? That not a single character is free of the machinations, and a good conscience is rarer than a unicorn (or a virgin)? No, no one has even a remotely noble motive, like Redford and Newman in The Sting. And no, there are no whimsical Robin Hoods, no elegant Arsene Lupins: they are rapists, murderers, robbers. It’s antisocial to the extreme. A red shark tank. A competition between cannibals. Anyone who insists on empathy and human rights here is a weakling. Or prey. The heroism of violence reigns, the ideal of martial masculinity.
In principle, singing along to “Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear, / And he shows them pearly white / Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear / And he keeps it out of sight” can be compared to enjoying a horror film, the thrill of dystopias like The Living Dead or survival shooters like Chernobylite. Fans of this genre are by no means pathologically sadistic or closet serial killers; the fate of high-school kids in a torture basement or the end of our civilization in the zombie apocalypse seems to have a morbid appeal. Our enjoyment has something to do with a state of exception.
When one enjoys, one treats oneself to something, flouts a rule a little. One breaks a minor prohibition. Celebrating a certain loss of control. One cigarette, even though it’s unhealthy. One glass of red wine, even though it’s sober January. And this conscious loss of control, this jouissance in the transgression, this is how horror functions, as a total loss of control. It is both obscene and paradoxical, because indulging in pleasure eventually takes the appeal out of prohibition. Our overstimulated society knows very well what happens when one runs out of desires because one has given in to them too much. Boredom, the desperate desire for desires that are still there. That is why underneath all the processes of civilization, in the sense of Hans Peter Dürr, the embers of the controlled or refined drive smoulder on. Nature, the animal, the brutal unfolds its alluring magic… the “erotic affection value” (Theodor Adorno) of the criminal dandy Mack the Knife, now Mackie MeZer.
And that is what evil and The Threepenny Opera have in common. They are misunderstood.
Evil is often thought to be stupid, dull, simple. God is good and good is clever, the devil is horny and predictable. This is what makes Hannibal Lecter or the SS Landa in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds so compelling. Because: Is there an “evil intelligence”? This topos was formulated by Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher, hyperreality. When signs only produce signs, simulations simulate themselves, and simulacra, or images, configure our view of the world, a world that refers to nothing more than itself. A globalised theatre of illusion full of synthetic events, actions, and emotions. The Matrix. It is true that the techniques of the all-pervasive new media also play a role in Baudrillard’s work: but the fact that we fall in love with and lose ourselves in signs, and that we lose sight of reality—that is at the core of Brecht’s theatre and his radio theory.
Baudrillard’s hyperreality, as cyber-paradise, however, no longer wants to be just the colourful shadow of things. As long as the original exists, it remains a copy. The “simulacrum of simulation”, the image of the after-image, reacts sensitively to the real, which it considers an excrement. By its very nature, hyperreality, in which we are less subjects and more nodes or terminals, wants to be total, because to put oneself in the place of reality is to make the real disappear “in agony”. To assimilate differences, cracks, idiosyncrasies. To reduce everything to a definition, as Western philosophy has always tended to do. It is not Hegel’s world spirit that beckons here, according to Baudrillard, but:
“As Brecht said about fascism (that it consisted of both fascism and anti-fascism), terrorism consists of terrorism and anti-terrorism together. (…) The violence you inflict is always the mirror of the violence you inflict on yourself. The violence you inflict on yourself is always the mirror of the violence you inflict. That is the intelligence of evil.”
No solution ever completely gets rid of the problem, it is inscribed in it. That is why everything has a flip side, a duality, and solutions often only repress their problem. The intelligence of evil means: a system turns against itself. More security produces new dangers. More health produces new illness. This also applies to a hyper-system that was said to have powerful cultural and civilising effects: capitalism.
After the religious wars of the Renaissance, capitalism became the organising principle of society, which threatened to fail because of disputes over the old order, the confession. The rules of the markets were what everyone could agree on. Suddenly it made sense to buy land instead of conquering it. The dynamics of future redemption corresponded to growth and progress. People sent their missionaries all over the world: change through trade. Export of democracy! They even proclaimed the end of history when the alleged counter-model, the Soviet Union, laid down its economic arms. It seemed as if the free market promised freedom for mankind. “Peace dividend” was the name of this salvation.
But the logic of the intelligence of evil generates an even greater problem from every supposed solution. The supposed total blessing of capitalism created kleptocracy.
This is the evil that pervades the play. It lurks beneath the snappy songs, in the vicious aphorisms. A violence and lust for destroying, robbing, and killing that suddenly erupts in Polly’s mass murder fantasies in her wedding song about the buccaneer Jenny. A mere excess?
Brecht never spoke of the excesses of capitalism. Of crises, aberrations, slips. Brecht only spoke of capitalism itself as the system of competition, with no helpers, only adversaries. Whose logical form is not only a world in which 3% own 97% of everything. Also one that reaches a metastasising point where the accumulation of treasures combines with state power, and thus a kleptocracy, emerges as organised, oligarchic robbery in a globalised offshore measure.
Let us see The Threepenny Opera in this light. Brecht’s London, which transposes the city of Gay and Pepusch’s baroque opera into Victorian-Manchester capitalism, dominated by robbers, but not the robber as opposed to citizens. Of his noble thug Mack, Brecht notes: “The preference of the bourgeoisie for robbers is explained by the error: a robber is not a citizen. This error has as its father another error: a citizen is not a robber. So there is no difference? There is: a robber is sometimes not a coward.” This London is a closed system constructed solely around robbery and murder and the accumulation of money. The actors are not concerned with anything else, it is their identity and method of communication. Brecht shows total capitalism, fused with a corrupt state: and in the twenty-first century it has taken the form of a kleptocracy. From the gated communities of the American super-rich to the oligarchs in Moscow: the only principle is to delusionally accumulate things, take them from others, and make sure they can’t get them back.
It is almost ironic that, just as Baudrillard resisted the Matrix (because after all, in the end the simulation could be broken with the blue pill), Brecht was stunned by its success. The Threepenny Opera already bears traces of the later didactic plays, the critique of the theatre is also a critique of the staged world of the bourgeoisie. In 1946, Brecht angrily composed new verses to the songs: the very audience that had celebrated his work had been minor and major actors in the fascists’ war drama—only to also claim that it was all just theatre, and they knew nothing anyway.
Fritz was SA and Karl was Party
And Albert got the post after all.
But suddenly all that was over
And they went to the West and the East.
Schmitt from the Rheine
Needs the Ukraine
And Krause needs Paris.
When it was not raining
And one did not meet
Not foreign military
This or that army
Then Meier from Berlin
Bulgaria for sure.
Schmitt never came home and Germany was gone
Smelled of corpses and rats.
But in ruined Berlin
They talk of the Third World War.
Cologne lies in ruins
Hamburg is dying
And Dresden lies shattered.
But when America
Saw those Russians there—
Perhaps when they clashed?
Then there’ll be a new slaughter
And Krause again in grey fur
Will get the world after all.
That was his new Cannon Song. From 1946.
The audience had read The Threepenny Opera as an enjoyable, scandalous parlour game, for guessing allusions and prominent figures, as in a charade. In this way it could flatter itself at the end that it had cleverly seen through the devices: it could go home full of catharsis. It didn’t see how much its own consciousness was a product of its circumstances. It can feel as if we are writing our own biography like a melodrama revolving around ourselves alone—but the circumstances are much less anthropomorphic than we would like. This is what Louis Althusser calls “ideological consciousness”: a schizophrenia between self-perception and heteronomy that one cannot see past. One did not see that the antisocial in the characters in The Threepenny Opera was the antisocial of the citizen, the antisocial of capitalism, which always strives for a total form of competition, organised robbery, kleptocracy, fascism, war. Evil was very intelligent: hidden behind the mask of the lawmaker, rushing to the aid of the old religions, loved by the enlightened bourgeoisie, it prepared the ultimate raids.
The “ideological consciousness” is exemplified in Mother Courage: although she has lost all her children, the petty-bourgeois trader refuses to regard capitalism as war, stubbornly holding on to her view of the world; she pulls her cart along and says: “I have to get back into business!”
The Threepenny Opera is an offensive parody of opera as the most intoxicating form of theatre, and thus, by way of theatre, self-criticism, an unmasking of the theatricality with which people in capitalism are forever staging themselves and are staged. The Threepenny Opera is an attack on The Matrix. Its characters are figures in an opera, who ultimately even rewrite the libretto, which can only be done if they know that they are The Threepenny Opera singers. They pretend to be acting. And they play us, behind the mask of the romantic robbers that kleptocracies like to dress themselves as. They show us a mirror, albeit a cracked one, through which the operatic nature of the circumstances shines.
In the mirror we see a former military man who builds clan structures through corruption and murder, sponsored by the corrupt state and his friends in the army. We see how the Brave New World of the media attaches extreme importance to the show, to the coronation of the queen. We see a cunning theatre director, an entrepreneur of compassion, who generates new misery to make a killing. He is not afraid to instrumentalise the poorest of the poor as a mass of blackmailers, and this is how the state falters: because the ugly images produced are incompatible with the beautiful one we have of ourselves, the illusory theatre of (European) civilisation.
We see the year 2023 as in a burning picture book.
The evil in The Threepenny Opera is so hidden in plain sight. Not in the sense that Putin is sitting in the audience. But in the sense that Putin embodies the intelligence of evil: capitalism (and not just any capitalism). That which all of a sudden was no longer orderly and reliable and diplomatic—which, ever since Grozny, is as much a mockery as Mackie MeZer and Tiger Brown homoerotically transfiguring their colonial wars. Capitalism, which, as a pure principle of competition, wants to exterminate and devour, because this is in the nature of the scorpion. The capitalism Putin slipped into as his perfect role, as Karen Dawisha’s “Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?” (2014) portrayed so convincingly that several publishers balked at publishing it for security reasons.
Dawisha shows how Putin padded his wallet, and those of his inner circle in St Petersburg, between 1990 and 1996 by diverting state finances. How, once this came to light, he obstructed the many court cases and parliamentary committees of enquiry. How he obtained the presidency of Russia in March 2000 through falsification and manipulation and how, as soon as he was installed in the Kremlin, he destroyed the freedom of the press, weakened the separation of powers, put his own people in key positions of the state and the economy, brought the oligarchs into line and forced them to pay taxes to himself and his clan.
How he appeared with glacé gloves in the German Bundestag: he would maintain and exploit certain illusions for as long as possible! For this is of no small importance in a Fourth World War, a war of simulations. The power of images, messages, symbols. Like Z. How narratives make themselves discursive and are capable of gaining majority support, seeping “like arsenic” (Victor Klemperer) into our choice of words and speech patterns. How gas contracts were concluded even after Crimea. How cryptic capital letters literally want to create a mythical Great Russian Empire. How a president and actor (even evil cannot reckon with everything) counters this. Zelenskyy is, in the best sense, what Hanna Arendt praised about theatre as the most political art: a perfect fit for his role.
With epic theatre, Brecht wanted to destroy the illusion, the simulacra, and return to the real. He hacked the matrix with the alienation effect, with evidence of a painted, artificial world. So that we on the outside could also see through the theatre. Brecht called The Threepenny Opera the “most successful demonstration of epic theatre.” This is also because of the music. Weill writes that his songs are embedded quite unrealistically. “So the action was either interrupted to make music, or it was deliberately taken to a point where it simply had to be sung.” Yes, you too just had to sing along—the simple, banal thing that Brecht so enjoyed as a counter-musical world to bourgeois opera, he just produced Schlager. To his horror.
As Harold Bloom said, the greatness of an artist is also the greatness of his error. What he seeks to solve creates a good answer to another, more correct question. One about the human being.
The complete absence of a pure being, outside of the corruption, is painful if you forget for a moment the subversive and oblique humour, the wit, the colourful exotic villains, the sexy dregs of society. It is as obscure as Richard Wagner’s final stage direction in Götterdämmerung: “People come on stage.” As if they had not been there all the time.
Unlike Heiner Müller, for whom optimism was merely a lack of information, Brecht, a poet, heir to Francois Villon, humanist, Marxist, sex fiend, rebel, dandy, and narcissist, had a melancholy but tender conviction. To Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, as it were, Brecht replies:
“Thou tender spirit, lest noise confuse thee
Thou hast climbed such peaks that thy speeches
Not meant for everyone, now miss everyone:
Beyond the markets lies only the earth.”
(B. Brecht, About Zarathustra by Nietzsche)
“Except this star, thought I, is nothing, and it
Is so desolate.
He alone is our refuge, and it looks like this.”
(B. Brecht, Manual of Piety)
There is a tender spirit, a Nietzschean I, which, through the self-criticism of the theatre—together with others, allies, friends—becomes the subject that just becomes and is. Not a frustrated optimisation of oneself. No, as a bizarre Baal, a fragmentary fatzer, as a queer, feminist, an ironic goddess not alive in the here and now, but in the there and then: a human being who feels that it is never over and thus that what is, is not the end.
“With the shortness of time we found no way out
Five minutes in the face of the pursuers
We thought of a better way.
You too now are thinking about
A better way.”
(B. Brecht, The Decision)
Premiere: 3 and 4 January 2023