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The Threepenny Opera
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The Threepenny Opera

The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) was a revolutionary piece of theatre written by the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht in collaboration with the composer Kurt Weill in 1928.

It directly challenges the audience with alienating techniques. For example, slogans are projected on the back wall and the characters sometimes carry picket signs, or stand at times with their backs to the audience. The score, by Kurt Weill, was deeply influenced by jazz. The opening song, "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer", was adopted by Louis Armstrong as the loosely translated "Mack the Knife". It was also a pop hit for Bobby Darin.

The play is based on the English poet John Gay's 1728 operatic satire, The Beggar's Opera.

The central character, MacHeath (Mack the Knife), a highwayman of some renown, marries Polly Peachum. This displeases her father, Jonathan Peachum, who controls the beggars of London, and he endeavours to have MacHeath hanged. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that the chief of police, Tiger Brown, is an old friend of MacHeath's. Peachum exerts considerable political influence, and eventually MacHeath is arrested and imprisoned, escapes, then imprisoned once more. At the point of execution, he is pardoned and given a baronetcy.

The play challenges conventional notions of property. It asks the central rhetorical question, "Who is the bigger criminal: He who robs a bank or he who founds one?"

Interestingly, when this play was translated into French, it was given a name in French that means "The Fourpenny Opera", L'Opéra de quat'sous. Threepence was a common denomination in British coinage having no direct equivalent in France.

In 1954 Lotte Lenya won a Tony Award for her role as Jenny.

There have been at least four film versions. German director Georg Wilhelm Pabst made German- and French-language versions simultaneously (a common practice in the early days of sound films) in 1931. Another version was directed by Wolfgang Staudte in West Germany in 1962 (scenes with Sammy Davis, Jr were added for the American release). The most recent one was an American version (renamed Mack the Knife) in 1990, directed by Menahem Golan, with Raúl Juliá and Roger Daltrey.

It has been translated into English by F. McGuinness.