Three Penny Opera by Bertolt Brecht. Reading Bertolt Brecht today is like reading the works of some medieval theologian whose works were once considered inspired and may have been an authentic reflection of his times but whose world-view has become so outdated that to comprehend him now requires an effort of will prefaced by extensive historical analysis. The music and the dialogue may still amuse, but the message has become stale and barely comprehensible.

Macheath, more commonly known as “Mac the Knife,” is not merely the chief protagonist of this “beggar’s opera,” and the vicious leader of a criminal gang, but is intended by Brecht to be the preeminent “bourgeois phenomenon.” Reliable only in his duplicity, wealthy only in his criminal reputation and his police connections, the character Macheath is–in Brecht’s Marxian view–the inevitable result of the ideological “superstructure” of capitalism, which causes people to objectify human relations in the quest for short-term profit. Like most Marxists, Brecht’s Marxism is as deep and unquestioned as that of any religious zealot. His goal is to transform the theater from a mere medium of passive amusement for well-endowed bourgeois patrons into a field of action where the players act upon the theater-goers and engage them in the acting process, forcing them to gaze into a mirror and confront their own flawed participation in the capitalist economic system. Brecht even shows the elitism of the classic Marxist intellectual, convinced despite all evidence to the contrary that he alone held the keys to the secrets of history and the salvation of Mankind, by stating that his technique of projecting scene-titles onto well-lit boards is an attempt at “literarization of the theater,” as if the average middle-class theater-goer in Berlin in 1928 had yet to learn to read.

In the end, Brecht’s Three-Penny Opera is not about art, or the theater, and much less about the London lower-classes where the Opera ostensibly takes place, but about religious proselytizing. He wishes to convert, not educate or entertain, and he does this by forcing spectators to confront their “sin”. Unfortunately, the Marxian faith of simple economic determinism that he propounds was already fading by the time of the Weimar Republic, having been superseded by successive waves of philosophical innovation which explicitly rejected (Friedrich Nietzsche) or implicitly undermined (Martin Heidegger) Marxism, and was replaced among most Marxist elites by Lenin’s conspiratorial Communism during the 1890’s. Reading the Three-Penny Opera today is like opening one’s door to a Jehovah’s Witness. One may have a rousing conversation, but the topic and the purpose of the exchange are predetermined, and the conversants will soon be reduced to fruitless attempts to refute each other’s arguments with meaningless snippets of scripture.