What is the “alienation effect,” and how does Brecht employ the technique in The Threepenny Opera?
The alienation effect is a distancing technique used by the playwright on the audience to keep them at a reach. Since Brecht thought theater should be a tool for the audience to think about how to change the world, he utilizes this technique to create some distance between the audience and the plot. In his stage instructions, he insists that the actors retain some of their distance by coming across not as their characters but as actors playing characters. Many of the songs in The Threepenny Opera create additional alienation because their lyrics often do not reflect what is happening in the play. For example, the song “Pirate Jenny,” which Polly sings to her wedding guests during her marriage to Macheath, has nothing to do with marriage, Macheath, or Polly’s life. Instead, the song is about a maid who fantasizes about killing her customers and running off with a band of pirates. The song reminds the audience that they are watching a play, rather than allowing them to lose themselves in the story. Brecht uses signs in his play to illustrate certain points and to again pull the audience’s attention away from the entertainment onstage. The abrupt and contextually inappropriate arrival of a sign that reads “It is more blessed to give than to receive” reminds the audience that they are sitting in a theater—not inside a small shop in Soho.
How is Macheath a morally ambiguous character?
In the prologue, Macheath is portrayed like a shark—bloodthirsty, cunning, and dangerous. The list of crimes he has committed is both shocking and frightening. But when his character is introduced via the Peachums’ conversation in Act I, scene I, certain details about his interaction with Polly and Mrs. Peachum do not seem like the qualities of a ruthless criminal. For example, he acts gallantly and takes the women to a fine hotel in town. Also, he wears white kid gloves. The gloves indicate that Macheath is of a higher class and a proper figure in society. Indeed, Macheath seems valiant at times when it comes to women. However, this portrayal could be seen either as kindhearted or as manipulating, since he is conducting several affairs at a time. But his interest in Polly’s comfort during the wedding scene seems genuine, as he instructs his thieves to behave in the presence of the bride. His friendship with Brown, however, makes him seem even more morally ambiguous. He speaks of the power of friendship and his loyalty to Brown, but in fact he is never motivated in his dealing with Brown by friendship but by personal gain. The most obvious and literal contradiction between Macheath’s cruel reputation and his actual personality is that he becomes squeamish at the sight of blood. He seems, in fact, to loathe violence—an unlikely trait for such a notorious criminal.
What do the portrayals of the wedding and brothel scenes indicate about Brecht’s ideas of marriage and sex?
In The Threepenny Opera, Brecht reveals several internal contradictions regarding institutions commonly believed to be morally sound and those believed to be morally bankrupt. The criticism of marriage begins early, in Act I, scene I, when the Peachums sing the “I-for-One Song,” which derides romance. Also, when Brecht depicts the marriage between a hardened criminal and the woman he has defiled in the next scene, he takes every opportunity to make fun of the idea of a wedding. Macheath’s band of thieves knows that a traditional wedding is full of pomp and circumstance. Therefore they steal as many pieces of wedding finery they can find—from a rosewood harpsichord to the wedding dress to the wedding feast itself. Reverend Kimball leads the supposedly solemn, holy ceremony, and he does not show any sign of horror when the wedding party begins singing lewd songs to honor the bride and groom. In contrasat, Brecht’s portrayal of the brothel in Wapping is neither a condemnation of prostitution nor a negative view of what it would be like to live in a brothel. The women do not only have responsibility to their customers, but they also have household duties to tend to like ironing and washing. The scene is referred to as “a middle-class idyll.” Another example is the criminal Hook-Finger Jacob, who patronizes the place. He does not drink or carouse in the brothel—instead, he quietly reads the paper. When contrasted with the wedding scene, the brothel scene indicates that the institution of prostitution is not any more corrupt than the institution of marriage. This unlikely juxtaposition shakes the audience’s established conceptions about certain social structures.