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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
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Threepenny Opera!