Brecht believed that audiences became too emotionally involved and drawn into an illusory world by attaching themselves to fictional characters. This loyalty to the characters robbed the audience of their ability to think critically and prevented them from understanding the world and therefore changing it. As a result, Brecht developed an idea for the theater called Verfremdungseffekt, often translated as the “alienation effect.” The alienation effect means that the audience is purposefully distanced from the action of the play. This separation allows them to think critically about what they are seeing, to analyze why it is occurring, and to think about how it could be changed. Brecht uses the alienation effect to make audiences think about changing the world. The primary way that Brecht creates alienation in The Threepenny Opera is by using songs to disrupt realistic scenes. Brecht employs his alienation effect using irony and by having actors step out of their characters to comment on the action of the play.
Throughout The Threepenny Opera, Brecht uses irony, the sharp dissimilarity between the real and ideal. Brecht employs irony by setting up the audiences’ and characters’ expectations, then delivering the opposite. These reversals force the audience to think about the choices made by characters and about the play’s arguments. One of the play’s arguments is that the acts of stealing, killing, and betraying others are acceptable in a capitalist society because these actions are a means of making money. For instance, Jenny’s decision to turn in Macheath is based solely on the fact that she will be compensated. Another example is Macheath’s aspiration to live a comfortable middle-class life, but he does so by killing and stealing. Even though he implies that he wants to get away from his criminal ways, Macheath gives no indication of leaving behind his ways at the end of the play. Polly is also seen as an innocent girl in love, but she shows another side when she steals and hides Macheath’s fortune. Peachum defends traditional moral positions like obedience to the law by explaining how such positions can be used to exploit others. These contradictory positions force the audience to question why they believe in traditional morality.
By making his characters the prostitutes and thieves of London, Brecht wants to blur the line between criminality and honesty. Macheath aspires to be middle class, with his fancy dress and his attempts at elegant speech. Peachum, the most hypocritical character in the play, presents himself as an honest small businessman. Brecht argues that the only difference between a criminal and a businessperson is that society lets the businesspeople get away with stealing. This motif helps to call into question traditional moral positions that would condemn those who are supposedly criminals. Peachum is the implied criminal in the story because he is a businessman stealing money from the rich. He draws income from the guilty middle and upper classes because they fall prey to fake beggars.