Summary

The play begins with a sung prologue. It is a fair day in Soho, a bustling lower-class Victorian neighborhood in London. Beggars, thieves, and whores ply their trades on the streets. A singer steps out and sings a ballad about Mackie the Knife. He describes the hardened criminal Macheath as a shark who hides a knife behind his open face and wears white kid gloves that conceal his crimes. The singer then lists a series of brutal murders, robberies, arsons, and rapes that have gone unexplained. Each time he describes a new crime, the singer places Macheath at the scene. The last crime is the rape of a young girl assaulted while she was sleeping. The singer jokingly asks how much Mackie (Macheath’s nickname) paid the girl after he raped her. The song ends with the whores laughing at the crass joke. A man steps out from the crowd and walks away. One whore exclaims that the man was Mackie the Knife.

The scene switches to Peachum’s beggars’ shop. Peachum sings “Peachum’s Morning Anthem,” in which he exhorts himself to be a more ruthless crook, or the Lord will cut him down. Then he delivers a monologue describing the difficulties of his business. Peachum runs a shop outfitting the downtrodden in beggars’ costumes and takes a share of their income. He explains that the trouble with his business is finding new ways to elicit sympathy because human beings can deaden their feelings. During his monologue, he brings up biblical proverbs, claiming that the proverbs are useful for tugging at heartstrings but that they get worn out after being used too often.

A man named Filch enters the establishment and launches into a tale of abandonment and poverty. Peachum asks if the man gives this speech on street corners, and Filch replies that he had given it the day before, on Highland Street. Peachum recognizes Filch as the unlicensed beggar that some of his men beat up the day before. Peachum admonishes him for begging without a license and demands one pound for the license. Filch pleads poverty and points to a sign reading, “Do not turn a deaf ear to misery!” Peachum responds by pointing at a sign that reads, “Give and it shall be given unto you!” Filch offers a smaller amount, and Peachum accepts by demanding a certain percentage of Filch’s take from begging. Peachum then reveals five different begging costumes and selects one. Filch protests that he wants to have a costume closer to the truth of his situation. Peachum disagrees with him and gives him a different role. He also mentions that Filch has good timing, as the upcoming queen’s coronation will mean more business for beggars.

While Filch is being outfitted, Peachum and his wife, Celia, talk about the man who has been courting their daughter Polly. Peachum worries that Polly’s marriage will cause him to lose his business. The only reason many of his clients still come to his shop, he says, is to see Polly’s legs. Mrs. Peachum says the suitor is a real gentleman and that he took her and her daughter to the Octopus Hotel. She does not know his name but calls him the “Captain” and describes him as always handling Polly with kid gloves. Peachum realizes his daughter’s suitor is Macheath just from that detail. He runs upstairs to see if Polly is there and discovers that she is gone. He says that her bed has not been slept in. The Peachums hope fervently that she is not with Macheath. Then they sing together “The I-For-One Song,” in which they describe how children cannot see what is good for them. They sing about how love tricks the young with its promises of the moon and forever and how love will leave them heartbroken when it all falls apart.

Analysis

The prologue song “The Ballad of Mackie the Knife” establishes the tone of menace and irony that permeates the play. The song gives graphic descriptions of Macheath’s crimes, which the characters that populate the play greet with glee. Immediately, the song sets up a world in which traditional notions of right and wrong are being challenged. The contradiction between Macheath’s crimes and the love he inspires forces the audience to question they consider to be good and who they consider to be bad in this world.

The nineteenth-century Victorian London setting emphasizes the alienation effect. This setting would have been unfamiliar to Brecht’s German audience in 1928. The different time period also allows Brecht to critically analyze the events and compare them to those in the present. Like Germany, Victorian London had great class stratification, when a mass of poor suffered while a small elite lived in great wealth. But while the two eras share many similarities, they are also separated by time and physical distance. This separation lets Brecht comment on his society in subtle ways. Rather than overtly criticize his contemporaries, Brecht sets his play in the past (and in another country), which allows him to comment on familiar events without offending his audience.