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The stage directions instruct Mrs. Peachum and Jenny to
step out in front of the curtain for a brief scene. In the interlude,
Mrs. Peachum tells Jenny to turn in Macheath if she sees him. Jenny
asks whether she will be seeing him if he is a hunted man. Mrs.
Peachum assures her that Macheath will never give up his routine,
then sings “The Ballad of Sexual Submissiveness.” The song describes
a man who is tough but who cannot resist women. In the second verse,
Mrs. Peachum describes men more generally, explaining that no matter
what a man’s beliefs are, all men desire sex when night comes.
The scene continues at the brothel in Wapping. One of Macheath’s
thieves, Jacob, is sitting in the whorehouse, reading the newspaper.
Around him, the whores iron clothes and do the wash like a normal
household. As Jacob comments that Macheath definitely will not be
showing up, Macheath walks in and asks for his coffee. Jacob is
horrified, but Macheath explains that the day is Thursday, and he
is not about to let “trifles” disrupt his habits. He throws the
warrant for his arrest on the floor. Jacob begins reading it with
great amusement. Jenny offers to read Macheath’s palm. She examines
his hand and sees a woman’s treachery. Macheath asks for the woman’s
name, and Jenny says she cannot tell except that it begins with
a J. Macheath says she must have it wrong because he knows it begins
with a P, admitting that he expects Polly to betray him. He is distracted
by Jacob’s laughter while reading the warrant, and the two men strike
up a conversation with some other whores about underwear. Jenny
sneaks out the door.
Macheath becomes nostalgic. He sings about how he and
Jenny used to live together before he was such a master criminal.
Then he continues to explain their story in “The Ballad of the Fancy
Man.” As he sings, Jenny is outside, beckoning Constable Smith.
Macheath continues to sing about how he used to be both Jenny’s
boyfriend and pimp. Their arrangement was cozy, he sings, and he
would give anything to be able to see the whorehouse where they
used to live. Jenny then takes up the song for a verse. She sings
about how sweet Macheath used to be and how he would sell her clothes
and beat her black and blue. They join together for the chorus about
wishing to see their old whorehouse again. Then they exchange a
series of darkly comic lines. The beginning of their collaboration
is about how they could only sleep together in the afternoons because
her nights were always booked. The second is about how when she
got pregnant, they flushed the baby down the sewer. They dance until Constable
Smith stops them. He tries to put handcuffs on Macheath, but Macheath
shoves him away and leaps out the window, only to run smack into
Mrs. Peachum with more constables. With poise, he politely inquires
after Mrs. Peachum’s husband and then is led away to jail.
Macheath’s appearance at the brothel in Wapping highlights
the human desire for sex. Sex is a physical urge, and the characters’ actions
are primarily driven by material, physical desires throughout the
play. Seeing how sex renders everyone the same allows the audience
to see how flimsy and changeable society can be. After all, if everyone
is the same at the bottom, then the customs and ideas that are put
on top are all artificial. By establishing a common principle of
understanding, humanity can be analyzed and perhaps changed. After
the interlude, the plot in scene II proceeds exactly as Mrs. Peachum
predicted, and Macheath proves the principle in “The Ballad of Sexual
Obsession.” He cannot master his sexual appetite, and his physical
longings are what doom him, not the cruel nature of his crimes.
The prostitutes’ household activities emphasize that they
are not so different from the rest of society, because they have
similar responsibilities. Traditional morality holds that prostitutes
are “fallen” women, beyond redemption because they spend their lives immersed
in base sexuality. Sex is automatically associated with immorality.
This view counters the contention that perhaps these women are relatively
free, because they have control over what they sell (that is, their
bodies), unlike those who rely on employers. However, the life of
a prostitute is not glorified in this scene, as evidenced by the
beatings and thieving that Jenny describes in her duet with Macheath.
However, Bretcht does not belittle the life of a prostitute. The
peacefulness of the prostitutes’ domestic arrangements shows that
they contribute to society like the rest of the social system.
The Threepenny Opera employs biblical
parallels to connect Macheath with Jesus. Jenny betrays Macheath,
and her name begins with a J, just like Judas. Macheath is also
betrayed on a Thursday and sent to the gallows on a Friday, paralleling
the fate of Jesus. The fact that Macheath is a true criminal, as
opposed to the spiritual threat to traditional authority that Christ
was, complicates sympathy for him. Macheath as a Christ figure further
points to the emptiness and randomness of the values system. Sympathy
for Macheath is further entangled by the irony of the duet he sings
with Jenny. In the lyrics of the song, Macheath comes off as a truly
horrible person, a pimp who beat his girlfriend and casually killed
their unwanted child. The incongruity of the song and the brutal
events it describes are purposeful: The play urges the audience
to enjoy something that would normally be treated as vile. The lyrics
in the song allow the audience to see beyond the immediate reactions
of pity and horror and to begin to see the arbitrariness of values
that these characters possess.
Jenny presents another ironic twist on a classic archetype:
the prostitute with a heart of gold. Just as Macheath is an ironic
hero and Peachum is an ironic villain, Jenny is an ironic prostitute
with a sentimental heart. Like the archetype, Jenny is a good girl
who is sweet and caring about her former love and pimp, Macheath. Unlike
the archetype, though, Jenny is willing to hand over Macheath to
the cops in exchange for cash. She cannot resist pursuing her own
self-interest like everyone else. So, Jenny chooses money over loyalty
to Macheath. She, like Polly, is conflicted between self-interest
and love, even though she ultimately chooses self-interest.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Threepenny Opera!