Summary

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.

Analysis

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.