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The following morning is the coronation. At their shop,
Peachum and Mrs. Peachum instruct the beggars in making pathetic
signs. Peachum describes how he will have an army of beggars lining
the route. A drum roll is heard, announcing that the coronation
guard is presenting arms. Filch enters, followed by the whores.
Led by Jenny, the women demand their money for turning in Macheath.
Mrs. Peachum tells them they will not receive payment because Macheath has
escaped. Jenny launches into a tirade about how Macheath is a gentleman
and adds that the Peachums are filth compared to Macheath. She recounts
that after she cried herself to sleep last night, Macheath had stopped
by the brothel and awakened her. He had come to forgive her by sleeping
with her. After comforting her, he went on to sleep with Jenny’s
friend Suky Tawdry as well. Jenny lets it slip to Mrs. Peachum that
Macheath is still with Suky.
Peachum sees his opportunity and whispers to Filch to
run to the police and tell them Macheath’s location. Then he genially
asks the whores to sit and have a cup of coffee. As Mrs. Peachum
goes to fetch the coffee, she sings the third stanza of “The Ballad
of Sexual Submissiveness.” She describes a man who is facing death
but still desires sex. Peachum then exhorts his beggars to get moving.
He explains his philosophy of business. His key realization is that
the rich may not find difficulty in creating misery, but they cannot
bear to look at it. So he rubs misery in their faces and then picks
up the sympathy (money) that they leave behind.
Before the beggars can get going, Filch rushes in. He
announces that the cops are on their way to see Peachum and that
they were coming before he arrived at the police station. Peachum
instantly understands that the cops are going to bust him and tells
the beggars to hide. He tells Mrs. Peachum to start playing music
if she hears him say the word harmless. She is
completely mystified but agrees.
Brown enters with his constables. Clearly he has had a
change of heart. Now he is going to arrest Peachum instead of going
after Macheath. He pretends he does not know Peachum at all. Peachum is
unfazed and politely offers him some of the whores’ coffee. Peachum
explains that everyone there should be friends since they are all
law-abiding people. He states that the law was made to exploit those
who do not understand it or who are too poor and desperate to obey
it. There is another drum roll, and Peachum tells Brown that in
half an hour the poorest people will move to their positions. Brown
tells him that the poor will be marched off to jail instead. He orders
his men to arrest the beggars. Peachum tells him that he is welcome
to arrest the people in the shop because they are harmless. The
music strikes up on cue, and Peachum sings “The Song of the Futility
of All Human Endeavor.” In the first verse he explains that man
lives by his head but is not smart enough to actually succeed when
life is so bleak. In the second verse he sings about how being bad
in life does not equal success. In the third verse he concludes
that with everyone competing for success, no one will win.
Peachum explains that while Brown can take a few fake
beggars in the shop, the arrests will not stop the thousands of
real beggars who will show up at the queen’s coronation. Peachum
adds that the situation will not be in Brown’s favor when the police
have to club down hundreds of cripples for the queen to make her
way through the city. Brown recognizes that Peachum is threatening
him but also that Peachum has the upper hand. He tells Peachum that
he cannot arrest Macheath because he does not know Macheath’s whereabouts.
Peachum turns to Jenny and asks her. Saddened, she gives Brown Suky
Tawdry’s address. Despairing, Brown orders Constable Smith to go
arrest Macheath again and then exits.
A third drum roll sounds. Peachum tells the beggars to
head to the jail, presumably to ensure that Brown follows through
on capturing Macheath. The beggars exit, and Peachum sings the fourth stanza
of “The Song of the Futility of All Human Endeavor.” He sings that
man is not good enough yet for this world, so the best thing to
do is to hit him hard enough to kill him.
After Peachum finishes singing, Jenny sings “The Song
of Solomon.” In this song, each verse describes a different character with
a different virtue. The twist is that each character’s virtue is what
brings him or her to doom. Each verse concludes with Jenny singing
that a fortunate person does not have the virtue she describes.
First comes Solomon, who was too wise for his own good. Second is
Cleopatra, who was too beautiful. Third is Caesar, who was too courageous.
Fourth is Brecht himself, who was too inquisitive. The final example
is Macheath, who is too emotional.
Brecht emphasizes self-interest through Peachum’s speech
about preying on the wealthy’s self-interest. The wealthy class
desires not to feel guilty, which motivates them to give money to
Peachum’s beggars. As a result, the wealthy class’s donation alleviates
their guilt. Peachum’s speech about how he uses the guilt of the
rich to earn his living also displays his concern for only himself.
However, one would argue that if human beings are creatures driven
only by self-interest, they should not have feelings of sympathy
that lead them to give money to the poor. Yet Peachum is still in
business, which means the rich continue to feel guilty and provide
to the beggars. Peachum even attempts to elicit sympathy from the
audience when he explains how the rich do not care if they create
misery, yet they do not want to see the misery. If Peachum embraces
sympathy, then it must be hypocritical because he only does it for
the wealth of his business. Peachum continues to play the part of
the villain because he profits off those who are poor and are pretending
to be poor. Peachum does not give another thought to the beggars
who are too poor to go into business with him and give a share of
their money to him. In the play, sympathy is used as another example
of how hypocritical and cruel human beings are. Instead of changing the
economic and social system that creates human misery, people would
rather throw a few pennies at the homeless man on the corner. Peachum
knows that society is not willing to change the economic and social
system, which is why his business continues to profit.
“The Song of the Futility of All Human Endeavor” emphasizes the
competitiveness of the capitalist system. Immediately following this
song, Peachum explains that Brown cannot stop him because of how
the beggars will affect the queen’s coronation. Brown’s powerlessness
is not merely a matter of being unable to muster enough police to
arrest all the beggars in London; he is powerless because everyone
is part of a powerless system. Brown’s main concern to save his
reputation as a sheriff by finding a way for Peachum’s beggars not
to disrupt the coronation has ruined his reputation as a sheriff.
By attempting to stay loyal to a thief and murderer, Brown has compromised
his job as the sheriff because he has been forced to give in to
threats. Brown’s relationship with Macheath was intended to boost
his role as the sheriff. Instead, their arrangement has only caused
problems because Brown realized he could not choose loyalty to his
criminal friend over his duty as the sheriff. As Peachum sings,
when everyone tries to attain happiness, happiness cannot be reached.
The characters live in a system that breeds brutal competition,
so Peachum’s and Brown’s efforts to defeat one another is not out
of the ordinary. Peachum will do anything to make money: If releasing
his beggars on the coronation will help him receive that reward
for Macheath’s capture and save his business, he will do it.
Peachum’s logic for obeying the law also demonstrates
the arbitrariness of values. Peachum argues that one should not
only obey the law because it is right but because the law helps
people to exploit the weak and stupid. His last reason for the obeying
the law conveniently fits with Peachum’s purpose for his business.
By employing beggars to seek sympathy from the higher classes, Peachum
thinks he is helping the wealthier citizens see how others who are
not as fortunate live everyday. Peachum’s scheme is an example of
how villains normally work. In traditional dramas, the villain would
be someone who pursues evil for its own ends. He would be the self-proclaimed
enemy of morality. Such a character would actually reinforce conventional
moral positions by showing how horrible their opposites are. In The
Threepenny Opera, however, the villain Peachum advocates
conventional moral positions. By making such a character the villain,
Brecht poses the question of whether conventional morality has any
validity at all. Although Peachum believes he is devoted to obeying
the law, he in fact translates the law under his terms, which results
in the arbitrariness of values.
“The Song of Solomon” that Jenny sings at the end of the
scene continues Brecht’s method of alienating the audience. Jenny’s
song describes a series of characters who possessed traditional
virtues but who were doomed because of them. In so doing, Brecht
criticizes traditional virtues as being actually vices, because
they lead to downfall. Brecht even includes himself as one of the
characters to further distance the audience from the action of the
play and make them think critically. Most importantly, Jenny does
not offer virtues to take the place of those traditionally admired.
This argument about virtues as vices, where Brecht demolishes a
traditional idea but does not offer a solution in its place, is
intended to make the audience think of the answer. Questions arise
over what a virtue is and if any of the virtues Jenny lists are
worthwhile or if they should be discarded. Brecht asks these questions
to force the audience to examine their own values.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Threepenny Opera!