Analysis

The final scene emphasizes the way material concerns and economics influence human life. Constable Smith makes it clear to Macheath that if he could get the money, Macheath would be a free man. Smith’s unwillingness to free Macheath without getting a bribe is not presented as cruelty but as a simple fact of life: No one gets anything for free. For his part, Macheath acknowledges that to free himself he would need to pay Smith. When he cannot come up with the money, he does not beg for mercy or bemoan his fate. Macheath accepts that punishment is inevitable for someone who cannot pay his way out of trouble. Macheath’s primary concern is still business. He forces Brown to go over their accounts to see what they owe one another. After Matthew and Jacob return from the bank empty-handed, he is more concerned about how the men are positioned to steal from the public for the coronation than about his own neck.

Macheath’s speech before he goes to the scaffold critiques the competitiveness of capitalism. Macheath compares the tools of his trade to those of banks and major corporations. Theft by physical force is nothing compared to theft by economic means. Macheath steals from only a few, while a bank steals from all by consolidating money and power into the hands of the rich. Macheath may be a murderer, but that role is nowhere near as bad as being an employer. This comparison portrays Macheath as the ironic hero because he commits crimes against fewer people than does Peachum or the rest of society. The implication is that employment brutalizes and exploits people far more than even murder.

The play’s radicalism can be seen in the conflict between justice and humanity. These two principles are normally considered to be in harmony in a good society: Humans are just by nature. Here, however, Macheath’s crimes are presented as natural outgrowths of a capitalist society. Money also allows people to skirt justice, as when Macheath almost bribes his way out of jail. Justice would mean killing Macheath for his crimes. But, according to Brecht, in a capitalist society, justice depends only on economics, not on whether crimes deserve to be punished. Humanity demands that Macheath suffer and pay for the crimes he committed against others. The play intentionally contrasts two principles that society holds true to force the audience to consider which one they would choose in a moment of truth.

The final scene of The Threepenny Opera is the most artfully constructed scene in the play. The stage instructions direct Macheath onstage to open the scene, and he remains stationary at its center while all the action circles around him and connects to him. Each major character comes to Macheath, and each of the major relationships reaches a resolution: Polly forgives him, Brown conclusively ends their friendship, and the thieves reach peace. These resolutions imply that Macheath is really going to die. From the central position, Macheath attempts to first save himself, to justify his life, and then to ask for forgiveness. His inability to escape and be free displays an avoidance of responsibility and a rise above vengeance, which only accentuates his confinement. With each effort, his options constrict further, until finally the only way for him to go is up the scaffold. Meanwhile, throughout the scene, the gallows are being built offstage, and the coronation informs the concerns and lives of all of the characters. The scene is compressed into a single space, even while giving a sense of a whole world continuing around it. Brecht also pursues compression in terms of time, as he sets the entire action of the scene within a single hour. The fact that the time moves more quickly than real time, skipping from 5:00 to 5:25 within the space of a few lines, gives an even stronger sense of compression, which finally serves its purpose when the jarring deus ex machinaappears.

The appearance of the deus ex machina emphasizes a happy ending to the play. Deus ex machina, a Latin term meaning “god out of the machine,” refers to a dramatic device used in ancient Greek theater. Near the end of a play, a god would be lowered to the stage using a crane, or “machine,” and suddenly resolve all of the problems of the play. In modern theater, deus ex machina has come to refer to any improbable and illogical way of resolving a play’s conflicts happily. In The Threepenny Opera, the deus ex machinais especially jarring because of the sense of compression that Brecht had built up throughout the scene. All of a sudden, Macheath is liberated from certain death, and the characters are liberated from their roles. Polly, Brown, and Lucy are relieved because they no longer need to find a way to rescue Macheath. The Peachums also do not need to worry about Macheath interfering with their business. The freedom is a powerful sense of possibility. The scene also takes a surprising turn when the royal messenger is Brown, of all characters. After all his betrayals, Brown actually saves Macheath. Brown’s appearance with the order from the queen makes him an ironic hero in the end.

The decision to make Peachum explain the significance of the dues ex machina is extremely important. Throughout the play, Peachum has been the embodiment of the hollowness of moral values. He is a selfish hypocrite and a repulsive character. Here at the last possible moment, however, Peachum leaves his character behind and introduces a real moral lesson. This action allows Brecht to make use of one of the unique features of theatrical performance. Throughout the duration of The Threepenny Opera, the audience would have grasped how Peachum spouts hypocrisy and venom. No matter how much alienation Brecht employed, the audience would come to identify the actor with those characteristics. When he suddenly steps out and speaks honestly and morally, the audience cannot help but trust his words because they are so markedly in contrast to his earlier hypocrisy. By using Peachum, Brecht creates the conditions for an audience to hear a genuine plea for generosity and charity.

Brecht takes a radical approach when he asks the audience to accept the happy ending of the play. The very impossibility of the ending becomes the point, because in real life the poor are seldom spared for their crimes, and Macheath would be killed if the story were not portrayed in the theater. Brecht uses the surprising appearance of the deus ex machina to emphasize how rarely everyone can experience such relief in life. By doing so, he asks the audience to examine the pleasure they take in Macheath being spared. If the audience feels such relief when a fictional criminal is allowed to live, then Brecht questions why they should not seek the same reprieve for the real criminals in the streets outside the theater.