The Noble Poor Are Nobly Underfed

A few of our actors have come to me, feeling very stuck. They're concerned that none of the Three­penny characters have any redeeming qualities (which is pretty much true) and that many of the lines seem trivial and unimportant (the operative word there is seem). They just don't see a way in...

And beyond that, I think they don't understand how such an angry, aggressive, even condescending show can engage and entertain an audience. I understand where their concern comes from. But there are lots of ways to engage an audience. People don't want only diversion. And despite what many people parrot, audiences do not want escape. More than anything, they want the truth. And they seek connection and understanding, through that truth.

Escape is disconnection. That's not what audiences want and it's not what Threepenny's bookwriter and lyricist Bertolt Brecht wanted. And it's not what New Line does. We require something of our audience, and that makes much cooler theatre.

Everyone doesn't yet understand how Threepenny works, but they will. With most shows – and in particular, most musicals – the idea is to get the audience on the hero's side, to get them to empathize with the protagonist(s), so that they are emotionally invested in getting to the resolution of the central conflict. But Brecht very intentionally and aggressively stepped away from that basic premise of storytelling.

He didn't just step away from it. He wrestled it to the ground, took a shit on it, ran over it with his car, doused it in gasoline, and set it on fire.

No, we're putting on a horror show.

In Brecht's theatre, the idea is to get the audience to recognize a great social truth or problem, and to understand its effects on our/their lives. Threepenny's central argument is that it's not possible to be a moral or decent person, and also survive, in modern capitalism. And let's be honest, for many people in America today, that is true or at least nearly true. Half (or more) of the songs in the show are about that idea, directly or indirectly. It's a very different animal from its source, The Beggar's Opera, which is far more modest in its satire.

In other words, like its descendants, Bat Boy, Chicago, Cabaret, and Urinetown, Threepenny's agenda is to present a sociological (comedy) horror show, in order to convince the audience that our economic and political systems must change. The show presents the "monsters" these systems have created, for your moral horror. It's a Frankenstein story but we are the mad scientist. Instead of zombies robbed of their humanity, these monsters are just regular people, just like you and me, robbed of their humanity. And it's the banality of their lives that makes the horror so potent, and the satire so funny. They're not transformed into monsters by a supervillain or a radioactive spider, but by us, by the society that we are all part of.

We are to blame, Brecht is saying. And oddly enough, in 2015 it seems even Republican Presidential candidates agree.

What makes the show most unsettling is that morality is not just subverted here; it is absent. It is an unaffordable luxury. Jenny can't afford not to turn Mack in. The Peachums can't afford not to get rid of the competition. The police can't afford not to take bribes. The gang can't afford not to steal. At least in the world of Brecht's Threepenny. There are three "families" here, the Peachums, the Browns, and Mack's People, and each of them has their own power. The Browns have the power of the law and the government, the Peachums have the power of the masses (and of shame?), and Mack and Co. have the power (and freedom) of amorality. Their power is in having no consequences for their actions.

Brecht and composer Kurt Weill are not asking you to approve; they are asking you to understand. They're not offering up an excuse; just an explanation.

Brecht has created a reverse morality tale, a stark, cautionary tale like Reefer Madness was supposed to be. But Brecht is serious in his comedy, and he's arguably right. It's not a crazy idea that a broken society creates broken people – in fact, that's the central theme of our last two shows, Bonnie & Clyde and Jerry Springer the Opera.

Interestingly, our two shows before those, Rent and Hands on a Hardbody, made the opposite argument, that even in a broken society, we can rise above it and find our way. Though I'm not sure you could find Angel's idealism anywhere in Threepenny's London. It all reminds me of one of my favorite monologues in My Fair Lady:
Higgins: You mean to say you'd sell your daughter for fifty pounds?

Pickering: Have you no morals man?

Alfred P. Doolittle: No, no, I can't afford 'em, gov'ner. Neither could you if you was as poor as me. Not that I mean any 'arm, mind you, but if Eliza's getting a bit out of this, why not me too? Eh? Why not? Well, look at it my way – what am I? I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor, that's what I am. Now think what that means to a man. It means that he's up against middle-class morality for all of time. If there's anything going, and I puts in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "you're undeserving, so you can't have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widows that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same 'usband. I don't need less than a deserving man, I need more! I don't eat less 'earty than 'e does, and I drink, oh, a lot more. I'm playin' straight with you. I ain't pretendin' to be deserving. No, I'm undeserving. And I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it and that's the truth. But, will you take advantage of a man's nature to do 'im out of the price of 'is own daughter what he's brought up, fed and clothed by the sweat of 'is brow till she's growed big enough to be interesting to you two gentlemen? Well, is five pounds unreasonable? I'll put it to you, and I'll leave it to you.

It's a terrifying, funny, and brilliant economic argument. Put aside the comedy of Doolittle's happily "undeserving" life, and you see Threepenny's argument, that poverty makes morality impossible. I find it so fascinating that Threepenny's first visit to Broadway was such a flop, in 1933, right in the middle of the Depression, when you'd think audiences would have seen the ugly truths in Brecht's politics.

Brecht wrote this about Mr. J.J. Peachum:
The Threepenny Opera takes us into the milieu of London's criminal districts, Soho and Whitechapel, which are still, as they were two hundred years ago, the refuge of the poorest and not always most transparent strata of London's population. Mr. Jonathan Peachum has a novel way of capitalizing on human misery by artificially fitting out healthy human beings as cripples and sending them out to beg, thereby making a profit from the sympathy of the prosperous classes. He does not do this because he is in any way innately bad. "My position in the world is one of self-defense" – that is his principle which continually forces him to act with the utmost decisiveness.

When Brecht first read The Beggar's Opera (the source for Threepenny), he was struck by "the danger of a society that values money over equality and justice." He saw that happening in 1920s Germany, and it's easy to see now in 2015 America as well.

After yet another unarmed black man was killed last month, this time in Baltimore, I posted this to my Facebook page:
I know how to solve many (most?) of the problems in Baltimore, and other US cities, and if voters would give Democrats power for a while, it wouldn't be that hard to do these things.

1. Automatic voter registration, and online and mail-in voting, to really give power to the people.
2. End the War on Drugs, and release all nonviolent drug offenders in the country. And offer treatment to those who need it.
3. Create a new Works Progress Administration, and put Americans back to work fixing our crumbling infrastructure, roads, bridges, schools, etc.
4. Invest in our schools the way we did when I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, and forgive student loan debt.
5. Create a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans, that is above the poverty line (essentially a better Social Security).
6. Tax the mega-rich the way we did in the 50s and 60s – 90% or higher – and remove the cap so that rich folks pay social security tax on their entire income.
7. Body cameras on all police officers, and require police officers to live in the communities where they work.

The reason I repost this here is that it hit me the other night at rehearsal: Do these things in Threepenny's England, and people could afford to have morality. Give them political power, put fewer of them in jail, give them jobs, give them meaningful education, give them a police force that truly serves, and then crime will no longer be the only career option, and the opportunities for corruption will shrink.

And of course that brings me back to Ferguson, Baltimore, Brooklyn, the list goes on...

Brecht died in the 1950s but he's still talking to us. He's telling us that there is a price to pay for amoral, unfettered capitalism, for wild income inequality, and for an apathetic electorate. Brecht and Bernie Sanders. He's telling us that if we don't want our world to look like Threepenny, we have to act, we have to take power, we have to use our Democracy as it was intended, to work the will of all the people, not just the will of Tiger Brown, the Peachums, and their 2015 counterparts... who themselves could never begin to live on our minimum wage...

Here's how Mack puts it in "Ballad of the Easy Life" in Act II:
A question please: Is this what you call living?
Then take a little tip from Mack the Knife.
While still a child, I heard it with misgiving:
The bulging pocket makes the easy life.

They tell you that the best in life is mental;
Just starve yourself, and do a lot of reading,
Up in some garret, where the rats are breeding.
Should you survive, it's purely accidental.

If that's your pleasure, go on, live that way –
But since I've had it up to here, I'm through.
There's not a dog from here to Timbuctoo
Would care to live that life a single day.
So listen closely to Mack the Knife:
The bulging pocket makes the easy life.

Now once I used to think it might be worthy
To be a brave and sacrificing person.
I soon found out it wasn't reimbursin';
Decided to continue being earthy.

The noble poor are nobly underfed,
And being brave will bring an empty fame;
You're all alone with no one else to blame.
You're mingling with the great, but you are dead.
Where's the percentage? Ask Mack the Knife:
The bulging pocket makes the easy life.

Of course, Mack's solution to the problem is not to solve income inequality for all, just for him. He is, Brecht's arguing, the inevitable result of the kind of selfish, amoral economics that have guided the West for much of our history, a problem we've created but one we aren't willing to solve – a point driven home forcefully and comically in the show's ridiculous ending.

Which is why the revivals of Threepenny keep coming. When Mack sings, "So listen closely to Mack the Knife," he means it. And we'd better hear him.

The adventure, onstage and in real life, continues.

Long Live the Musical!