With MacHeath – aka (probably) Knife, gangster, murderer, polygamist and businessman – on trial for the murder of a female employee which he did not commit (though much of the blame for the woman’s actual suicide could be laid at Mac’s feet), his spiel about how his bargain “B” shops are helping the poor to buy cheap goods and supporting the franchise owners in a trade, is swallowed and repeated by almost all of the newspapers who cover it. We hear that:
“Only a proletarian publication slung mud at the B. shop Napoleon. But they could not be taken seriously because, contrary to the sporting spirit, they denied their victim any redeeming qualities and devoted most of their space to an impassioned demand for the forcible liquidation of the existing social order.”
Bertolt Brecht, though no proletarian by birth, had proletarian politics and was, as is widely known, committed to the liquidation of the existing social order. Threepenny Novel was a follow up to the hugely successful 1928 musical in collaboration with composer Kurt Weill: Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). That itself was inspired by a German translation of John Gay’s 1728 Beggars Opera. Brecht said, “Just like two hundred years ago we have a social order in which virtually all levels, albeit in a wide variety of ways, pay respect to moral principles not by leading a moral life but by living off morality.” In 1934, Brecht wrote the novel, Der Dreigroschenroman. I have a Penguin Books version of Desmond I. Vesey’s 1937 English translation.
Brecht does not deny the victims of his satire any redeeming qualities. On the contrary, it is the most forgiving unforgiving critique of capitalism I have ever come across. Its world is as deeply corrupt as the bitterest cynic might see it and yet the agents of this corruption are not inhuman, not simply villains, but people who at times quite genuinely believe they are doing the right thing, who, as Brecht says, are “living off morality”.
MacHeath, with one of his gang of B. shop ‘buyers’ burgles the police’s “international exhibition of crime and its prevention”. He does so only after an argument about whether they should take the English or French models (“We are in England, Grooch … Englishmen use English instruments … You have no realisation of the word “patriotism” etc.). The Chief of Police, is outraged. And, being a friend of MacHeath from their army days, he asks Mac to save the police force from its embarrassment – appealing to the loyalty they learnt together in the army and the fact that “up till now we have always played fair”. So Mac delivers up some poor criminal to take the blame and returns the tools. The police chief goes further and “without much prompting he offered to advance some of his own money”, accompanying it with a lecture about honour and soldiers and friendship. The money which the Chief of Police so generously loans to his gangster mate, he finds by extorting various brothels and illegal clubs. You get the picture, I hope.
Mac spends the novel desperately striving for respectability, for its security more than for its status. He comes to renounce burglary – not for the hypocritical reasons of a morality he never buys into, but simply because, as he gets deeper into business and closer into the heart of the establishment, he comes to realise that legitimate extortion is far more profitable. Struck by this realisation, he asks his old burglar mate from his prison cell:
“what is the burgling of a bank compared to the founding of a bank? What, my dear Grooch, is the murder of a man compared to the employment of a man?”
His father-in-law is unhappy that his much-closeted and protected daughter has married him. Peachum (father of Polly ‘Peach’ MacHeath), brought her up in innocence, making her take baths in her nightdress in case the sight of her own body awakened her sensuality. Of course, she becomes as sexually active as the rest of them and, being pregnant with someone else’s child, she marries Mac who seems a safer bet. The doting father, Peachum, is outraged. Especially because he needs a way out of a potentially ruinous business relationship with a man called Coax. As Coax is a sexual deviant with a strong self-reproaching sexual morality, he thinks the only way in which he can save his money is by selling off his daughter to the pervert.
And so there you have it. The law, police, business, finance, military, marriage, religion all deconstructed for what they are. It is a kind of Ayn Rand in reverse – a portrait of individualism but as farce not heroism. And this confused morality is poured out to the public relentlessly. Mac’s speech to his B. shop owners after announcing that he is forging a partnership with the (Jewish) retailer and rival, Aaron, is a case in point:
“The business man who ignores the penny, the hard-earned penny of the worker, makes a great mistake … That is the ideal of the B. shops. … In the future Aaron’s shops too will open their doors to the poorer people and thus serve the ideal of cheapness and of social progress. … Why should the mighty Aaron franchise want to work together with us small shopkeepers? … not because of the blue eyes of the bargain shops! Wherever we look in nature, nothing, is done except for material profit! … The stronger overcome the weaker, and so, in our mutual work with Aaron’s the question will be, in all friendliness, who is the stronger? … A fight in the service of an ideal! … I, too, have decided to dedicate in the future all my powers to you and to the B. shops. not for reasons of material gain, but because I believe in the ideal and because I know that independent retail is the life-blood of trade and also a goldmine!”
The contradictions are glaring, the moral stance shifts almost seamlessly between the pragmatic-materialist sublimation of profit, the quasi-fascist belief in rule-by-the-strong and the liberal virtues of social equality, yet there are the journalists to report it uncritically. The narrator calmly explains that, “as everyone knows, an appeal to individual effort seldom goes unheard”.
Throughout it all, the poor struggle on pretty hopelessly, as epitomised by the one-legged veteran of the Boer War, Fewkoomby. He is the first character we are introduced to in the novel and it is his descent into poverty, homelessness and begging which leads us into the underworld and the gangsters (illegitimate or otherwise) who run it. Mac continually threatens to engage our sympathy, although of course he is also utterly despicable. Like Marlow’s Tamburlaine, he rises in a hostile world and masters its ways better than his social superiors – and with less hypocrisy too. “Never forget: the sick man dies and the strong man fights. That’s life.”
 149, Brecht’s italics