Most people will have heard the opening song to "The Threepenny Opera" by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht - even if you've never seen the play, you will have heard "Mack the Knife" at some time. Originally written and composed in the 1920s, it has proven to be an enduring classic, recorded by a wide range of singers such as Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Lotte Lenya (Kurt Weill's wife), Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and even modern singers such as Ute Lemper, Michael Buble, and Robbie Williams. There is also an excellent Country and Western version by Jimmie Dale Gilmore. The song is so highly regarded that it has been included in The Great American Songbook. This is a remarkable achievement, made even more remarkable when we examine the politics of the writers involved and the content of the lyrics.
Bertolt Brecht, the librettist, was what is now known as a "Tankie Marxist", who fled Germany just before the Nazi takeover in 1933. He took refuge in the USA during WW2, later being questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he denied being a Communist (to the disgust of many who knew him), eventually moving to East Germany, where he died, an apparent supporter of the regime. This is not the biography that might be expected of someone whose work appears in the Great American Songbook. His composer associate, Kurt Weill, who also escaped to America, split from Brecht in the 1940s, because, as his widow Lotte Lenya said, he could not "..."set the Communist Manifesto (by Marx and Engels) to music." Nevertheless, without Weill's jaunty tune, "Mack the Knife" would probably not have been the success that it has become.
The other remarkable aspect of the song's popularity is the content of the lyrics. Now, the song we know is translated from German, the best known being that by Mark Blitzstein, which was the Bobby Darin version, but there are other translations. Translations or not, the lyrics provide a chilling picture of crimes committed by the play's anti-hero, Captain Macheath ("Mack"). As a writer of lyrics myself, I am sometimes questioned about the serious nature of some of my subject matter. Even I, however (and I admire Brecht), would never touch on these events, found in "Mack the Knife":
1. Mack goes about "tooled up" with a jack-knife, and always ready to use it.
2. A man is murdered on a pleasant Sunday morning (Mack is suspected)
3.A grandfather and seven grandchildren die in an arson attack in Soho (Mack is suspected)
4. A corpse, presumably the victim of a hit, is dumped in the Thames (Again, Mack is suspected).
5. Wealthy Louie Miller is found dead and Mack suddenly "...spends like a sailor".
Well, I certainly would never include any such crimes in one of my lyrics -I write about them here, on my blog. It is a tribute to the artistry of Weill and Brecht that the song works so well.
If you read the playscript, or watch the play itself, you will see at once that Macheath is not a "real" person. Produced in 1928, it is one of Brecht's earliest plays to use the technique of "alienation", where the characters represent attitudes or abstractions. Anyone who has seen agitprop alternative theatre companies will be familiar with the technique. There are many interpretations of what Macheath symbolises, but what interests me is the fact that, in the first part of the play at least, Mack manages to avoid being directly incriminated for his criminal activities; there is no "smoking gun" (or bloody knife) that leads to his conviction. Mack is a "slippery customer" who, like many leading gangland figures, has friends in the police. Mack's "bent copper" is Tiger Brown who, in the play, assures Mack in Act One, Scene Two, that:
"There's nothing whatsoever on record against you at Scotland Yard".
This aspect of Macheath's character has sinister parallels with some historic and present day political figures. Lotte Lenya, for instance, saw a resemblance of Mack to Hitler during the build-up to the Nazi leader's seizure of power in Germany. No matter what crimes were attributed to the Nazi thugs of the SS and SA, nothing could be proved against Hitler. Even when planning, and executing, the Final Solution, Hitler saw the need to try and avoid written records of his heinous crimes. Mack would have been proud of him.
Mack's influence can also be seen today in the alleged outrages of President Vladimir Putin. It is said by some that President Putin has been behind the murders of numerous people who have been unwise enough to upset him Here are just a few (alleged) examples:
November, 1998, Less than four months after Putin takes over at the KGB, opposition Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova, the most prominent pro-democracy Kremlin critic in the nation, was murdered at her apartment building in St. Petersburg.
April, 2003. Sergei Yushenkov, co-chairman of the Liberal Russia political party, was gunned down at the entrance of his Moscow apartment block. Yushenkov was vice chairman of the“Kovalev Commission” which was formed to informally investigate charges that Putin’s KGB had planted the Pechatniki and Kashirskoye apartment bombs (September, 1999) to whip up support for Putin’s war in Chechnya after the formal legislative investigation turned out to be impossible. Another member of the Commission, Yuri Shchekochikhin, died of poisoning, a third was severely beaten by thugs, and two other members lost their seats in the Duma.
September, 2006. Andrei Kozlov, First Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Central Bank, who strove to stamp out money laundering, the highest-ranking reformer in Russia, was assassinated in Moscow.
October, 2006. Anna Politkovskaya, author of countless books and articles exposing Russian human rights violations in Chechnya and attacking Vladimir Putin as a dictator, was murdered at her home in Moscow.
November, 2006. Alexander Litvinenko, KGB defector and author of the book Blowing up Russia, which accuses the Kremlin of masterminding the Pechatniki and Kashirskoye bombings in Moscow in order to blame Chechen terrorists and whip up support for an invasion of Chechnya (which shortly followed), was fatally poisoned by radioactive Polonium obtained from Russian sources. This killing, which took place in London, is currently under investigation here in Britain.
Now, as can clearly be seen, all these people - and these are just a sample of many victims worthy of mention - were not exactly friendly to President Putin. Many more of his critics (mostly journalists) have died in suspicious circumstances, and yet there is no conclusive evidence to prove Putin's involvement. Those of you who read this blog's Christmas Message last December will recall that he vehemently denies any involvement in the murder of people he dislikes. And, despite the best efforts of his foes in Russia and beyond, no-one has "the goods" on him. Like Macheath, there is nothing on record against him at Scotland Yard, or anywhere else.
The former world chess champion, Gary Kasparov, has said that to understand Putin's Russia, we should dispense with reading Karl Marx and read the books of Mario Puzo instead. Mario Puzo, we may recall, is the author of "The Godfather" books. Whatever books we read, it looks like Macheath is back in town.