The Living Tool of Satan

One of the surprises audiences discover when they see Threepenny for the first time, is how different the original “Mack the Knife” is musically from the pop versions we’re all used to, and also how much darker the full lyric is. Sinatra and Bobby Darin didn’t sing about Little Susie’s rape.

So I thought it would be fun to dig down into this amazing lyric, the English version by Marc Blitzstein, translated from Brecht’s original, the version New Line is producing. It starts by introducing the main character and the themes of the show.

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear,
And he keeps it out of sight.

On a purely technical level, I love the sh sound repeated in the first two lines, and the ABAB rhyme pattern that’s set up, though the lyric won’t follow that consistently.

These first four lines accomplish so much, in terms of content and structure. First of all, the show’s basic rules are set up right away. The Fourth Wall will be broken, the actors will directly address the audience, there will be story-songs, and there will be lots of dark, dark, dark irony.

Significantly, this very first image of the show is a shark. That tells you a great deal about what you need to know – this is a story about predators. But notice that the first line also invokes the idea of attraction with the word pretty, which acts as a hint at Mack’s seductive powers. As we watch the story unfold, we’ll remember this metaphor of Mack as a deadly predator.

The song then compares that deadly predator to our (anti-)hero for the evening, Capt. Macheath, in a bit of delicious irony. We’re told that Macheath is less dangerous – he “just” has a jackknife, i.e., a switchblade, as if that’s not scary enough – and also that Mack is more discreet. Than a shark. He’s sort of bourgeois (and we’ll see more of that in the wedding scene). He doesn’t flaunt his weapon the way the shark shows off his. It’s the word just that gives this stanza its irony. There are lots of predators in the world, the lyric is saying; Macheath is the least of your worries…

But his discretion makes him all the more dangerous. You know the shark will get you. You never know when Mack will…

Before we go on, I want to look at other translations. Here is the first verse from John Willett’s 1970s translation:

See the shark has teeth like razors,
All can read his open face;
And Macheath has got a knife, but
Not in such an obvious place!

I’ve been told this is more faithful to the German, but it’s a really terrible theatre lyric. How on earth do you read the face of a shark? And what does it mean for a shark to have an “open face”? And why put the unimportant word but on such a strong beat? Plus you have to add a note to make “obvious place” work. That’s not very good translating.

Eric Bentley’s 1964 translation is just as awkward:

And the shark he has his teeth and
There they are for all to see.
And Macheath he has his knife but
No one knows where it may be.

Again, the unimportant words and and but (and others) are set on heavy beats. Set to the music, it sounds like Mack has a knife-butt, whatever that might be. And I hate starting the first song of the show with “And…” But what bugs me most is the last line sounds like Mack lost his knife! Jeremy Sims’ 1994 translation is better –

Though the shark’s teeth may be lethal,
Still you see them white and red;
But you won’t see Mackie’s flick-knife
‘Cause he slashed you and you’re dead!

But it doesn’t totally makes sense. The shark’s teeth may be lethal? Then he gets to the same idea as Blitzstein, that you won’t see Mack commit the crime, but Sims makes it funnier by adding that the main reason you won’t see him is he’s already killed you. But wouldn’t that also be true of the shark…?

Michael Feingold’s 1989 lyric is, I believe, the closest to Brecht’s:

Oh the shark’s teeth, you can see them
Always ready to attack;
But you won’t see Mackie’s knife blade,
Till you feel it in your back.

Same idea as Sims’ version. And like Sims, it doesn’t totally make sense. How can you see it when you feel it in your back? And it makes it sound like sharks are always swimming on the surface of the water with their mouths agape.

You can see why we chose the Blitzstein translation. Going on, with the second stanza of the Blitzstein…

When the shark bites with his teeth, dear,
Scarlet billows start to spread.
Fancy gloves, though, wears Macheath, dear,
So there’s not a trace of red.

Again, Mack is discreet. He doesn’t make a mess. He’s positively genteel. For a rapist-murderer, that is.

But take a look at this verse in the Willett translation:

See the shark, how red his fins are
As he slashes at his prey;
Mack the Knife wears white kid gloves which
Give the minimum away!

The first line may look okay on the page, but in rhythm, it goes, “See the shark how… red his fins are…” Also, it’s hard to sing “white kid gloves” that quickly. And once again, Willett, sets the unimportant which on a really heavy beat, and he places minimum across a half-measure rest, so in rhythm, it goes, “Give the mi-ni… mum away.” That’s terrible.

Back to Blitzstein…

On the sidewalk Sunday morning
Lies a body oozing life.
Someone’s sneaking ’round the corner.
Is the someone Mack the Knife?

As I said above, it’s that discretion that is his deadliest weapon. You never see him coming, and neither does anyone else. “He keeps it out of sight.”

And in terms of craft, this stanza is so great. First, there are all those S sounds – “On the sidewalk Sunday morning, lies a body oozing life. Someone’s sneaking round the corner. Is the someone Mack the Knife?” And there are two Z sounds in there that contribute to the effect. It almost makes Mack subliminally snake-like..

From a tugboat by the river
A cement bag’s dropping down.
The cement’s just for the weight, dear.
Bet you Mackie’s back in town.

Once again, the word just lends the verse a satiric casualness, as does the word dear throughout the song. But beyond the words, there’s a very smart structure here too. The first verse introduces the killer. In the second verse, he attacks someone (“when the shark bites”). In the third verse, the victim dies (“a body oozing life”). In this fourth verse, the body is disposed of, in the river. None of this is concretely tied to Mack, but we know it’s him.

Now the song gets more specific in its violence. Now, it’s not just “a body" – it’s women. Once the song starts mentioning names, making it personal, it gets more unsettling.

Sloppy Sadie was discovered
With a knife wound in her thigh.
And Macheath strolls down on dock street,
Looking dreamy at the sky.

Now the attacks become sexual. Beyond the knife wound, are we to believe these last two lines describe Mack’s satisfaction after a rape? Is he that stone-cold? We don’t have to wonder long…

There was rape down by the harbor.
Little Susie caused a stir,
Claiming that she’d been assaulted.
Wonder what got into her?

Notice that she’s only "claiming” that she’s been assaulted, Notice also in the last line the implication that her accusation will not be taken seriously. It’s a hint at the role of women in this community.

Why won’t she be taken seriously? Because it’s Mack the Knife. So we repeat the first stanza to end the song, creating musical and narrative bookends. Mackie just has a switchblade, after all. And he keeps it out of sight. Which is a big metaphor (though a first-time audience won’t know it yet) for Mack’s far-reaching political corruption. Keeping his knife “out of sight” represents, among other things, the deal he’s made with Tiger Brown to keep his offense out of the public record.

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear,
And he keeps it out of sight.

But wait, there’s more.

The script provides us four more alternate verses, we could use if we want. There are no guidelines about using them. Judging from the music, my guess is that if you use one of these, you’re supposed to replace one of the others. Though apparently, the original had eleven verses. For our production, we added one of these, but we didn’t drop any of the others.

Here are the alternates:

Louie miller disappeared, dear,
After drawing out his cash.
And Macheath spends like a sailor.
Did our boy do something rash?

Sukey Tawdry, Jenny Diver,
Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown –
Oh, the line forms on the right, dear,
Now that Mackie’s back in town.

Hey, what happened to that hackie
Used to take drunks home for free?
He was last seen driving Mackie –
But says Mackie: “Why ask me?”

Big explosion at the market.
Twenty people blown to death.
In the crowd stands wide-eyed Mackie,
Only slightly out of breath.

This first of the alternates expands on Mack’s criminal enterprises, but it doesn’t set up anything important. The second alternate (which we used) is a list of Mack’s multiple women, which is core part of the plot, and references Mack’s mysterious appeal to women. The third stanza here is like the first, interesting, but adding nothing of value. The last one is really brutal, and does add some narrative value. I considered using it too, but the song was already long enough…

I read five different translations of Threepenny before deciding which one we’d produce. I’m told Blitzstein’s lyrics are tamer than Brecht’s, but they are also far and away the best stage writing and the best storytelling of all the versions I read.

The other translations of “Mack the Knife” mostly just list a different crime in every verse, some of them rape-murders, some just robberies and other crimes. None of them does what Blitzstein does, introducing the character and establishing his preoccupation with women, which is both Mack’s tragic flaw and the primary driver of the story.

And none of them capture that playful, smartass charm that defines the show, nearly as well as Blitzstein. It’s Blitzstein’s version that schooled theatre artists like Sondheim, Hal Prince, Kander & Ebb, and others, on how to write an opening number for a concept musical – something which didn’t exist yet when Blitzstein translated Threepenny.

Maybe the most disturbing thing about “Mack the Knife,” though I’m not sure anyone registers it consciously, is that his horrific litany of crime and violence represents a kind of stable balance at the beginning of our narrative. After all, this opening song essentially sets up Macheath as Jack the Ripper. This is the “balance” that the Peachums will upset, which will propel the action.

Unpunished rape and murder is the “order” in this universe. And ultimately, when balance is restored at the end of the story, it restores Jack the Ripper and his unpunished rapes and murders. And that’s the fierce, pitch black social satire at the center of all of this.

And it’s all there in the first song of the show. All before we even meet Mack.

But “Mack the Knife” returns at the end of the show for two more verses:

Happy ending, nice and tidy.
It’s a rule I learned in school.
Get your money every Friday.
Happy endings are the rule.

What is the song saying here at the end of the show? That we can leave the nightmare world of Macheath’s SoHo and return safely to our homes? That we can go back to our routines, safe in the knowledge that everything ends well? Well, not exactly. That’s what we think we’ll do. But like the rest of the show, nothing here is that simple. This final moment finishes with:

So divide up those in darkness
From the ones who walk in light.
Light ’em up, boys, there’s your picture.
Drop the shadows out of sight.

What’s the point here? The lyric is referencing Isaiah 9:2, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” We’re the ones who’ve seen the great light, the sociopolitical enlightenment that Threepenny has given us. This final verse is talking about leaving behind the time of darkness and finding redemption. The show is telling us, like Scrooge on the third night, that this darkness is not inevitable, that it is in our hands to take ourselves out of the darkness, to “drop the shadows out of sight.”

It’s invoking a kind of existential redemption, which also connects to all the Christ references throughout the show, but it’s a redemption that relies on us, not on a savior.

Set consciously in the second-person imperative, this last lyric calls on us to “divide up those in darkness,” those who are trapped in this dark fable, “from the ones who walk in light,” those of us who will do something to change the world for the better. Like “Let the Sun Shine In” at the end of the very Brechtian Hair, this is a call to action.

What an amazing, complex piece of theatre, and what a privilege to get to share it with all of you.

Long Live the Musical!

from The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre


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