Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
What's the story behind "Mack the Knife"?
April 1, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

What's with the lyrics to the song "Mack the Knife"? I heard a radio
report a couple of years ago describing it as a song about the real
life Detroit organized-crime scene. Is it really about the Detroit

— Harmon Everett

There were no mobs in Detroit in 1728, when the character we know as
Mack the Knife first made his appearance. In those days, there were
only about 30 families living in Fort Ponchartrain near Detroit du
Herie (strait of Erie), and none of them belonged to the Purple Gang.
In fact, the reference is to London, not Detroit, and to politicians
more than street gangs.

The character of Macheath, later to become Mack the Knife, first
appeared in The Beggar's Opera by John Gay (1685-1732). Gay was a
popular English playwright and poet, a friend and collaborator of
Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.

The Beggar's Opera is a comic ballad opera, the first of its kind, and
took London theatre by storm. Gay uses lower-class criminals to
satirize government and upper-class society, an idea that has been
used often ever since. A century and a half later, the title
characters in Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance note that
they are more honest than "many a king on a first-class throne." And
in our time, wasn't it Bob Dylan who wrote, "Steal a little and they
throw you in jail; steal a lot and they make you a king?"

The main character of The Beggar's Opera is a swashbuckling thief
called Macheath. He's a dashing romantic, a gentleman pickpocket, a
Robin Hood type. He is polite to the people he robs, avoids violence,
and shows impeccable good manners while cheating on his wife. The
character is usually understood as partly a satire of Sir Robert
Walpole, a leading British politician of the time.

The Beggar's Opera was a success from its first production in 1728,
and continued to be performed for many years. It was the first musical
play produced in colonial New York; George Washington enjoyed it.

We now skip about 200 years to post-WWI Europe and Bertolt Brecht
(1898-1956), a distant cousin of this SDSTAFFer. World War I had a
revolutionary impact on the arts. The avant-garde movement, in despair
after the war, embraced the concept of the anti-hero. Gay's play was
revived in England in 1920, and Brecht thought it could be adapted to
suit the new era - who's more of an anti-hero than Macheath? So in
1927 he got a German translation and started writing Die
Dreigroschenoper, "The Three Penny Opera."

Brecht worked with Kurt Weill (1900-1950) on the adaptation. He did
far more than just translate Gay's play, he reworked it to reflect the
decadence of the period and of the Weimar republic. Mostly, Brecht
wrote or adapted the lyrics, and Weill wrote or adapted the music.
Gay's eighteenth-century ballads were replaced with foxtrots and
tangos. Only one of Gay's melodies remained in the new work. The play
parodies operatic conventions, romantic lyricism and happy endings.

The main character is still Macheath, but Macheath transformed. He's
now called Mackie Messer, AKA Mack the Knife. ("Messer" is German for
knife.) Where Gay's Macheath was a gentleman thief, Brecht's Mackie is
an out-and-out gangster. He's no longer the Robin Hood type, he's an
underworld cutthroat, the head of a band of street robbers and
muggers. He describes his activities as "business" and himself as a
"businessman." Still, the character does manage to arouse some
sympathy from the audience.

So, we finally get to your song, the "Ballad of Mack the Knife" (Die
Moritat von Mackie Messer) from The Three Penny Opera. The song was a
last-minute addition to appease the vanity of tenor Harald Paulson,
who played Macheath. However, it was performed by the ballad singer,
to introduce the character. The essence of the song is: "Oh, look
who's coming onstage, it's Mack the Knife - a thief, murderer,
arsonist, and rapist." (If these last two startle you, be patient for
a couple paragraphs.)

The Brecht-Weill version premiered in Germany in 1928 and was an
instant hit. Within a year, it was being performed throughout Europe,
from France to Russia. Between 1928 and 1933 it was translated into 18
languages and had over 10,000 performances.

In 1933, The Three Penny Opera was first translated into English and
brought to New York by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky. There have
been at least eight English translations over the years. In the 1950s,
Marc Blitzstein wrote an adaptation, cleaning up "Mack the Knife" and
dropping the last two stanzas about arson and rape. At the revival in
New York using the Blitzstein translation, Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill's
widow, made her comeback - she had a role in the original 1928 Berlin

Blitzstein's sanitized adaptation is the best known version of the
song in the English-speaking world, and undoubtedly the one you've
heard. Louis Armstrong popularized it worldwide in 1955 with an
amazing jazz beat. Bobby Darin's 1958 recording was #1 on the
Billboard charts for many weeks and won a Grammy as best song. It's
been sung as ballad, jazz, and rock by many of the greats, including
Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney.

In the 1970s, Joseph Papp commissioned Ralph Manheim and John Willett
to do an adaptation/translation that would be "more faithful" to
Brecht. So, if you were surprised at the notion of arson and rape,
here's Willett's translation of the last two stanzas, omitted from the
Blitzstein version:

    And the ghastly fire in Soho,
    Seven children at a go-
    In the crowd stands Mack the knife, but
    He's not asked and doesn't know.
    And the child bride in her nightie,
    Whose assailant's still at large
    Violated in her slumbers-
    Mackie how much did you charge?

Having hit the heights with Louis Armstrong, it's only fair that we
also recount the depths reached in the 1980s with the McDonald's TV
jingle, "Mac Tonight." Selling Big Macs - how have the mighty fallen.

    Got a question, Harmon Everett?
    Get behind old Lucy Brown.
    Oh the line forms on the right, dear
    Now that Cecil's back in town.

— Songbird
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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board,
Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these
columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd
better keep your fingers crossed.

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