The Threepenny Opera

Written by Bertolt Brecht, (Music by Kurt Weill)

Thursday 7th July to Saturday 9th July and Tuesday 12th July to Saturday 16th July 1983

Directed by David Penrose (Musical Director Paul Mizen)

'The Threepenny Opera' challenges conventional notions of property as well as those of theatre. It dramatises the question: "Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?" An early example of the modern musical comedy genre, this play has been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times.

AuthorBertolt Brecht

Eugen Bertolt Friedrich Brecht (1898 - 1956)

Brecht was a poet, playwright, and theatre director. Born in Augsburg, Germany, he studied philosophy and medicine at the University of Munich before becoming a medical orderly in a German military hospital during the First World War. This experience reinforced his hatred of war and influenced his support for the failed Socialist revolution in 1919. After the war Brecht returned to university but became more interested in literature - his first play to be produced was Baal in 1922.

Together with Kurt Weill he later wrote 'The Threepenny Opera' (based on The Beggar's Opera). Brecht added his own lyrics which illustrated his growing belief in Marxism. He also attempted to develop a new approach to the the theatre. He tried to persuade his audiences to see the stage as a stage, actors as actors and not to overlook the traditional make-believe of the theatre. Brecht required detachment, not passion, from the observing audience. The purpose of the play was to awaken the spectators' minds so that he could communicate his version of the truth.

Brecht's plays reflected a Marxist interpretation of society and when Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933 he was forced to flee from Germany - living in Denmark, Sweden and the Soviet Union and finally the USA. While living in exile he wrote anti-Nazi plays such as 'The Roundheads and the Peakheads' and 'Fear and Misery of the Third Reich'. This was later followed by 'Galileo', 'Mother Courage', 'The Good Man of Szechuan', 'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui' and the 'Caucasian Chalk Circle'.

In 1947 Brecht was named in the House of Un-American Activities Committee investigation. He denied being a member of the American Communist Party but soon after left the USA for East Germany. In 1949 Brecht founded the Berliner Ensemble (which became the country's most famous theatre company) with his wife and long-time collaborator, the actress Helene Weigel.

ComposerKurt Weill

Kurt Weill

Born in Germany, Weill studied at the Berlin University of the Arts. He fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and moved to the USA in 1935. He composed 'Mahagonny', 'Lady in the Dark', 'Street Scene' and many other innovative works for the theatre. Weill's music continues to be performed both in popular and classical contexts.

PlayThe Threepenny Opera

'The Threepenny Opera' was written by Brecht and Weill in 1928 and first performed in Berlin that same year. It was made into a film in 1931 and adapted to become the 1989 film, 'Mack The Knife'. It proclaims itself "an opera for beggars," and it was in fact an attempt both to satirise traditional opera and operetta.

The setting is Soho (London), just before Queen Victoria's coronation. The play focuses on criminal anti-hero, Macheath, who marries Polly Peachum. This displeases Polly's father, who controls the beggars of London, and he endeavours to have Macheath hanged. His attempts are hindered by the fact that the Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, is Macheath's old army comrade. Nevertheless, Peachum exerts his influence and eventually gets Macheath arrested and sentenced to hang. Macheath escapes this fate via a deus ex machina moments before the execution when, in an unrestrained parody of a happy ending, a messenger from the Queen arrives to pardon Macheath and grant him the title of Baron.

The Bench Production

The Threepenny Opera poster image

This play was staged at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977. During the interval and after the show, patrons were invited to look at an exhibition the Bench had set up to run alongside the production. As well as displaying background material to the design of the production itself, there were notes on Brecht, his collaboration with Kurt Weill and Berlin in the 1920s. This exhibition was mounted with the help of Nicola Scadding.

On two evenings after the performance of The Threepenny Opera, as part of a new Bench initiative called Late Night Theatre, a performance of The Yellow Wallpaper was also staged.


Mr PeachumPeter Corrigan
Mrs PeachumJanet Simpson
Polly PeachumLezley Picton
FilchPeter Holding
Five BeggarsGary Mitchell
Stella Benton
Jane Hope
Gina Cameron
Veronica Haste
MacheathRay Osborne
MatthewDavid Urquhart
JakeSaul Hewish
BobColin Hardy
WaltJon Philpot
JimmyGary Mitchell
Commissioner BrownJohn Scadding
Reverend KimballTony Adams
Constable SmithPeter Holding
Constable JonesTim Kimber
Lucy BrownJane Hart
Jenny DiverPenny Cameron
CoaxerStella Benton
BettyGina Cameron
NellyJude Salmon
DollySylvia Brierley
Two WhoresJane Hope
Veronica Haste
NarratorDavid Dipnall
Piano Paul Mizen
Reeds Ken Alexander
Trumpet Paul Mizen
Banjo Jon Philpot
Percussion George Race


Director David Penrose
Musical Director Paul Mizen
Stage Manager David Graham
Lighting Paul Francis
Costume design Jacquie Penrose
Costumes made by Jane Hart
Jo German
Jacquie Penrose
Robbie Cattermole
Make-up Craig Morrison
David Penrose
Singing coach Isobel D'Arcy
Rehearsal pianist Ruth Prior
Properties Jenny Graham
Jo German

Director's Notes

In 1927 Brecht wanted to write a play about sex and money, and the corruption of human nature that can stem from them both. He wanted it to be provoking, morally educational as well as richly entertaining; one in the eye for a complacent and fashionable Berlin audience, - an audience more used to the lavish operatic stage, gorgeous romantic musicals and spectacularly mounted classics. But not an ignorant audience. Culturally, Berlin between the wars was enormously sophisticated and well informed. They knew the theatre tradition that Brecht would draw from if he turned an existing play in to something else for their entertainment. In taking John Gay's 'The Beggar's Opera' Brecht had motives other than cultural allusion. He believed that in order to keep art contemporary we should not revere its past, but deliberately rework its all too familiar plots and famous scenes into something strikingly new. He had already recycled Marlowe's 'Edward II' and would soon turn to Shakespeare's 'Coriolanus' and Webster's 'The Duchess of Malfi'.

With surprisingly few changes in its structure 'The Beggar's Opera' became 'The Threepenny Opera'. Brecht and John Gay did share similar intentions, however. Gay had written a conscious piece of political satire for a London audience overfed on ornate, Italianate Handelian opera. His Macheath was a portrait of the Prime Minister of the day, Sir Robert Walpole. His audience little expected to see an opera set in a prison instead of on Mount Olympus; and to hear familiar street songs from the untrained voices of actors. The combination proved devastating and 'The Beggar's Opera' was a sensation.

Brecht wanted the same mix; politics and music, - the one harshly critical of bourgeois values; the other seductive, rhythmical and lyrical by turns, irresistible to its audience, this making the desired chemical reaction of content, form and spectator complete. In 1928, at the first performance, Brecht hoped to spring his trap. But he had not bargained for the immensity of his audience's sophistication, the breadth of their decadence. In furs and diamonds they revelled in its perversity, applauded its innovation as nothing more than chic, went home humming its tunes, - and missed the point. Kurt Weill's music became wildly popular as something divorced from the play; a jazzy film version was planned, - Brecht sued, settled out of court and washed his hands of the finished movie. Not until he founded his own actors company, The Berliner Ensemble, in 1949 was the play performed with anything like the author's intended effect.

David Penrose

Brecht's Berlin

Though 'The Threepenny Opera' is set in a vaguely indistinct Victorian London, our production takes its tone from Brecht's Berlin between the wars. Christopher Isherwood, whose portrait of Sally Bowles in 'Goodbye to Berlin' formed the basis of the musical 'Cabaret', has described the city's special attraction then as a self-conscious celebration of the perverse. after 1918, the fall of the monarchy, and the setting up of the Weimar Republic, Berlin caught the desire of Germany's middle classes to escape from the horror and shame of the war into a decadent turmoil of sensual indulgence. Against the background of frantic moneymaking and violent political unrest, the Berliners ostentatiously immersed themselves in a new popular culture. The cinema produced dazzling work from directors like Pabst and Fritz Lang. The theatre world, lead by Max Reinhardt, found a brilliant new range of styles. Classical musicians like Weill explored the new jazz; and, perhaps most symptomatically of all, the nightclubs filled with cabaret, - harsh, brittle, strident and erotic. In all this there was little time spared for social responsibility to the poor; the Depression hit Germany hard and early. Morality was a thing redefined daily in the banks, boardrooms and bordellos of the city; self-respect was sold cheap every night in the bars and tenements. No single artist caught the fractured, hysterical kaleidoscope of Berlin before Hitler better than Brecht's friend and some-time collaborator, George Grosz. It was to his visual style that we first turned in making our production of 'The Threepenny Opera'.

Production Photographs