If there’s one thing Occupy Wall Street demonstrates about most of us, it’s how desperately our minds seek order in civic affairs. That’s natural, since politics is the science of government. We demand clarity, and a movement as inclusive and haphazard as OWS throws us off balance. But Bertolt Brecht understood, more than eighty years ago, that disorientation is a valuable tool in its own right. So the timing of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s remounting of The Threepenny Opera earlier this month, performed by the Berliner Ensemble (the company he founded), was serendipitous.
The musical first debuted in 1928, and is iconic in the art, music, and literary worlds. It didn’t take more than a couple of songs to understand why: I knew more of the music than I realized, and it’s clear that many films and musicals like “Cabaret,” “Chicago,” and even “A Clockwork Orange” reference the opera’s design or music. But as the opera took aim at corrupt capitalists via a street gang whose members harbored crimes and flaws of their own, something else seemed familiar… and somewhere in Zuccotti Park, an OWS protester probably shifted in her sleep, dreaming about the next march.
Parallels between Weimar Germany and the present-day United States may not be obvious at first glance, and certainly aren’t exact. Germany’s fledgling Republic had been forced on it as a consequence of the Great War, and the nation faced steep reparations. The country began a process of financial recovery, experiencing a modicum of financial growth and stability in the mid-1920s, only to see the economy plunge again in the worldwide Depression at the end of the decade. The U.S., on the other hand, has enjoyed a period of prosperity, until an initial dip in 2001 following the events of September 11 and a full-blown economic crisis in the 2008 housing market crash and recession. So despite different trajectories, it’s not hard to imagine that both the Weimar Republic in 1928 and the U.S. today feel a bit, in their respective times, like listing ships that can probably still be righted. But how, exactly, and when?
Despite economic instability, Weimar Germany was also a time of frenzied cultural experimentation in the arts and philosophy. Berlin was the center of the cultural world (as many consider New York today), and artists and writers were pushing the limits of form and critiquing popular culture and new mass media—especially the infinitely reproducible photograph. But the pace of modernity was a concern to intellectuals of the time; things seemed to be changing so fast. What sort of shape was the world taking?
Combine Weimar’s difficult economic conditions with Brecht and Weill’s artistic genius, and you get The Threepenny Opera. It’s based on The Beggars Opera (1728) by John Gay, an English anti-opera of sorts, with ordinary people and everyday tunes. In Brecht’s piece, set in London days before the coronation of Queen Victoria, a gang of murderers and thieves, led by the charming rogue Macheath, plunder the city, getting away with it because Tiger Brown, the chief of police, is an old friend of Macheath’s. Not all the poor are part of his gang, though: Peachum, a thoroughly despicable character, runs a business organizing all the beggars across the city, assigning them locations and taking a percentage of their alms. When Macheath runs afoul of Peachum by seducing his daughter Polly, chaos ensues, loyalties are betrayed, and it seems that even Chief Brown can no longer save Macheath as he stands on the gallows in the last act.
Brecht clearly wanted to critique capitalism, and sympathizes with characters at the bottom of the economic heap. In the finale to Act Two, Macheath explains that for the poor workers, “Food is the first thing, morals follow on.” Then he asks, and answers:
What keeps mankind alive? The fact that millions
Are daily tortured, stifled, punished, silenced and oppressed.
Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance
In keeping its humanity repressed.
For once you must try not to shirk the facts.
Mankind is kept alive
by bestial acts!*
Brecht’s lyrics are especially dramatic (it is an opera, after all), and conditions in the U.S. today aren’t the same as those of Weimar Germany. But this song seems like a distillation of the frustration the protestors at Occupy Wall Street are expressing in their rhetoric: the structure elevating the one percent at the top built on the backs of the ninety-nine percent at the bottom. The statement OWS has released is a pretty wide list of grievances, but they all seem to point to a couple of things: a sense that corporate life dominates all else, and that it results in income inequality and a scarcity of resources to share, such as health care and a clean environment.
It’s not a perfect statement, but if you could ask Brecht, I think he’d say that’s not a problem. His characters’ voices aren’t perfect either. They half-sing, half-speak, growl, wail, and generally don’t sound like any opera singers you’ve heard before. Brecht did this purposefully; he wanted to communicate passion, not perfection, and disliked the way actors in traditional musical theater acted as if it were the most natural thing on earth to break into song. Brecht wanted his audience members to be conscious of the proscenium and that they were watching a constructed piece—not so different from a protest, in a way.
So the voices in his works aren’t perfect, and neither are his characters. Over the years, his opera has sometimes been remounted as a Marxist work, since Brecht adopted this political philosophy around the same time he wrote the piece. This interpretation makes little sense; Brecht doesn’t seem to be holding up any one political philosophy or social group as an answer. The capitalists are corrupt, but in “Mack the Knife,” we get a laundry list of Macheath’s crimes as the opera opens. Peachum is so reprehensible that his entire business model is built on profiting from the most economically vulnerable citizens in the community. Nearly every character is willing to sell out somebody else. I don’t mean to imply that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are criminals, but rather to point out what Brecht does: people’s imperfections don’t negate or justify the difficult or desperate conditions many find themselves in.
So it’s not surprising to me that the people camping out on Wall Street feel disenfranchised by the economic conditions many in the country face. Some commentators have dismissed the protesters as ignorant and ineffective. But if we gave protesters the benefit of the doubt and assumed that every one of them has participated in our governmental process in all the ways others think they should, so (or then) what? I, like them, am not sure it would have made much difference. Financial systems in this country are so complex (that ugly modernity again), our education in navigating them so remiss, and true control of them limited to such a few people that it seems disingenuous to insist that protestors should easily be able to demand specific solutions to the problems they are pointing out. (If they could, wouldn’t our nation’s brilliant financial minds have recognized the same answers long ago?)
So, we come to the end of the opera, to the gallows scene. Macheath, sure that this time there’s no escape, is actually granted a last-minute reprieve by Queen Victoria, offering him a title and a castle. The company sings that this ending is more amenable to the audience, and thus necessary, and closes by asking that, as a rule, we avoid judging misdeeds too harshly.
I was momentarily befuddled; the ending left me with no easy moral thread through the piece. But this is exactly as Brecht intended. Life, he’s pointing out, doesn’t work like that: good rewarded with good, bad rewarded with bad. Everyone is compromised to some degree. It seems unlikely that the protestors of Occupy Wall Street will need a pardon or receive a castle—but in the meantime, I think we should withhold harsh judgment. Like Brecht, they are calling attention to the frustration of disillusioned citizens. And that’s a start.
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.