What’s the story behind “Mack the Knife”?


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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 mob? Harmon Everett

SDStaff Songbird replies:

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 production.

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.

SDStaff Songbird, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.