UNCG Theatre began performances of The Threepenny Opera Wednesday evening. While it is best known for the song “Mack the Knife,” The Threepenny Opera is a tremendously important piece of 20th century dramatic literature and is certainly among my favorite plays.
While the play does indeed feature lots of music, it isn’t an opera in the traditional sense–it isn’t “sung through,” so most of the text is spoken. This balance of spoken dialogue and song may seem akin to musical theatre–but The Threepenny Opera doesn’t really fall into that category either. In most works of musical theatre, singing emerges from intense dramatic situations; a character may need a song to express an idea that words alone cannot capture. In The Threepenny Opera, songs sometimes relate to the dramatic situation but just as often, the songs are only tangentially related to what is happening between the characters. And in some cases, the song is a complete interruption of the action.
The creators of this piece, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, were artist-activists and viewed every piece of theatre as a political statement. To them, a work of art either supports the status quo or challenges the status quo. To encourage their audience to think objectively and politically about the situations in their plays, they worked to prevent the audience from developing an emotional connection with the play’s characters. This attempt became known as the “alienation effect,” and resulted in a style of performance that keeps the audience at an arm’s length from the play’s action. To achieve the alienation effect, characters might directly address the audience, reminding them they are only watching a play. Design elements might be merely suggested rather than rendered in a realistic, lifelike manner. Performers might deliver lines sarcastically or without realistic expressiveness, ensuring that audience members won’t empathize with the character. And in the case of The Threepenny Opera, like many other Brecht plays, songs are used to interrupt or comment upon the action.
In my Big Plays, Big Ideas class in the BLS program, we read another Brecht play, The Life of Galileo, and discuss the ways in which Brecht alienates the audience to ensure they observe the sociopolitical circumstances that inform the characters’ behavior. In studying other works of dramatic literature from a variety of historical periods, we find that the alienation effect was not invented by Brecht and Weill at all.
Theatre artists in Ancient Greece employed such alienating effects in their work, and many artists in the decades since Brecht have incorporated alienating effects into their work as well. Even Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, often considered a work of 20th century realism, is in fact inspired by Brecht and contains a variety of alienating devices.
Have you encountered the alienation effect in the theatre, or on television or in a movie?
Bobby Darin sings “Mack the Knife.”
Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper starred in a 2006 revival of The Threepenny Opera. This performance is from the Tony Awards broadcast.