A Note on the Threepenny Opera[1]


New York, N. Y.

pages 429-435. April, 1959.

Both the artist and the psychiatrist attempt to use truth con­structively, although under different conditions and toward dif­ferent goals. Both seek after insights into the state of affairs underlying the appearance of things. Both make use of these insights to induce felt reactions on the part of their audience. The artist addresses himself indirectly through his medium to his fellow man. The psychiatrist addresses himself directly to his fellow man. On occasion, an artist may catch a penetrating glimpse of the cor­rosive forces at work in a given social order and through his crea­tivity reflect with sensitivity and sympathy the impact of these forces upon the lives of the individual members of that social order. In The Threepenny Opera we have one such unique master­piece, written at the time and in the setting of pre-Hitler Germany. It depicts with deep but palatable irony the state of social bank­ruptcy, institution-wise and individual-wise, then existing.

The psychiatrist, closeted as he generally is with the individual patient, often fails to concern himself with and properly assess these supra-individual forces. A noteworthy advance in the past few decades has been in the greater receptivity of psychiatrists to their colleagues in sociology, cultural anthropology, and other related disciplines. Nevertheless, there are still many difficulties that beset the paths of those who attempt to base their thinking upon the firm soil of genuine human experience. It is in this connection that I think The Threepenny Opera has a special message for psy­chiatrists. Our patients undoubtedly have distortions and con­flicts, but they cannot be accurately evaluated without an appre­ciation of the fact that these false values, opinions, and attitudes reflect current social realities which exist apart from the individual and which exert a victimizing effect upon him. What emerges so clearly in the play, and what is often lost sight of in reality, is the intimate and inexorable way in which the individual lives out his life in the shadow of social forces which are neither understood nor controlled, but which nevertheless exert a crucial influence over his life.

The play is a commentary upon society from the vantage point of the underworld. The people that move across the stage are murderers, thieves, prostitutes, beggars, and corrupt officials. Each character is handled so as to arouse an emphatic response and at no point does the sordidness or degeneracy overshadow the inherent humanity, fallibility, and lovability of each of the characters. It is remarkable how the piling up of one act of cynicism after the other, culminating in acts of total degradation, nevertheless does not alienate the audience from the characters and the life they are portraying. One's sympathy is with these people despite their open defiance of sexual proprieties, religious teachings, and the conventions of justice, marriage, and business. The author depicts people caught, trapped, and debased by life. An invisible thread of implied identity connects them to the world of light. They starkly mirror the weaknesses and limitations as well as the corrupt practices that characterize people generally then and now.

In this strange and degenerate setting a fairy tale is unfolded. Polly, the beautiful daughter (and a toughie in her own right) of a prosperous merchant, Mr. Peachum (who happens to be the one who holds the concession controlling all the beggars in London), runs off and marries a dashing young man, Macheath (who happens to have a terribly long list of a wide variety of major crimes to his credit). The marriage is opposed by the parents, who have higher aspirations for their daughter, and the story is simply the story of their repeated efforts to break up the marriage. In the end, the parents fail by virtue of the good fairy (in the person of the Queen), who saves the young lovers by issuing a pardon to the hero a few minutes before he is about to be hanged. The young hero is also known as Mack the Knife. Clustered about him are his cohorts in crime, his former wives and mistresses, and his best friend, the commissioner of police. Mr. Peachum, the philosophic merchant, has arrayed about him his cunning wife, his wayward daughter, and his day laborers, the beggars of London. He sells pity, misery, and horror and teaches his protégés how to exact in coin the tacit acknowledgment of guilt and responsibility from their customers.

Macheath is a rather predatory creature filled with cynical con­tempt for all human beings no matter in what relation they stand to him. Operating on the basis of expediency, he is caught up with forces he does not understand and which almost succeed in destroying him. Although he comes the closest of all the charac­ters in the play to the concept of the perfect psychopath, he never­theless reveals the vestiges of his lost humanity as he faces death upon the gallows. On this occasion he seeks to vindicate himself, not by attacking one or another person, but all people. He attacks the institutions they have erected; he attacks the hypocrisy with which they camouflage themselves.

The merchant, on the other hand, approaches life in a more careful and planned fashion. Although he makes a living by ex­ploiting people whom he hires for the purpose of exploiting others, he nevertheless does this with a certain eye to respectability, status, and the law. He is aware of the existence of a powerful force at large in the world which he terms "'Circumstance," a strange and unpredictable force that interferes with everybody's right to have everything they need and want.

The contradictions between the enforced way of life and the human aspirations come out most clearly in the reminiscences of a prostitute (Jenny), the respectability of the merchant and his wife, the propriety with which the marital ceremony is carried out between the heroine and the hero, and the devotion of the hero's accomplices. The powerful counter-theme behind the simple love story has to do with the manner in which everyone appears in one way or another to be engaged in the effort to cut someone else's throat for his own gain. The characters seem to accept their fate and pursue their way of life without complaint. This is the world as it is, without the pretense of its being otherwise and without the struggle to make it otherwise. The happy ending is a bold and logical gesture on the part of the author. These people are as deserving of a happy ending as any comparable set of characters in a conventional setting. The difference is, however, that in this play the characters themselves are cynically aware of how in their particular case a special ending has to be contrived because in real life things turn out differently for them.

Dramatic license and the use of allegory allows for the reduction of the social complexities plexities to two sets of opposing forces : on the one hand, there is the restricting, limiting, prohibitive, and repres­sive influence of the law as the symbol of the society external to the individual ; and on the other hand, there is the individual's impulse to "fill his belly" in his own particular fashion. If we regard work as the focal activity that links the individual to the ever-widening concentric groupings about himself, then we have to regard the work engaged in by the characters in the play in a like manner. Their vocational possibilities are limited and are determined by their experience in a repressive society on the one hand and their individual needs on the other. The work engaged in by the characters in the play is the work of obtaining the results of work by not working in the ordinary sense. No social or spir­itual commodities arise out of the work they do. The social needs that are met by their activities are not generally regarded as healthy needs. Differences exist among them as to the character of their work ; thievery and murder exist at one level, prostitution at another, merchandising of the beggars at still another. Common to all levels is the social function they serve, which is in essence the flushing-out for pay of the excrement that accumulates in a given society and which has no other outlet.

Although the concept of society as depicted in the play is carica­ture and carried to the point of total cynicism, it nevertheless has its roots in the developmental lag intrinsic to a social organization where property rights are more clearly defined and protected than the less tangible and less clearly understood human rights and human necessities. If as an example of what is meant by this we take a group of children playing in a slum area on the street, the legalistic aspects of society are concerned strictly with the prob­lems of property damage, infringement of property rights, and liability rather than with the human problems of the absence of other suitable play areas, the needs of the children of that par­ticular age for group activity, the need for supervision and organi­zation by competent adults, and so on. It isn't that these latter needs are not met at all - but they are not met with the same sense of consistent planning and social sanction that exists in the case of property rights. Now it is precisely this absence of group plan­ning and group organization for the individual at each stage of his development throughout his total life history and the conse­quent absence or sporadic presence of group mastery over common problems that leaves the individual to his own devices to adapt in some manner to needs that require more than his own devices. He is forced to cope with supra-individual problems in an individual­istic sort of way. The true causes of this state of affairs relate to the manner and extent to which a given society gives rise to fetishistic values pertaining to money and property or derived from them.

The essence of the fetish is its power, its controlling influence, its supra-individual quality, and the fact that its operation, not being understood, is ascribed to "supernatural" forces. If the organi­zation of a society is such as to have a fetishistic character, this quality enters into the consciousness of the individual members of that society. Relations between people which should be coopera­tively based and mutually fulfilling through a common effort at mastery of the external environment are distorted and filtered through this fetishistic screen. Social goals are replaced by highly personal ones acted out upon the person of the partner, and linked to the individual needs of the moment.

The pursuit of the socially accepted fetishistic values occurs in one way or another. It meets with social sanction when it is pur­sued within the law and with social taboos when it is achieved in defiance of the law. It seems to me that the play implies this in the form of two generalizations, one about society and one about the individual members of society. Concerning the first, the im­plied generalization is that corruption pervades all of society. The second follows from this in the choice it leaves to the individual to live out his life in the shadow of hypocrisy or in more or less open dishonesty. The corruption among the denizens of the upper world is, of course, hidden, or if not hidden, rationalized.

We are specifically concerned with the lessons to be drawn for psychiatry. The individual mode of life as caricatured in the play comes to the attention of the psychiatrist as an aspect of the dis­ordered interpersonal relations of neurotics and psychotics. The fetishistic influence evokes two main characterologic responses. In the first, a mode of existence evolves based on a direct relation be­tween the individual and the fetish in a manner which totally excludes the meaningful existence of other people. This is the psychopathic mode. No obligation or responsibility exists towards other people. In fact, other people do not exist as such. There is a reduction of all animate beings to the status of inanimate objects which can be bought or sold, consumed or discarded at the whim of the owner. People assume the status of expendable objects of use but not of relatedness values to the owner. In the other mode of existence, which may, perhaps, be referred to as quasi-psycho­pathic in nature, there is an indirect relation to the fetish involving some sort of intermediary activity with other people in order to achieve the desired ends. The activity, however, is transitory and transactional in nature rather than enduring and meaningful in a human sense. Here people assume the role of animate objects. Certain contractual obligations exist before they lend themselves for use as objects to be owned or consumed. A buying and selling arrangement is entered into before possession is assumed. The animate nature of the interchange requires some concern with the preservation of the object. A state of sub-total expendability and expediency exists.

The fetish in its overt manifestation may assume any number of different guises. It may be animate or inanimate, single or multiple, material or non-material, personal or public. In the play, the first level of activity referred to is displayed by Macheath, who stops at nothing - including murder - to further his own ends. Money is the fetish that solves all of Macheath's needs in an im­mediate and absolute fashion or creates the illusion of so doing. Through it, he gains power, prestige, and unending sensual grati­fication. The inanimate comes into the ascendancy over the ani­mate. People are reduced to the status of objects or even lower, as only objects which are in some way related to the fetish are of value. His relation to all other people is at every moment on a contingency basis. The pursuit of the fetish colors every event in his life as he attempts to achieve mastery over his environment through his identification with it. The quasi-psychopathic structure is illustrated by the cohorts of Macheath (who sell their light­fingered talents for a share in the cunning and power of their leader), the beggars (who sell their talent at eliciting pity), and the prostitutes (who sell their biological equipment).

The Macheaths in psychiatric practice form the psychopathic group. Although they may function within the cultural mores, their way of life is identical in essence - although perhaps less trans­parent, less explicit, and less overt - than their counterparts in the underworld. Neither the inanimate objects nor the animate objects in the form of people are seen as social creations existing in a social setting, and possessed therefore of unique social qualities and attributes. They are seen rather as discrete objects with no social history, no social function, and no social future. This may be summed up by saying that both objects and people are related to in a consumptive way; they exist for the purpose of immediate consumption for the satisfaction of immediate needs.

What we have described as quasi-psychopathic is, in my opinion, an aspect of every bit of neurotic activity that we witness in our patients. If we strip clinical descriptions bare of euphemistic tech­nical terms, this is what lies exposed. Hostility and aggression denote at once the basic attitude toward others and the impact on others of the pursuit of this way of life. This comes more out into the open in paranoid mechanisms wherein the simple existence of an outside agency in the form of a human being constitutes a threat. Narcissism has reference to the self-aggrandizement that accom­panies the status‑reduction of others. Passivity and dependency are descriptive of the techniques of fitting into the scheme of things by the transformation of the self into an object capable of parasitic attachment to a powerful being. Withdrawal involves the unreal effort at removal of the self from corrupting influences. Com­pulsivity derives from the limiting stereotyped fashion in which object-to-object transactional behavior is forced to occur. The ob­sessional character highlights the ritualistic aspects of the fetish­istic mode of life. The hysterical character highlights the denial involved. The phobic character calls attention to the vulnerability to exposure of the conditions making for a fetishistic existence.

In summary, then, our task as psychiatrists is not simply to understand "dynamics" in relation to the individual, but also in relation to the social scene. In the struggle to change, the respon­sibility of the individual can only be properly assessed when the nature and derivation of the generally prevailing distortions of consciousness are clearly understood. If it be otherwise, our work will have no organic connection with the real forces that shape the lives of people. Like the characters in the play, we shall be acting out our lives upon a stage without possessing any real mastery over the length of the run. The Threepenny Opera was written in 1928. The lives of the play's contemporary counterparts as well as our own were tied to the gathering holocaust of war and the ensuing destruction. The problem remains as to whether our insights and concerns now, three decades later, are any more realistic and less myopic concerning the important question of controlling what Mr. Peachum refers to as "Circumstance."

[1] These remarks are based on the current production of "The Threepenny Opera" (Theatre de Lys, New York City).