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Brecht on Wall Street | The Nation

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Brecht on Wall Street

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Recently, my colleagues at the office decided to join the protest march to Foley Square sponsored by the good folks at Occupy Wall Street. I couldn’t make it, though. I had tickets to the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” which was playing a limited engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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Richard Lingeman
Richard Lingeman is a senior editor of The Nation. His books include Small Town America: A Narrative Hisory, 1620-...

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Surprisingly, the spirit of Occupy Wall Street was very much alive that evening at BAM. The audience laughed as heartily (and as painfully) at Brecht’s sardonic jabs as I suspect the audience did at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm where “Threepenny Opera” debuted in 1928. The biggest laughs and cheers came in response to the lines spoken by Mac the Knife on the gallows as he offers an apologia for his life of crime: “We lower middle-class artisans who toil with our humble jemmies on small shopkeepers’ cash registers are being swallowed up by big corporations backed by the banks. What’s a jemmy compared with a share certificate? Which is worse—breaking into a bank or founding a bank?”

A few days after I saw “The Threepenny Opera,” I subwayed down to Zuccotti Park. The signs that proliferated there reminded me of the gnomic signs Brecht liked to suspend above his plays saying things like “First comes eating and then comes morality” and “Staring is not seeing.” In Zuccotti Park a hundred or so flowers bloomed—homemade, words hand-lettered on odd pieces of cardboard:

“I’m here today because I just woke up.”

“Real eyes/Realize/Real Lies.”

“4 Years in College, $100,000 in Debt, for a Hostess Job”

“Obama = Bush”

The musical messages of the spontaneous street theater now playing at Zuccotti Park emanate from pounding drums; dancers twist and gyrate to the rhythm, brandishing their messages on placards. OWS uses art too — like the Adbusters poster of a ballet dancer en point on the statue of the Wall Street bull. Art taming the brute. OWS’s messages hit a lot of us where we live: It’s the economy, people. The bulls of Wall Street are running down Main Street.

“The Threepenny Opera” shows the power of truthful art to hit us where we live and make us think. Brecht does so, even as he entertains, in the songs written with Kurt Weill that are sprinkled throughout the play. Such as:

First make sure that those who now are starving
Get proper helpings when we do the carving.

Think about it.

Image courtesy of Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive)

 

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