Letter from Frankfurt

«All values were changed – and not only material ones. The laws of the state were flouted, no tradition, no moral code was respected… Bars, amusement parks, honky-tonks sprang up like mushrooms…» Today’s Athens? No, Berlin, as the Viennese author Stefan Zweig wrote of the city in the 1920s. Now, Athens, according to most Sunday papers, is currently feeling like a city living off tittle-tattle. Perhaps it is not as bad as the Berlin of the 1920s, when the German capital was transformed into the Babylon of the world, but it is close enough. In fact there is a parallel here, just as Macheath – Bertolt Brecht’s main hero in «The Threepenny Opera,» a work conceived in the atmosphere of Berlin’s sleazy excitement of the 20s – asked whether we are more dishonest than the rest of mankind. Few works of that time so clearly mirror certain aspects of the 1920s – and of today, as well. Its acid irony, its parody of operatic sentimentality, can be applied just as easily to our age. In terms of actual practice, Greece may be rated as having one of the highest rates of corruption in the European Union, yet betrayal is so rampant all over the world that even in Macheath’s gang of scoundrels there is no more trust to be found than elsewhere. And like «great statesmen,» his men encourage those who betray their friends. Haven’t we seen this happening in Greece recently? Now Back to «The Threepenny Opera.» Two weeks ago, I saw one of the best productions of this play at Frankfurt’s Schauspielhaus, directed by Andre Wilms. And I have seen the play at least two dozen times on different stages. So, should you have the chance to see it, do not miss it. It’s playing tonight, but it seems most improbable that you can make it to Frankfurt today. Perhaps on January 27 or 28? The story goes more or less as follows: Macheath (Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife) weds Polly Peachum. This irks her father, who controls London’s beggars, the way trade unions nowadays control our working class and stage city marches. So her father blackmails the chief of the police, Tiger Brown, to have Macheath hanged. But Tiger Brown and the crook Mack are close friends and secret collaborators. (In the recent Zoniana scandal, it has been alleged that New Democracy cadres had direct ties to the local mafia) In the end, Brecht sends in a messenger, dispatched by the queen, to pardon Macheath and grant him a baronetcy. There are many familiar aspects to Greek viewers in this mock opera. Take the phenomenon of the greedy men of business who make a profit from human pain and misery – much like Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, the «King of the Beggars» in the play. That is common in our country as well. And as Mack the Knife’s final address goes: «We bourgeois artisans, who work with honest jimmies on the cash boxes of small shopkeepers, are being swallowed up by large concerns backed by banks. «Who is the bigger criminal – he who robs a bank or he who founds one? What is the murder of a man compared to the employment of a man?» Now compare this to the report by Costas Bakouris, the president of Transparency International Greece, in a recent conference organized by the Greek Bank Association: «According to the results of a study that will be presented early next month,» he said, «10 percent of all instances of corruption in Greece involve transactions with the banking system. On an international level, about 3 percent of globally produced wealth is from illegal activities.» Greed, sleaze and sex in ministries and on boards made huge stories this year. While most Greeks have a generally cynical attitude toward their political superiors, recent polls prove that the steady flow of doom and gloom increases the distrust to near epidemic proportions. After a year of triple blows – fires, flood and corruption – today’s inspirational New Year’s messages will try to soothe past climactic highs and terrible lows. Does man need encouragement to go on? «How does a man survive?» asks Mack the Knife, cynically and bitterly. «By daily cheating, mistreating, beating others, spitting in their face. / Only the man survives who’s able to forget / that he’s a member of the human race.» Then he tells all those gentlemen who eschew vice and sin, «First fill our bellies, then talk morality.» Anyway, have a happy new year and, if you can, go see «The Threepenny Opera» in Frankfurt. If not, the Athens Concert Hall is doing a «concertante» version with German singers and an orchestra early next year.