Scene One (Act One)
Peachum sings a morning "hymn", basically a call for thieves and beggars to start their "sinful employment". Peachum runs an outfitting shop for beggars; he provides them with props and slogans and is paid a part of their daily "take". He laments the fact that humans are able to deaden their feelings, forcing him to constantly create new ways of arousing human sympathy.
A man named Filch enters the shop. Filch complements Peachum on his fine slogans and signs and then tries to recite his sad life-story in an effort to get sympathy. Peachum harshly cuts him off and asks Filch if that is the same story he uses when begging on the street. Filch admits that it is, and that he was beaten up for using it the previous day. Peachum checks his notes and informs Filch that he was lucky to only get a beating considering he was begging without a licence in one of the best districts. Filch begs for a position, but Peachum explains that London is divided into fourteen districts and that he alone controls the licences for begging in London.
Filch pleads some more but Peachum tells him he must pay in order to get a position. Filch reluctantly agrees to pay and hands over his money, agreeing at the same time to share fifty percent of what he earns. Peachum then shows him five exhibits portraying the five basic types of human misery; each of the exhibits shows a beggar who has been harmed by some form of economic or political progress (such as a vehicular accident victim or a war veteran). Filch shows sympathy for one of the exhibits, causing Peachum to yell at him for showing emotions. Mrs. Peachum shows up (slightly drunk) and makes him change his clothes.
Peachum asks his wife where his daughter Polly is. She replies that Polly is upstairs. Peachum asks about the man who has been hanging around their place, and learns that Mrs. Peachum thinks he is a fine gentleman. Peachum rants that he does not want his daughter marrying anyone. He extracts more information from Mrs. Peachum, and learns that the man wears white kid gloves. Filch interupts them and they kick him out of the shop. Peachum then informs his wife that the "gentleman" is really Mac the Knife. He checks Polly's room and discovers that she never came home the previous night.
Mr. and Mrs. Peachum step in front of the stage and sing the song "No They Can't". It is a song about the fact that children cannot see what is good for them. Instead, the children fall in love and want to have fun. When the children fall in love and choose fun they eventually end up in "shit".
Peachum introduces a common theme in Brecht's drama, the idea of deadened feelings. As Peachum indicates, humans are able to prevent themselves from feeling emotion towards other humans. This concept is prominent in Brecht's work Jungle of Cities, a play about a fight between two men who are desparate to pierce the "thick skin" that society makes people wear. In typical Brecht style, this complaint is delivered by a hypocrit; Peachum himself shows no sympathy towards Filch. He even goes so far as to order Filch to stop feeling sorry for others.
The conflict between Mac the Knife and Peachum is one that requires explaining. It is not an emotional conflict where Peachum is upset about losing Polly. Rather, it is a social issue. Peachum is in charge of all of London's beggars whereas Macheath is in charge of London's thieves. Stealing Peachum's daughter is thus a social affront, an attack on Peachum's status in the London underworld. The theft of Polly will cause Peachum to openly declare war on Mac the Knife in an effort to regain his reputation.
The irony of the song at the end of this scene is inherent in what has already been revealed to the audience. The parents are complaining that their children do not do what is "good", but rather what is fun. Love is blamed as well. However, these are terrible parents, hypocrites because Peachum does not want his daughter to marry even though he got married. They are lamenting the fact that Polly does not know what is good for her, as if staying with them were any better than marrying the leader of London's thieves.
The songs throughout this play are important because they represent a new style of theater. Operatic in presentation, they are nonetheless bawdy, cabaret style works that invert the common perception of opera. The songs serve as social statements by combining high culture with low; they also are an attack on traditional Wagnerian opera. The ballads also compete with the plot for attention, causing the audience to distance itself from the characters. This is Brecht's goal; he wants the audience to leave his play with a logical desire to change society. By forcing the audience to not empathize with the characters, Brecht is trying to make people think about the play rather than feel emotions.