3-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.stealimage.3-1.7 | Visel­li PDF

This arti­cle analy­ses the cult sal­sa song “Pedro Nava­ja” by Pana­man­ian artist Rubén Blades and the rel­e­vance of nar­rat­ing such a genre pecu­liar to danc­ing, an analy­sis in accor­dance with adap­ta­tion the­o­ry out­lined by Lin­da Hutcheon, and a Brecht­ian semi­otic method­ol­o­gy which com­bines Ges­tus with the­o­ries of the sign. “Pedro Nava­ja” is arguably a re-writ­ing of “Mack the Knife” – or Die Mori­tat von Mack­ie Mess­er – one which con­tains, as a sort of mise-en-abyme, ele­ments not only of Kurt Weill’s song, but of both John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and Bertolt Brecht’s The Three­pen­ny Opera. This study focus­es on the fer­tile adap­ta­tion his­to­ry of the high­way­man Macheath since Gay’s work, on close-read­ings of “Pedro Nava­ja” – a nar­ra­tivized cere­bral sal­sa song – and on the ethics of adapt­ing a char­ac­ter, sto­ry or genre. Final­ly, when the char­ac­ter Pedro Nava­ja is adapt­ed from Blades’ song by a cineaste and play­wright, Blades, furi­ous with what oth­ers have done with ‘his’ char­ac­ter, decides to resus­ci­tate his epony­mous hero killed off at the end of the orig­i­nal song in order to regain the author­i­ty of his cre­ation. From the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions includ­ing how to read an adap­ta­tion or what con­sti­tutes an adap­ta­tion, this arti­cle focus­es on the diachron­ic recur­rences of a spe­cif­ic char­ac­ter-type, on the sig­nif­i­cance of jux­ta­pos­ing par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal junc­tures and on the vio­lence of adap­ta­tion and authorship.

Cet arti­cle exam­ine la chan­son sal­sa culte « Pedro Nava­ja » de l’artiste panaméen Rubén Blades en regard de l’importance de la nar­ra­tion à l’intérieur d’un genre par­ti­c­uli­er à la danse, et en util­isant la théorie de l’adaptation de Lin­da Hutcheon et la méthodolo­gie sémi­o­tique brechti­enne qui com­bine le Ges­tus avec les théories du signe. « Pedro Nava­ja » est une réécri­t­ure de la chan­son « Mack the Knife » (« Die Mori­tat von Mack­ie Mess­er »); elle utilise les élé­ments de la chan­son de Kurt Weill pour créer une sorte de mise en abyme. Elle con­tient aus­si des élé­ments des chan­sons « The Beggar’s Opera » par John Gay et « The Three­pen­ny Opera » par Bertolt Brecht. L’article éval­ue les nom­breuses adap­ta­tions du ban­dit de grand chemin, Macheath, en suiv­ant son util­i­sa­tion chez Gay, et exam­ine l’éthique de l’adaptation d’un per­son­nage, d’une his­toire ou d’un genre, en même temps qu’il effectue une lec­ture détail­lé de « Pedro Nava­ja » comme une chan­son sal­sa intel­lectuelle et nar­ra­tive. Au bout du compte, Blades décide de ressus­citer le pro­tag­o­niste éponyme qu’il avait tué à la fin de la chan­son orig­i­nale lorsqu’il trou­ve exas­pérant ce que les autres font de Pedro Nava­ja dans leurs adap­ta­tions. Il le fait pour repren­dre les droits de pro­priété sur sa créa­tion. Cet arti­cle se con­cen­tre sur la réap­pari­tion diachronique d’un per­son­nage type, sur la sig­ni­fi­ca­tion de la jux­ta­po­si­tion de con­jonc­tures his­toriques spé­ci­fiques, et sur la vio­lence quant à l’adaptation et à la pro­priété en posant des ques­tions théoriques, y com­pris celle de ce qui con­stitue une adap­ta­tion, et la ques­tion des façons dont celle-ci doit être lue.

Anto­nio Visel­li | Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto

In Possession of a Stolen Weapon:
From John Gay’s Macheath to Rubén Blades’ Pedro Navaja

Lions, wolves, and vul­tures don't live togeth­er in herds, droves or flocks. Of all ani­mals of prey, man is the only socia­ble one. Every one of us preys upon his neigh­bour, and yet we herd together.
John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera

If human beings are sociable—their antag­o­nis­tic rela­tion­ship lead­ing them both to prey and rely upon one another—then the same may be said about the com­mu­ni­ty shaped by authors and texts. Images and ideas trav­el through the inter­de­pen­dent and inter­con­nect­ed web of semi­otic sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, tran­scend­ing time, space and cul­ture, unit­ing their diachron­ic and syn­chron­ic man­i­fes­ta­tions. When deal­ing with re-writ­ings or adap­ta­tions of par­tic­u­lar oeu­vres, beyond inter­tex­tu­al­i­ty or ref­er­ence, a dia­logue forms between the author and con­text of the hyper­text and hypo­text[1]. This is pre­cise­ly the case with John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) and its most prized adap­ta­tion by Bertolt Brecht, The Three­pen­ny Opera (1928). The lat­ter, a med­ley and mix of (at times dis­cor­dant) musi­cal gen­res, such as the bal­lad, proved nov­el in set­ting a step­ping stone for the fruition of Epic the­atre. A par­tic­u­lar song book­ends the play, a song whose for­tune and adapt­abil­i­ty has trans­formed it into a clas­sic, often effac­ing many of its orig­i­nal con­no­ta­tions: “Die Mori­tat von Mack­ie Mess­er,” oth­er­wise known in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world as “Mack the Knife” or “The Bal­lad of Mack the Knife,” via the embell­ished trans­la­tion by Mark Blitzstein.[2] Music and per­for­mance, which breach the gaps of tex­tu­al and lyri­cal genre, deal with inter­tex­tu­al­i­ty on mul­ti­ple lev­els, from the acoustic images that stem from the com­bi­na­tion of words and quo­ta­tions of oth­er texts, to the poet­ics of verse, melody and har­mo­ny, to the mimet­ic and pol­y­semic nature of words and sounds.

By shift­ing Brecht’s The Three­pen­ny Opera from its posi­tion of hyper­text to hypo­text and in analysing the adap­ta­tion of “Mack the Knife” from bal­lad to sal­sa, I will seek to reveal the intri­cate lay­ers of re-writ­ing and analyse how Rubén Blades’ “Pedro Nava­ja” (trans­lat­ed lit­er­al­ly as “Peter the Knife,” “Switch­blade” or “Penknife”) became such a cult song in His­pan­ic Amer­i­ca, by attempt­ing to forge a notion of com­mu­ni­ty that binds Span­ish-speak­ing coun­tries through a uni­ver­sal nar­ra­tive. Focus­ing pri­mar­i­ly on the song “Pedro Nava­ja,” I will con­sid­er the shift from bal­lad to sal­sa and the rel­e­vance of nar­rat­ing such a genre pecu­liar to danc­ing, as well as the bind­ing tis­sue of the text from a Brecht­ian semi­otic point of view, com­bin­ing Ges­tus with the­o­ries of the sign. After hav­ing artic­u­lat­ed a def­i­n­i­tion of ‘adap­ta­tion’ and fol­low­ing a his­to­ry of the fruit­ful con­texts of The Beggar’s Opera and its re-cre­ations, I will focus on “Pedro Nava­ja” as text, in hopes of ele­vat­ing it to one of the many adap­ta­tions of Brecht and Gay’s works, one that crit­i­cism has hith­er­to left in the dark. Final­ly, ten­sion sur­round­ing the notion of author­ship com­pli­cates Blades’ author­i­ta­tive stance, where the author asserts his own author­i­ty while adapt­ing from oth­ers. Beyond Gérard Genette and Lin­da Hutcheon, it is the writ­ing of Harold Bloom that will help illu­mi­nate the con­tra­dic­to­ry rela­tion­ship between Blades’ and both his pre­de­ces­sors and contemporaries.

To Write, or to Re-write, That is the Question

Numer­ous the­o­rists of semi­otics and inter­tex­tu­al­i­ty argue that the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of texts tran­scends spa­tiotem­po­ral bound­aries. Such is the case for Gérard Genette who coins the term “trans­tex­tu­al­i­ty,” a defin­ing con­cept in reveal­ing a text’s poet­ics, as well as its rela­tion­ship with oth­er texts. The nomen­cla­ture Genette employs relat­ing to trans­tex­tu­al­i­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly his use of “hyper­text” and “hypo­text” defined above, will serve to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between the shift­ing tex­tu­al author­i­ty dis­cussed in this essay, tak­ing the place of more charged and prob­lem­at­ic terms, such as “orig­i­nal” text or “pri­ma­ry” and “sec­ondary” text. Con­trary to his post-struc­tural­ist coun­ter­parts, the artis­tic author­i­ty for Genette lies most­ly with­in the author, an author capa­ble of cre­at­ing in con­junc­tion and in dia­logue with oth­er works of art, unlike the con­tin­u­ous semi­o­sis of seem­ing­ly author­less labyrinthine lin­guis­tic per­mu­ta­tions, such as those rep­re­sent­ed in Borges’ myth­i­cal library. Such a metaphor implies that lit­tle or noth­ing new or authen­tic is left to say, and that an inter­con­nect­ed world of tex­tu­al­i­ty sim­ply spawns from an architext—the Book par excel­lence—or from a math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­la applied to language.

On the oppos­ing spec­trum of the effaced role of the author, but in line with the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with a lack of new­ness, lies the appre­hen­sion at the basis of Harold Bloom’s the­sis in his sem­i­nal work The Anx­i­ety of Influ­ence: A The­o­ry of Poet­ry: the weight on an artist’s shoul­ders, whether a poet, nov­el­ist or play­wright, a weight of the past imbued with an inspi­ra­tion at times ethe­re­al and sup­pos­ed­ly divine, at times mun­dane, extri­cat­ed from the soci­ety in which these artists flour­ish and upon which they feed. Find­ing one’s voice or style is often hin­dered by an over­bear­ing past, by the “Cov­er­ing Cherub” as Bloom describes it, and what con­sti­tutes a great or canon­i­cal author or work of art is not only depen­dent upon the beau­ty and orig­i­nal­i­ty of a verse or image, but on the influ­ence, whether aes­thet­ic, polit­i­cal or eth­i­cal, that work of art pro­duces with­in a con­tem­po­rary con­text and for pos­ter­i­ty (38).

These the­o­ret­i­cal notions offer a dual­is­tic frame­work when one asks the rel­e­vance –or even the possibility—of steal­ing, bor­row­ing or adapt­ing a par­tic­u­lar image, be it metaphor­ic or alle­gor­i­cal. I pro­pose that adap­ta­tion the­o­ry, as dis­cussed by Lin­da Hutcheon, offers a link between Genette’s trans­tex­tu­al­i­ty, the notion of inter­con­nect­ed texts in gen­er­al, and the anx­i­ety described by Bloom. In fact, con­trary to Bloom’s argu­ment, adapt­ing an oeu­vre may be a way to work through such an anx­i­ety, in which the focus is less a ques­tion of con­tent than an expo­si­tion of form, a dis­cov­ery of one’s sin­gu­lar style. How­ev­er, this method does come at a price: shift­ing gen­res and manip­u­lat­ing form quick­ly becomes syn­ony­mous with vio­lence, not only lead­ing to abound­ing dis­cus­sions regard­ing author­ship and intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty, but to the destruc­tion of for­mal and gener­ic bound­aries as well, both top­ics of inter­est in this paper.

In order to begin answer­ing such ques­tions on the rel­e­vance and pos­si­bil­i­ty of steal­ing images, it is nec­es­sary to define the con­text of adap­ta­tion, by ask­ing: what is re-writ­ing and there­fore, implic­it­ly, what is re-read­ing, since think­ing in terms of adap­ta­tion the­o­ry embraces all of these essen­tials and acute­ly acknowl­edges a new tele­ol­o­gy for them, by fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing hermeneu­tics as a whole.

What is adaptation?

The­o­ries of adap­ta­tion scru­ti­nize the notion of the repro­ducibil­i­ty of texts and the trans­for­ma­tion of sto­ries to say some­thing new, always build­ing on the work of pre­de­ces­sors and an artis­tic past. Lin­da Hutcheon in A The­o­ry of Adap­ta­tion evokes the seem­ing­ly sim­plis­tic tru­isms, “art is derived from oth­er art; sto­ries are born of oth­er sto­ries,” and fur­ther empha­siz­ing their rhyth­mic and recur­ring essence, “sto­ry­telling is always the art of repeat­ing sto­ries” (2).[3] Beyond the aes­thet­ics of recur­ring and evolv­ing sto­ries, adap­ta­tions also have a socio-his­tor­i­cal, as well as cul­tur­al telos, some­thing acquired and passed down from gen­er­a­tions where oral­i­ty dom­i­nat­ed writ­ten cul­ture. For exam­ple, Frank Kid­son in his study of The Beggar’s Opera evokes the notion of re-writ­ing and re-cre­at­ing to remem­ber a past with­in a col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, only one of adaptation’s rai­son d’être (12). I would add that such an act embod­ies a mimet­ic and cre­ative force: it re-mem­bers the past as well, shap­ing and form­ing it anew, sculpt­ing a past in rela­tion to the present, whether that rela­tion­ship be har­mo­nious or antag­o­nis­tic. This mesh­ing of tem­po­ral­i­ties is where the imag­in­ing of, or even the nos­tal­gia for a past that per­haps nev­er ful­ly exist­ed impreg­nates the poten­tial­i­ty of the present and there­fore of the future as well. This is one facet of myth and sto­ry-telling: “the social func­tions of long-term com­mu­nal mem­o­ry,” a her­itage pre­served through time by means of songs, poems, proverbs, all of which run the risk of diver­sion, of loss and mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion when re-appro­pri­at­ed trans-cul­tur­al­ly, reper­cus­sions evi­dent, as I will argue, in the case of “Pedro Nava­ja” (Bök­er 16). Evi­dent­ly, adap­ta­tion not only empha­sizes his­tor­i­cal instances of nos­tal­gia and com­mu­nal mem­o­ry as Bök­er sug­gests, but it offers anoth­er point of view regard­ing a giv­en con­text, a new aes­thet­ic or gener­ic medi­um to por­tray and inter­pret events. More than sim­ply dia­logu­ing with a con­text, sit­u­a­tion or idea, adap­ta­tion also breaks from a mere rec­on­cil­ing of inter­tex­tu­al­i­ty on the one hand, and influ­ence on the oth­er, by becom­ing a lit­er­al sub­genre where pre­quels and sequels—or “afterings”—may coex­ist (Ibid., 16).

There are many ways in which adap­ta­tion spawns, across media for exam­ple, from nov­el to film, from song to film, from libret­to to the stage, among oth­er forms. This gener­ic trav­el­ling mim­ics the often-anachro­nis­tic fusions of diverse tem­po­ral­i­ties, and ques­tions arise as to why relo­cate a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal junc­ture in anoth­er. What is an author or artist’s goal vis-à-vis the hypo­text? This last ques­tion is impor­tant and even cru­cial to the­o­ries of post­mod­ernism, where par­o­dy and pas­tiche are defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics. Should an artist rewrite a play, poem or nov­el in a satir­i­cal man­ner to achieve his/her own goals, as a par­o­dy of con­tent and hier­ar­chy, or as a mock­ery of form and style in pas­tiche? And when pre­cise­ly is the line drawn between par­o­dy, pas­tiche and homage? Hutcheon alludes to this mul­ti-dimen­sion­al­i­ty of adap­ta­tion as fol­lows: “Like par­o­dies, adap­ta­tions have an overt and defin­ing rela­tion­ship to pri­or texts, usu­al­ly reveal­ing­ly called ‘sources’” (4). Unlike par­o­dies, how­ev­er, adap­ta­tions usu­al­ly open­ly announce this rela­tion­ship, often due to the sta­tus of the ‘orig­i­nal’ text. Although it is the “(post-) Roman­tic valu­ing of the orig­i­nal cre­ation and of the orig­i­nat­ing cre­ative genius that is clear­ly one source of the den­i­gra­tion of adapters and adap­ta­tions,” it should not go unno­ticed that West­ern Lit­er­a­ture has a “his­to­ry of bor­row­ing,” if not bla­tant pla­gia­ris­ing sto­ries and of “rep­e­ti­tion with vari­a­tion,” to explain this econ­o­my of redac­tion in musi­cal terms (4).

One of adaptation’s most par­tic­u­lar assets, con­trary to oth­er gen­res, is its inher­ent exegetic ori­en­ta­tion. Although, as Hutcheon argues, many adap­ta­tions explic­it­ly expose their hypo­text or source, this is not the case for all re-writ­ings, there­fore leav­ing quite a large gap for mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion or “mis­read­ing” in Bloom’s sense of the term, should one believe—contrary to the Der­ridean tenet—that hors texte does indeed exist. The sig­ni­fi­ca­tion in inter­tex­tu­al­i­ty, as Michael Rif­faterre and Genette sug­gest, can only exist once one com­bines the hyper­text and the hypo­text, giv­en that—although the adap­ta­tion may indeed stand alone—adaptation the­o­ry offers a locus of judge­ment in accor­dance with its new con­text, but in line with its par­a­dig­mat­ic coun­ter­part, its axis of selec­tion in Jakob­son­ian terms. A read­er or inter­preter unfa­mil­iar with the hypo­text may not ful­ly grasp the dialec­ti­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion at hand, its depth and the impor­tance of often minute mod­i­fi­ca­tions on behalf of the author of the hyper­text. There­fore, read­ing the hypo­text is fur­ther com­pli­cat­ed by the act of read­ing its re-writ­ing, while also implic­it­ly read­ing the adapter’s read­ing or inter­pre­ta­tion of the hypo­text, an authen­ti­cal­ly “palimpses­tu­ous” hermeneu­tics (Hutcheon 6). I do not wish to imply that an adapt­ed text’s mean­ing exists sole­ly in con­junc­tion with its hypo­text, nor do I sug­gest that an adaptation’s inter­tex­tu­al ref­er­ences be com­plete­ly expound­ed or nec­es­sar­i­ly divulged to ful­ly com­pre­hend a text; how­ev­er, for the spe­cif­ic exam­ple of “Pedro Nava­ja,” I am offer­ing a read­ing of the most overt hypo­texts and inter­texts, those of Gay and Brecht.

Texts and Contexts

In an attempt to avoid over­ly the­o­riz­ing a sub­ject which has already received much atten­tion, it is in light of the guid­ing remarks on adap­ta­tion the­o­ry above, with a com­bi­na­tion of Brecht­ian semi­otics, that I will explore “Pedro Nava­ja,” one of the many adap­ta­tions of a text that with­holds a metaphor­i­cal­ly pol­y­semic val­ue: it is a text imbued with a uni­ver­sal­i­ty that has seen an excess of trans­for­ma­tions and re-writ­ings.[4]

The adaptability of The Beggar’s Opera

An obvi­ous and yet cru­cial ques­tion aris­es when deal­ing with a text that has seen such prodi­gal tex­tu­al prog­e­nies: what con­sti­tutes the fer­tile adapt­abil­i­ty of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera? What seems most obvi­ous is its gener­ic hybrid­i­ty, a form that encom­pass­es a mul­ti­tude of songs, cho­rus­es and the­atres, detach­ing itself from the mono-gener­ic form of Ital­ian, French and Ger­man opera of which it is a cri­tique. Inter­est­ing­ly, accord­ing to Uwe Bök­er, its form proved detri­men­tal to the play’s ini­tial stag­ing: “the Drury Lane The­atre was reluc­tant to put on this new kind of stage enter­tain­ment which includ­ed songs, pop­u­lar arias and march­es from the opera seria and oth­er types of music” (9). The par­tic­u­lar socio-eco­nom­ic con­text is also telling; it is the first time “con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion” comes into being, exem­plary of a nascent con­sumer soci­ety in for­ma­tion and thus of fur­ther dif­fer­en­ti­a­tions regard­ing the divi­sion of labour and class (Ibid., 9). This new soci­ety and the latent repro­ducibil­i­ty of art as a means of cap­i­tal become inex­tri­ca­bly relat­ed. There­fore, upon over­com­ing the hur­dles of the dif­fi­cult first stag­ing, the inno­v­a­tive form and genre of The Beggar’s Opera, already poly­va­lent and hybrid alone, began to lend itself to a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of inter­pre­ta­tions and re-orches­tra­tions due to its schiz­o­phrenic nature. Bök­er con­tin­ues, explain­ing the fas­ci­na­tion that final­ly over­took the Lon­don scene: “Many a Grub Street drama­tist was there­fore tempt­ed to imi­tate a com­mer­cial­ly suc­cess­ful play like The Beggar’s Opera,” mak­ing it the mod­el of a vir­tu­al pletho­ra of “bal­lad opera” adap­ta­tions, such as The Cobler’s Opera, The Lover’s Opera and The Statesman’s Opera, Harlequin’s Opera, to name a few (10-11). The vast major­i­ty of these adap­ta­tions share a unique and lin­ear plot line: the chil­dren rebel against par­ents over mar­riage, accen­tu­at­ing the dichotomies of the author­i­ty of par­ents and the adven­tur­ous nature of youth, along with the stereo­typ­i­cal antithe­sis of “coun­try inno­cence and Lon­don cor­rup­tion” (12).

The depic­tion of Lon­don as “cor­rupt, putrid and anar­chic to the point of insan­i­ty” is a socio-polit­i­cal recur­rence that could effort­less­ly define many cities and nations through­out his­to­ry, and it is there­fore not sur­pris­ing that Brecht would use such a fruit­ful and uni­ver­sal con­text to crit­i­cize the atroc­i­ties of cap­i­tal­ism, since, for Brecht and Gay, the most impor­tant ele­ment in art was to paint a pic­ture of con­tem­po­rary soci­ety capa­ble of cre­at­ing an aware­ness of the prob­lems with­in the soci­etal strands that thread a nation togeth­er, sim­i­lar to the inter­wo­ven qual­i­ties of a text (Daby­deen 31). Brecht’s pri­ma­ry inter­est in Epic the­atre was to force an acute aware­ness on the spectator’s behalf of the fic­tion­al­i­ty of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, strip­ping the per­for­mance of its real­ism or arma­ture, and fore­ground­ing its trans­paren­cy, exclud­ing any pos­si­bil­i­ty of the Aris­totelian cathar­sis Brecht refused. In fact, Wal­ter Ben­jamin writes that Brecht’s “effort to make the audi­ence inter­est­ed in the the­atre as experts—not at all for cul­tur­al reasons—is an expres­sion of his polit­i­cal pur­pose” (1973, 16). This acknowl­edge­ment of ideas being played out instead of a dressed-up repli­ca of real­i­ty pro­vokes a par­al­lel between the actions and ideas rep­re­sent­ed on stage, the man­ner in which they fig­ure artis­ti­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly, and the real-life expe­ri­ences of the audi­ence mem­bers: a tem­po­ral coex­is­tence that unite artist and view­er. Not dis­sim­i­lar in nature to the DJ or the band’s incit­ing pow­er to stim­u­late com­mu­nal action on a dance floor, one of Brecht’s goals was to trans­form the paral­ysed, pas­sive or “relaxed” audi­ence, to use Ben­jamin and Brecht’s terms, into an active and aware mass of indi­vid­u­als caught in a socio-polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion demand­ing atten­tion: the fever­ish nine­teen-twen­ties inhab­it­ed by the so-called “hope­less gen­er­a­tion” (Bök­er 20).

Many inter­na­tion­al and tran­scul­tur­al “updat­ings” of The Beggar’s Opera, to use Böker’s tem­po­ral­ly tran­scen­den­tal expres­sion, fol­low sim­i­lar pat­terns of equat­ing socio-polit­i­cal unrest to a dis­tant past’s envi­ron­ment, the most famous being Brecht’s The Three­pen­ny Opera. Fol­low­ing Brecht, one may add Vaclav Havels’ Zebrac­ka opera (1975), Wole Soyinka’s Opera Wonyosi (1977), Chico Buar­que de Hol­lan­das Opera do Malan­dro (1978), Purushot­tam Lax­man Deshpande’s Teen Paishy­acha Tamasha, (1978), Dario Fo’s L’opera del­lo sghig­naz­zo (1981), Alan Ayckbourn’s A Cho­rus of Dis­ap­proval (1984), Nick Dear and Stephen Warbeck’s The Villain’s Opera (2000), Dale Wasserman’s The Beggar’s Hol­i­day (2004) and Robert Lepage’s The Busker’s Opera (2004). The enor­mous adapt­abil­i­ty of The Beggar’s Opera is evi­dent in such a long list of re-writ­ings and its con­ducive­ness to glob­al­iza­tion and inter­na­tion­al­i­ty is equal­ly man­i­fest. Not only diachron­i­cal­ly relat­ed, these texts share some­thing spe­cif­ic in their pro­duc­tion: these authors “went back to Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in order to point out polit­i­cal, social and cul­tur­al par­al­lels to the present in an oblique way” (Bök­er 19). This “oblique” man­ner of both encom­pass­ing and sur­pass­ing time evokes notions of Brecht­ian the­atri­cal prac­tices, not to men­tion one of its defin­ing ele­ments: the the­atre is dia­met­ri­cal. Oppos­ing times, polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies and regimes, the pri­vate and the pub­lic sphere in an ambiva­lent cohe­sion--almost oxymoronically—allows for a stand­still that demands recog­ni­tion, one that (re)visits the lost and silenced micro-nar­ra­tives, the refuse of history.

One exam­ple of the func­tion of aware­ness with­in such a dia­met­ri­cal stag­ing is Brecht’s trans­for­ma­tion of The Three­pen­ny Opera’s end­ing. By break­ing the “fourth wall” and telling the audi­ence that instead of hang­ing Macheath—already on the plat­form to be hanged—that they would spare his life, they anal­o­gous­ly equate him to Queen Vic­to­ria. Peter Fer­ran in his arti­cle “The Three­pen­ny Songs: Cabaret and the Lyri­cal Ges­tus” explains: “Indeed, his impend­ing exe­cu­tion com­petes for [the spec­ta­tors’] enjoy­ment with anoth­er spec­tac­u­lar event of equal fascination—the pageant of Queen Victoria’s coro­na­tion. The criminal’s fic­tion­al ele­va­tion (speak­ing of hang­ing) is matched against the Queen’s his­tor­i­cal ascent to the throne – and both events are pre­sent­ed as pop­u­lar the­atri­cal enter­tain­ment” (Fer­ran 8). This is a spe­cif­ic exam­ple of Brecht’s dialec­ti­cal the­atre which forces the audi­ence to see both his­tor­i­cal events con­gru­ent­ly and as oper­at­ing accord­ing to a sim­i­lar par­a­digm, a Ges­tus that per­forms a his­tori­ciz­ing impulse.

Knives and Blades

Func­tion­ing accord­ing to a sim­i­lar par­a­dig­mat­ic orches­tra­tion, Rubén Blades writes the song “Pedro Navaja”—the “beau­ti­ful and ter­ri­ble sto­ry of Pedro Nava­ja” that Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez states he wished he had writ­ten[5]--the telling of two simul­ta­ne­ous sto­ries that meet each oth­er half way: the first, that of a neigh­bour­hood thief Pedro Bar­rio known as Pedro Nava­ja, a spec­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Macheath and a liken­ing to the picaresque Com­padri­to fig­ure in the Tan­go, whose attrib­ut­es[6] are his long pock­ets in which he con­ceals his knife, his gold tooth that lights his path in the dark night and his hat, slight­ly slant­ed as not to show his face. An anony­mous woman of the streets is lament­ing the fact that she has not made any pesos that evening and is won­der­ing what she is going to eat. Pedro Nava­ja, born to prey on the weak, approach­es her in an attempt to rob her, pulls out his knife and stabs her, while she pulls out a “Smith and Wes­son” and shoots him dead. A drunk­ard walk­ing by picks up the two pesos, the knife, the gun and leaves.

The author, Rubén Blades Bel­li­do de Luna, whose prov­i­den­tial Anglo­phone last name[7] proves gen­uine, is a Pana­man­ian singer song­writer, actor, lawyer and politi­cian. It is of no sur­prise that such a polit­i­cal­ly invest­ed indi­vid­ual who nar­rates the hard­ships of the poor in Latin Amer­i­ca, as well as cri­tiquing the “plas­tic” nature of the rich “who sweat Chanel No. 3,” be inter­est­ed in Brecht’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Gay’s play (Blades & Colon in “Plás­ti­co”). Aes­thet­i­cal­ly much in line with Brecht and Weill’s orches­tra­tions and con­cerns with gener­ic hybrid­i­ty, Blades is a fore­run­ner in bring­ing exper­i­men­tal tem­pos to tra­di­tion­al Latin-Amer­i­can music, fus­ing Cuban beats with Nuy­or­i­can forms,[8] as well as pro­mot­ing what he calls, in ref­er­ence to Sal­sa, “a think­ing person’s dance music,” in oth­er words polit­i­cal­ly and ide­o­log­i­cal­ly invest­ed,[9] since sal­sa was hith­er­to reduced to a sort of pas­toral romance, describ­ing the beau­ty of a country’s land­scape or one’s infat­u­a­tion with a cer­tain indi­vid­ual. In com­bin­ing art and aware­ness beyond pas­sive and lethar­gic enter­tain­ment, Blades believes that even sal­sa music may become a genre con­ducive to phys­i­cal engage­ment through danc­ing and lis­ten­ing, par­tic­i­pat­ing in the same “trans­par­ent” con­text allud­ed to by Brecht and thus unit­ing author or per­former, and spec­ta­tor. Where­as Brecht’s goal was to incite aware­ness of the the­mat­ic and ide­o­log­i­cal dis­cor­dance as to pro­voke action, for Blades, the action ide­al­ly and metonymi­cal­ly shifts from a phys­i­cal move­ment of mass­es danc­ing com­mu­nal­ly to indi­vid­ual con­scious­ness and intel­lec­tu­al stim­u­la­tion, cre­at­ing aware­ness for that which is behind the beats and dance steps. Blades’ goal, there­fore, is to pop­u­lar­ize “nar­ra­tive sal­sa,” in which a whole sto­ry can be told in a song, since, accord­ing to the artist, “you can respect your con­science and the clave rhythm in the same song.”[10]

Beyond Brecht, Blades’ indebt­ed­ness to the exis­ten­tial­ists, name­ly Camus, nur­tures the nar­ra­tive role of the sin­gle action, absurd as it may be, that defines a giv­en char­ac­ter in a par­tic­u­lar con­text. Sim­i­lar­ly, his inter­est in “tremendista” nov­els spawns from the impor­tance of hav­ing char­ac­ters in his songs that are vic­tims of soci­ety.[11] Since fate decides all in such gener­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tions, even if the char­ac­ters are grotesque­ly described mon­sters amidst the seedy under­bel­ly of the city, or on the treach­er­ous streets, one almost takes pity on them despite their thiev­ery. For Blades, hav­ing grown up in a mid­dle-class fam­i­ly, yet sur­round­ed by the slums, the laws of the street mesh with those of the stage, life on the streets being a cen­tral theme in The Beggar’s Opera and The Three­pen­ny Opera. It is inter­est­ing to note that “The Bal­lad of Mack the Knife” is orig­i­nal­ly enti­tled “Die Mori­tat von Mack­ie Mess­er,” with Mori­tat ety­mo­log­i­cal­ly mean­ing dead­ly deed, a medieval mur­der bal­lad per­formed in the streets by strolling minstrels.

Towards a Semiotics of Salsa: Pedro Navaja and Gestus

Pedro Nava­ja” does not fol­low the lin­ear sto­ry line of chil­dren rebelling against their par­ents due to a forced or for­bid­den mar­riage. Nonethe­less, Blades com­bines child­hood and the streets both the­mat­i­cal­ly and lin­guis­ti­cal­ly from the very begin­ning of the song. He breaks the fourth wall that divides per­form­ers and pub­lic with the first words that serve as an incip­it, words that pre­cise­ly only belong to the oral tra­di­tion and there­fore nev­er tran­scribed in the lyrics: “Aveli­no, ven acà!” Aveli­no, an unknown char­ac­ter, is representative—particularly through the use of the diminutive—of the sur­round­ing young­sters, either those present around the stage dur­ing the song’s per­for­mance or the youth of Latin Amer­i­ca called togeth­er in har­mo­ny. In “Pedro Nava­ja,” the audi­ence and the dancers are called over to hear some­thing new, a sto­ry nev­er before told in this genre, since, until the 1970s, sal­sa had lit­tle ide­o­log­i­cal val­ue. This sto­ry is a tale with a seri­ous moral mes­sage com­bined with pop­u­lar danc­ing, the Brecht­ian dialec­tic evoca­tive from the get-go. Although it is unknown whether or not Blades explic­it­ly stud­ied Brecht­ian thought, the sim­i­lar use of a dialec­ti­cal stance, as well as the the­mat­ic con­tent which per­me­ates through The Three­pen­ny Opera into “Pedro Nava­ja” does indeed sug­gest Blades scrupu­lous­ly exam­ined Brecht’s play. Fer­ran, in regards to Brecht’s work, describes this dialec­tic as fol­lows: “The point for Brecht and Weill was to use music for social crit­i­cism, to seek its expres­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties, and indeed to do so by (among oth­er things) pre­serv­ing its very “nar­cot­ic charms” to some degree but also by join­ing it to a con­text which con­tra­dict­ed them, which should have enforced a con­scious­ness of their enrap­tur­ing effect: the con­tra­dic­tion between action and music was the­ma­tized and demon­strat­ed, and the exhi­bi­tion of epic forms was to con­tribute above all to this” (6). Iron­i­cal­ly, Brecht’s pub­lic would fail to acknowl­edge this rup­ture: the dialec­ti­cal con­tra­dic­tion capa­ble of solic­it­ing intro­spec­tion, and sad­ly, the suc­cess of the opera relies on the fail­ure of this tech­nique (6). For Blades, how­ev­er, the hur­dle between seri­ous lyrics and pop­u­lar danc­ing was not insur­mount­able, and Blades suc­ceeds where Brecht fails most­ly due to the phys­i­cal engage­ment, the per­for­ma­tive respon­si­bil­i­ty vest­ed in the lis­ten­er-turned-dancer or dancer-turned-lis­ten­er. The locus of per­for­mance for both Brecht and Blades also offers intrigu­ing par­al­lels. Lisa Appig­nane­si, in her stud­ies on the cabaret (a con­text and genre dear to Brecht) demon­strates to what extent it shares in inti­ma­cy and per­for­mance with the con­text of a pop­u­lar sal­sa stage:

What remains more or less con­sis­tent in cabaret, and allows it to be defined as a dis­tinct form, are its struc­tur­al ele­ments: a small stage and small­ish audi­ence and an ambi­ence of talk and smoke, where the rela­tion­ships between per­former and spec­ta­tor is one at once of inti­ma­cy and hos­til­i­ty, the nodal points of par­tic­i­pa­tion and provo­ca­tion. The cabaret per­former plays direct­ly to his audi­ence, break­ing down the illu­so­ry fourth wall of tra­di­tion­al the­ater. There is nev­er any pre­tence made of an iden­ti­ty exist­ing between actor and role. Rather, […] the per­former remains a per­former, no mat­ter what he is enact­ing (Fer­ran 6).

The explic­it­ly alle­gor­i­cal enact­ment of ideas instead of real­i­ty is sim­i­lar to forms of Epic the­atre, which both Brecht and Blades espouse. In ref­er­ence to sal­sa specif­i­cal­ly, more often than not in a pop­u­lar set­ting, the sal­sa stage is also small, per­form­ers and singers direct­ly address the audi­ence, in a hos­pitable con­text always verg­ing on the hos­tile, a con­text which sets a tone of hostip­i­tal­i­ty to use one of Derrida’s neol­o­gisms. Such a term implies the poten­tial destruc­tion of the sub­ject in the face of oth­er­ness –whether the oth­er be out­side or with­in the self—and the even­tu­al pos­si­bil­i­ty of accept­ing a new ide­o­log­i­cal posi­tion which may clash with one’s pre­con­ceived standpoint.

The set­ting of “Pedro Nava­ja” is a side­walk on a cor­ner street, a lit­er­al cross­ways and metaphor of inter­weav­ing and meet­ing, as well as cir­cu­la­tion, with all of its accom­pa­ny­ing con­no­ta­tions of wealth and sex. It is also a topos of crime set­tings, lend­ing both uni­ver­sal­i­ty and par­tic­u­lar­i­ty to the con­text, since it also links it inter­tex­tu­al­ly with Mack “On the side­walk, Sun­day morn­ing.” The pro­tag­o­nist, still unnamed, walks “con el tum­bao que tienen los gua­pos al cam­i­nar.Tum­bao is slang for swag­ger, style and class, and yet it con­notes some­one also capa­ble of mov­ing swift­ly and with agili­ty. This ini­tial descrip­tion of his attrib­ut­es, when read along­side Brecht’s def­i­n­i­tion of Ges­tus, unveils the minute con­struc­tion of Pedro Navaja’s char­ac­ter: “Brecht’s Lati­nate coinage refers to the domain of human behav­ior exhibit­ing social rela­tion­ships through indi­vid­ual atti­tude, stance, or pos­ture. How­ev­er abstract, the mean­ing of Ges­tus con­tains these essen­tials: social behav­ior, atti­tu­di­nal per­spec­tive; demon­stra­tive enact­ment. The core of the sense of Ges­tus is the notion of point of view, under­stood both as a com­po­nent of human social inter­ac­tion and as a fea­ture of the­atri­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of such inter­ac­tion” (Fer­ran 7). Although not yet inter­act­ing with any char­ac­ters, Pedro’s descrip­tion is pri­mor­dial to the def­i­n­i­tion of his char­ac­ter and what he stands for, his ges­tures imbued with social impor­tance. A quick glance at the first and sec­ond stanzas—entirely descrip­tions of the anti-hero—suffice to under­stand his thiev­ing strate­gies and the use of his props:

las manos siem­pre en los bol­sil­los de su gabán pa’ que no sep­an en cuál de ellas lle­va el puñal. Usa un som­brero de ala ancha de medio lao’ y zap­atil­las por si hay prob­le­mas salir volao’, lentes oscuros pa’ que no sep­an que está miran­do y un diente de oro que cuan­do rie se ve bril­lan­do.


his hands always deep inside the pock­ets of his coat so that nobody knows which one holds the dag­ger he uses a wide brim hat, tilt­ed to one side sport­ing sneak­ers, to fly when in dan­ger dark shades so nobody knows what he's look­ing at and a gold­en tooth that shines when he laughs

The gold­en tooth also lights his way when flee­ing; his sneak­ers are “zap­atil­las,” fur­ther accen­tu­at­ing, from a lin­guis­tic stand­point, the diminutive’s pow­er through­out the song: the seem­ing­ly small and unno­ticed are those who are, in fact, eat­ing away at soci­ety from the ground up.

Mean­while, three blocks away, the por­trait of a pros­ti­tute is paint­ed: a woman

va recor­rien­do la acera entera por quin­ta vez, y en un zaguán entra y se da un tra­go para olvi­dar que el día está flo­jo y no hay clientes pa’ trabajar.

strides the whole curb for the fifth time and inside a store she goes to have a drink and for­get that the day moves slow, and she has no cus­tomers to attend

Per­tain­ing to the lex­i­cal field of move­ment, the lis­ten­er can extrap­o­late a matrix of speed and slick­ness begin­ning with the tum­bao of Pedro Nava­ja. The fol­low­ing vers­es also adhere to this iso­topic web and mir­ror the prostitute’s quo­tid­i­an idle­ness: “Un car­ro pasa muy despaci­to por la aveni­da / No tiene mar­cas pero to’os saben qu’es poli­cia.”[12] Sim­i­lar to the thief catch­er Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera who has every­one else do his dirty work for him—a par­o­d­ic sym­bol of soci­etal peace—the police in “Pedro Nava­ja” appear in a ghost-car that every­one knows exists. One can only assume that, rec­i­p­ro­cal­ly, the police also know who the gang­sters are—much like Peachum in Gay’s work—despite their inabil­i­ty to stop them. In accor­dance with Hutcheon’s adap­ta­tion the­o­ry, read­ing these vers­es in line with Brecht’s play, and the police along­side Peachum, would sug­gest that the police have some­thing to gain from Pedro’s thiev­ery, an impos­si­ble obser­va­tion with­out ref­er­ence to the hypo­text. Fur­ther­more, it recalls the orig­i­nal con­text that led Gay to write his play: the infa­mous Jonathan Wild as a duplic­i­tous gang­ster and police­man in Lon­don. Gain­ing the public’s trust and seem­ing­ly pro­tect­ing them, he and his gang in turn robbed the peo­ple, lat­er return­ing some or all of their goods (and receiv­ing a reward for it), while fram­ing and impris­on­ing rival gang mem­bers for the loot­ing. Such gov­ern­ment sanc­tioned thiev­ery, when trans­posed anachro­nis­ti­cal­ly into “Pedro Nava­ja,” offers a par­tic­u­lar com­men­tary on author­i­ty, polic­ing, as well as on pub­lic and pri­vate property.

Pedro Nava­ja sees the car and, with his hands in his pock­ets, cross­es the street “run­ning, silent­ly,” while the woman is on the oth­er side of the street, mov­ing a gun from her coat to her purse, “Un .38 Smith & Wes­son del espe­cial / Que car­ga enci­ma pa’ que la libre de todo mal.”[13] It may seem odd to hear a mix­ing of reg­is­ters, from slang to poet­ic verse and now to the dis­course of prayers, more specif­i­cal­ly the Lord’s Prayer, which ends “and deliv­er us from evil.” Blades’ poet­ics, how­ev­er, tran­spire through­out the text and all vers­es are undoubt­ed­ly minute­ly con­struct­ed. This verse trans­ports the lis­ten­er to the begin­ning of the song, where one hears the acoustic image “Ave” in the name Aveli­no, Ave also per­tain­ing to Bib­li­cal and prayer dis­course, as in “Ave Maria,” per­haps the most com­mon Latin Amer­i­can name for a (Chris­t­ian) woman. The orches­tra­tions of a sec­u­lar prayer with a sto­ry con­cern­ing thiev­ery emanates, a strand of the semi­otic web to which I will return.

The nar­ra­tive con­tin­ues, reach­ing its vio­lent cli­max: Pedro Nava­ja cross­es the street and stabs the woman, his “gold­en tooth shin­ing [across] the whole avenue,” while she pulls out a weapon of her own, and all of a sud­den spec­ta­tors hear that “a gun­shot burst­ed out like a cannon…”

Y Pedro Nava­ja cayó en la acera mien­tras veía, a esa mujer, Que revolver en mano y de muerte heri­da a el le decía: “Yo que pens­a­ba ‘hoy no es mi día estoy sala’, Pero Pedro Nava­ja tu estás peor, no estás en na’

and Pedro Nava­ja, fell on the curb as he saw the woman with the gun in her hand, and mor­tal­ly wound­ed telling him: “I thought: today was not my day, I’m on a bad streak. But Pedro Nava­ja, you’re worse: you’re worthless”

The phys­i­cal Ges­tus of the char­ac­ters, that is “how the character’s stance toward some­one or some­thing impels and defines his behav­iour toward that per­son or thing,” is par­tic­u­lar­ly telling (Fer­ran 7). Here, despite the stance of these two characters—Pedro Nava­ja lying on top of the stabbed prostitute—there is no place for rape, no place for the author­i­ta­tive pater­fa­mil­ias, dic­ta­tor or police to rob or pimp the pub­lic and the poor. The rebelling indi­vid­ual and the mut­ed com­mu­ni­ty, how­ev­er, stand in oppo­si­tion to each oth­er. Despite the noise, no one leaves their homes to see what has hap­pened or ask any ques­tions; instead, a sort of mob-like omertà or law of silence reigns. Only a drunk­ard, who stum­bles over the two bod­ies, takes “the gun, the dag­ger, the mon­ey” and off he goes. While leav­ing, how­ev­er, he starts to sing a tune: “Life brings you sur­pris­es, sur­pris­es are brought by life, O God!” The rhetor­i­cal chi­as­mus embod­ies a syn­tac­tic mir­ror and the image of cir­cu­la­tion or of lit­er­al rev­o­lu­tion becomes man­i­fest: life reflect­ing sur­pris­es, sur­pris­es life. It sets up a larg­er par­a­dig­mat­ic read­ing of the mir­ror­ing of misery.

Pedro Nava­ja as par­a­digm, is a rogue, dic­ta­tor, emblem of polit­i­cal pow­er now pow­er­less, and beneath him lies a woman, the embod­i­ment of fem­i­nine sub­mis­sive­ness, a pros­ti­tute, “sell­er and sold in one,” who, sick of not mak­ing enough mon­ey to eat, rebels against the author­i­ty (Ben­jamin 10). Blades takes on a fem­i­nist point of view, fig­u­ra­tive­ly plac­ing sex­u­al assault and one woman’s revolt against vio­lence, rape and the phal­lic knife, as a stand in for the vio­lence and oppres­sion against which com­mu­ni­ties need to stand up, oppos­ing the cru­el­ty of indi­vid­u­als and polit­i­cal regimes. As to fur­ther demon­strate the hard­ships of his nation, such a point of view nur­tures Blades’ trans­for­ma­tion of the arche­typ­al plot sequence from Gay’s play. Where­as the plot struc­ture of rebelling against the father to mar­ry a high­way­man laid the basis for The Beggar’s Opera and The Three­pen­ny Opera, here the par­a­digm is more sym­bol­ic, and the pater­nal author­i­ty is most­ly polit­i­cal: the eco­nom­ic exchange of mar­riage is now abject and debased to pros­ti­tu­tion. Although only a song, “Pedro Nava­ja” con­tains as a sort of mise-en-abîme or text with­in a text, the tex­tu­al macro­cosm with­in the micro­cosm; it folds with­in itself the numer­ous adap­ta­tions of The Beggar’s Opera into one song, a song that reflects the strug­gles of many Latin Amer­i­can countries—much like the “focloriza­tion[14] to which alludes Chico Buar­que de Hol­lan­da in his adaptation—a song that unites a peo­ple, forc­ing them to hear the sto­ries while phys­i­cal­ly engag­ing with them through dance, even if the danc­ing and the sto­ry are in con­tra­dic­tion to one another.

The secular prayer

Fol­low­ing the sto­ry-line and the cho­rus repeat­ed by the drunk­ard—la vida te da sor­pre­sas, sor­pre­sas te da la vida, ay Dios—Rubén Blades breaks off into spon­ta­neous and prover­bial pre­gones or soneos, forms that hark back to impro­vised street con­certs, whose ori­gins go back to Fla­men­co music.[15] The streets rep­re­sent the locus of per­for­mance, but they are also deeply enmeshed in the mes­sage of the song. Pedro Navaja’s true name is Pedro Bar­rio, the patronymic mean­ing neigh­bor­hood or in this case, the slums. Songs that speak of the inte­ri­or of the city, accord­ing to Blades, are fan­tas­tic, almost myth­i­cal, and he states that every one of his pro­tag­o­nists once walked the streets of his bar­rio in Pana­ma City. Once, when asked in an inter­view, “When you imag­ine these sto­ries, these char­ac­ters do you see them on the street, real­is­ti­cal­ly, or on a stage?” he respond­ed, “I see them as if a street were a stage.”[16] In his response, Blades seems to align him­self with Brecht regard­ing the aes­thet­ics and locus of per­for­mance, as shown in Brecht’s the­o­riz­ing in the Three­pen­ny Tri­al and his play The Streets. Astrid Oes­mann in Stag­ing His­to­ry, explains: “In response to the social and eco­nom­ic struc­tures of the bour­geois cul­ture in which he finds him­self, Brecht locates the­atre as social action occur­ring not with­in the cul­tur­al super­struc­ture, but in society’s base—meaning the street, the place where pub­lic life is at its most direct and phys­i­cal” (111). For Blades, the streets rep­re­sent pre­cise­ly the uni­fy­ing poten­tial of His­pan­ic coun­tries in under­stand­ing such uni­ver­sal nar­ra­tives, but they are also what link the high­way­man Macheath to the gen­res of the cabaret, the Mori­tat—which harks back to trav­el­ing minstrels—and fla­men­co soneos. Here, the term soneo or pre­gon has come to rep­re­sent impro­vised vers­es, based on the form of the proverb.

The pre­gones are inter­spersed between the cho­rus, the first one being a direct ref­er­ence to Mack­ie Mess­er: “Maleante pescador, el anzue­lo que tiraste, en vez de una sar­di­na, un tiburón engan­chaste.”[17] The shark recalls the vers­es made famous by Frank Sina­tra and Ella Fitzger­ald, among oth­ers: “Oh, the shark has pret­ty teeth, dear/And he shows ‘em pearly whites” and, as sug­gest­ed above, Pedro’s glow­ing teeth in turn take on sym­bol­ic val­ue, their metaphor­ic worth as ‘gold­en’ and their rel­e­vance to the plot as one of Pedro’s quotable ges­tures, in their abil­i­ty to light up the street. Bök­er notes that “[c]ritics used to remark that Bertolt Brecht’s Mack­ie Mess­er bears lit­tle resem­blance to Gay’s Macheath, the Weill-Brecht­ian coun­ter­part being pre­sent­ed as a tough gang­ster and a “busi­ness­man,” the smile of the shark being based on George Grosz’s 1921 draw­ing of Berlin broth­els called Haifis­che (“sharks”)” (20). I would argue that Pedro Nava­ja is indeed part of the same lin­eage and the hyper­text traces clos­er to Brecht’s text than to Gay’s for Blades. Sim­i­lar­ly, the Pana­man­ian artist was also deeply influ­enced by Kafka’s sto­ries, as he explic­it­ly states in the fol­low­ing pre­gon in “Pedro Nava­ja”: “Como en una nov­ela de Kaf­ka, el bor­ra­cho se dobló por el calle­jón.”[18] Run­ning takes on a sym­bol­ic attribute in the streets, pick­ing up from the ear­ly men­tion­ing of Pedro’s zap­atil­las pre­vi­ous­ly dis­cussed. Else­where in the song, the audi­ence is warned of those who do not run: “En bar­rio de gua­pos cuida’o en la acera, cuida’o cama­ra’ / El que no corre vuela,” describ­ing the thieves in super-human and even ani­mal­is­tic terms.[19] Aparna Dhar­wad­ker argues that there exists a “dehu­man­iz­ing effect of the pur­suit of mon­ey and pow­er” on behalf of the Macheath-like char­ac­ters, which I believe—at least in “Pedro Navaja”—is sim­i­lar in a way to Kafka’s Meta­mor­pho­sis, an explic­it ref­er­ence made by Blades to rep­re­sent the dehu­man­iz­ing and alien­at­ing nature of soci­ety vis-à-vis the less for­tu­nate (13). Here, only the mar­gin­al­ized char­ac­ters in the city, the grotesque­ly dehu­man­ized, degrad­ed and ani­ma­lesque indi­vid­u­als, such as the drunk­ards, seem able to sur­vive in such a men­da­cious environment.

The adaptability of “Pedro Navaja”

The con­niv­ing micro­cosm of Blades’ streets inter­est­ing­ly mir­rors the thiev­ing world of author­ship and artis­tic cre­ativ­i­ty. If Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera has a semi­otic poten­tial of repro­ducibil­i­ty, then the des­tiny of Pedro Nava­ja as fig­ure and image will prove quite sim­i­lar. The once high­way­man Macheath become street thief Pedro—without recount­ing the numer­ous evo­lu­tions between these two states of being—will fur­ther evolve to devel­op into the pro­tag­o­nist of a movie, El hijo de Pedro Nava­ja (The Son of Pedro Nava­ja) by Alfon­so Priego Jr. and a musi­cal enti­tled La ver­dadera his­to­ria de Pedro Nava­ja (The True Sto­ry of Pedro Nava­ja) by a Puer­to Rican com­pa­ny, but cred­it­ed to Pablo Cabr­era. Rubén Blades, furi­ous with Cabr­era for what he did to ‘his’ char­ac­ter, not to men­tion the film adap­ta­tions, decides to resus­ci­tate him and writes the song “Sor­pre­sas” (“Sur­pris­es”). This is a lit­er­al sequel or after­ing of “Pedro Nava­ja,” which opens with the drunk—spokesman lead­ing the cho­rus and mes­sage of the pre­vi­ous song—who had picked up the loot left­over after the rec­i­p­ro­cal killing and who, in turn, is held up at gun­point and robbed. This fur­ther com­pli­cates the notion of “show­ing the mir­ror­ing device of draw­ing par­al­lels between “Com­mon Rob­bers” and the “Rob­bers of the Pub­lick,”” a fun­da­men­tal anal­o­gy for under­stand­ing The Beggar’s Opera, since both Gay and Blades turn thiev­ery into a ver­tig­i­nous nev­er-end­ing cycle and blur the bound­aries between indi­vid­u­als rob­bing each oth­er, and the “Pub­lick” rob­bing the peo­ple (Bök­er 19). When asked where he found a gun and a knife, he tells the thief (a per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of Cabr­era), the sto­ry of Pedro Nava­ja and the pros­ti­tute. The rob­ber, out of curios­i­ty, goes to the scene of the mur­der and kicks the dead bod­ies to make sure they are tru­ly dead, and to everyone’s sur­prise, Pedro Nava­ja (who, giv­en his name, always has an extra blade on him) stands up and kills the new thief, leaves his ID in the deceased’s back pock­et and leaves. We also learn over the radio in the back­ground that the dead pros­ti­tute in ques­tion is real­ly a man dressed as a woman. The­o­ret­i­cal and eth­i­cal ques­tions abound in regards to adap­ta­tion, com­bin­ing gen­der per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty, author­ship and author­i­ty. Whether Blades’ re-appro­pri­a­tion of ‘his’ char­ac­ter seems unscrupu­lous or not, and whether ego­is­ti­cal­ly pro­long­ing his cre­ation for artis­tic or com­mer­cial inter­est, the posi­tion of the artist on the mar­ket­place and the artist’s auc­tori­tas[20] in gen­er­al are put into ques­tion, to the point where one may ask: is it pos­si­ble to per­form author­ship and if so, what are its benefits?

Brecht, fol­low­ing The Three­pen­ny Opera’s suc­cess, agreed to write the screen­play for a movie bear­ing the same title, a rela­tion­ship with Nero Film AG that would quick­ly dis­in­te­grate. Unhap­py that the pro­duc­ers had devi­at­ed so much from his script, itself a devi­a­tion from his the­atri­cal script, he decid­ed to sue the pro­duc­ers. The rec­i­p­ro­cal accu­sa­tions of one or the oth­er hav­ing strayed away too far from his orig­i­nal inten­tions is pre­cise­ly what frames The Three­pen­ny Tri­al, lat­er acknowl­edged by the defeat­ed Brecht as per­for­mance art, in which the lawyers, judge and all present, were actors in “his” play, a play that explic­it­ly demon­strat­ed the abuse of artis­tic rights, tram­pled time and again by large busi­ness­es and cap­i­tal­ism. Whether or not Brecht should legit­i­mate­ly feel that his text was mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ed remains an ambiva­lent top­ic with­in Brecht­ian crit­i­cism. I sug­gest that the nuance lies with­in a ques­tion of genre and media. Adap­ta­tion, to tru­ly mer­it its nomen­cla­ture, needs to update and re-con­tex­tu­al­ize a giv­en sto­ry or aes­thet­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion, while dia­logu­ing both with the present and the past on which it inevitably calls. Brecht’s pri­ma­ry re-work­ings of the the­atri­cal script nur­tured a more overt­ly polit­i­cal text that his pro­duc­er, Sey­mour Neben­zahl deemed unfit, not want­i­ng to tam­per with a proven mon­ey­mak­ing spec­ta­cle. Final­ly, the spe­cif­ic shift from the­atre to the screen is a vio­lent one in the case of both Brecht’s and Blades’ works. The trans-medi­at­ic move places the per­for­mance in a much more exploitable com­mer­cial medi­um, in which the once sus­cep­ti­ble form of the the­atre per­for­mance is reduced to an infi­nite­ly repro­ducible sin­gle show, effac­ing the com­mu­nal feel to view­ing the play in a the­atre, a play with room for error, street-like impro­vi­sa­tion and inter­ac­tion with its audi­ence. In film, no room is left for such artis­tic license, ele­ments at the very heart of Epic the­atre. The pro­duc­er choos­es the sin­gle point of view of the cam­era for the view­er, and the spec­ta­tor no longer active­ly par­tic­i­pates in the cre­ation of the play, or in the real­iza­tion of its goals.

Rubén Blades, as his name sug­gests, is work­ing through and against such vio­lence, in an attempt to reclaim the pow­er invest­ed in the art of per­form­ing, be it a song or a whole play, beyond film or pre­vi­ous­ly record­ed musi­cals. Pre­cise­ly this ever-so-chang­ing qual­i­ty of what takes place on stage becomes Blades’ strate­gic cri­tique. It seems that in resus­ci­tat­ing char­ac­ters, the author would be per­form­ing a lit­er­al form of prosopopoeia, also keep­ing in tra­di­tion with Epic the­atre in which ideas are per­formed, abstrac­tions there­fore tak­ing on the embod­i­ment of a mias­ma of signs. An intrigu­ing shift takes place from a semi­otic and alle­gor­i­cal point of view. Where­as Pedro Nava­ja embod­ied thiev­ery and the destruc­tive nature of author­i­ty and even dic­ta­tor­ship imposed upon a par­a­lyzed nation, due to Blades’ dis­gust for what Cabr­era has done with his cre­ation, the act of resus­ci­tat­ing Pedro trans­forms him from a neg­a­tive image to a pos­i­tive­ly manip­u­lat­ed fig­ure. He now embod­ies intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty and, iron­i­cal­ly, the pos­i­tive author­i­ty of the author-per­former, who—similar to Pedro Nava­ja himself—had long been pro­claimed dead, at least since Roland Barthes.


If human beings are ani­mals of prey as Gay sug­gests, then the social injus­tices of hier­ar­chi­cal abuse, of cor­rup­tion and thirst for pow­er, cre­ate an inter­con­nect­ed dia­logue among many coun­tries and regions that have suf­fered under dic­ta­tor­ships and polit­i­cal regimes. By adopt­ing sim­i­lar per­for­mance con­cepts to those of Brecht, and in com­bin­ing a nar­ra­tivized cere­bral sal­sa with pop­u­lar music and dance steps, Blades goes beyond a crit­i­cal karaoke or ven­tril­o­quist regur­gi­ta­tion of what has already been said and over­stat­ed. In fact, he builds yet anoth­er lay­er to the soci­etal inequal­i­ties for­aged by Gay and Brecht, by depict­ing women as both the vic­tims and means of sal­va­tion, adopt­ing a fem­i­nist point of view that goes beyond sim­ply labelling the woman as vic­tim. She is an emblem of the coun­try, a mar­tyr suf­fer­ing to feed her­self and per­haps her chil­dren in a nation where the only pecu­niary cir­cu­la­tion is on the cor­ner of a street. Blades’ goal is not only to bring sal­sa back to its roots, but also to push it beyond super­fi­cial lan­guage devoid of any stim­u­lat­ing pow­er and mean­ing, whether polit­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal or spir­i­tu­al. What remains unan­swered, how­ev­er, is where the line may be drawn between the prized hypo­text and the hyper­text, its trans­formed, stolen and re-con­tex­tu­al­ized coun­ter­part. That Blades would have been furi­ous with oth­er artists for adapt­ing a char­ac­ter that was nev­er ful­ly his to begin with mer­its fur­ther analy­sis. Nonethe­less, in an attempt to fur­ther under­stand the breadth of adapt­able pow­er in Gay’s work—one can only imag­ine how he might feel about the adapt­abil­i­ty of his play—it would be fruit­ful to shift the read­ings and analy­ses from a diachron­ic read­ing, as I have done, to a syn­chron­ic one, includ­ing Alfon­so Priego Jr.’s and Cabrera’s orches­tra­tions, since “mul­ti­ple ver­sions exist lat­er­al­ly, not ver­ti­cal­ly,” allow­ing for a dia­logue to estab­lish between those artists who chose The Beggar’s Opera and The Three­pen­ny Opera either as a par­o­d­ic means to cri­tique a spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal con­text, or to pay homage to a pio­neer­ing text (Hutcheon xiii).


[1] Accord­ing to Gérard Genette and his the­o­ries on trans­tex­tu­al­i­ty, or the “tex­tu­al tran­scen­dence of text,” the hypo­text is the basis upon which the hyper­text exists: in this case, “Pedro Nava­ja” is the hyper­text and The Beggar’s Opera, The Three­pen­ny Opera and more specif­i­cal­ly the song “Mack the Knife,” are its hypo­texts (9).

[2] The study at hand will exam­ine Blades’ song in rela­tion to the Eng­lish ver­sion of “Mack the Knife.” Due to length, the ques­tion of trans­la­tion – specif­i­cal­ly, read­ing Brecht in Ger­man or in Eng­lish – will not be addressed in this essay.

[3] This quo­ta­tion is Lin­da Hutcheon’s echo­ing of Wal­ter Benjamin.

[4] It seems appro­pri­ate to analyse a text from the same point of view that nur­tured its exis­tence. This is to say that Rubén Blades was aware of Brecht­ian the­o­ry and it would have there­fore explic­it­ly nur­tured his own creations.

[5] Frank Figueroa: http://​www​.maes​travi​da​.com/​c​h​a​r​a​c​t​e​r​s​.​h​tml

[6] The term “attribute” is rel­a­tive to Peircean semi­otics. For Peirce, “icons,” a spe­cif­ic form of the sign, are defined accord­ing to their attrib­ut­es. In hagiog­ra­phy, for exam­ple, reli­gious icons are rec­og­nized thanks to cer­tain objects and attrib­ut­es pecu­liar to them, an ini­tial form of edu­cat­ing the illit­er­ate in the realm of the reli­gious. Peircean “attrib­ut­es,” although more props than actions, are not com­plete­ly unlike Brecht’s “quotable ges­tures.” In fact, such an anal­o­gy mer­its a clos­er look at Brecht­ian Ges­tus along­side Peircean semiotics.

[7] The pater­nal last name, that is.

[8] A hybrid form of New York and Puer­to Rican influences.

[9] http://​www​.bbc​.co​.uk/​m​u​s​i​c​/​a​r​t​i​s​t​s​/​f​0​5​0​6​7​3​a​-​d​f​b​3​-​4​2​0​0​-​b​0​5​7​-​b​f​7​8​2​1​3​d​e​36c

[10] Frank Figueroa: http://​www​.maes​travi​da​.com/​c​h​a​r​a​c​t​e​r​s​.​h​tml

The clave rhythm is a five stroke rhythm, omnipresent in Afro-Cuban music and rep­re­sents the guid­ing beat in all sal­sa songs.

[11] Tremendista nov­els par­tic­i­pate in a 1940s move­ment where the plot vio­lent­ly describes the hyper­bol­i­cal­ly dis­mem­bered, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly dis­traught and abused char­ac­ters, all soci­etal rem­nants of a post-war nation.

[12] “A car moves slow­ly through the avenue / it has no marks but every­one knows it's the police.”

[13] “A .38 spe­cial "Smith & Wesson"/ that she keeps always, to rid her from all evil.”

[14] De Hol­lan­da bases his neol­o­gism on a hybridized Por­tuguese and Eng­lish word, com­bin­ing the Por­tuguese “folk­lore” with an Eng­lish suffix.

[15] The ety­mol­o­gy of pre­gon is “prayer.”

[16] Frank Figueroa: http://​www​.maes​travi​da​.com/​c​h​a​r​a​c​t​e​r​s​.​h​tml

[17] Trans­la­tion: “Delin­quent fish­er­man, by throw­ing a hook in the water, instead of a sar­dine, you caught a shark.” My translation.

[18] “As in a Kaf­ka nov­el, the drunk­ard turned the cor­ner and ran” (My translation).

[19] “Ghet­to of thugs, be care­ful on the curb, take care my bud­dy, he who does not run, flies…”

[20] The use of auc­tori­tas in Latin is twofold. It refers to a par­tic­u­lar pres­tige and influ­ence an indi­vid­ual had in Roman soci­ety. Also, ety­mo­log­i­cal­ly, it recalls that “author” comes from “to aug­ment” (as the­o­rized by lin­guist Émile Ben­véniste), thus adding yet anoth­er lay­er to the notion of adapt­abil­i­ty, author­ship and own­er­ship of a par­tic­u­lar text or cre­ation. The term push­es the ambi­gu­i­ties of adap­ta­tion fur­ther, giv­en that, to increase or add on, is not qual­i­ta­tive, but quantitative.

Works Cited

Ben­jamin, Wal­ter. Illu­mi­na­tions. Trans. Har­ry Zohn. Glas­gow: Fontana/Collins, 1973. Print.

Ben­jamin, Wal­ter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Elland and Kevin McLaugh­lin. Cam­bridge: HUP, 2002. Print.

Bloom, Harold. The Anx­i­ety of Influ­ence: A The­o­ry of Poet­ry, New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press USA, 1997 [1973]. Print.

Bök­er, Uwe, Ines Det­mers and Anna-Christi­na Gio­vanopou­los. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera 1728-2004: Adap­ta­tions and Re-Writ­ings. New York: Rodopi, 2006. Print.

Brecht, Bertolt. The Three­pen­ny Opera. Trans. Desmond Vesey. New York: Grove Press, 1964. Print.

Daby­deen, David. “Eigh­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture on Com­merce and Slav­ery”. In: The Black Pres­ence in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture. David Daby­deen (ed.). Man­ches­ter: MUP. (1985): 26-49. Print.

Dhar­wad­ker, Aparna. “John Gay, Bertolt Brecht, and Post­colo­nial Anti­na­tion­alisms.” Mod­ern Dra­ma, 38 (1995): 4-21. Print Fer­ran, Peter W. “The Three­pen­ny Songs: Cabaret and Lyri­cal Ges­tus.The­ater. Vol. 30.2. Fall (2000): 50-21. Print.

Figueroa, Frank M. “Rubén Blades and His Cast of Char­ac­ters:” http://​www​.maes​travi​da​.com/​c​h​a​r​a​c​t​e​r​s​.​h​tml, Jan­u­ary 14, 2011. Elec­tron­ic Fis­ch­er-Lichte, Eri­ka. The Semi­otics of The­ater. Trans. Jere­my Gaines and Doris L. Jones. Bloom­ing­ton: Indi­ana UP, 1992. Print.

Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera. New York: Dover Pub­li­ca­tions, 1999. Print.

Genette, Gérard. Palimpses­tes: la lit­téra­ture au sec­ond degré. Paris: seuil, 1982. Print Hutcheon, Lin­da. A The­o­ry of Adap­ta­tion. New York: Rout­ledge, 2006. Print.

idson, Frank. The Beggar’s Opera. Its Pre­de­ces­sors and Suc­ces­sors. Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1922. Print.

Oes­mann, Astrid. Stag­ing His­to­ry: Brecht’s Social Con­cepts of Ide­ol­o­gy. New York: State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York Press, 2005. Print.

Rif­faterre, Michael. « La sig­nifi­ance du poème ». Sémi­o­tique de la poésie. Trad. Jean-Jacques Thomas. Paris: Édi­tions du Seuil: (1983). 11-36. Print.

Rubén Blades,” BBC Music biogra­phies: http://​ww​.bbc​.co​.uk/​m​u​s​i​c​/​a​r​t​i​s​t​s​/​f​0​5​0​6​7​3​a​-​d​f​b​3​-​4​2​0​0​-​b​0​5​7​-​b​f​7​8​2​1​3​d​e​36c, Jan­u­ary 14, 2011. Electronic.

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