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Making Moonshine: Mahagonny, whiskey and the debt that can’t be paid

Illegal whisky has long been a conflicted symbol of American rebellion – and in Weill and Brecht’s opera Mahagonny represents the hero’s final downfall.

By Oscar Gaynor (Student on the RCA’s MA programme in Critical Writing in Art and Design)

31 March 2015 at 12.52pm | Comment on this article

The nightscape of Mahagonny is a place of shady transactions – of bars and brothels and brawling, illuminated by the half-light glow of the moon. In Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, whiskey takes a special role in the vicious cycle of consumption and debt. It precipitates the point at which it all goes sour. When it is revealed that the unpaid bill for a round of whiskies, bought in celebration and fraternity, can never be repaid, the rise definitively turns into the fall.

In popular song, the making and drinking of whiskey is fused with the secretive atmosphere of moonlight. It also reflects slippery conceptions of American freedom. Copper Kettle, as sung by, among others, Joan Baez in 1962 and by Bob Dylan in 1970, is a paean to sticking it to the man:

My Daddy he made whisky
My Granddaddy he did too
We ain’t paid no whisky tax since 1792

The so-called whiskey tax (although it applied to all distilled spirits) was introduced in 1791 by the fledgling federal government. The first tax to be placed on any domestic product, it was intended as a means to pay back the national debt incurred during the Revolutionary War. Farmsteads in the Deep South had long been used to distilling their surplus grain into whisky – drinking themselves silly and using it in barter exchange: the cottage industry par excellence – and the tax was met with a deep hostility.

The ensuing Whiskey Rebellion lasted for nearly a decade in various, often deadly clashes with the police. One can draw a line from here through to Prohibition, of underground production of liquor and the birth of the moonshiner. Homespun stills for making hooch were botched together from improbable junctions of copper piping and storage urns housed in barns, sheds, or indeed anywhere the highly combustible machine might not cause too much damage.

In Copper Kettle there is no appeal for action. The moonshiner is a kind of anti-hero and his passive resistance a way of life.

You’ll just lay there by the juniper
While the moon is bright
Watch them jugs a-filling
In the pale moonlight

Brecht and Weill’s most famous export, the song variously known as ‘The Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)’ and ‘Moon Over Alabama’, has been contorted and repurposed by artists from The Doors and David Bowie to Nina Simone. We must show them the way to the next whisky bar, and not ask why. Brecht, in his bitter irony, shows drinking as part of the condition of living and working under capitalism. It becomes a necessary way of coping when one must work at the limits of exhaustion in order to survive. When we are caught in a double-bind, debt is unavoidable, or even natural.

Under that particular soft, dim moonlight, moonshine offers blueprints to reread and contest the failing mores and codes of the places we live in. And as sure as night turns to day, tax and debt (in Mahagonny and beyond) are the core motors of the plot.

This is an edited excerpt from Oscar Gaynor’s article ‘Lighter and Shiner’, written as part of the Royal College of Art’s MA programme in Critical Writing in Art and Design. Read more about the RCA’s collaboration with the Royal Opera House and read more articles from Oscar’s colleagues on the Digital Programme for Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny runs until 4 April 2015. Tickets are sold out, but returns may become available and there are 67 day tickets available for each performance.
The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 1 April 2015. Find your nearest cinema.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is staged with generous philanthropic support from The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc., New York, NY, Stefan Sten Olsson, Richard and Ginny Salter, Hamish and Sophie Forsyth and The Royal Opera Circle.

By Oscar Gaynor (Student on the RCA’s MA programme in Critical Writing in Art and Design)

31 March 2015 at 12.52pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Bob Dylan, by John Fulljames, Joan Baez, moonshine, Production, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Royal College of Art, whisky, whisky rebellion, whisky tax

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