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The Weill Project blog: François Villon

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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#bertoltbrecht #françoisvillon #k.l.ammer #joemabel #threepennyopera
Imaginative portrait of François Villon by lithographer Ludwig Rullmann, c. 1800
We have, of course, no idea what François Villon actually looked like, but I've always liked what lithographer Ludwig Rullmann imagined back around the time of Napoleon. It reminds me of Harpo Marx.

We've been hanging out in 1928 a bit lately: the play Threepenny Opera, my living-room recording of "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" from that play, an essay on the concept of "Epic Theater" and a flashback by Juliana to fill in Lotte Lenya's backstory. Now we'll go even further back—500 years back!—to fill in another backstory before we continue with the story of Weill's own life.

The French poet François Villon (c. 1431 – c. 1463) is a hidden presence in the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera. Threepenny explicitly reworks John Gay's English-language Beggar's Opera (1728), but it also borrows from Villon by way of German poet K.L. Ammer (pseudonym of a former Austro-Hungarian Army officer actually named Karl Anton Klammer). Brecht hewed awfully close to K.L. Ammer's not-very-literal translation of Villon. The translation was decades old in 1928, but Ammer/Klammer was still alive and considered this "borrowing" to be more along the lines of "Last night three men committed an armed borrowing at the corner of First and Pike." Klammer sued. Brecht generally considered lawsuits good publicity, and he used the occasion to rant about copyrights being an instance of capitalist oppression, but eventually settled. (There was plenty of money to settle with. Threepenny Opera was a hit. Brecht bought his first car.)

Villon would probably have approved of all of Brecht's "borrowing," or at worst written something cuttingly witty about it. Think of Villon as a 15th-century heterosexual Jean Genet 🔗, and if that doesn't mean anything to you, then you have yet another great French writer to discover. The only reason the comparison is unfair is that Villon is up there with Shakespeare and Dante (though less prolific, or at least less of his work survives), and Genet isn't quite. The main reason we know much about Villon other than his writing is that he kept ending up in court on criminal charges, and then as now trials had transcripts. He landed in prison once after getting involved in a knife-fight between two priests and (at least according to the court) fatally smashing in one of the combatants' heads in with a stone. He landed in prison again because a group of students pulled off a major robbery of valuables from the chapel of the Collège de Navarre; he may have been the ringleader, he may have been framed, he definitely got convicted. Lots of convictions, lots of pardons; he disappears from history in the 1460s, maybe dead, maybe living a quiet life as a repentant monk, presumably not taken under wing by a 15th-century equivalent of Jean-Paul Sartre.

But he wrote like a motherfucker. I was introduced to him during college by my bandmate and close friend, the late Ralph Barker Wilson III. (Ralph once tried tipping a waitress at a Dunkin' Donuts by writing her a poem. The waitress looked it over briefly, said, "I see you've been reading Villon." Ralph added some cash. We never found out what that woman was doing working as a waitress at Dunkin' Donuts.) Ralph lent me the then-standard 1965 bilingual edition with English translation by Galway Kinnell, which I loved. For years I had a copy but there's a long sad story involving insects. I recently had the pleasure of discovering that Kinnell was unsatisfied with that translation, retranslated heavily, and came out with a much-revised new edition in 1977. It's even more of a gem.

Here's a good example of what made its way into Threepenny, in what is generally known as "The Pimp's Ballad"; the version from Threepenny is also known as "Tango-Ballad":

Villon (1463):

Quant viennent gens je cours et happe ung pot
Au vin m'en fuis sans demener grant bruit
Je leur tens eaue, frommage, pain et fruit
S'ilz paient bien je luer dis "Bene stat
Retournez cy quant vous serez en ruit
En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat."

Kinnell translation (1977):

When clients come I run and get a pot
And go for wine taking care to be quiet
I offer then water, cheese, bread, and fruit
If they pay well I tell them "Bene stat
Stop in again the next time you feel horny
In this whorehouse where we hold our state."

K.L. Ammer (1909); Brecht used this verbatim in Threepenny Opera:

Und wenn ein Freier kam, kroch ich aus unserm Bett
Und drückte mich zum Kirsch und war sehr nett
Und wenn er blechte, sprach ich zu ihm: Herr
Wenn Sie mal wieder wollen -- bitte sehr.
So hielten wirs' ein volles halbes Jahr
In dem Bordell, wo unser Haushalt war.

Neil Hannon: rather loose translation of Brecht/Ammer (2000 or just before):

And when a client came, I'd slide out of our bed
And treat him nice, and go and have a drink instead
And when he paid up, I'd address him, "Sir
Come any night you feel you fancy her"
That time's long past, but what would I not give
To see that whorehouse where we used to live?

That passage doesn't quite bear out my "up there with Shakespeare and Dante," though. Try this one:

Villon (1463):

Or sont ilz mors, Dieu ait leurs ames
Quant est des corps ilz sont pourris
Aient esté seigneurs ou dames
Souef et trendrement nourris
De cresme, fromentee ou riz
Et les os declinent en pouldre
Auxquelz ne chault d'esbatz ne ris
Plaise au doulx Jhesus les absouldre.

Kinnell translation (1977):

They are dead God rest their souls
Their bodies have rotted away
No matter if they were lords or ladies
Fed with the tenderest care
On whipped creams, frumenty, rice
And their bones crumble into dust
No longer stirred by lust or laughter
May the mild Jesus absolve them.

In a time and place when poetry was mostly very conventional and impersonal, where one poet's courtly love poem could barely be distinguished from another's, Villon stands out as individual, almost modern. He could be vulgar:

Ou nourisses essagent leurs drappeaulx
En petiz baings de filles amourouses

(More or less following Kinnell)

Where wet-nurses throw diapers to soak
In the bidets used by whores

… or wistful …

Hé Dieu, se j'eusse estudié
Ou temps de ma jeunesse folle
Et a bon meurs dedié
J'eusse maison et couche molle

(Kinnell again)

Ah God if I had only studied
In the days of my heedless youth
And set myself in good ways
I'd have a house now and soft bed.

Facing the gallows, he wrote:

Et de la corde d'une toise
Sçaura mon colque mon cul poise


From a fathom of rope my neck
Will learn the weight of my ass.

He's also funny, describing Robert Vallée as having "no more brains than an armoire ("Puis qu'il n'a sens ne qu'une aulmoire") and, in his Testament, willing to Robinet Trascaille (Kinnell translation again):

A bowl he hasn't yet dared to borrow
Thus his household will be complete
For it was the one thing he lacked.

(Kinnell and Hannon are both still in copyright, quoted here on a "fair use" basis.)

Next blog post: Lotte Lenya and the road to Threepenny Opera

All materials copyright © 2021 Joseph L. Mabel unless otherwise noted.
All rights reserved.

Original date: 9 August 2021
Last modified: 9 August 2021

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