Whatever we mean by the canon of great literature, no place within that canon is more sparsely populated than the area reserved for great satirists. The list is not long: Aristophanes in ancient Athens; Juvenal in ancient Rome; Jonathan Swift in eighteenth century Dublin; Karl Kraus in Vienna in the early twentieth century. It is an odd feature of this list that Aristophanes, generally remembered as a playwright, is far better known in the English-speaking world, though he wrote nearly two and a half thousand years ago, than the only other playwright, Karl Kraus, who died in 1936. Until recently Kraus’s work was only accessible in English in small, anthologised selections, and in the nearly one hundred years since he began his vast satirical drama about the First World War, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, ‘The Last Days of Mankind’, a full, accurate translation has only appeared in the 21st century. Theatrical productions, few enough in themselves outside Germany and Austria, have generally focused on the spirit rather than the more difficult letter of his great play, in more or less free interpretation. This would have troubled Kraus himself, whose concerns were almost obsessively with language, argument and analysis.
Yet the importance of this play has been widely acknowledged and celebrated in Europe, both for its uncompromising, almost forensic examination of human folly in the face of war on a scale still barely comprehensible, and as a unique act of creativity and imagination, hugely influential in opening twentieth century drama up to new challenges, new techniques, new possibilities. It is extraordinary that it remained untranslated so long, almost unknown in English. This translation is a ‘work in progress’, focusing especially on providing the notes about Kraus’s text, necessary and enriching, that other translations have dealt with in brief.
Karl Kraus was born in 1874 and died in 1936. The great bulk of his work is represented by his satirical magazine Die Fackel, ‘The Torch’, which he wrote and produced almost single-handedly; the collected edition runs to twelve volumes. ‘The Last Days of Mankind’ actually emerged from the magazine. In the course of the First World War Kraus found an increasingly surreal and absurd dramatic voice was the only way to write about the lunacy around him. Much of the play was published in the magazine before it came together in its final version, shortly after the end of the war.
Kraus wrote essays, criticism, poetry, collections of aphorisms; he translated Shakespeare’s sonnets and many of Shakespeare’s plays into German. His one-man performances from ‘The Last Days of Mankind’ were legendary in Vienna. Legendary too was the uncompromising rigour of his writing and his use of language. His last work, on the rise of fascism, Die dritte Walpurgisnacht, ‘The Third Walpurgis Night’, was not published till after the end of World War II; it begins, ‘About Hitler there is nothing to say…’
One of the first things the Nazis did in Vienna, after the Anschluss in 1938, was to throw Kraus’s still intact library into the street and burn every single book in it; had he been alive then he might well have burned with them.
Kraus’s particular preoccupation, throughout his life, was the media, then primarily the press and advertising. He came to recognise very early on that ‘the media’ was a new phenomenon that was beginning to dominate the way information was disseminated and to affect profoundly how people perceived almost everything. He saw a powerful, influential press in Vienna becoming ever more mendacious, manipulative, corrupt and self-serving, forming ever-stronger ties with the aristocratic, industrial, financial, artistic and, above all, political elites of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and later, after the war, with the struggling democracy of a new Austria. He saw ‘media spin’ born. He also saw, long before Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘The Medium is the Message’ in the 1950’s, that it wasn’t truth, or even information that was the real product of the media, but simply more ‘media’. In ‘The Last Days of Mankind’ the editor of Vienna’s New Free Press gives chilling expression to this thought: ‘We’ve got to make the public hungry for the war and the paper, the two things are inseparable’.
‘The Last Days of Mankind’ follows the course of the First World War, mainly from the viewpoint of Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as that empire crumbles and collapses. The play begins in the streets of the city as the news vendors cry out the news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo; it concludes over four years later with the end of humanity and, in ‘The Last Night’, the epilogue, the voice of a powerless, barely comprehending God speaking the vacuous, almost meaningless words of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II: ‘I didn’t want this’.
The action, described by Kraus as ‘leading to a hundred scenes and hells… impossible, fractured, hero-less’, takes us from those Viennese streets to the trenches; it takes us from the city’s coffeehouses and palaces to the hospitals where the dying wait to die; from the airy, complacent offices of government ministries and newspapers to the dugouts where the casualty figures are measured in tens of thousands. It ends with the Apocalypse of ‘The Last Night’. The banal and the profound, the brutal and the absurd, are always there, cheek by jowl, feeding off each other as the crows on the battlefields feed off the all-too-plentiful corpses. And so it goes on.
In the Vatican the Pope prays for peace, isolated and ignored; in the offices of the New Free Press the editor, Moriz Benedikt, dictates an editorial celebrating the stench of the Italian dead wafting across the Adriatic; the Executive Committee of the League for the General Boycott of Foreign Words tours Vienna painting English and French words out of shop signs; the empire decays while the inhabitants of the Hofburg Palace still dress up in their Ruritanian uniforms and celebrate victories that never happened; theatre-going racketeers, generals and politicians discuss celebrity gossip in restaurants and nightclubs, as soldiers and civilians starve; writers and artists celebrate their exemption from military service and journalists write patriotic hogwash about the glory of dying for your country – from the safety of Vienna; ‘Hatesong for England’ is a set text in a primary school where the children still sing ditties about the promotion of tourism; Austria-Hungary’s only female war correspondent extols in death (with almost pornographic excitement) the Common Man she so despises in life; people turn into animals on stage while marionettes deliver clichés and newspaper headlines; animated gas masks dehumanise human beings and speak their words; the armaments industry directs the war for its own ends while prayers are said for the slaughter of the enemy; the stench of death reaches the gates of Heaven itself; in Vienna people sing operetta hits and chase after celebrities for their autographs, while the news vendors cry out the numbers of the Russian dead; in the cosy milieu of a coffeehouse the proprietor greets his customers in the guise of the Angel of Death; a chorus of hyenas represents the press barons and industrialists of Vienna; and still the presses roll, their voices shriller and shriller in the proclamation of a victory that will never come, in a war that is increasingly a catastrophic defeat for humanity.
‘Falsehood, daily falsehood, from which printer’s ink flows like blood, the one fuelling the other, spreading ever wider, a delta into the great sea of madness.’
But wherever the action takes us, we always come back to the starting place, the streets of Vienna and its coffeehouses; it is that focus, so specific, so seemingly narrow, that gives the play its fierce integrity and its real world view. As the play dissects murderous folly, with relentless almost scientific rigour, the corpse is laid out on a coffeehouse table; Kraus’s scalpel cuts into decaying flesh; despite the stench, iced coffee and Sachertorte are being served; an operetta soubrette sings of love. Until the end that is, when, in ‘The Last Night’, we finally see the destruction of the earth itself.
Kraus was not a self-conscious modernist, though he lived in Vienna at a time when it was one of the great ‘factories of modernism’ in art, literature and music; his modernism emerges from necessity rather than invention. Faced with a world increasingly driven by advertising and the press he needed to find new ways to analyse and challenge that monopoly of information; ‘The Last Days of Mankind’ was a natural development of other forms of satire and criticism in the pages of Die Fackel and his essays. What was unusual about Kraus was the meticulousness with which he pursued his purpose. He believed the devil really was in the detail; his tool was not the spotlight but the microscope. In a torn poster for a music hall, partly plastering over Emperor Franz Josef’s proclamation of war, is the whole of Viennese society, and beyond it the grotesque banality of a war that was slaughtering millions. The most condensed (and dense) realisation of his techniques is to be found in the taut verse of ‘The Last Night’.
The play’s remarkable epilogue is in many ways a distillation of all the material preceding it, and this is particularly true in the way its characters often represent groups of characters from the rest of the play. The general who appears, fleeing the battlefield, is somehow all generals and military leaders; the war correspondents who try to interview and photograph a dying man are all war correspondents. Everything that went before is present in the verse that is Kraus’s tool in ‘The Last Night’. Yet it has now a more abstract tone, all the more bleak for its unfamiliar qualities of leanness and ellipsis. But he uses that abstraction to go further. While the chorus of hyenas represents the ‘media pack’ of industrial-political-literary might, and their leader, the Lord of the Hyenas, is indeed a version of Moriz Benedikt, editor of Vienna’s New Free Press, the imagery also expresses a more profound darkness about humanity itself. It is no accident that at times the schematic characterisation in ‘The Last Night’ echoes a Passion or mystery play. And surely the spirit of Goethe too, often surprisingly as close to the Medieval as to the Romantic, hovers over the verse towards the end.
The techniques Kraus used in ‘The Last Days of Mankind’ are familiar enough now, but at the time they were revolutionary, especially in their combination. But perhaps the most distinctive and still most unique element of the play is his use of ‘found material’ or collage. The play is full of material that Kraus collected from his magpie-like reading of newspapers, magazines, government documents, new books and poems; it is full of gossip overheard in coffeehouses, along with twisted, Chinese-whisper-like versions of conversations in the Imperial Palace and the War Office; the voices of the city contain snatches of broken, disjointed conversations and songs, overheard as Kraus walked through Vienna or sat on trams, in theatres, in concert halls. This ‘found material’ is everywhere; there is no other writer, certainly playwright, who has used this technique (more often associated with twentieth century art than with literature) so extensively or so tellingly. Gertrude Stein once famously said that ‘Remarks are not literature’; Karl Kraus seems to prove otherwise. Although the verse of ‘The Last Night’ lends itself to fewer specific references of this kind, and to less ‘found material’ than the main play, such material is still there. However, this material, especially the overheard words, slogans, newspaper headlines, etc., is now so subsumed by the poetry that explanations here can add little. The specific informs the general; the real depth is elsewhere.
Another unique element of the play is that it is simultaneously a finished work of art and a work in progress. Much of the play was written in immediate response to what Kraus saw around him as the war progressed, then published ‘raw’ in Die Fackel. When he finally put the complete play together he did not add hindsight to what he had written. And this slightly rough-at-the-edges honesty is true even of ‘The Last Night’. It is an approach that cannot but produce contradictions at times, as Kraus’s perspectives shift continually. His arguments are with himself as well as his audience.
The epic scale of the play is both a reflection of its primary subject matter and of the depth and intensity of Kraus’s work. Size, in this case, does matter, as does the intellectual density. The very modernism of the play’s structure demands scale; highlights of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, however pale a reflection of the whole, will at least give you some wonderful tunes to remember; the same approach to Mahler’s 9th will more likely leave you scratching your head. But no label can be applied to Karl Kraus without immediately contradicting itself. For his voice is also the voice of the Enlightenment (perhaps one of the last), railing in astonishment at the growth of ideas that in the twentieth century, on behalf of whatever beliefs, enthusiastically reject reason, disdain tolerance, despise learning and espouse arbitrary, even superstitious, hatreds; looking back into the darkness even as science ought to be opening up all the possibilities of life. It is not an aberrant vision of course, in the twenty-first century; in Brecht’s words, more widely applicable than he knew, ‘the bitch is still in heat’.
The heart of Kraus’s drama though is in the words, always the words; it is a drama of ideas, not of action or character. And it is those words, complex, convoluted, analytical, contradictory, reflective, violent, poetic, that inevitably disappear in theatrical versions of the play that can only give us a short time on stage. Unsurprisingly they concentrate on imagery, action, and what there is of narrative (not much!). The effect can be powerful but the results are inevitably disjointed, lacking the very words that make the play such a ruthless dissection of humanity and civilisation, not simply of the iniquity of war. They can’t be expected to reflect Kraus’s achievement, and whatever their qualities these often enjoyable productions leave critics unfamiliar with Kraus wondering what his reputation is all about. However, it can be said that ‘The Last Night’, in isolation, is different. It seems to contradict all that, providing the same epic vision, and the same concerns with language, in a form that is almost the opposite of the play it provides a finale to, in its tautness and spare intensity. It works both on its own and as a finale. It is a powerful introduction to the play it closes.
As far as Kraus’s complex and multivalent style of writing goes, we might look for a parallel (not an equivalent) in Irish writing in English in the twentieth century; glorying in the cadences that are the heritage of Shakespeare and the Authorised Version, yet constantly subverting, challenging, reinvigorating that heritage at the same time. Like James Joyce, Kraus is always pushing his language further than it is used to going. Language and reason, analysis and argument, are always the heart of his work. When we compromise language (as media spin does by definition) we lose our grip on our reasoning; and with our reason we risk our humanity.
Karl Kraus’s modernism is uncompromisingly complex, not because what he is saying is complex, but because even staring into the darkness the creative power of the human imagination won’t be denied. The play is Kraus’s way of saying, like Martin Luther, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’; with a wry smile rather than a hammer and nails. Other words of Luther’s end ‘The Last Night’. Yet it is an irony, perhaps unconscious even for Kraus, that in his portrayal of mankind’s abandonment of humanity there is an outpouring of imaginative energy, evoked by rage and despair, which asserts that humanity. J. M. Synge and Kraus don’t have much in common dramatically, but the fact that ‘The Last Days of Mankind’ is about something immensely serious doesn’t mean Synge’s words don’t apply:
‘Drama is made serious… not by the degree in which it is
taken up with problems that are serious in themselves, but by the degree in
which it gives the nourishment, not very easy to define, on which our
Art, after all, is not only about… what it’s about.