Friday, December 29, 2023

THE LAST DAYS OF MANKIND

 

Karl Kraus (1874-1936) lived in Vienna, and throughout the course of World War One he wrote The Last Days of Mankind. This play is a Tragedy in Five Acts that also contains a Prologue and an Epilogue as well as multiple scenes in every act—Act One contains thirty scenes, Act Two has thirty-three, Act Four has forty-five and Act Five has fifty-five scenes. Kraus began to write this huge verse play with at least 500 characters in 1914-15.  It is reported that he worked on this project daily throughout the war, concluding it in 1922.  A large percentage of the play’s dialogue is actual comments that Karl Kraus either overheard on the streets of Vienna, in the caf├ęs during the war or taken from newspaper articles.  

This post will discuss the play’s epilogue titled “The Last Night” (Die letzte Nacht).  The epilogue relates to all the horrors and insanities of World War One and it serves as a summary of The Last Days of Mankind since it contains many references to the events and realities of the war that the major play depicts. In The Last Night, Kraus also presents a distillation of situations and groups of characters represented from the entire play.

Throughout the war, Kraus was the editor and the only contributor of a daily self-published journal titled Die Fackel (The Torch) which was a must read daily for the Viennese intelligentsia.  Kraus published several segments of his play in Die Fackel, but the script never appeared in its entirety. Kraus recognized that his play was not producible in the theatre due to its length. He remarked that a performance “would take some ten evenings in terrestrial time” and was therefore only fit “for a theatre on Mars.”

The setting for The Last Night is a Battlefield. Craters. Clouds of Smoke. Starless night. A wall of flames on the horizon. Corpses. Dying soldiers. This location provides the backdrop for the entire epilogue. The sense of the war progressing through its various phases is provided by the way in which the new and diverse characters enter this setting, declare their immediate priorities and exit. This also provides the many phases of the war. The first speaking characters who enter in this scene are FEMALE GAS MASK and MALE GAS MASK.  After they exit, Two generals in flight, in a car enter the scene. One General describes how badly the war is progressing at this point and they drive off as day is dawning.  One Dying Soldier tries to receive assistance from the passing characters but is not successful.  This parade of entering characters includes humans, various voices some of which come from “above” while others come “from” below, named human vices (Glutton, Sweet Tooth), types of animals (Hyenas) and in a separate group Cinema Projectionists. The final speaker is “The Voice of God.”

The Last Night is the only segment of the entire play that was produced on stage and presented to audiences during Kraus’s lifetime, and it is believed that he saw them both. The first production was staged by Karl Forest (1874-1944) and Richard Wiener (????) at the Neue Wiener Buhne Theatre in Vienna during 1923.  This theatre was a center for Expressionist drama in Vienna during the 1920s. 

In 1930 the Epilogue was staged in Berlin at the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm.  It was directed by Leo Reuss (1891-1946) and music was created for this production by Hanns Eisler (1898-1962). It is thought that Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) used his influence to interest this theatre in staging the Epilogue. Brecht was a friend of Kraus’s and in 1928 this theatre had successfully staged Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.

For many decades The Last Days of Mankind remained untranslated into other languages, therefore, this drama remained little known to the majority of scholars and theatre artists. This problem was somewhat remedied in 2004 when the first French translation of the play appeared. Jean-Louis Basson and Henri Christophe took on the enormous challenge of translating the entire drama. In 2015 the first English translation was published. This project was undertaken by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms. While Bridgham and Timms translation project was in preparation, there was another English translation being prepared by Michel Russell. I used Russel’s 2014 translation of the script for my reading related to this post.

I do not wish to imply that The Last Days of Mankind was totally unknown in other countries prior to these translations. I have found evidence of some productions such as the one offered in English by the Glasgow Citizens performance at the Edinburgh Festival in August,1983.  This was thought to be the British premiere of Kraus’s drama.

On December 7,1990 an article titled “A Theatre For Mars” appeared in The Guardian on page 25 relating to a production of “Last Days” in Turin, Italy with a company of sixty Italian actors.  Italian director Luca Ronconi (1933-2015) produced and directed this production that was staged at the Teatro Stabile di Torino. Ronconi’s Italian version of The Last Days of Mankind was staged by him after the First Gulf War and its anti-war content appears to have been in relationship to that conflict.

A radio version of The Last Days of Mankind was produced in December,1999 by the British Broadcasting Company Scotland.  This English version was translated by Dave Batchelor  (1955-   ). The four hour long drama was directed by Giles Havergal (1938-    ) and the reviewer proclaimed it to be “as thrilling a piece of radio drama as I’ve heard in years.”

Also 2014 marked the hundredth year since the playwright began to write “The Last Days of Mankind.”  This event was celebrated in Vienna with two staged productions. One was mounted at the Volkstheate and the second appeared at the Burgtheater.

Currently, it is possible to experience a book that pictures a limited staged version of The Last Days of Mankind.  Deborah Sengl (1974-    ) an Austrian artist created the book titled The Last Days of Mankind – A Visual Guide to Karl Kraus’ Great War Epic that was published in 2018.  Sengl depicted the characters in the play as taxidermed white Trench Rats. The book features her drawings as well as photographs depicting the scenes she created. Sengl explains her decision for using the white rats since “I find that they are most closely related to people. They bear a resemblance to us.” The rats stand upright on their rear legs in the drawings and photos and their front legs work as arms.

There appears to be, yet another contemporary work inspired by Kraus’s play. A group of musicians known as The Tiger Lillies had twenty-two songs written for their four-hour musical staged version of The Last Days of Mankind. This version was performed in Scottland, Germany, and Poland in 2018. Some of the performances of these songs are currently available for viewing on YouTube.

Karl Kraus’s fascinating drama continues to find new audiences as well as diverse artists despite its length and hard-hitting images of war. It is as relevant today as it was when it was written.

 

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

ADRIAN CONSETT STEPHEN’S THE TRENCH MORTAR OFFICER—A Field Impression

 

The Trench Mortar Officer has been labelled as a short story, but I consider it to be a sketch since it has a considerable amount of dialogue. Adrian Consett Stephen (1892-1918) was a young playwright with his four plays produced prior and during World War One. His sketch maybe a likely idea for a future play. He wrote this piece while he was in France during World War One. Stephen was an acting Major in the British Royal Field Artillery when he was killed in action at the age of twenty-five on March 14, 1918. Since the major character in The Trench Mortar Officer is in the actual position that Stephen held, this work may be somewhat centered on the events and his thoughts of a particular day. Adrian Consett Stephen was born and educated in Australia.  He was one of the few men from his country serving in a British regiment.                                                                           

                                                         ADRIAN CONSETT STEPHEN

The initial setting for this piece, which commences before breakfast, is a dugout on the French Front belonging to a Captain of a Trench Mortar division before breakfast. Later the Captain is called to go to a trench—a second location. He goes to the trench and gives the order to fire a mortar. When it lands in the German trench, it does not explode since it is a dud. The Captain begins to return to his dugout when several mortars are fired by the Germans and the bombs fall into a trench near him. He hardly notices them since he is focused on his thoughts, and he falls into a sump hole. “Life is not worth living” he gurgled.

After lunch in his dugout, he is given forms to complete by four o’clock. When evening comes the officer steps out of the dugout. The scene has the moon shining and softly through the silence floats some music. This moment of peacefulness gives him some hope that ‘Life is worth living after all-even here.”

Since the Trench Mortar was a significant weapon during World War One, it is important to know a bit about the type of weapon it was.  The Trench Mortar was widely utilized during WWI since it could be fired from a position in the trench, and it saved the mortar crews from physically being exposed to the enemy.  The Germans improved upon this older type of military weapon, and they began to stockpile it before the war commenced on the French Front. The Trench Mortar consists of a short tube designed to fire a projectile/bomb at a steep angle.


                                                                      
                                                              

                                             This photo shows the British Stokes Mortar  

When World War I began, the British military was caught short by this old, but improved war weapon which caused many British soldiers’ deaths as well as left many of the troops with serious wounds. However, Great Britain began production in late 1915 on a greatly improved mortar weapon created by Sir Wilfred Stokes (1860-1927) to be used by its army and its allied partners. By the end of the war, both sides had developed a full range of highly efficient deadly mortar bombs that could be fired at the rate of twenty-two bombs per minute with a range of 1,200 yards.                                                        

                                              U.S. Soldiers loading a Trench Mortar in 1918

I believe this sketch illustrates a significant aspect of trench warfare during World War One that is lost to most individuals today. But I also think that had the sketch been published while the war was in progress, it would have given an insight into the battlefield that those at home did not know.

The Trench Mortar Officer illustrates one day in the life of an officer on the battlefield and the adverse conditions he continually battles that are beyond one’s ability to alter.  It illustrates that these conditions can wear down even the strongest individual.  The Trench Mortar Officer is the leader who had a bad day, but lives to recognize by day’s end that life is still a gift.

 PHOTO: University of Sydney

Friday, July 22, 2022

FRENCH LEAVE by Reginald Berkeley

    

                                                                REGINALD BERKELEY 


The meaning of the title “French Leave” dates to 1771. Its originally related to guests leaving a major

 social event without saying goodbye to the host and/or hostess. The military meaning of the term refers

 to a leisurely absence from a military unit.  

During the early summer of 1920, French Leave, was performed for four weeks in small cities and towns throughout the English countryside. This comedy opened at London’s Globe Theatre on July 15, 1920 and later transferred to the Apollo Theatre where it played for a total London run of 283 performances.  It was later reported in British newspapers that the play was “honoured by a visit from every reigning monarch in Europe.”

French Leave is a three-act play requiring six actors and two actresses.  It is set “Somewhere in France.” The setting for Act One is the sparsely furnished Mess Room for battle fatigued British Officers of a designated Brigade resting out of the line.  It is situated “in a ramshackle French house in the village of Bogusvillers.”  This dwelling serves as the resting accommodation or Headquarters Mess for any British Brigade that is in this area and on a few days leave from battle. 

Dorothy is the young, beautiful wife of Captain Harry Glenister.  She has come to France to spend a weekend with her husband while he is on leave. They were supposed to meet in Paris, but his unit’s city leave was cancelled. Instead Glenister’s battalion is on rest near the battlefield. Dorothy learned of his destination. She arrived early and is posing as “Mademoiselle Juliette,” the daughter of the French woman who owns the officers temporary dwelling.  During this act the three other officers who are at the house with Glenister, all meet the attractive daughter of Madame Denaux. All the officers are smitten. There are also two Mess soldiers with the officers, and the senior Mess soldier is key to guiding the evolving situation before it reaches a serious conclusion. 

Act Two is in the same room and it is after dinner. Dorothy has joined the Officers and one is being overly aggressive while vying for her attention which aggravates Glenister. The latter part of this act borders on becoming a full-blown farce since several male characters are sneaking around in the dark to find Dorothy.                                                             


                                                MADAME DENAUX'S  entrance in ACT II

Act Three takes place the next morning in the same room.  Eventually the truth is revealed that the “Landlady’s daughter is Captain Glenister’s English wife. Brigadier-General Root must act with prudence over the situation, and he determines that Dorothy must be sent back to Paris under military escort. Captain Glenister is designated for that assignment.

The production at the Apollo Theatre starred Renee Kelly (1888-1965) and M.R. Morand (1860-1922). While French Leave was still playing at London’s Apollo Theatre, it was produced in the United States by Marc Klaw (1858-1936). It opened in New York City at the Belmont Theatre after a short tryout run in Boston. Mr. Charles Coburn (1877-1961) and Mrs. Charles (Ivah Wills) Coburn (1878-1937) starred in the production. He played Brigadier-General Archibald Root and she played Mlle. Juliette (Dorothy). This production played at the Belmont for fifty-six performances.

While French Leave was not a major success in the United States, it continued to be popular in theatres throughout Great Britain. A new London production of French Leave opened during January 1930 at the Vaudeville Theatre. This play continued to be presented throughout the country during the entire decade. It even changed a 300-year-old tradition at St. John’s College, one of the thirty-one colleges at the University of Cambridge, when the Mummers presented their annual play. Males had always played the female roles, but Dorothy/Juliette was played by an actress.

A film version of French Leave was made in 1930 by D & H Productions, a British Film Production Company. It was distributed in the United Kingdom immediately before playing in the United States in 1931.  Madeleine Carroll (1906-1987) starred as Dorothy and the leading male role went to Sydney Howard (1884-1946) who played the same character Charles Coburn had. Haddon Mason (1898-1966) played the husband, Captain Harry Glenister. This film was directed by Jack Raymond (1886-1953).

On February 28, 1940, it was reported in the “Aberdeen Evening Express” that French Leave was one of the first plays to be sent to the British Forces fighting in France during World War Two. This tour was scheduled for two months. 


PHOTO: This photo appears in the 1922 Samuel French published edition of the script.  Madame Deaux was played by Anna Russell (????-????)

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

THE WHITE CHATEAU by Reginald Berkeley



 

Reginald Berkeley (1890-1935) was an Englishman of multiple talents, who served in World War One as a Captain in the British Rifle Brigade. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1916 for his “conspicuous gallantry in action.” Berkeley was a lawyer briefly before he was elected to serve as a Member of Parliament in 1922, where he served until 1924.  He wrote The White Chateau to be presented on the radio by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC).  It was aired throughout England on Armistice Night in November 1925. It is the first play in English specifically written for radio.

                                                                     


REGINALD BERKELEY  (1929)    
The White Chateau is divided into six scenes. It has a cast of fourteen characters: four women and ten men. An original music score was created by Norman O’Neill (1875-1934). O’Neill also served as Musical Director for the BBC radio program.

The White Chateau has a narrator, designated as THE CHRONICLER, who sets the focus for each scene. He informs the audience that as SCENE ONE begins “This story of the White Chateau” that was built centuries ago in Flanders plain, was burned down, and rebuilt through succeeding years.  It would be destroyed once more and rebuilt again due to another war.

When Scene One commences, members of the Van Eysen family, who reside in the White Chateau, are having breakfast when suddenly their meal is disrupted by men in uniforms. These soldiers are not dressed in the color of their country’s military.  Not only is the family’s breakfast disrupted, but the family is plunged into an immediate tragic situation with the murder of their son as World War One is sprung upon them by the invading German soldiers. 

SCENE TWO:

THE CHONICLER: informs the audience that a war is raging:

The Grand Headquarters Over All

Is some great Mansion—once alight

With children’s voices, loud and small—

Now bare and bleak, directs the fight…

The White Chateau is serving as headquarters for Germany’s military leadership in this area.  This scene reveals the issues that the Chief of Staff and Commander-in-Chief have with the Minister for War.

SCENE THREE:

THE CHRONICLER recounts the current situation at the Chateau:

An army in long retreat,

Trudge, trudge of tired feet, . . .

Long since departed G.H.Q.

From the Chateau (with its whiteness faded!)

And leaves the Chateau stark

                    In No-Man’s-Land.

A division of the British army arrives at the Chateau. The surrounding grounds of the property have been further destroyed by German troops building trenches. Some German soldiers remain at the Chateau and as the British division attempts to take the Chateau the final rounds of shelling demolish the west wall of the building.

SCENE FOUR:

THE CHRONICLER ruminates about the normal activities for day and night, but concludes with “The night—a nightmare from the Deeps of Hell, The Day—a worse Damnation?” 

This scene announces the arrival at the ruined Chateau by American soldiers. They must defeat the remaining German soldiers.  The Americans come under enemy fire and the captain of the unit is killed. A soldier named Philip is now in command of this American unit.

SCENE FIVE:

THE CHRONICLER laments the loss of the chateau and the land “on which no blade of grass

could grow---”

A Casualty Clearing Station is currently operating on the property. Philip is being taken care by an American doctor.  The nurse is Diane, the sole surviving member of the Van Eysen family, who lived in the Chateau in Scene One.  She takes care of Philip, and a romantic relationship develops between them.

SCENE SIX:

THE CHRONICLER laments man’s need “to slay and slay and slay---” Philip and Diane are married, and they are rebuilding The White Chateau. During this final scene Diane has a dream in which “Voice” recounts to her the long history of war this piece of land has endured, and a future filled with more wars. At the conclusion of the play, there is hope expressed by the Voice of The Chateau for there to be lasting world peace. Berkeley wanted the audience to realize that “Nothing is to be gained by labouring the causes of the Great War and reviving the animosities that it bred.”

The White Chateau was published in 1925 as a book and again in 1927. During these two years, six editions of the script were published. It obviously was a popular drama to read. The Publisher was Williams and Norgate, Ltd.

In March 1927, The White Chateau was staged at London’s Everyman’s Theatre. It played for thirteen performances before it closed. This production was reworked and basically recast prior to its next opening in late April 1927 at St. Martin’s Theatre. The second London production received excellent reviews. Henry Oscar (1891-1969) was praised for his impressive elocution as the Chronicler in The Illustrated London News on May 7, 1927.  Another news paper especially noted the trench scenes that were staged with heightened effects that made them harrowing.

                                                                    

                                                   TRENCH SCENE SAINT MARTIN'S THEATRE

The White Chateau had another transformation in 1938 when it was made into a film by the BBC.  It was released in England on November 11,1938 and it starred Peter Ashmore (1916-1997), Claude Bailey (1895-1950) and Ivor Barnard (1887-1953).

What is unique about this play is how it relates to the effects of wars on the land and the distinguished historic structures that help tell the story of western civilization. It further recounts the human desire to rebuild even though “Men have not learned the lessons of going to war.” It pleads through The Voice that “There can be no more war. It is too wasteful, too uncivilized.” 


NOTES:

1. Reginald Berkeley's photo appeared in THE ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS 2/2/1929.

2. INFANTRY ATTACK photo appeared in THE ILLUSTRATED SPORTING & DRAMATIC NEWS.



Wednesday, March 2, 2022

TWO SCOTTISH ONE-ACT PLAYS

 

THE HOME FRONT by Hal D. Stewart

Although this play was written after World War One ended, it focuses on what life was like during the war for women living in Scottish farming communities. It premiered on January 27, 1931 in a production created by the Ayrshire Federation of Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes in the city of Dunlop. The next production was staged by the Scottish Players in the Lyric Theatre in Glasgow on the 24th of March of the same year. Following those two productions, The Home Front became a very popular play with Scottish women’s drama groups.

The cast is comprised of seven female characters.  It is set in the light and airy kitchen of the Murdoch’s farm. The year is 1918. Billy Ashmore is an enlisted member of the “Land Girls.” She is from Glasgow but was assigned to work on this farm.  Billy is in her early twenties and dressed in her uniform of khaki tunic and breeches. When she first arrived on the farm, Mrs. Murdoch’s son John was still at home. John and Billy became engaged prior to his leaving to fight in France.  

                                                            

                                                               A LAND GIRL AT WORK

On the day when the play begins, Mrs. Murdoch and her two daughters are expecting John to come home for a brief furlough. A problem suddenly develops among the town busybodies. Billy had gone to a dance the previous evening that was held for the British soldiers stationed in town.  She danced with the officer who is billeted at the Murdoch farm and the local farm ladies believe that was not appropriate behavior for an engaged woman. It was much ado about nothing, however, the play ends sadly with word of John’s death in France.

When Stewart wrote this play, there was a need for scripts with roles only for women.  This casting underlines the fact that so many men had either died or been severely wounded. Thus, males were in limited supply for every type of work.  The Home Front also clearly depicts how the local women frequently needed help in the fields to produce food for market as well as coping with the business responsibilities of running the farms. The British Women’s Land Army of 23,000 females took the place of the 100,000 workers lost to the armed forces. This play is a tribute to these women and a remembrance of their service.

Hal D. Stewart (1899-????) is remembered as a Scottish stage producer and director; however, he also established a reputation in London theatre.  His playwriting seems to be mainly focused during the years between 1930 through 1950s.  The Home Front continued to be produced regularly for Drama Festivals in Scotland into the middle of the 1980s.

 

SYMPHONY IN ILLUSION by James Wallace Bell

Symphony in Illusion was written in 1931-32. Like The Home Front, it was written for a female cast of seven women. This unusual play has a strong anti-war message, and it was a unique script for the women’s drama clubs of Scotland. James Wallace Bell (????-1984) was known as a theatrical producer as well as the acclaimed author of “Symphony.”

Symphony in Illusion is a drama that was conceived in the format of a symphonic composition.  It is divided into three movements instead of acts.  Each movement is assigned a musical term to designate the pace of the speech and movement.

First Movement: Allegro.  Scene---A bare stage. One quickly recognizes this play presents a contrast between reality and illusion since the seven actresses engage in preparing the stage for the play.  “SHE-WHO-PLAYS-THE-MAD-GIRL” is designated by the playwright as the director of the play. The actresses argue over trifles as they set up the scenic elements utilizing a brisk and lively pace. When the scenery and props are in place, the actresses take their positions on the stage as the lighting darkens to a black-out.

Second Movement: Largo. The characters:  A Woman, A Widow, A Girl, A Wanton, An Old Woman, Mary, and A Mad Girl.  The Scene—it is night. This segment of the play is the war interlude. The major scenic elements include the broken steps leading to the portal, without doors, of a war-ruined church. “The muffled rhythm of distant guns is heard in the darkness; not loud, but terribly insistent.” The women are weary and listless. They all wear drab peasant dresses, and have shawls covering their heads and shoulders, except A Girl and the Wanton. The characters are highly strung and nervous to the point of hysteria.  The war has been in progress for four years.

This play shows how these females relate to each other during these trying circumstances. The older characters continue to harangue a young woman who had married a man from the enemy country, before the war had commenced.  They do not let her have any food since they treat her as an enemy. She and her baby starve to death despite the character named Wanton, who pleads for the young mother’s life. As the act concludes and the sounds of war cease, dawn rises and Mary, the voice of reason in this drama, goes to bury her son.

Third Movement: Andante non troppo. “All the lights click on, white and hard; the dawn becomes merely a back-cloth.”  Mad Girl (with a sigh of relief) announces “And that’s that.” The other actresses start talking about their characters and the ideas in the play as they begin to clear the stage of the props and scenic elements. Shortly the overhead lights are switched-off. Only the foot lights illuminate the stage. “Girl” continues to stare out into the distance before running off.  Mary and Wanton continue to collect the crosses left on stage and exit as the footlight “quickly dim out.”

This play was published in 1933 by Samuel French, Ltd., London. Like The Home Front, Symphony in Illusion was also produced by many universities and Dramatic Societies throughout Scotland during the 1930s and 1940s. It won first prize for those groups who mastered the style of production and the truth of its message. It was a well-known play during the period between World War One and Two. It is an unique script.


NOTE: To see more of The Women's Land Army in Pictures visit www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-                               womens-land-army-in-pictures