Saturday, September 2, 2017


Two of the leading German experimental theatre directors, Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) and Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), each wanted to present The Last Days of Mankind. However, Karl Kraus could not be persuaded to allow a production of the play, since he desired to continue his public readings from the play.

While a student in Vienna during 1924-25, Elias Canetti’s (1905-1994) attended Kraus’s readings from the play. In his book titled The Torch in my Ear, Canetti discusses his reactions to these readings.
When he read aloud from it, you were simply flabbergasted.  No one stirred in
the auditorium, you didn’t dare breathe.  He read all parts himself, profiteers
and generals, the scoundrels and the poor wretches who were the victims of
the war—they all sounded as genuine as if they were standing in front of you.
       Anyone who heard Kraus didn’t want to go to the theater again, the theatre was
       so boring compared with him.

In the early 1890’s Kraus was interested in an acting career, but instead he pursued journalism and literature.  In 1910 he presented his first public reading from his own writings. By the time Canetti saw Kraus present a reading from The Last Days of Mankind, Kraus had perfected his presentational style. In the New York Times July 29, 1974 article titled “Vienna: Tributes on Birthday of Three Famous Sons” mentions that in 1936, the year of Kraus’s death, “he gave his 700th lecture reading.”

I read that Bertolt Brecht staged the Epilogue of The Last Days of Mankind in Berlin and Vienna during 1930. I have neither been able to verify this event nor discover any details relating to such a theatrical production. However, from perusing Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life by Stephen Parker (2014), I have learned that Kraus believed in Brecht’s genius and defended his writing talent numerous times. Parker mentions that Kraus also treated “Brecht as his chosen son.” Given Kraus’s belief in Brecht’s talents, he could have permitted Brecht to direct the Epilogue. This 1930 production would have been the only version of the play staged during Kraus’s lifetime.

The Last Days of Mankind premiered in Vienna during the 1964 Vienna Festival. This production was a major undertaking that took the combined efforts of Egon Hilbert (1899-1968), the director of the festival, Leopold Lindtberg (1902-1984) the producer of the drama and Heinrich Fischer (1896-1974), Kraus literary executor and editor of the Kosel edition of Kraus’s works.  This team created a revised script that had forty-two scenes out of the original 209. This version was staged at the Theater an der Wien. The London Times Special Correspondent reviewed the production and believed that this version “weakened the impact of the play” since the trio selected the “colourful, comic scene to the scene that is a bitter indictment.” He credited the production as lavish, but the reviewer believed it lacked the horrifying events of the war.

In December 1974 when Hans Hollmann (1933-    ) directed The Last Days of Mankind, he staged it in the lobby of the Basel Theatre (Switzerland). To view this entire German language production, the audience had to attend the theatre for two consecutive evenings. A shorter version of this production was presented in September 1975 at the Berlin Theatre Festival. Five years later, Hollmann again cast Kraus’s play and remounted it for an appearance at the 1980 Vienna Festival. Hollmann’s work has been praised in Austria where he received the Josef Kainz Medal for acting and years later the Goethe Award (2006).

Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre in Scotland presented Robert David MacDonald’s (1930-2004) English translation and his production of The Last Days of Mankind. It was first presented in 1983 by this theatre company at the Edinburgh Festival and later in Glasgow. MacDonald presented his fifteen hour version of this drama with a cast of thirty-one actors. The Stage reviewer J. R. K. Reyner claimed this was the first production of the play in the British Isles. This reviewer also considered the presentation to be an “excellent production.”

In December 1999 the British Broadcasting Corporation presented a four hour radio version of The Last Days of Mankind based on MacDonald’s English translation. Giles Pollock Havegal (1938-   ) who was serving as artistic director for Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, directed this radio production with actors from the Citizens’ Theatre playing more than 100 characters.  The BBC version of The Last Days of Mankind was widely acclaimed and as a result some British critics even hailed it as “the greatest drama written this century.” 

The Stage, in its November 28, 1991 issue, mentions a London production of The Last Days of Mankind. This production was presented at the Embassy Theatre in London. The Embassy belongs to the Central School of Speech and Drama.  The production was presented in edited form and directed by Stephen Rayne. It was praised in the short article as a “competent and pleasing production.”

In January 2010 the Los Angeles Times reported that the Long Beach Opera presented “readings from Karl Kraus’ satiric antiwar drama The Last Days of Mankind.” This was part of a program that included Robert Kurka’s opera The Good Soldier Schweik. This California presentation may be the only time Kraus’s play had any recognition on stage in the United States.

Since the appearance of the Bridgham and Timms English translation of The Last Days of Mankind (2015), I have found two productions of the Epilogue that were staged in the United Kingdom.
It makes sense to present the Epilogue alone since it is a self-contained drama that sums up the arguments of the entire play. It captures Kraus’s sense of greedy war profiteers, unleashed human passions, rampant acts of violence and the general upheaval caused by war as well as its unplanned comedic moments.

To my knowledge the most recent production of The Last Days of Mankind was created in London by Time Zone Theatre Company. This production of the Epilogue was scheduled for a four week run during September/October 2014 at the Tristan Bates Theatre. The script was an abridged version of the Bridgham and Timms translation. The director of the production was Pamela Schermann.

The Last Days of Mankind with its abundance of documented German and Austrian events and attitudes provides significant information related to World War One. It is also an impressive theatre piece that deserves attention in today’s world. 

NOTE: Helmut Qualtinger (1928-1985) a Viennese actor, began in the 1970’s to perform recital tours in which he included excerpts from The Last Days of Mankind. Since his recitals were well attended, he recorded some of his readings including several from Kraus’s play.

1 comment:

  1. I saw the Edinburgh presentation of the Glasgow Citizens' theatre production of MacDonald's translation in 1983. Nothing I've seen since equals the impact of this play. It was 3-4 hours of unforgettable drama. Why can't this shortened edition serve as a template for more productions? Maybe Tony Kushner can tackle it.