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.

 

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