The Anti-War Play to End All War Plays: The Last Days of Mankind, 1922 to 2022
The remarkable anti-war play The Last Days of Mankind, created by satirist Karl Kraus a century ago, unfortunately needs to be discussed, read, and staged again and again. It offers the theatre community an opportunity to respond with artistry, imagination, and boldness to the current war in Ukraine which threatens to expand across Europe and involve nuclear weapons. The war there has raised anew the specter of human self-extinction introduced by Kraus’s play in 1922.
Other wars go on across the planet, too—some civil and some far from civil. I would like to see theatre artists respond to these hostilities with a centenary celebration of Kraus's satire, much as The Lysistrata Project (2003) launched a myriad of widely dispersed artistic responses to the threat of war in the Middle East by offering readings and adaptations of Aristophanes’ Old Comedy about war and peace. New renderings of The Last Days of Mankind would permit theatre audiences to share the fiercely comic and provocative indignation of Kraus's epic scenes of war's planners, its profiteers, victims and apologists.
Kraus's play is admittedly not as well-known as the satire of Aristophanes. Its huge cast of characters and 588 page-length have challenged directors and actors in the past. Brecht wrote about wanting to stage it in tandem with his Schweik in the Second World War but ultimately did not. Italian director Luca Ronconi reportedly spent millions on his 1990 production in Turin. The cost of a full production could be prohibitive—but then billions are spent on warfare these days. Kraus's play would cost far less to stage, especially if it is cut or adapted. In any case, the immensity of the threats posed by current wars and weapons of mass destruction merit the imaginative and massive response this play allows. Based on World War I history, Kraus’s play features scenes that showcase the complicity of army generals, statesmen, journalists, and profiteers in war’s destruction. In doing so, the play addresses activities that still go on today, although the names of the offenders and the weaponry may have changed.
The one hundredth anniversary of a play predicting species’ extinction may not be the kind of centenary we all want to celebrate—and some might argue Kraus was wrong. The “last days” did not arrive in his time or decades after. But humankind remains an endangered species, and Kraus's depiction of a world at war remains both timely history and prophecy. The gargantuan anti-war play first published in German can be read in a fine English translation by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms. The end of the world (spoiler alert!) to which Kraus brings the planet is not entirely a loss, as it is preceded by biting satire and guest appearances by Armageddon's special friends.
Despite its great length and wealth of absurd, ironic humor, the play might benefit from a few new scenes, as international progress toward self-extinction has accelerated in recent decades because of nations competing to develop more lethal explosives and faster bomb delivery systems; CO2 and methane releases speeding us toward new disasters; and recent efforts to extinguish democracy and choice. A few scenes about war's contributions to climate catastrophe, white supremacy, patriarchy, and wealth inequality wouldn't hurt. But Kraus was ahead of his time—or at least anticipated our current era in his play—when he skewered aspects of war still neglected by Hollywood, most history books, and current war room occupants. He adeptly dramatized the abuse of language—the destruction of meaningful speech and its replacement by empty phrases. He opposed private and government-funded practices that initiate and sustain war through lies, propaganda, blind patriotism, and nationalism. (Ahead of Orwell, he saw how governments find truth inconvenient and dispensable, particularly in time of war.) The poison gas of World War I battles is preceded by lethal language, xenophobic harangues, arms contracts, and military orders that ultimately condemn large numbers of people to death and sustain or worsen existing inequalities.
Kraus is particularly disturbed by the symbiosis between the press and statesmen: “Diplomats tell lies to journalists and believe them when they see them in print.” (I could see a new production employing electronic broadcast and social media samples to bring this point of view up to date. It is not only cold print that misleads the public in our time.) Long before reporters were “embedded” with army expeditions or newsrooms became overdependent on sources in high places, Kraus could see how some journalists and editors and men with wealth and power gave each other support.
A century after his play arrived, this symbiosis has advanced beyond the printing of inaccurate, sensationalistic war stories Kraus decried. Tweets, cyber warfare, and other electronic innovations spread misinformation with viral speed. Where would Donald Trump’s January 6th troops or his false claims of victory have been without the encouragement of Fox News and the internet? In an age when television veterans become presidents, truth-telling may not be as important as network access, quotable soundbites, and telegenic performance. Kraus's dialogue might be enlarged a little to address this, but he anticipated most of it. A scene in which Kraus has an army general pose for a photographer is not quite the same as a more recent offstage scene in which President Bush posed for cameras in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner on an aircraft carrier, but it conveys the same sense of complicity between the press and war promoters.
Kraus found a great source of misunderstanding and absurd humor in the language spoken by his subjects, whose words he frequently quotes. Documenting the lethal follies of World War I, from patriotic poetry to war profits accounting, his play’s scenes quote journalists, military officials, kings, news vendors, actors, and businessmen. The format of the play preceded what we now call docudrama, but the self-exonerations of men (few women) whose words promise triumph and excuse heavy casualties become grotesquely comic in the context of Kraus’s dramatization.
Not every scene is realistic or based on quotation. Asleep and dreaming, Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph sings:
So let us all now praise the Lord!
My cross has turned blood-red.
The people, of their own accord,
Give gold for iron, not bread!
... see how my Empire fared.
The common people did their bit,
They too were nothing spared.
This is not the stuff of which musical comedies are made, but through such imaginings, as well as his quotations, Kraus “creeps into those he impersonates in order to annihilate them,” said Walter Benjamin, a German critic who greatly admired the Viennese satirist. Kraus's play concludes with another kind of annihilation, as a cameraman tries to film the world’s destruction (decades ahead of the film Don’t Look Up). The photographer complains of poor lighting, and the Voice of God repeats the regret about world war that was earlier voiced by the emperor of Germany: “This is not what I intended.” (That the Lord has no more control over war than Kaiser Wilhelm is another cause for concern in Kraus's view.)
The names of the weapons, armies, and war profiteers currently in play are not the ones Kraus introduced, of course. His epic might now be regarded as the first installment of a theatre chronicle that had too many sequels offstage—if the lies, nightmares, and crimes portrayed in 1922 are viewed as prelude to World War II and battles in Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, etc. Since the copyright of the 1922 German edition has expired, names of new geographic locations and laments over more recent battles might be added without publisher objections. Kraus himself, through his character called the Grumbler, describes war ruins that could be located today in Yemen, Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, and many other embattled sites: “Behold, the halt and the lame, tap-tapping their way through life, trembling beggars, pallid, prematurely aged children, mothers deranged by the trauma of military offensives, heroic sons, their eyes wavering with mortal fear, and all strangers to daylight and to sleep, mere ruins of a shattered creation.”
Although Kraus published issues of his journal, The Torch, during the First World War, he waited until hostilities ceased to print The Last Days of Mankind. (Scenes first appeared in The Torch in 1918-19, expanded book version in 1922). The play might have been censored if published during the war. Today, it suffers from neglect rather than censorship. The play’s large cast size and demanding length make staging it difficult, even in peacetime. But it can be staged economically; there was once a one-person production! Kraus estimated it would take ten nights to perform the complete text and thought it suitable for a production “on Mars,” meaning no one on earth was ready for his epic. Excerpts were first produced in Berlin and Vienna in 1929, with some musical accompaniment by Hanns Eisler (also known as Brecht's musical collaborator).
When not writing this play and satiric essays, Kraus frequently performed public readings of his own texts and those by Brecht, Offenbach, Nestroy (another Austrian satirist), and Aristophanes.
Here is another reason to stage a reading of the play: it would honor Kraus's own method of presentation. Edward Timms in his biography of Kraus says the Austrian writer’s “public readings, together with his polemics in Die Fackel [The Torch] made a significant contribution to socialist cultural politics” in Vienna. Why shouldn't he contribute to our cultural politics too?
His anti-fascist leanings also led Kraus to write a lengthy, mocking survey of Nazi language, an exegesis that opens with the line: “As to Hitler, I have nothing to say,” and then proceeds to offer 235 pages of commentary on the Nazis and fascism. Brecht said the project “disclosed the atrocities of intonation and created an ethics of language.” Titled The Third Walpurgis Night, the book was not published until 1952. Its first English translation from Kraus's German appeared in 2020. Fearing that its critique of Nazism would provoke attacks on Jews, Kraus chose not to publish the manuscript during his lifetime (1874-1936). Excerpts from this work might be incorporated in a new production of Last Days, as Kraus’s critique of totalitarian language abuse, and his satire of it deserves a hearing today too.
We still face “the last days of mankind.” Anti-war conferences, such as one Kraus attended in Amsterdam in 1932, and stage plays alone are not going to avert catastrophe brought by bombs, oil wars, and the climate change that accompanies them, but the many voices in Kraus’s play, and his fierce humor excoriating the wagers and wages of war still ought to be heard. The Grumbler, often regarded as a self-portrait in Kraus’s play, complains: “If we still had imagination, we would not wage war anymore.”
Kraus’s imaginative depiction of World War I's misleaders should be required reading for everyone in the war business, as well as those opposed to war. Invite them to a reading! Or have an anti-war festival. Karl Kraus’s characters could share the production calendar with Brecht's Mother Courage, Shakespeare's Falstaff, Aristophanes’ peace-treaty signer in The Acharnians, Virginia Woolf’s neglected essay on war Three Guineas (not yet adapted for the stage, but it should be), or Lynn Nottage’s Ruined. It would keep generals away from battle for at least a few days if they had to attend.
If anyone starts to complain about being “war weary,” remind them why Kraus thought “war weary” is “the stupidest phrase of our time”: “To be war weary means to be weary of murder, weary of robbery, weary of lies, weary of hunger, weary of sickness, weary of dirt, weary of chaos. Was one ever fresh and unweary of all that? ... You ought always to be war weary, not after but before the war has started.” There is always a chance audiences will find the festival exciting, inspiring, and applaud at the end, pleased to have seen and survived it all, including The Last Days of Mankind.