THE LAST DAYS OF MANKIND IN ENGLISH INTRODUCTION
DIE LETZTEN TAGE DER MENSCHHEIT
KARL KRAUS AND 'THE LAST DAYS OF MANKIND'
‘When the age died by its own hand, that hand was Karl Kraus’s.’ Bertolt Brecht
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 18th century Dublin; Karl Kraus in Vienna in the early 20th 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. Kraus’s work is only accessible in English in anthologised selections; in the nearly 100 years since he began his vast work on the First World War, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, ‘The Last Days of Mankind’, there has never been anything even like a full translation.
Theatrical productions, few enough in themselves, 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, whose concerns were obsessively with language, whether or not they made good theatre!
Yet the importance of this play is 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 that was hugely influential in opening 20th century drama up to new challenges, new techniques, new possibilities. It is extraordinary that it remains untranslated, almost unknown in English. It is to rectify this that I am translating Kraus's play. This site will provide a condensed English version of 'The Last Days of Mankind', with footnotes, as the project of translating all of Karl Kraus's 800 pages continues to the start of full publication of the text in 2014-16. Even as a reduction of the play these extracts translate more of the 'The Last Days of Mankind' thanany previous selections.This version currently contains material fromActs I, II and III,
As we arrive at the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, Karl Kraus would be grimly amused, though unsurprised, to see the word 'celebrate' used to describe a variety of media events that will mark the conflict. If there is celebration here it is of the human imagination, not the mindless slaughter that drove Kraus to write 'The Last Days of Mankind'; but it is fitting that one of the greatest works of art of the twentieth centur should appear at this time, in a long-overdue English translation, and after a hundred years of the English-speaking world ignoring a masterpiece.
It is not only a devastating analysis of human folly and brutality in all ages; the war Kraus dissects laid the shoddy, blood-soaked foundations of the world we live in now.
Karl Kraus was born in 1874 and died in 1936. The bulk of his work is represented by the satirical magazine Die Fackel, ‘The Torch’, which he wrote and produced almost single-handedly; the collected edition runs to twelve volumes. He wrote essays, criticism, poetry, collections of aphorisms, even music for parts of 'The Last Days'; he translated Shakespeare’s sonnets and many of the plays into German; his one-man performances of ‘The Last Days of Mankind’ were legendary in Vienna, as was the uncompromising rigour of his writing and language.. His last work, on the rise of fascism, Die dritte Walpurgisnacht, ‘The Third Walpurgis Night’, was not published till after the Second World War; it begins, ‘About Hitler there is nothing to say…’ One of the first things the Nazis did after the Anschluss in 1938 was throw Kraus's library out into the street and burn the books; had he been alive he might 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 that ‘the media’ was a new phenomenon beginning to dominate the way information was disseminated and to affect profoundly how people perceived everything. He saw a powerful, influential press becoming ever more mendacious, manipulative, corrupt and self-serving, forming ever-stronger ties with aristocratic, industrial, financial, artistic and, above all, political elites. He saw ‘media spin’ born. He saw, 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’ the editor of Vienna’s New Free Post gives this chilling expression : ‘We have to make the public hungry for the war and the paper, the two are inseparable’.
‘The Last Days of Mankind’ follows the First World War, mainly from the viewpoint of Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as that empire crumbles. The play begins in Venna's streets as news vendors cry out news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo; it ends four years later with the voice of a powerless, uncomprehending God speaking the vacuous words of Kaiser Wilhelm II:
‘I didn’t want this’....
For a succint and detailed introduction to the play see Marjorie Perloff at:
Avant-Garde in a Different Key: Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind