The Last Days of Mankind ~ theatre notes

Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Last Days of Mankind

The Last Days of Mankind, by Karl Kraus, with Justus Neumann. Music performed by Julius Schwing. Original direction by Hanspeter Horner, additional direction Daniel Schlusser. La Mama Theatre until September 26.

Think of a real work of art: have you never had the feeling that something about it is reminiscent of the smell of burning metal you get from a knife you're whetting on a grindstone? It's a cosmic, meteoric, lightning-and-thunder smell, something divinely uncanny!

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

Every now and then, it is necessary to be reminded of the true resources and possibilities of art. Sometimes it seems that dullness is all, that we merely consume, like lobotomised laboratory rats, the enforced idiocies of mass culture. A real work of art calls up without shame the seriousness of being, the mind's restlessness, its functions as critique and rebuke, inspiration and provocation. All fiery discontent, artists are indeed of the devil's party; but, like Milton, they must sing as if they were angels.

Karl Kraus was such a malcontent. He was one of an extraordinary generation of Austrian artists who emerged after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the catastrophe of World War One, a period which included geniuses like Robert Musil and Joseph Roth, and the chilling visions of painters like Otto Dix and Oskar Kokoschka. Perhaps it is that time's unique sense of apocalyptic transformation which makes these artists seem so relevant now, and gives their writings such a bitter air of prophecy.

Kraus, considered one of the great satirists of last century, was arguably the most sophisticated media commentator of his day. He saw before almost anyone else the baleful influence of press-driven propaganda on public life. Ironically, he used the transient forms of journalism to articulate his critique, most notably in his famous journal Die Fackel. The Last Days of Mankind, a sprawling 800-page epic which is still not fully translated into English, is generally acknowledged to be Kraus' masterpiece.

The play is reportedly a melange of quotes from sources such as Goethe and Shakespeare and the Bible, a mixture of historical and fictional characters, songs, cinematic elements, polyphonic crowd scenes and scenic fragments. Justus Neumann opens with a quote from Kraus' prologue, in which he says: "The events shown in this play, no matter how unlikely, actually took place; the words spoken in this play, no matter how unlikely, are true quotations." In a play which features God Himself, this is hardly an appeal to documentary ideas of verity. But there is no doubt that it is an account which is bitterly, blackly true, in the way that only art can be true. And it is deadly funny.

A performance which lasts for just over an hour clearly offers a radically edited version of Kraus' epic, and I am in no position to judge either the quality of the translation (made for this performance by Neumann and Matthew Lilias) or how the redacted version compares to the original. However, I can say that Neumann's adaptation makes stunning theatre.

Neumann, an Austrian actor whom I last saw perform almost 20 years ago in a virtuosic one-man piece called Kill Hamlet, is an actor's actor, a performer of consummate skill who has the strange glamour of invisibility that only the best actors attain. Your attention is so focused on the narrative, the character, the performance, that the actor himself is paradoxically effaced. From the first moment Neumann shows himself, half-lit halfway down La Mama's stairs, and reads in that bewitching voice from Kraus' prologue, you know you are in the hands of a master.

The set is self-consciously a stage: a raised dais draped with a black cloth, and a table with a chair, on which lies a book. At the other end of the stage is Julius Schwing - as I found out afterwards, Neumann's 17-year-old son - who tickles acoustic melodies from an electric guitar, as Neumann walks slowly to the small stage and begins what is effectively a dramatised reading of the play. But what a reading...

To call it a reading, although that it what it is, threatens to undersell its subtleties and power. The Last Days of Mankind is theatre at its simplest, a matter of unadorned words, music, and performance, but the production is, within the rigors of its stern palette, astoundingly full of colour and variousness. Aside from Neumann's ability to play a cast of at least dozens (he contains multitudes), this is due to the beautiful and precise shifts of Niklas Pajanti's lighting states, the suggestive placings of Neumann's body, certain stillnesses and gestures. His performance is counterpointed with the responsive and passionate live music, which varies from gentle arpeggios to the anguished electric scream of Hendrix or Deep Purple, summoning in the tiny space of La Mama the technological apocalypse of modern warfare.

If it is true, as Heiner Müller says, that the major political function of art today is to mobilise the imagination, then this production of The Last Days of Mankind performance is profoundly political. Without spectacular sets or casts of thousands, the atrocity and scale of world war is made palpable. The play's scope ranges from intimacies - a scene, for example, where children play "world war" - to public utterances of all kinds: a teacher to his pupils, a disillusioned God to His creation. The most frightening, perhaps, are where Kraus strips back the rhetoric of war's glory and exposes its homicidal insanity.

In this most nuanced of writers, no linguistic manipulation is left unexamined: Kraus is alert to all the political dimensions of language, from the most private to the most public. He shows how abuse of language directly creates the realities which permit the human tragedy, the grief and piteousness, of war.

Kraus considered the press one of the driving forces towards war - a major reason his work resonates so uncomfortably in the age of Fox News. The play opens, tellingly, with the news being shouted in Vienna of the assassination of the Prince Franz Josef in Sarajevo. Neumann plays "The Crowd", recreating the whirlpool of nationalism, racism, bellicose excitement, stupidity and bloodthirstiness which accompany a public lust for war. And one of his characters is an actual journalist, Alice Schalek, whose prurient interviews with soldiers and officers reveal an excitement bordering on the obscene.

"Satisfied?" she asks rhetorically, in raptures over being on a battlefield. "Satisfied is not the word for it! Patriotism, you idealists may call it. Hatred of the enemy, you nationalists. Call it sport, you moderns. Adventure, you romantics. You who know the souls of men call it the joyous thrill of power. I call it humanity liberated!"

It made me go cold, to hear that familiar glorification of mass murder in the name of human freedom. Those words were written almost a century ago, but for all our dazzling technological innovations, for all our trumpetings of progress, how much have things actually changed? We seem to have learned nothing. And as a response - an intelligent, undeceived, conscious response - to a world of increasing fascistic paranoia and irrational passions, it puts most contemporary works to shame. Don't miss it.

La Mama Theatre

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