Karl Kraus Essay - Critical Essays


The life and work of Karl Kraus were eminently theatrical, and he also served the theater in a variety of capacities: as a critic, translator, adapter, playwright, reciter, and a sometime actor. Kraus thought of himself as possibly the first writer who experienced his writings theatrically, the way a performer does: “When I give a public reading, it is not acted literature; but what I write is written acting.” Kraus’s mode of thinking and writing was essentially theatrical, and Die Fackel may in itself be regarded as a theater, an enormous world stage on which Kraus dramatized himself and his ethical, didactic, aesthetic, and, above all, satiric mission. His celebrated prose style and his poetry are replete with expressive, rhetorical, theatrical elements. In his life and work, criticism and showmanship, ethics and aesthetics were invariably linked.

Many of Kraus’s feuds were carried on with theater people (Bahr, Wolfgang Bauer, Bernhard Buchbinder, and Emmerich Bukovics), and he came to take a highly personal and polemical view of such celebrated actors as Otto Tressler, Josef Kainz, Helene Odilon, and Alexander Moissi (all negative), Alexander Girardi, Adolf Sonnenthal, and Charlotte Wolter (all positive). All his life, he championed and yearned for the old Burgtheater with its dignity, integrity, artistry, and congruence of ethical and aesthetic purpose. Later in life, he evoked that theater’s traditional style in programmatic opposition to what he regarded as the corruption, commercialism, politicization, charlatanry, sensationalism, and “feuilletonism” of the super-productions of directors such as Leopold Jessner, Erwin Piscator, and Max Reinhardt. (Kraus attacked the last named, one of the founding fathers of the Salzburg Festival , for the commercialization and vulgarization of culture in unholy alliance with the Catholic Church.) Kraus drew a distinction between Buchdrama (literary drama) and Bühnendrama (stage drama), and he increasingly came to take a reader-centered view, regarding drama as literature in which language and ideas were paramount and the reader’s imagination was enlisted. (His all but unperformable play, The Last Days of Mankind, may be viewed as an extreme form of Buchdrama.) Between 1916 and 1925, three out of four of Kraus’s readings were devoted to plays by other authors, and these included Bühnendramen, or actors’ vehicles, though Kraus was aware that he could not have acted the roles he read in such austere fashion.

The Last Days of Mankind

Kraus’s magnum opus as a dramatist (and satirist) is his powerful pacifistic play The Last Days of Mankind, a monumental dramatic repository of most of his satiric themes and techniques. Most of the 209 scenes of its five acts were first sketched during the summers of 1915, 1916, and 1917; the rhymed prologue dates from July, 1915, and the epilogue, from July, 1917. In his preface to this early example of a documentary drama, Kraus wrote:The performance of this drama, which would, in earthly terms, require about ten evenings, is intended for a theater on Mars. Theatergoers of this world would not be able to bear it. For it is blood of their blood, and its contents are those real, unthinkable years, out of reach for the wakefulness of the mind, inaccessible to any memory and preserved only in gory dreams, when characters from an operetta enacted the tragedy of mankind.

Having refused offers by Reinhardt and Piscator to stage this play, which covers more than eight hundred printed pages, Kraus permitted only performances of the epilogue in Vienna (1923, 1924) and Berlin (1930), in addition to reading his own “stage version” in 1930. After World War II, however, an abridgment for the stage and television by Heinrich Fischer and Leopold Lindtberg paved the way for highly controversial performances of the complete work in Basel, Vienna, and elsewhere.

The Last Days of Mankind begins with the voice of a newspaper vendor and ends with the voice of God. It is set in public rather than private places—in the streets of Vienna and Berlin, in offices and barracks, churches and cafés, amusement places and military hospitals, railroad stations and army posts, “in a hundred scenes and hells.” The play’s five hundred characters include pastors and prostitutes, chauvinists and showmen, professors and politicians, teachers and tradesmen, soldiers and sycophants, children and churchmen, inspectors and innkeepers, journalists and jesters, profiteers and policemen, editors and emperors. There are actual persons as well as fictitious ones, and all of them reveal (and often judge) themselves by their authentic speech patterns. The play is a striking amalgam of naturalistic and symbolic elements. The scenes are, by turns, lyric and prosaic, comic and tragic; but even what seems to be purely humorous acquires a certain grimness in the context and usually appears as gallows humor. The play has no hero or plot in the conventional Aristotelian sense; it is episodic, with scenes recurring in cyclical patterns and inexorably grinding on to a cataclysmic conclusion. The scenes range in length from one-line “black-outs” in the tradition of the cabaret (more often than not, what is blacked out is the human spirit) to lengthy dialogues, monologues, dramatized editorials, and phantasmagoric tableaux. About half of this dramatic typology of humanity’s inhumanity to humanity consists of authentic (though artistically presented) newspaper articles, war communiqués, court judgments, advertisements, letters, and other documents. Even the scenes and events invented by Kraus reproduce with uncanny accuracy the language of the “great times,” which becomes the index of the Nietzschean vision of the disintegration of European culture and of a dying way of life.

“A sorcerer’s apprentice seems to have utilized the absence of his master,” wrote Kraus in reference to Goethe’s poem, “but now there is blood instead of water.” Kraus’s wartime waxworks of “Goethe’s people” and his fellow Austrians includes such characters as two fatuous privy councilors who vie with each other in mangling one of the glories of German poetry, Goethe’s “Wanderer’s Night Song”; the Bavarian...

(The entire section is 2582 words.)