Avant-Garde in a Different Key: Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind


Marjorie Perloff in Critical Inquiry:

My business is to pin down the Age between quotation marks.

What has been proposed here is nothing less than a drainage system for the huge swamps of phraseology.

Act 1, scene 1. The stage directions read, “Vienna. The Ringstrasse promenade at Sirk Corner. Flags wave from the buildings. Soldiers marching by are cheered by the onlookers. General excitement. The crowd breaks up into small groups.” The newsboys with their “Extra Extra,” announcing the outbreak of war, are interrupted by a drunk demonstrator who shouts “Down with Serbia! Hurrah for the Hapsburgs! Hurrah! For S-e-r-bia!” and is immediately kicked in the pants for his mistake (LTM, p. 69). A crook and a prostitute exchange insults, even as two army contractors, talking of possible bribes the rich will use to avoid the draft, cite Bismarck’s words, in Neue Freie Presse (Vienna’s major newspaper at the time of the assassination of the archduke in Serbia), to the effect that the Austrians deserve kissing. One officer tells another that war is “unanwendbar” (of no use) when he really means, as his friend points out, “unabwendbar” (unavoidable) (LTM, pp. 70–71). A patriotic citizen praises the coming conflict as a holy war of defense against “encirclement” by hostile forces, and the crowd responds by making up rhymes (in Viennese dialect) denigrating the enemy (LTM, p. 72).

If this dialogue, written in 1915, strikes us as cleverly mimetic of street slang, think again; for the rhymed insults to the Russians, French, and British were actually taken from a German cartoon picture postcard (25 August 1914), in which two soldiers wearing spiked helmets (here designated as Willi and Karl) are attacking the enemy.

Reframed, the verses appear in what is probably the first—and perhaps the greatest—documentary drama written: Karl Kraus’s devastating Die Letzen Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind). Kraus’s dialogue, as in the scene above, sounds colloquial and nothing if not “natural,” representing as it does a variety of linguistic registers based on social class, ethnicity, geographical origin, and profession. But a large part of the play is drawn from actual documents, whether newspaper dispatches, editorials, public proclamations, the minutes of political meetings, or manifestos, letters, picture postcards, and interviews—indeed, whatever constituted the written record of the World War I years.

More here.