The Anti-War Play to End All War Plays: The Last Days of Mankind, 1922 to 2022

Kraus is particularly disturbed by the symbiosis between the press and statesmen: “Diplomats tell lies to say them and believe them when they see them in print.” (I could see a new production employing electronic broadcasting 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 historical poetry to war profits accounting, his play’s scenes quote, 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 consequence 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 theater 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 objects. 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, meres of a shattered creation.”

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