Thursday, May 2, 2013

Kraus the comedian - now that we have Obu brand, we lack for nothing

The Last Days of Mankind is a piece of post-Biblical prophecy that ends with the destruction of humanity:

(The glow dies out.  Total darkness.  The , on the horizon, the wall of flames leaps high.  Death cries off stage.)

In fact the play ends twice, but the 1974 abridgement does not include the epilogue which includes – I am quoting a “Critical Analysis” by Franz Mauthner that follows the play – a sentence that is “probably the longest in German literature and also the longest catalogue of the sins of the German people” and a second apocalypse, for which God, in his own voice but oddly the words of the Emperor Franz Josef, denies all responsibility: “I did not will it so.”

But despite all this The Last Days of Mankind is mostly a comedy.  Monty Python stuff.  Blackadder.

SUBSCRIBER:  The rumor circulating in Vienna is that there are rumors circulating in Austria.  They’re even going from mouth to mouth, but nobody can tell you –

PATRIOT:  Nobody knows anything specific, but there must be something to it if even the government has announced that rumors have been spread.  (V. 17)

And thus a “rumors about rumors” sketch is up and running, with no one having any idea what the rumored rumors might be about.

OPTIMIST:  What do you say to the rumors?

GRUMBLER:  I am not aware of them, but I believe them.  (V. 18)

Act II, Scene 17 is the Restaurant Sketch, including the patriotic food jokes:

GENTLEMAN:  No, wait a minute – perfidy noodles – whatever does that mean?

WAITER:  Well, macaroni!

GENTLEMAN:  Oh, yes, right – Scoundrel’s salad, what’s that?

WAITER:  Salad with Italian dressing.

A woman at a pricey spa (“No Wounded Soldiers Allowed”) has become completely corrupted, able to speak only the language of propaganda and advertising:

FRAU WAHNSCHAFFE:  I have only two children, and unfortunately they are not yet eligible for military service.  And, to make things even worse, one of them, to our sorrow, is a girl.  So I have to make do by fantasizing that my boy has already been at the front, and has, naturally, already met a hero’s death.  (III.40)

Then she turns to her own duties.  I presume Kraus is simply giving her actual exhortations from newspapers and magazines:

We had a wholesome broth made with the Excelsior brand of Hindenburg cocoa-cream soup cubes…  In the beginning we really missed ersatz margarine, but now that we have Obu brand, we lack for nothing…  Today we’re going to try the much-praised hodgepodge with Yolktex brand of ersatz egg made from carbonite of lime and baking powder, and a bit of Saladfix, a delicious additive that I prefer by far to Salatin as well as to Saladol.

Battlefield skits, incompetent officers, idiotic leaders, self-serving journalists, repulsive psychiatrists – oh how Kraus hated psychiatry.  But as the play progresses, the tone darkens – as does the war – the comedy becomes blacker and in many cases moves beyond the comic as the absurd becomes nightmarish.  Finally Kraus blows it all up, which I suppose, in my next post, is where Kraus week should end.


  1. Comedy, especially political comedy, is a tricky business, nicht wahr? Maybe Kraus' contemporaries thought this was all too much, too soon, and he really did need to wait until his writing was outdated. "Wahnschaffe" as a character name and the jibes at Italy and the rumors about rumors might have stung, might have just seemed too obvious at the time. It all seems pretty good now, though, to a foreigner a century after the fact.

  2. He wanted it to be too much.

    What I give no sense of here is how the jokes repeat and in the process acquire weight. A light jab in 1914 / Act I turns into a gut punch by 1918 / Act V.

    Or maybe "weight" is the wrong metaphor. It is more like the war (and play) hollows itself out until it collapses.

    An unusual "dramatic" effect.

  3. Well, I guess two apocalypses are always better than one. Enjoyed the "pricey spa" joke and the way the litany of food items & additives was turned into comedy Georges Perec silly list-style--and out of chronological order at that!

  4. Better, yes, so a little frustrating to not be able to read the second one!