The performance of this play, which according to terrestrial measurement of time would encompass about ten evenings, is intended for a theatre on Mars. Theatre-goers of this world would not be able to bear it; for it is blood of their blood. The content is the narrative of those years, unreal, unthinkable, accessible to no waking sense or memory, only preserved in bloody dreams, when operetta characters played out the tragedy of mankind. The action, leading to a hundred scenes and hells, is impossible, fractured, hero-less. The humour is merely the self-reproach of a witness who has not gone mad at the thought of surviving these times with his mind intact. But except for those who reveal their share in this shame to posterity, nobody has any right to that humour. The rest of the world, which allowed the things recorded here to happen, should put the obligation to weep before the right to laugh. The most improbable deeds reported here actually took place; I only painted what was done. The most implausible conversations in this play were spoken verbatim; the shrillest inventions are quotations. Propositions, whose folly is indelibly registered on the ear, swell into the music of life. A document is a character; reports rise up as living forms while the living die as editorials; the feuilleton[2] gains a mouth and delivers its own monologue; clichés stand on two legs – some men are left with only one. Cadences rattle and rage through these times, crescendoing into a hymn to the unholiest acts. Those who have lived among humankind and survived are actors and narrators in a present which has no flesh, only blood, no blood, only printer’s ink; in puppetry and shadow-play they are reduced to a formula that represents the insubstantial frenzy of their being. Larvae and lemures[3], masks from tragic carnivals, have living names because needs must, and because even in this time-space, brought about by chance, nothing is fortuitous. But don’t think you have a right to consider this a local matter. Even scenes on Vienna’s Ringstrasse[4] are governed from a cosmic point of view. Whoever has weak nerves – though strong enough to stomach these times – should walk away from this play. Don’t expect the era in which these things could happen to take such word-begotten horror for anything other than a joke, especially when it echoes from familiar valleys in the most grotesque accents, and even happens to be true. Everything lived through and outlived will be nothing more than fiction, fiction with a proscribed subject matter. Worse than the ignominy of war is the ignominy of those who have endured it and no longer want to remember, who accept that war exists but not that it happened. For old-guard survivors war has become old-fashioned; though the masks will all march in the Mardi Gras parade, they don’t want to be reminded of one another. How profoundly comprehensible is the disillusionment of an era incapable of experiencing (or even imagining) what it lived to see, unshaken by its own breakdown, caring as little for its expiation as it did for its deeds, yet having enough sense of self-preservation to make recordings of its heroic melodies (should occasion ever arise for them to be intoned once more). The idea that there will be war again seems least inconceivable to those whose rallying-cry ‘There is a war on!’ facilitated and covered up every infamy, while any reminder that ‘There was a war’ only disturbs the well-earned rest of the survivors. They imagined themselves in shining armour, conquering the global markets; it was what they were born for. Now, with a downturn in business, they have to be satisfied selling their armour off in flea markets. Try talking about the war to someone in that mood! We may rightly fear that a new future sprung from the loins of this present wasteland will, despite greater distance, lack any greater understanding. But surely a complete confession of guilt (just for being part of mankind) must be welcome somewhere, someday? So ‘even while men’s moods are wild’[5] let Horatio’s message to Fortinbras be given in evidence, to the high court atop the ruins.

‘And let me speak to the yet unknowing world

How these things came about: so shall you hear

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgment, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,

And in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on the inventors’ heads. All this can I

Truly deliver.’[6]

[1] This preface does not form part of the text of ‘The Last Days of Mankind’, but in reading the play it leads us into the drama with a force and energy that makes the play’s opening a less powerful experience in its absence. A performance of the play might even begin with it. The same applies to the epilogue. The preface particularly reflects, with its opening reference to Mars, the mood and atmosphere of ‘The Last Night’.

[2] The term ‘feuilleton’ covers more or less everything in a newspaper that isn’t hard news or editorial comment; it includes features and ‘human interest’ stories, celebrity interviews, humour, criticism, fiction, even verse. Feuilleton articles were often characterised by light-heartedness but were an important and popular part of a newspaper’s content. Often a feuilleton appeared on the front page, taking a sideways look at major news stories. Kraus regarded the obsession with the feuilleton as a symptom of Viennese triviality.

[3] Roman spirits of the dead, vengeful and menacing; St Augustine, quoting Plotinus, writes that the Romans believed dead souls became, ‘lares if they were good, larvae or lemures if bad, and manes if uncertain’. The word larva means ‘mask’, but also came to mean something repellent, disgusting. Later Linnaeus used larvae, in zoology, to describe the juveniles of creatures that had very different adult forms – hence the juvenile ‘masked’ the adult. Kraus almost certainly knew John Milton’s writing, and this line from On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity may have struck him: ‘The Lars and lemures moan with midnight plaint’.

[4] In 1857 Emperor Franz Josef I ordered the demolition of Vienna’s medieval walls, to be replaced by a wide, boulevard-like road, circling the city; it was to be lined with the grand buildings of imperial government and Viennese culture, as well as with green and leafy open spaces. The Ringstrasse was a practical solution to the modernisation of Vienna and a visible manifestation of Habsburg power. Opposite the Opera House, on the Ringstrasse, people gathered to watch the world go by; lovers met, prostitutes and pickpockets plied their trade, the great and good, spilling from Opera House, concert halls, theatres and coffeehouses, bumped into each other and argued. Conversations there feature throughout the main play.

[5] Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet’, V.2

[6] Ibid.