There’s nothing quite like a full-throated bellow from an actor for dramatic impact. If the audience isn’t expecting it, shouting can bring home the rawness of an emotional moment in a powerful way. The problem with Die Letzten Tage Der Menschheit is that the characters are so stereotypically of the WWI military ilk that the jarring shouts never stop, and the play’s satirical look at the rabid bellicosity pervading Vienna during the First World War loses its impact in becoming predictable.
The play, written by the Austrian writer and journalist Karl Kraus in 1922, traces the experiences of a range of Viennese citizens – from jingoistic generals to a flirtatious female journalist looking to get in on the action on the front line. What’s startling is that Kraus actually used dialogue from contemporary documents when writing Die Letzten – a fact which seems at odds with the play’s stereotypical characterization: the army generals are pompous, narcissistic nationalists who thump their subordinates for entertainment and the solitary non-conformist pacifist seems in a constant state of disgust with life (no surprises there, then).
Some of the scenes were funny, but rapidly became repetitive in this two hour long production. This was the first time I’d seen a subtitled play, and it’s possible that the nuances of Kraus’s humour are simply harder to grasp when translated and awkwardly projected onto a screen at one end of the stage (the problem was exacerbated by the fact that the subtitles, as well as taking the audience’s gaze away from the characters themselves, were often out of sync with the actual dialogue, sometimes flickering back and forth as if confused about which scene was taking place). As the play progressed from its Catch-22-esque phase – the mad Austrian generals seemed drunk in the earlier stages on the idea of war – and moved into a more serious, less slapstick stage, so the scenes gained some political power. One particularly striking example was a scene in which two deserters are shot by their commanding officers, only to rise moments later and carry out the same action on the officers themselves – a reversal of roles which highlighted the army’s self-destructive actions.
Such glimpses of powerful symbolism were, unfortunately, rare in this rather clumsy production. Awkward staging meant that we could often hear noises coming from backstage, a reminder that, despite the actors’ fluent German, we were in the Burton Taylor studio, not an underground WWI bunker. Even the incessant assault of roaring, though aiming to bring the audience into the action of the play, had the opposite effect by highlighting what an inappropriately confined space the BT is for excessive amounts of yelling. Once this had died down the experience improved, and the play’s sudden movement into a bizarre expressionist ending at least compensated for the repetitiveness of the earlier stages of the play.