Satirist Karl Kraus called Vienna “an experimental laboratory for world destruction” early in the 20th century, and described the results of these experiments in his massive satire The Last Days of Mankind, first published in his magazine Die Fackel in 1918 and 1919. It begins with the start of World War I and ends in apocalypse; the final words of the play, spoken by God, are “This is not what I intended.” It has over time come to be considered a masterpiece of the documentary play — “The most improbable conversations conducted here were spoken word for word; the most lurid fantasies are quotations,” Kraus said — as well as a central work in pacifistic literature.
The play runs to 588 pages in the English translation by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms; Kraus in his preface estimates that a performance of the full play would run to “ten evenings in terrestrial time.” Two theaters in Vienna attempted to perform the play in 2014, the centenary year of the start of World War I, but perhaps the most effective “production” of the play was Deborah Sengl‘s series of dioramas based on scenes from The Last Days of Mankind, with stuffed rats standing in for human actors, displayed at Essl Collection for Contemporary Art in Klosterneuburg from January through May of that year. (Alas, the Essl Museum closed permanently in 2016.)
Kraus’s satire, like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, transcends the immediate moment and aspires to universal significance, not only about war but also about the greed and violent inhumanity of the human race; we are all implicated and we are all guilty; neither Kraus, nor Swift, nor Heller exempted themselves from their satiric attacks. Sengl’s rats, posed like human beings in human situations, lead to an uncanny sense of identity between these animals and the characters they portray (dead though unstuffed as those people are), and thereby to the spectator’s own identification with these anthropomorphic figures. “The decision for the rats was taken relatively quickly, because I find that they are most closely related to people,” Sengl said. “They bear a resemblance to us. … It is not for nothing we humans … use them in order to pursue advances in research. There is a lot of common ground between us and the rats.” And every laboratory — whether at a university or a city itself — needs its research subjects.
I find Sengl’s work haunting even when divorced from Kraus’s play, its immediate inspiration. Born in 1974, Sengl says that her work is compelled “by an inner imperative … to react to my environment. … I think that, at his core, Karl Kraus was actually a very kind, tenderhearted, generous person who used his pen as a kind of protective device. … I do the same thing.” While there was no European land war going on in 2014, there is one now, and another war not so far away, rendering Sengl’s work, and Kraus’s, disturbingly contemporary once again.
I’m still looking forward to my visit to Vienna in two weeks, and I’m not sure that it still deserves Kraus’s characterization as “an experimental laboratory for world destruction”; I can think of at least one city that better deserves that honorific. But the point is well taken even so, given the experience of the past century.
You can see more of Sengl’s The Last Days of Mankind here, see her more recent work here, and there is a splendid American book based on the exhibition published by DoppellHouse Press, which includes a fine introduction by Marjorie Perloff. Alas, the catalog of the show published by the Essl Collection itself appears to be out-of-print, but I’ll be keeping an eye on Ebay.