PRINT March 1991


Life goes on. More than it deserves.
—Karl Kraus

CAN ONE EMERGE FROM the Last Judgment alive? Yes, if one betrays the Last Judgment for theater. Luca Ronconi proposed and achieved this betrayal in the staging of Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The last days of mankind), the monumental “tragedy in five acts with prelude and epilogue” written by Karl Kraus between 1915 and 1919. The author himself always maintained a hostile attitude toward the possibility of the work’s being performed—turning down even directors like Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator—preferring to have the piece presented through various public readings. Only in 1964, approximately thirty years after Kraus’ death, was the work first performed in his native Vienna.

It would take some fifty hours to perform Kraus’ work in its entirety. Die letzten Tage der Menschheit is a gigantic kaleidoscopic view of the effects of the World War I on every social group, on every border, external and internal, of the Austro-Hungarian empire—from the trenches to the urban cafés, from the brightest street to the darkest private spaces, from journalistic stereotypes to those of consciousness. This is Vienna at the beginning of the century, ruthlessly observed by Kraus, as through the thousand facets of a fly’s eye, in the countless stages of its unwitting decline.

The play itself—which Ronconi reduced to a duration of three and a half hours—opens with the news of the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, treating the events that followed simultaneously through fragments of action and discourse—civil and military episodes, public and private ruminations—presented in a chaotic network of differing spaces and from differing points of view. All is resolved in the Götterdämmerung of the final disaster of war, where the historic defeat of the grand empire and the cosmic condemnation of the human species come together.

For Kraus, the new—and most horrible—dimension of the catastrophe of World War I lay in the ideological homogenization of the collective conscience, even that of the victims, as they dissected the esthetic and ethical value of destruction; a homogenization that was strengthened, if not in fact provoked, by the press, which morbidly dwelt on each atrocious detail and transformed horror into an object of consumption. The result was the mutation of everyday reality into a hybrid where domestic tranquillity and collective massacre absurdly coexisted, with the media constituting the perverse and aberrant mechanism of conjunction between the public and the private realms. Rarely, in fact, does Kraus portray the disasters of war in his 792-page text, showing instead that “peace is based on massacre.” As Roberto Calasso writes, “His ‘last days of mankind’ are the first days of a world in perpetual war. . . . Never-ending, they become a chronic state in which one can quietly survive.”1

Translated into dramatic form, the normalization of catastrophe results in two effects: the dispersal of the canonic space of tragedy and the eruption of a linguistic inferno. This sort of Babel coincides with concrete reality, for in Kraus’ text it is the result of a montage of quotations directly drawn from contemporary newspapers and wartime documents. The daily newspaper, with its equation of different news items on the single page, is in fact the model for Kraus’ particular verbal hell; it was also the model for the performance itself, where, not by accident, the cry “Extra! Extra!” recurred as a leitmotiv.

The problem of simultaneously staging multiple dramatic events within the temporal conventions of the theatrical form — which is to risk the loss of the form itself—is a challenge that Ronconi has picked up from Kraus, and that certainly links his version of Die letzten Tage der Menschheit to his theatrical adaptation of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a production whose U.S. run aroused much controversy. The decomposition of the narrative fabric into scenes that could be experienced synchronically, with the spectators circulating throughout the stage space and exercising free choice as to what to look at, was identical in both productions, as was the use of elevated machinery and dollies to transport characters and scenes here and there. But in the 1968 production, the spectators freely shifted about within the labyrinth of the marvelous; while in the 1990 production, they were forced to choose a spot within the chronicle of the end.

What had changed on Ronconi’s stage was precisely the condition or degree of the audience’s “freedom” and its function with respect to the work being performed. For Orlando Furioso—thanks to the collaboration of Edoardo Sanguineti, who has experimented with serial logic in both a literary and a theatrical context—Ronconi translated into dramatic terms the contemporaneity of the different narrative structures at play in Ariosto’s text (the epic, the fantastic, the lyrical, the tragic), making it into an “open work,” that is, into a polyhedric interpretive field activated by the spectator, who, moving about from one scene to another, decided upon his or her own reading of the piece. Those watching Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, however, were expected to slide imperceptibly and passively toward the catastrophe described by Kraus. The more the dramatic form broke down, becoming excessive in its discourse and in the repetition of slogans, allowing more coincidences of meaning, accompanied by the coming and going of machinery, the more viewers were seen to evince indifference and to engage in chitchat; one could even escape the apocalypse for a cup of coffee and a sandwich in a corner of the corridor, returning with a full stomach to the zone of the end of the world. Just as, in an early scene, the audience followed the dolly that was the moving stage for the funeral of the assassinated archduke and his wife, and itself ended up, without realizing it, as the mass forming the funeral procession, it remained equally unaware during the course of the performance, swallowed up in the formless magma that constitutes the true essence of the disaster.

Ronconi believes that the viewer’s freedom lies in his or her responsibility for making sense out of chaos. But historical truth proves him wrong: during the performance, the reign of the critic was defeated by the reign of the gossip, who slowly became the dominant character on the stage. Whether Ronconi acknowledges it or not, distraction, as a collective psychic fact, became a structuring factor like any other, to the point where it began to condition the internal problematic not only of the dramatic form but of historical reality itself. How long did Die letzten Tage der Menschheit last? As long as one paid attention. And so it goes in the world.

To set the stage for the apocalypse, Ronconi chose the enormous, empty, and historically dense spaces of the machine-press rooms of Lingotto, the first large production center for FIAT in Turin, built between 1920 and 1923, just after Kraus wrote his play. The building is one of the monuments of industrial archaeology, the construction of which marked FIAT’s progress to large-scale industry, and was made possible in part by the great profits the company reaped from its production of war matériel during World War I. This particular performance seemed to mirror the space’s origins, for by a paradoxical coincidence, it is thanks in particular to the financial contributions of FIAT that Ronconi was able to mount his extremely costly production. In a further irony, the factory, already long empty of workers and machinery, will, once the sets are taken down, be transformed—according to the architect Renzo Piano’s plans—into a sort of ideal city. An intersection of work and recreation, it will comprise a conference center, computer terminals, and university facilities, brought about through the new “soft” technology that has replaced the hard technologies of the machine age. And so it was with a rightfully provocative gesture that Ronconi decided to utilize the Lingotto space as a set for his performance of the “last days.” The performance itself, planned specifically for the site, is unrepeatable.

The factory thus emerged as an integral part of the mise-en-scène and indeed as the “auratic” site and index of destiny. Actors, spectators, and machinery seemed to move about it in an alienated present, like figures in a photo album. But equally important as a setting for the kaleidoscopic action was the scenery created by Daniele Spisa, which converted the vastness and enigmatic immobility of Lingotto into a railroad station. In keeping with the image of confused multiplicity that obsesses Ronconi as the dramatic incarnation of the modern condition, the railroad stands as the site of intersecting movement, ephemeral appearances, and rapid disappearances, and as a scenographic metaphor for the momentary crossing of disparate lives. (Ronconi had in fact considered mounting one of his productions in the Gare d’Orsay in Paris.) Thus it may also stand as a spatial equivalent for Kraus’ text, which is equally obsessed with the problem of the formal rendering of simultaneity, a common concern, after all, of the historical avant-gardes in all mediums.

Worn-out railroad cars and old black locomotives occupied the side aisles, standing broodingly still or chugging along sliding floors and elevated rails (these, like Chinese boxes, sometimes used as microstages within the larger stage), as processions of actors made their way on foot or were passively transported by the moving floor, keeping the backdrop in continual flux. Machinery, trains, figures, and scenes, drawn along by the sliding sets, came forward to offer themselves like commodities in the marketplace of the glance. Reunited in the central corridor, they were like pieces ready to be fit together on Lingotto’s now-disused assembly line.

Interestingly, Ronconi chose to stage Kraus’ words within the context of the machine esthetic rather than that of Art Nouveau, the more popular bourgeois style of the period. And so we had not only the somber monumentality of the railroad cars but the massive grandeur of newspaper printing presses, placed above the side aisles like funereal furnishings waiting to be reawakened to print sensationalist news. On a more metaphoric level, the machine esthetic provided a perfect justification for the style of Ronconi’s and Kraus’ discourse, and for the character and movements of the figures on stage, who, stiff in the repetitiveness of their actions, were like so many puppets or automatons.

The “normalization” of catastrophe, through the debasement of social roles, ideology, and language, which this oblivious behavior suggests, reveals the phenomenon by which, both in Austro-Hungarian society during World War I and, by the complicity of spectator-ship, in our world, the meaningless becomes monumental. Ronconi’s stage solution was a response to Kraus’ idea that, in the 20th century, the tragic and sublime dimensions of life have been irredeemably vulgarized. As Kraus himself points out in the prologue to his piece, the last days of mankind are “jagged and devoid of heroes, like the tragedy of humanity recited by characters in an operetta.”

In keeping with this ultimate conformism, the period costumes designed by Gabriella Pescucci were anonymous and without splendor, striking a note of mourning that corresponded with the style that dominated the stage. This domain of black was established from the beginning of the performance, when the first funerary procession, all garbed in dark colors, advanced on the lateral aisle, accompanied by the first gloomy locomotive—the black stain of death spread slowly, coloring the proceedings throughout.

The myriad characters Ronconi adopted from the proliferating masses of Kraus’ text—waiters, reporters, ministers, bureaucrats, lecturers, lowlifes, generals, officials, soldiers, industrialists, speculators, parents, children, doctors, nurses, and even Pope Benedict XV and the Emperor Franz Josef—are equally without grandeur. Victims and executioners, guilty and innocent, all are reduced to puppets by the system of self-delusion, disguised by the rhetoric of heroism and national security, that governs everyday life in wartime. The fact that during a war, everything—natural and technological—is placed at the disposal of destruction, is made particularly clear in an episode that evokes the brief time it takes for a live tree in the forest to be transformed into a newspaper, and in another delineating the degeneration of the female element into the two complementary figures of the well-to-do housewife Frau Wahnschaffe (Marisa Fabbri) and the war correspondent Schalek (Annamaria Guarnieri). The former sets the pace for everyday home life and the education of her children according to the logic of wartime propaganda; the latter, a real and famous Viennese journalist, expresses herself through the montage of quotations that Kraus drew from her correspondence from the front, letters inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideology of the Superman and by an intoxication with violence and sensationalism.

If Schalek expresses an obtuse and mad support for the esthetics of the slaughter (thanks in part to Guarnieri’s brilliant interpretation, which for hours maintained the character on a level of hysterical delirium), the character of the Optimist (Luciano Virgilio) affirms common sense and, through pragmatism, playing down the negative, and false consciousness, uses the war to pursue the fable of the happy ending. The Optimist is in direct opposition to the Grumbler (played with resoluteness by Massimo De Francovich), who, with a combination of irony, demystification, and indignation, was delegated the task of expressing Kraus’ ideological position on stage. The Optimist and the Grumbler are a complementary couple in the original text as well. They face off in a verbal contest of opposing ideologies, thereby indicating the bourgeois identity split between bad conscience and unhappy conscience. This couple inherits the abstract quality of an ideological allegory as personified in the philosophical tales of the 18th-century Enlightenment. (Kraus himself considered eliminating them because they lack dramatic effect.) But, in performance, the figures of the Optimist and the Grumbler served to arrest the dissolution of the form and, by extension, to prevent the dilution of the author’s viewpoint.

The same corrective and concentrating function is entrusted to the long procession of “Apparitions” that announce the final apocalypse, both in Kraus’ text and in Ronconi’s production. The utter disorder of the crescendoing disaster is contrasted with the absolute formalization of this parade of Apparitions, which are presented in a bitter parody of the beatifying visions that compose the mystical ascension in Goethe’s Faust. In Kraus’ text they are mnemonic lightning bolts of horror; for his part, Ronconi staged a march in the Renaissance tradition of “Triumphs,” in which the actors proceeded in a line down the central corridor, each singing the leitmotiv of his or her own role. At the end they all met at the back and sang a saccharine and upbeat tune of the type one might hear on television: just before the Renaissance tableau was plunged into the inferno, it was frozen for a moment, transformed, in a baroque apotheosis. Then, the masks dropped as the actors stepped out of their roles for the curtain call, and the horror of Kraus’ vision was extinguished. The Last Judgment—as a critical act — failed precisely with the public’s first applause. Everything returned to what it was, the devils and the damned pronouncing themselves satisfied with a job well done.

Ronconi’s finale thus tempered Kraus’ apocalyptic one, in which first the cosmic discourse of the Voice from Above condemns the human species for its insensitivity to total destruction and then the Voice of God proclaims: “I didn’t want it!,” drawing back from History and ending the tragedy. But Ronconi, in fact, does not favor total negativity, an attitude reflected in the physicality of his staging and the performances of his actors. He made more worldly—more real—that “Theater of Mars,” nonexistent in reality and projected into a world beyond, to which Kraus assigned his monumental text. And in doing so, the director effectively betrayed Kraus’ intentions.

Kraus was concerned to defend the rights of fantasy, to the point where he preferred to speak about a “Theater of the Word” than to see his work performed. But in writing Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, the first sin was Kraus’. A writer of perfect aphorisms, he, in this work, magnified them to the size of a drama, with contradictory results. His was a conceptual risk: what in Vienna’s daily life was repeated—identical and predictable as a cliché—to the point of being easily concentrated in an aphoristic definition, is, in Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, given mobility, assigned a dramatic character. The petrified social paradigm itself becomes an actor on the stage. Kraus himself reminds us that, in his play, “the crudest inventions are quotations. . . . News accounts come to life like human beings, real people die like editorials. The column has been given a mouth that speaks its part like a monologue, phrases stand up on two legs while men have only one left.”2

To give concrete physicality to commonplaces, to human marionettes, to bring them from the written text to the stage by making visible the actors’ strenuous efforts, allows Ronconi to indicate and save the “creaturely” aspect of the characters from the disaster of complete reification described by Kraus. If, in Ronconi’s production, theatrical convention and the complicity of the public cause the Last Judgment to fail, the final days of humanity are still played out on the symbolic body of the actor, who becomes a sacrificial victim of a terminal social situation.

Luciana Rogozinski is a writer who lives in Turin. Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.

1. Roberto Calasso, “La guerra perpetua,” in Gli Ultimi Giorni dell’Umanità, theater program, Turin: Teatro Stabile Torino in collaboration with Lingotto srl, 1990, n.p.

2. Karl Kraus, quoted in Kurt Krolop, “Satira e poesia in Karl Kraus,” ibid., n.p.