Radio: War: this is what it's good for

It must be fun pitching ideas for Radio 3. The direct opposite of pitching ideas for Hollywood. Try this. "I would like to put on a play dealing with the absurdity of war, written 77 years ago by an Austrian satirist few in this country have heard of." "Fine, fine." "It's 15 hours long - I'm not sure, it's never been staged in its entirety - has a cast of hundreds, and points out how our rulers, the media, and large swaths of the population, but particularly those with vested interests, are stupid, venal, hypocritical, and, worst of all, murderous." "Jolly good, tell me more." "It is written from a position of high intellectualism, deliberately at odds with the prevailing mood, and, given that it starts with a Balkan war and will be broadcast at a time when Boris Yeltsin is reminding us that Russia is still a nuclear power, will give the willies to everyone who hears it. And although I can't do it in 15 hours - I'm not that crazy - I can't do it in any less than four."

"All right, off you go."

I must say that when I saw the two two-hour tapes containing Giles Havergal's adaptation of Karl Kraus's The Last Days of Mankind - for that is what I have facetiously described above - I made a "gulp" noise and wondered if I shouldn't write about The Archers again instead. But I slapped tape number one in the machine and sat down. And you know what? It was terrific.

Even Radio 3 commissioners know that you can't expect people to sit down and listen to a four-hour radio play as if it was Shakespeare - or even a standard-issue whodunnit or ghost story (two genres at which the medium most obviously excels). You slam it down, let people get on with it and assume it will be the kind of thing you can listen to by the pound, as it were. And it is. Its scope and length are so overwhelming that you don't have to pay attention. You can drift in and out, let it wash over you.

The alarming thing is how contemporary it sounds. A sardonic history of the First World War from an Austrian perspective, it resonates today in a way it wouldn't have done 10 years ago, not least because we now all know once again where Serbia is. And, more crucially, even former diehard or otherwise automatic peaceniks know - after the campaign over Kosovo - what it is to feel happy about waging war.

Of course, the original might have been tweaked for our benefit. The newsreader who sounds like Anna Ford; the blimpish old fart who sounds like Stephen Fry's Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth; the army chaplain (that disgusting oxymoron) who says "Letting the old foe have it hot and strong, then, are we? Wouldn't mind a shot or two at them myself"; the gutsy female front-line reporter who asks what it "feels like" to shell a trench/ bomb an enemy position/sink the Lusitania, and who leaves the moment the answers become too complex. The play also addresses, devastatingly, attitudes to war you might hear from those who think we are going to pot because we haven't had any lately.

"Kraus," says an optimistic man, presumably the voice of the mob, "you can't deny that the war, setting aside the advantages for those who have to face death every day, has brought with it a real spiritual uplift."

"Mr Optimist," Kraus replies, "I don't envy death being looked in the eyes by so many poor devils who have been spiritually uplifted by the universal gallows duty, conscription."

"The good become better and the bad become good. War purifies," splutters the optimist.

"It robs the good of their faith, if not of their lives, and the bad it makes worse."

"But the solidarity the war has produced. In Germany the Kaiser has said there are no more political parties, there are only Germans."

"Maybe," replies Kraus silkily, "but people in other countries have higher ambitions."

"The country would be in a fine mess if it thought the way you do."

"The country does think that way; it is also in a fine mess."

The second half of this four-hour-long snort of contempt is on tonight. I recommend it.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee