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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.