In the preface to his monumental 1919 play The Last Days of Mankind, Austrian satirist Karl Kraus said that it would take 10 evenings to stage and was “intended for a theater on Mars”. The National Theatre in Prague has got the running time down to slightly under two hours. Otherwise, that's not a bad description of what premièred on Wednesday night under the title 1914.

1914 at the Estates Theatre, Prague © Lucie Jansch
1914 at the Estates Theatre, Prague
© Lucie Jansch

Kraus' acidic anti-war screed is only part of a brilliant piece marking the centenary of World War I. Much of the dialogue of 1914 is drawn from another anti-war classic, Jaroslav Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk. And the staging is the work of American director Robert Wilson, whose powerful avant-garde productions of Czech opera and theater over the past 12 years have earned him repeated invitations to Prague.

The admixture of those three elements has yielded a dark, unsettling meditation. Wilson depicts an absurdist world laced with tragedy and irony and black humor, where war is a burlesque played out to a disturbingly cheerful soundtrack. As Kraus foresaw, it is an alien landscape, at once recognizable and otherworldly.

There is no attempt to tell a story. With twin narrators, the Optimist and Pessimist, acting as guides and commentators, 1914 plays out like a theatrical tone poem, striking a jaunty note for the outbreak of war – two officers debate whether it will last two or three weeks, or two or three months – then tracing its destructive arc through a series of vignettes. A recruiting station, train car, officers’ club, military hospital and other settings provide snapshots of war's brutalizing, dehumanizing effects.

Vladimír Javorský (Pessimist) and Václav Postránecký (Optimist) © Lucie Jansch
Vladimír Javorský (Pessimist) and Václav Postránecký (Optimist)
© Lucie Jansch

Sometimes the snapshots are literal. Czech opera and stage veteran Soňa Červená plays Time, an enigmatic white-maned character who rises out of the stage floor periodically to provide historical footnotes or casualty statistics, and at particularly appalling moments take a flash photograph.

Though 1914 is not formally a work of musical theater, music is integral to the production, setting the mood for every scene, often before the characters appear onstage. It was written by Czech composer Aleš Březina, the author of two chamber operas and many film soundtracks. Březina drew on a variety of sources in creating the score, ranging from Viennese waltzes and military marches to Dixieland and ragtime. Knowing Wilson's fondness for silent movies, he also programmed the sound of an old-fashioned Wurlitzer theater organ into the keyboard. The director warped the rhythms of Březina's themes in often jarring ways. The breezy prologue music, for example, reappears near the end of the piece played backward.

As in Last Days and Švejk, the violence happens offstage, a distant horror dramatized by its effects. There is exactly one killing in 1914. Like the millions of casualties caused by World War I, it is shocking and pointless. And from this distance, incomprehensible. “You could get grounded for that!” one officer observes as others dance around the body on the barroom floor.

1914 at the Estates Theatre, Prague
1914 at the Estates Theatre, Prague

This material is a perfect fit with the style and approach of Wilson, whose métier is abstraction and atmospherics. Whether the piece is a Monteverdi opera or Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach, his approach is essentially the same, a highly technical and stylized interplay of light, movement and sound. As in most of his other productions, the actors in 1914 appear in whiteface and move like marionettes, in broken, jerky rhythms that seem like a mad dance. The effect is a wind-up diorama that starts as a spirited romp, then gradually breaks down and falls apart as the characters are battered by the realities of war.

While live music sets the pace and tone, the piece also makes inventive use of recorded sound effects and video projections. These help to create a growing sense of unease which starts with the Optimist's opening assurance that “A war between civilized lands of the world is absolutely impossible”. Some of the subsequent images are predictably disturbing – a blasted battlefield, figures in gas masks emerging like ghosts from a mist. But it's the small details that gradually accumulate into a sense of dread and angst, like a recruit barking like a dog to avoid being conscripted, or women insulting each other in different languages that neither understands (“Hungarian whore!” “Czech whore!”).

Wilson never gives the audience a chance to feel comfortable. In scene after scene, the action starts, then suddenly freezes with a sharp whipcrack or burst of machine-gun fire. Lighting will shift abruptly from fluorescent white to blood-red, or a character will speak in a voice that is not his or hers. At one point an innocent lullaby seems to offer a momentary respite – until the singer collapses to his knees, whimpering and crying. The disorientation is unrelenting, drawing viewers into the same moral vertigo that the characters onstage are experiencing.

By the conclusion, when the cast is happily singing “It's worse than it ever has been,” it all makes a kind of perfect horrible sense.