In an early chapter of his memoir The Torch in My Ear, Elias Canetti recounts the moment, shortly after his arrival in Vienna in 1925, when his friends first described Karl Kraus’s performances to him:

When he read aloud from [The Last Days of Mankind], you were simply flabbergasted. No one stirred in the auditorium, you didn’t dare breathe. He read all parts himself, profiteers and generals, the scoundrels and the poor wretches who were the victims of the war – they all sounded as genuine as if they were standing in front of you. Anyone who had heard Kraus didn’t want to go to the theater again, the theater was so boring compared with him; he was a whole theater by himself, but better. 1

Although he was somewhat skeptical of his friends’ enthusiasm, Canetti was nonetheless intrigued, and when he attended a performance later that evening at the Vienna Konzerthaus, he was surprised by the vibrant and, at times, terrifying energy of the theatrical scene he encountered there. In his account, Canetti describes avid Krausians packing the 700-seat house – a collection of young students, coffee-house intellectuals, and middle-class women (the last group mostly crowded together in the front rows) – as displaying a level of enthusiasm commensurate with a personality cult. The first appearance of Kraus – a small, slightly crook-backed man in a conservative black suit and wire-rimmed glasses – is met with an explosion of wild applause (“the likes of which,” Canetti says, “I had never experienced, not even at concerts”), and as Kraus sits down behind his lecturing table and begins to read aloud from one of his satirical articles, Canetti finds himself mesmerized by Kraus’s charisma and versatility: “When he sat down and began to read, I was overwhelmed by his voice, which had something unnaturally vibrating about it, like a decelerated crowing. But this impression quickly vanished, for his voice instantly changed and kept changing incessantly, and one was very soon amazed at the variety that he was capable of.” 2 At a subsequent performance Canetti himself, despite his initial skepticism, finds himself on his feet, yelling and clapping until his hands ache. 3