Franz Kafka to people and you come up with a variety of responses.
Some people have never heard of him at all. Others remember
him as the sad-faced bat-eared boy on the back of the Penguins
– ‘He didn’t get on with his dad. And didn’t he write some miserable
books? One was about a trial, I think. And a man turning into
an insect?’ Fewer people have read lots of Kafka, and they all
have strong opinions about the man and his work.
an old story about Prague, the city where Kafka was born and
lived almost all his life. A man from Prague meets several visitors
and asks them how long they’ll be staying in the city. ‘Oh,
just for the weekend,’ says one. ‘Then you will certainly get
to know Prague,’ says the man. Another says, ‘I’m here for a
fortnight’. The man says, ‘You’ll get to know something of our
city‘. A third says, ‘I’m going to stay here for the rest of
my life‘. ‘Ah,’ says the man, ‘then you will never know Prague.’
the more I think about it, the more I begin to doubt that the
story was in fact about Prague. It might have been about Budapest.
But it doesn’t matter. The story says to me that the closer
we look at something, and the longer we look at it, the less
we really know about it. In the writing and research of this
play I’ve read quite a bit by and about Kafka, yet I feel I
know very little about him. Whenever I begin to feel I understand
something about him, he becomes strangely opaque and eludes
me again. Maybe he’s playing hard to get. Maybe he’s just like
wrote the play in the hope that it would be accessible to all
audience members, however much or little they knew about Kafka.
But some people have said they’d appreciate a few facts, so
Kafka was born into a Jewish family on 3rd July 1883 in Prague.
His parents were Julie and Hermann Kafka. His mother came from
a long line of mystics and eccentrics; his father had dragged
himself up from peasant roots and remade himself as a fancy
goods merchant. That Kafka and his father didn’t see eye to
eye is well-documented but, as we see in the play, we only ever
get to hear Kafka’s side of the story… After Franz was born,
his parents had two more sons, neither of whom survived infancy.
Then there came, in quick succession, three sisters: Elli, Valli
was always writing. One of his favourite occupations as a child
was to write plays, which he and his sisters performed for family
and friends. Sadly, none of these has survived. Then, when he
was nine or ten, he wrote a story about two brothers (an idea
which he returned to at various points in his life, and which
possibly became the germ of the idea behind his novel, America).
An uncle snatched up the paper from Franz’s hands, read it,
snorted and said nothing. When asked what it was like, the uncle
replied, ‘The usual stuff.’ Kafka didn’t show anyone any of
his work for a decade.
met Max Brod at university. At first they seemed unlikely friends,
but Brod helped the reserved Kafka deal with social life and,
already a published writer himself, encouraged his new friend
with his writing. Brod was to continue to champion Kafka’s work,
which all but eclipsed his own, until his death at the age of
had found it difficult to decide what to study at university.
He tried various courses: philosophy, chemistry, law, Germanistics
and art history, and finally law again. He was eventually awarded
the Doctorate of Laws in June 1906. He decided, for various
reasons, against writing as a profession. After a one-year clerkship
in the court system, Kafka began work for an Italian insurance
company in Prague, the Assicurazioni Generali. This job lasted
about nine months, after which Kafka began work at the Workers’
Accident Insurance Institute, a post he remained at until he
had to retire through ill health. Kafka hated this work, yet
was very good at it, and personally instituted some very useful
reforms to the system of compensation for industrial accidents.
It also imposed a structure to his time, and left his nights
free for writing.
first met Felice Bauer in August 1912. They corresponded, and
this period coincided with a fiercely creative period in Kafka’s
writing. It seemed that the relationship was good for Kafka’s
work, but only at a distance. When the threat of marriage became
all too real, Kafka fought against it. In many ways he was desperate
to marry, but he felt that marriage at the cost of his writing
would be too high a price to pay. The couple was engaged once,
and then Kafka broke off the engagement. They became engaged
again, at the time when this play is set, but once again the
engagement was broken off, in circumstances Kafka always referred
to as ‘the tribunal’ – circumstances which seem to have had
direct bearing on his novel The Trial.
never married. He died of consumption in Vienna on 3rd
June 1924, a month away from his 41st birthday.
you see portrayed in this play is true, apart from the bits
we’ve made up.
The Collected Short Stories
The Diaries of Franz Kafka
These books should be readily available from libraries and
good book shops.
first started reading Kafka when I was fourteen. When I tell
people that, they sometimes look at me a bit oddly, and I can
almost feel them thinking that I must have been a precocious
little beast. And they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But it didn’t
feel like it at the time.
written a story for English homework, and was kept back after
class to discuss it. Sensing more trouble, I became surlier
than ever, and almost monosyllabic. Did I realise how good this
was? No. What was I reading at the moment? Nothing. What did
I like to read? Horror stories. (I teach quite a lot of theatre
workshops these days and it’s a constant source of relief that
very few children seem to be as vile as I was at that age, in
spite of what everyone says about falling standards.) My teacher
took a paperback book from her basket. I eyed it more than warily.
It said ‘Penguin Modern Classics’. It also said ‘The Metamorphosis
and Other Stories’. I knew what ‘metamorphosis’ meant although,
if asked, would have denied it. And then it said ‘Franz Kafka’.
It looked like a bad hand of Scrabble, an impossible round of
pick-up-sticks. Did I know this writer? 'No,' I sneered. I was
a champion sneerer. It was just that my story had reminded my
teacher of this writer’s work – would I like to read some? I
said I’d see what I could do. But of course I’d been flattered
into curiosity. I read it. And I loved it. My teacher’s cunning
took its effect – I became an avid reader of Kafka and lots
of other people, and a slightly less avid writer. (By the way,
she tried the same trick with me about a year later, with Dostoyevsky,
who had been an influence on Kafka. And I fell for it again.
But that’s another story. Or another play…)
hadn’t read any Kafka for a while when Rory, in a bout of insomnia,
took down Kafka’s short stories from my shelf and began to read
them. ‘He’s good,’ he said. ‘I know,’ I said. (I’m still pretty
monosyllabic.) ‘I’ve often thought,’ I said, ‘that they’d make
the basis of a good play.’ I don’t know why I said that, because
I hadn’t even thought about it until then. Rory said, ‘Perhaps
you should write it.’ ‘Perhaps I will,’ I said, and fell asleep.
After that, I tried to forget about the idea. But Rory was insistent.
‘Which stories are you going to use?’ I read a bit, scribbled
a bit, began to warm to my theme. But then disaster struck.
Another theatre company was touring a long-running piece based
on three of Kafka’s short stories. I didn’t know what to do.
We had to put in a grant application for the project, and it
wouldn’t be right for Bedlam to be doing something so similar
to this other company’s project. ‘I’ll write something about
Kafka himself,’ I offered vaguely, and started writing some
grant application blurb, which is great practice for any creative
writing you might be thinking of doing. We got a bit of funding
for the project, so that meant it was really going ahead.
I knew I didn’t want to write a straightforward biographical
treatment. I didn’t want to write a play where a writer sits
at his desk scribbling. What about Kafka and his involvement
with the Yiddish Theatre? That had already been covered by Timothy
Daly in Kafka Dances. Kafka and his father? Alan Bennett had
got there first with Kafka’s Dick. So I scribbled some more,
read some more. I talked about it to people. I tried to avoid
talking about it.
gradually the idea began to take shape, after a welter of false
starts. I knew I wanted the play to take place over a short
period of time, and decided on a single night. I wanted a sense
of claustrophobia, and a train carriage suggested itself to
me. So Kafka was on a train? Good. But where was he going? And
which point in his life should I choose? Eventually I decided
upon Kafka’s journey to Berlin at Easter 1914, when he became
unofficially engaged to Felice Bauer for a second time. Kafka’s
relationship with Felice was pivotal – it forced him to decide
whether to be a writer or a married man, as for Kafka the two
states were irreconcilable. And I thought that Europe on the
brink of war was as interesting a time to set a play as any,
although the imminent carnage is nowhere mentioned overtly in
the play, just as it is hardly mentioned by Kafka, although
its influence on his writing is strong.
knew I was writing for three actors. And I knew who they were,
and how they worked, which helped. We knew TJ was going to play
Kafka, but what about Rory and I? We were aware that it would
be easy just to become supporting characters to the protagonist,
and I wanted all three actors to contribute equally to the piece.
It occurred to me that Kafka should meet two rather odd fellow
travellers. But who were they? It took me quite a long time
before I twigged who they were. I won’t tell you here, just
in case you haven't seen the play yet. But it seems somehow right that the identity of the
two other characters should elude me for so long, because this
is the immediate problem that Kafka (and thus the audience)
needs to solve in the play.
times the play is confusing. I knew it would have to be, if
it was going to reflect anything of the atmosphere of Kafka’s
work. But I hope it’s a pleasurable sort of confusion, intriguing
rather than merely baffling, and I hope you can solve the mystery
before Kafka does! It isn’t an easy play. It wasn’t meant to
be. But I hope it’s entertaining, for all that. And if you feel
like reading some Kafka, or re-reading him, or reading some
more, then I’ll feel it’s been a job well done.
of people have helped with this production, in lots of ways.
We’ve tried to thank them all elsewhere in this programme. But
I’d really like to thank Rory, TJ and Chris for their help,
patience and inspiration during the process of kicking the chaotic
first draft of the play into shape. Many thanks, too, to my
cat for his ‘help’ with the typing.
Emma Spurgin Hussey
(The above two articles were written for the programme for the
first production of Axe for the Frozen Sea.)
I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us.
If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow
to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that
it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just
as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy
we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are
books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death
of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us
feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any
human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the
frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.’
Franz Kafka (Letter
to Oskar Pollak, 27th January 1904.)