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Kafka and Son

Alon Nashman

Edinburgh Fringe Festival

August 8-28, 2010

“You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking.”

Thus begins Franz Kafka’s 45-page letter to his father Hermann, published posthumously as his Brief an den Vater (Letter to the Father). It is a rare piece — timid yet frank, where Kafka is usually bluntly surreal. Kafka, despite his reputation as an artist after death, was an insurance clerk and bureaucrat in life, and the letter reads like a legal report: calculated, exact, each word tempering the prior, riposting an anticipated parry, and flinching at invisible strokes. He’s at first much more equivocal than we’re used to — the artist unsure whether to accuse or forgive, worried equally that he will say too little as well as too much.

Is it art? It’s hard to deny the sincerity and depth of feeling. Many might empathize with the then middle-aged Kafka and his resilient father-issues. But we are not the intended audience. Kafka gave the letter to his mother to deliver to his father, but she only returned it to her son. Four years later, Franz Kafka would die of tuberculosis at the age of forty. It is, then, an unfinished symphony. We are and will always be left without the voice of Hermann Kafka, just as Franz Kafka was left without any reconciliation with his father. We, the readers, end our symphony mid-cadence.

Enter Alon Nashman. Coming off the success of Howl (based off the famous Ginsberg poem), and with the encouragement and cooperation of director Mark Cassidy, Nashman set out to bring this relatively obscure work to the stage. His task is in one sense simple; Nashman (in a chance encounter between he and I in the Fringe members room) remarked that “the letter already had a theatrical structure,” wherein “the father, by Kafka, is given the role of destroying all the arguments...”

Nashman is the sole performer, and he plays both the timid, wordy Franz and the loud, robust Hermann. His portrayal of Hermann is chilling, and we are reminded that we see a man through the lens of a child’s eyes — he is enlarged, grotesque. The stage is sparse, the lighting particular (we’re in a man’s mind, after all). Objects and their relations to each other follow laws other than physics. There’s a pen, two pages, a narrow bedframe — and feathers, all black, with one white.

The sound was notable. Taken from Olijov’s Yiddishbbuk (as performed by the St. Lawrence String Quartet), and adapted for the production, it had a wonderfully Bergian quality. Olijov himself wrote the piece as a tribute to Kafka, so it’s in particularly good faith in its present state.

There is a refreshing dynamism about the performance. While utterly depressing in one regard, Kafka manages to draw hope from horror, and Nashman follows suit. The symbolism of the white feather as Nashman pens the end of Kafka’s entreaty is not lost on the audience. Kafka ends on a note of strength, and of love. This is a play not only of disjunction, but of the power of the human spirit.

Note that this is a one-man play for a reason. The format affords Nashman much greater power and flexibility over the emotional tenor. Nashman likened it to “the big skate at the olympics...the long breath to sustain.” Some one-man shows are formed out of casting budget cuts, but the particular case of Kafka’s letter translate particularly well here. For the true actor, the story is not only of the character but of themselves. Through Nashman we see Kafka, and through Kafka we see Nashman. This is the peculiar office of theater — the odd Hegelian dialectic of script and reader — but it is particularly profound when there is one man to read one letter. The “team” aspect is removed. There are no safeties, for either man, and the struggle for human communication becomes like an arena match. I cannot say who is gladiator and who is beast. Each is both, in their way.

Some of this relationship is private — intimate lovers broadcast their all-telling nothings in whispers, not shouts — but I do think that an attentive audience will see the feeling that’s there. I did, and I suspect that I’m not alone. I admit that this is a piece that grew on me more after the performance than during, but that is how I like my art.

Kafka ends his letter:

“...this whole rejoinder — which can partly also be turned against you—does not come from you, but from me. Not even your mistrust of others is as great as my self-mistrust, which you have bred in me. I do not deny a certain justification for this rejoinder, which in itself contributes new material to the characterization of our relationship. Naturally things cannot in reality fit together the way the evidence does in my letter; life is more than a Chinese puzzle. But with the correction made by this rejoinder — a correction I neither can nor will elaborate in detail — in my opinion something has been achieved which so closely approximates the truth that it might reassure us both a little and make our living and our dying easier.”

Perhaps by Kafka’s living and dying — and now by Nashman’s living — our lives, if not the Kafkas’, are made easier.