, , , , , ,

The Black Madonna, Prague

The Black Madonna

The best way to get a city, for me, is to put away the maps and follow promising promenades and unpromising alley ways.  Foot sore and lost after several hours of this in Prague I found myself, with friends, at a cubist cafe, the only survivor of many from the early 20th C, in the Black Madonna building in Prague.  Refreshed therein after a mid-morning beer and now ready to walk left instead of right I came face to face with a billboard announcing a theater production, in English, titled AmericKafka.  Intrigued, I scanned to find that it was being presented that very night — A World Premier! No phone number, but a website.

Prague Kafka PosterBack at the hotel, the concierge tried to track down a phone with no success or, that is, success with a number but not with getting an answer.  I clicked through every available link on the website, an accomplished Shakespearean company, in English, in Prague!, and could find no on-line tickets.  Ah!  This was getting promising, in a Kafka like way.  Off I went to the locale, circled on the map by my helper at the desk. Four squares, three alleys and two main streets later I was at the address and before the enormous wooden doors, with no inviting sign.  I pushed in.  Bare, stone lobby. A theater but nothing indicative of AmeriKafka.  I called out: Hello!  Hello!  Stone walls echo well.  Most peculiar.  Was I reading the date right? Europeans and Americans flip the month-day sequence.  Had the play gone bust and the billboards were only a remnant?

Nothing to do but return before curtain time.

Opening Night

Opening Night

The lobby is filled, women in first-night clothing, men more casual.  English, Czech and other vaguely familiar phrases rise from lips, circle in swarms and settle, on some ears, some of the time.  “Do you have any tickets?” I ask the surmountingly lovely woman behind a table draped in a white cloth.  “I’m sorry, we’re sold out,” she says in perfect American.  “But sit over there, we may have cancellations.”  I sit. I wait. I think about Plan B. But suddenly she is in front of me, smiling. A ticket is available.  350 Koruna (abt $18) and open seating.  I am up, pausing through an upper lobby for a nice white wine, and then sitting with a few others in a well fitted out, garret theater.  This is no once-a-season pocket theater group.  The lighting set-up in the bare beams has taken years, and tens of thousands to accumulate.

The seats are slightly raked, the stage bare with odd domestic furnishings scattered around, chairs, boxes, steamer-trunks, and up stage squatting on an impossibly low, flared chair, hunched over a low, canted desk, furiously writing with a quill pen, looking for all the world from our position like the carapace of a beetle, is a man. He casts furtive glances over his shoulder in our general direction from time to time, and returns to writing.  In a few minutes, the theater is filled — 200 seats?– the lights go down, the writer stands up and asks, “Where are they?  Why are they always late?”  and the play begins.

The young man writing is Kafka himself.  As the actors swarm to their places, some carrying props, setting chairs upright, gabbling to each other,  one becomes Karl Rossman, the protagonist of Kafka’s first-begun, never finished novel.  It was titled Amerika by his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, and so is known to most of us though the title Kafka had in mind is closer to The Man Who Disappeared (Der Verschollene).  The two actors, author and leading man, set up a nice relationship, watching, talking to each other.  At one point Kafka asks Karl “What happens next?” Karl, with an eloquent shrug, replies, “I don’t know. You’re writing the book.”

An old woman walks slowly across the stage holding a cardboad sign, turning it this way and that, on which is written “The Stoker.”  Karl, about to leave the ship in Newyork [Kafka’s word,] realizes he’s forgotten his umbrella and, searching for it, stumbles into the stoker’s tiny cabin, nicely suggested by an arrangement  of chairs and boxes. He is drawn into sympathy with the man’s complaints and with vigor and youthful enthusiasm encourages the stoker to defend himself against the insults and outrages of the chief engineer.  He says he will go and support him.  There he meets his long-estranged Uncle and, as the by now well known Kafka themes emerge, unwillingly leaves the stoker in the hands of the powerful.

The acting is very well done.  Fast crowd scenes assemble and dissolve as actors bustle on and off, taking a bit part and then discarding it.  Karl is taken out to a country house for, it seems, an arranged liaison with a rich man’s daughter who attempts to seduce him — repeating the theme of girl-seduces-boy which occasioned his being sent to America by his parents– and then proceeds to beat him up. And so begins the character exposition of a naivete which no experience seems to cure him of, at first endearing and in the end, exasperating.

Having failed, in his Uncle’s eyes, thus confirming himself as of the branch of the family that never made good, Karl is sent on his way.  On an improbable walk to San Francisco, he meets up with two tramps and con men, one Irish, Robinson, and one French, Delamarche.  The trio constitutes the strong center of the plot as Karl’s initial sturdy sense of himself begins to fall apart, disappearing as fast as the articles in his trunk, sold off or merely tossed away by his companions who,  proclaiming their undying loyalty, extract his money and assistance, pressing against his resistance with complaints of his betrayal of their friendship.

Somewhere before the intermission the action seemed to drag a bit — like a shaggy dog story run on too long.  The second act picks up with a burst of new energy at Karl’s adventures in the Hotel Occidental as a lift boy, under the watchful eye of an old-world hotelier whom he soon disappoints by reconnecting with the Irishman, who can’t ever pass up even a bad drink.  Karl is fired and sent on his way, again in the company of his friends, who introduce him to the infamous Brunelda, a fat, charismatic “singer” where — Kafka’s terror throbbing through– he becomes entangled, unable to leave despite his deep desire to do so.

Kafka house, Golden Lane

Kafka house, Golden Lane

As it happens, in the small foot street called Golden Lane, on the grounds of the castle high above Prague, one of the tiny medieval cottages was once occupied by Franz Kafka, 1916-17.  It is now a book and memorabilia store where I found a nicely designed set of books by and about Kafka, among them “Lost in America,”  the very text from which the play had been built. Under the Vitalis-Verlag imprint, the translation and historical afterward(2010)  are by Anthony Northey, a Canadian.

There, in the chapter titles are the main characters and events of the play: the Stoker, the Uncle, the Country House, the Hotel Occidental and the imposing, impossible Brunelda.  A treat is in store, it seems.  It had been many many years since I had read any Kafka, of which Amerika, as Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and publisher had titled it, was the least remembered.

In 1912 at the age of 29, having published shorter pieces, this was his second attempt at imagining a longer narrative.  Elements of what Kafka was to became famous for appear throughout –here the mysterious, self generating, entrapping bureaucratic mechanism

“At a round table sat three gentlemen, one a ship’s officer in a blue ship’s uniform, the two others, officials of the port authority, in black American uniforms.  On the table, piled high, lay a variety of documents, which the officer, pen in hand, first glanced over and then handed on to the others, who either read them or wrote out excerpts or placed them in their briefcases, when one of them, who almost continually made a slight sound with his teeth, was not busy dictating memoranda to his colleague.

Kafka Rides, Prague

Kafka Rides, Prague

In November of 1912 the work on the novel was suspended for what was to become Kafka’s most famous piece, the short story we know as “The Metamorphosis.” And though he returned several times to his “American” novel, other ideas and projects kept interrupting.  WW I came and with it his “Penal Colony,” the beginnings of “The Trial” and then silence for much of the war.  He died in 1924 of tuberculosis at the age of 40.   Max Brod, ignoring Kafka’s wish that all his unpublished work be burned, published it in 1927, the final pages still in fragments and beginnings.


There are now half a dozen translations of the book, titled “The Man who Disappeared,” “Lost in New York,” “The Missing Person” or “Amerika.”  Michael Hoffman, 1996, and Mark Harman, 2008, have received high praise for their versions.  Ritchie Robertson of Oxford is widely known for his Kafka work.  The version I picked up on Golden Lane is, unhappily, marred by inattentive or infelicitous uses of the English language.

On the opening page an American reader will take note of “Aren’t you rearing to get off this boat, yet?” and pass over it, understood.  But reading that Karl was knocking at a cabin door “at which he had paused in his erring about,” seems odd indeed.  Further on, “short taps as if from children’s feet sounded outside from far off into what up to now had sounded outside” is infelicitous in the extreme, as is “…he heard the many different barks of dogs.” “Large ships crossed each other,” and “…he made a last lunge at the railing in order to look down once more hastily,”  are just a few of the problems that keep surfacing for this reader.  It’s a bit like walking barefoot on a stone-strewn path: I can get there but it’s painful.  Using language it is hard to conceive of Kafka using in 1912,  calling men “bastards,” (instead of “scoundrels” as another translator had it) and some women, “bitches,” or having Karl utter “Christ!” as an exclamation of surprise add to the problems – particularly in a book Kafka himself referred to as “lighter” than “The Trial” or “The Castle.” [It would be interesting to know if Kafka did use similar German vulgarities.  If so, then by all means translate them as such, but help us out with a philological end-note of some kind.  This would be interesting indeed.]

The “Stoker,” the chapter which opens the novel, (and the play) is the only part of the novel published in Kafka’s lifetime. The first complete translation of the full, though incomplete, work to English, and presumably to other languages, was based on Brod’s approved text, with such editing as he thought fitting. Northey says, however, in a short “notes” that his rendition is based on “the unfinished manuscript used for the German critical edition.” Perhaps some of the stones I feel are an effort to be ‘faithful’ to Kafka’s original, prior to any editor’s hand.  From comments of several translators and commentators, I understand that Kafka’s German presents more than its share of difficulties (see Milan Kundera’s complaint about shortening and straightening Kafka’s long, wandering sentences in French translations in his essay “A Sentence.”) But, unless Northey is deliberately trying to duplicate Kafka’s textual mannerisms in some of his odd locutions, and so instruct us, this kind of phrasing makes the reader want to close the pages for a while, or flip through the book to get relief in the very interesting Karel Hruska illustrations.

Karel Hruska, Illustrator

Karel Hruska, Illustrator

Back to the play.  I don’t know which translation the director, Gregory Gudgeon, might have used, perhaps his own entirely. Surely, as a director, he changed whatever he began with so the language would flow from the actors’ lips.  There was no awkwardness that I detected, and in fact some dialect English was excellent.  The stoker, in particular, so prominent in the opening scene,  sounded like the English speaking German we’d expect on a German vessel.  Noteworthy among the theatrical decisions was to honor the sense of Yiddish theater Kafka laced throughout the book.  He had been enthralled with local performances in Prague as he was beginning the writing.  Large sections, if read with this in mind, are like echoes of such theater we are familiar with, the Marx Brothers for example, or the Three Stooges, as in one scene where Brunelda imperiously orders the three men around, Robinson is scrabbling under the bed searching for a perfume bottle and Karl is trying desperately to make up a bed of piled up clothing. The visuals are hard to escape.  It’s difficult to separate Kafka from the dark light we normally see him in but “The Man Who Disappeared,” despite the themes of entrapment, guilt and victim-hood, has more than a few comic moments –which Gudgeon gets right.

There is a lot of buffoonery in the acting, high spirits, sight gags –a marvelous scrolled out piano keyboard is wonderful.

Karl Rossman at the Piano

Karl Rossman at the Piano

Brunelda, the gross, overweight singer, with her “legs spread wide apart,” as described by Kafka,  is played by a man – the stoker?– in a strapless, stuffed-into evening gown. Delamarche, the tough-guy Frenchman, is played by a woman. The change of scenes signaled by the old woman crossing the stage with her cardboard sign, sometimes upside down, sometimes being waved about, is perfect.   At times things run a little too high, not pausing and retreating to build again, or letting a silence take over so the pathos can show through.  Perhaps a bit too much Stooges and not enough Chaplain.  That would be my only complaint, however.

And since the book itself is unfinished, I wondered if  the theatrical ending wasn’t too tidy.  What if, I thought, the play drifted to a non-ending?  The characters returned to their opening appearances as actors, Karl Rossman asking the Kafka, “What’s next?” and he, “It’s all here!” gesturing to his head and returning to his opening carapaced seat to keep writing as everyone drifts off stage, for dinner, to pick up children, do the shopping…

If, as the young woman who sold me the ticket, and turned out to be part of the troupe, told me after the show, this was not so much a world premier  as a first public presentation, a ‘beta’ test as it were, that final edits were still being made, KafkAmerica has great potential.  Strongly recommended for any visitor to Prague, and with hopes it might travel to the US to meet the object of the author’s imagination…. I’d certainly go again.

[And, I’d say, when in Prague, anything you can see at the Prague Shakespeare Company, will be worth an evening.]

As to the book itself, look for the versions by Hoffman, 1998 or Harman, 2008, which may have the benefit of newer discoveries than Hoffman’s, though both are first rate to my ear.