Direction Walter Meierjohann
Set Design Steffi Wurster
Costume Design Richard Hudson
Lighting Mike Gunning
Sound and Music Nikola Kodjabashia
Movement Direction Ilan Reichel
Assistant Director MiaTeilhave
5. A REPORT TO AN ACADEMY
Kafka wrote A Report to an Academy (Ein Bericht für eine Akademie) in 1917. The tale is narrated in the first person by a chimp called Red Peter who tells the story of his life from being captured in Africa, to being taught human qualities and becoming a variety star. Kafka’s Monkey has been adapted for the Young Vic production by playwright Colin Teevan from the short story, but this is not the first time the fable has been turned into performance.
In 1996 John Metcalf (composer) and Mark Morris (librettist) used the material to create an opera, Kafka’s Chimp, which premiered at the Banff Centre in Canada. The show dramatised the fable with all the characters from the story appearing on stage. They also elaborated the narrative so as Red Peter became more human and his teacher became more apelike. Ten years in the making, the opera was applauded by critics for its imagination and wit. Turkish theatre director Mahir Gunsiray used the story when devising In the Penal Colony with his company, Theatre Oyunevi, in Istanbul in 2000. The play, which aimed to create the hallucinogenic world of Kafka’s work, also drew upon his short story, The Judgement and novel, The Castle as inspiration. Gunsiray is also famous for being prosecuted under Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws for protesting against the Government. In court when asked whether he was guilty or not guilty he quoted lines from Kafka’s The Trial: “Why are you so silent now? Who are you? What are you doing here? Of course you are just obeying your orders. When you leave here you’ll go to your home and hug your wife and daughters. Do you have a conscience? Do you know what one is?” This is also not the first time the Young Vic itself has staged the story either - actor/director Michael Pennington staged a two-week run with Roger Booth performing the role of Red Peter in the old building under the former artistic directorship of Tim Supple.
This Young Vic production is the world premiere of Teevan’s adaptation. The play sticks closely to Kafka’s original story, although interestingly director, Walter Meierjohann, has cast seasoned actress Kathryn Hunter in the male role of Red Peter. After experimenting with using other actors on stage during the workshops for the play last year [see Chapter 10], the creative team decided the play should be a one-person monologue which Teevan has adapted using the form of verse [poetry] instead of prose [everyday speech].
Franz Kafka is a member of the prestigious list of writers whose name has entered the English language as an adjective. Orwellian, Shavian, Dickensian, Shakespearian, Brechtian and Pinteresque all denote work, ideas or situations which have a quality which is associated with that writers’ work. Kafka did not have a particular world-view or socio-political philosophy so Kafkaesque tends to be used to describe a mood or atmosphere, something that is nightmarish, sinister, or illogically complex. Academics and other writers have tried to pin Kafka down to a defined movement, but many contemporary commentators suggest that in the process of this classification people have missed the essence of Kafka’s work. By placing an equal emphasis on Kafka the man, it is common to view the writer as the stereotype of an isolated and lonely writer battling with the world, and focus on the depressing, gloomy side of his work. They propose that Kafka’s work is actually less about his personal struggles and more about how people in general invent their own neurosis. They also point out the stream of subversive Jewish humour which runs throughout his canon and Kafka’s contemporaries frequently emphasised that Kafka always brought out the humour when reading his work aloud in public.
Despite his refusal to conform to a certain literary movement or political group, Kafka has been widely interpreted by scholars and claimed by varying factions over the last eighty years. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre believed that the absurdity and hopelessness exhibited in Kafka’s work was symptomatic of existentialism. This nineteenth and twentieth century philosophical movement developed as a response to traditional philosophy which it believed was too academic and removed from the actual experiences of humankind. The movement’s proponents sort to make sense of the confusion and disorientation which man feels in an apparently meaningless world. Albert Camus then later claimed Kafka for absurdism, an extension of the existentialist movement.
Kafka also belongs to the modernist literature movement. Modernism, originating in the 1870s, was a rejection of the old enlightenment way of thought2. Its advocates believed that a new form of thinking needed to be developed to echo the rapid progression of humanity in the industrialised world and placed less emphasis on God. Writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce began radically to experiment with the form and content of traditional literature. Elements of Kafka’s style such as the lack of logical narrative bears similarities to these modernist writers.
Kafka’s canon exhibits qualities associated with magic realism. Originating in the 1920s, magic realism was the term applied to painters who painted from an altered perspective. It later widened to include any artist who incorporated magical, fantasy or illogical elements into an otherwise seemingly realistic scenario. In Metamorphosis for example, Gregor and his family do not question why he has transformed into an insect, they simply accept the situation and the narrative journey continues.
Kafka has also become associated with the political influences of Marxism and anarchism. Based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marxists believe that the class struggle is at the heart of the problems in society and suggest public ownership as a solution. Similarly, Anarchists suppose that a compulsory Government is undesirable and harmful to society. Kafka’s satirization of Austro-Hungary’s highly efficient bureaucracy in works such as The Trial and The Castle can be viewed as a criticism of the inaccessibility of the social hierarchy.
Many commentators have also noted the Freudian element in his work. Sigmund Freud was an Austrian psychiatrist who developed theories on the unconscious mind and created psychoanalysis (a dialogue between patient and psychoanalyst) as a cure for psychopathology. Freud’s emphasis on the major role childhood plays in shaping one’s personality can be used to explain the themes of Kafka’s work in relation to his family experiences.
As A Report to an Academy adaptor Colin Teevan mentions in his interview (chapter 10) Kafka can also be described as a Fabulist, a writer of fables. Fables are short stories which contain a moral lesson; they differ from other forms of these kinds of stories as they contain anthropomorphism. There is a discussion of Fables in chapter 8.
7. THE GERMAN-SPEAKING, CZECH-BORN JEW
An initial interpretation of Kafka’s work (put forward firstly by Max Brod and later by the famous German writer Thomas Mann), was that like many Jewish artists, he was searching for an unreachable God. This theory has since been rejected by many critics who cite several diary entries which demonstrate that Kafka resented his Jewish heritage: “Sometimes I’d like to stuff all Jews (myself included) into the drawer of a laundry basket... then open it to see if they’ve suffocated.” However, despite his negative comments, it seems highly implausible that being a Jew in the location and period in which Kafka grew up did not have some influence on his work, no matter how subconscious.
Kafka was a Czech-born, German-speaking Jew. German was the official language (and spoken by many Jews as it was similar to Yiddish [a language of Jewish origin]) but at this time Czech nationalism was rapidly growing in response to neighbouring Germany’s predominance. The Germans treated the Czechs with contempt, and both the Germans and the Czechs disliked the Jews. Even within the Jewish community there was a divide between those (like Kafka’s father) who had assimilated into western culture, and the poorer eastern Jews who tended to adhere to their traditions. The ghetto which Kafka grew up in was one of the oldest in Europe consisting of dark, narrow alleyways and a dense population. Kafka once described it as “my prison cell – my fortress”, but he chose to live there most of his life, even when he was earning a comfortable salary from the government and could have moved out of the family home. Anti-Semitism was rife in Prague and the mystery of what lay inside the ghetto proved too great for the rumourmongers. Claims of ritual murder against the Jewish community were frequent. Many believed that Christian blood was used in making Matzo [bread] instead of water. These accusations came to a head in 1899 when a Christian girl was found dead just before Passover [a Jewish holiday]; stories that she had been made kosher [literally ‘fit to eat’] in compliance with Jewish dietary laws led to a spate of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish businesses. Kafka was only sixteen at the time and the effect of the political climate must have resonated with the writer. Despite Kafka Senior ensuring that his family was distanced from the Jewish community (he officially registered them all as Czech), he did take Kafka to the synagogue a few times each year (which bored Kafka), and also had him bar-mitzvahed.
Kafka’s connection to Judaism in his adult life is ambiguous and contradictory. In 1911 he became very interested in Yiddish theatre when a touring troupe visited Prague, watching the show every night of the run. Other middle-class Jews (including Max Brod who chastised Kafka’s interest) saw Yiddish theatre as crass melodrama and the Yiddish language as inferior when compared to formal Hebrew [the language of the Jewish bible, the Tanakh]. Similarly, Kafka enjoyed Talmudic [an ancient Jewish text] and Hasidic tales and legends [a form of Judaism which places an emphasis on spiritual enjoyment rather than academia]. His diaries are full of references to Yiddish writers whose work he enjoyed. Alongside these more traditional forms, he often expressed an interest in learning Modern Hebrew and employed a university student from Palestine, Pua Bat-Tovim, to assist him. Whether it was Bat-Tovim’s teaching methods (she chose Yosef Haim Brenner’s famous book Breakdown and Bereavement to translate in lessons which Kafka found dull) or, as some people believe, Kafka’s actual disinterest (for he was clearly an intelligent man), the writer never did master the language.
In 1897 Theodor Herzl started the Zionist movement which held that all Jews should return to their homeland in Palestine. It is known that Kafka was interested in Zionism; he attended the 11th Zionist Congress [a week-long discussion of the issues] and discussed moving to Tel Aviv to open a restaurant with his final girlfriend Dora Diamant, an Orthodox Jew. He never made any attempts to realise their dream apart from half-heartedly studying the Talmud. However, some of his literature has been interpreted as Zionist including Investigations of a Dog and A Report to an Academy. Red Peter’s attempts at humanisation and befriending of his captors has been said to mirror Jewish attempts to assimilate into western society. Conversely however, it can also be read as a criticism against Jewish efforts to establish a nation-state to flee anti-Semitism, instead of conquering the hatred.
World War I broke out when Kafka was thirty and Czech nationalists seized the opportunity to use the anti-German feeling to promote their cause. As the Jewish community spoke mostly German they were further vilified, and consequently supported Germany in the war. By 1918 the Allies had won and Prague was no longer a part of the Kingdom of Bohemia but in the new Republic of Czechoslovakia. Again Jews were targeted, this time for their support of the Germans, and a three day riot in Prague led to the public burning of Hebrew manuscripts. During the following years over six million Jews left the country for Palestine.
Kafka died before World War II; however his three sisters all died at the hands of the Nazis, two in either the Lodz Ghetto or concentration camps, and Ottla at Auschwitz. Had Kafka lived, almost certainly this would have also been his fate.
Anthropomorphism derives from the Greek words meaning ‘human’ and ‘shape’ and refers to the process of attributing human characteristics to non-human items such as animals, objects or the supernatural. It is a device frequently used in art, particularly in literature and film, and one which Kafka used in Investigations of a Dog, Josephine the Singer, The Burrow and A Report to an Academy.
One of the most obvious examples of anthropomorphism in contemporary popular culture is the films of Walt Disney. From old Disney favourites such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Pluto to newer Pixar animation films such as Finding Nemo, animals have featured who can talk, and furthermore, display human emotions and have human relationships. The technique is much older than Walt Disney however, in fact as old as humankind. Evidence of anthropomorphism can be found in the earliest art-forms, particularly in the strand of anthropomorphism called anthropotheism; the giving of human characteristics to divine beings. Presumably developed as way of understanding an intangible concept, the practise of giving a God a human body and human traits occurs in most religions and mythologies. The anthropomorphises of animals is also an ancient technique and the one which Kafka most frequently makes use of (in the form of a dog, mouse, mole and ape respectively).
Aesop’s Fables is perhaps the most well-known example. This collection of Greek fables were actually not all written by the historical figure of Aesop but were rather a compilation of tales from various writers (some who lived long before Aesop) that were collated around 300 BC. The majority of these stories featured animals as their protagonists such as the Ant and the Grasshopper and Tortoise and the Hare. Each of Aesop’s Fables carries a moral lesson and the anthropomorphism of animals is often used to teach children (and indeed adults) ethics; consider the tales of Beatrix Potter and the Jungle Book. As well as engaging the reader (humans have a desire to project themselves on to the world around them), the form also makes the lesson less of a lecture and more digestible. The technique has also been used for more serious means however, as a way of allowing the author to address subjects which would otherwise be too controversial and dangerous - Animal Farm by George Orwell is a classic example of this. Written in 1945 the novella is a satire on the Stalinist regime in Russia and authoritarian governments in general. Set on a farm, Orwell tells the story of how the animals rise up and overthrow their human owners only to create just as brutal and hierarchical a society in its place. Each animal character can be claimed to represent a historical figure or group: Napoleon the pig, Joseph Stalin; Boxer the horse, the proletariat. Anthropomorphism gave Orwell distance from the politics of the subject, allowing the reader to simultaneously see the ridiculousness of the book’s events and their similarities to contemporary human society. It also attracted more attention to the novella as it was viewed as a more controversial form - Orwell’s original publisher refused to print it as he was convinced Russians would be offended by being portrayed as pigs, and the book was banned in parts of China as they believed comparing humans to animals to be disrespectful.
As with Orwell, the technique allows Kafka to gain perspective on the subject through detachment, particularly if you consider the animals to be Kafka himself. The Burrow is the most obvious example of this theory as it is written in a first person narrative. Kafka never actually specifies the species of animal in The Burrow, presumably so the reader has to exercise his imagination and instead concentrates on the atmosphere created rather than the specific narrative. He also forbade his publisher from placing an illustration of Gregor transformed into an insect on the front cover of Metamorphosis for the same reason. The mole-like creature in The Burrow enjoys the peace and quiet of his underground existence but is haunted by the threats not only from outside, but also from noises he constantly hears coming from the tunnels underground. Kafka hated the noisy household conditions he had to write in, and wished he had a peaceful place in which to create; presumably the underground threat is his own mind and emotions. A Report to an Academy is a more ambiguous story, but as with all of Kafka’s work it seems likely that the protagonist represents the author, if only partially. Kafka’s ability to see the world from the point of view of the animal, to get inside the head of the creature, is one of his greatest and least-recognised talents as A Report to an Academy demonstrates, and this is why the story appeals to actors and theatre-makers.
9. INTERVIEW WITH WALTER MEIERJOHANN, DIRECTOR
What attracted you to this particular story?
I joined the Young Vic in October 2007, and I saw Kathryn Hunter perform in Fragments, and I didn’t know many actors in England but I saw her and was mind-blown. The first thought was, ‘who is this woman’, and the next thought was, ‘I know this piece of literature’, which hasn’t been done very often in England, and immediately after the performance I introduced myself. We started talking about it – she didn’t know the piece so I copied it for her and went after her – she was in Southampton on tour with Fragments – and we read through the piece together in a hotel lobby. In front of my eyes, she transformed into a monkey and I absolutely knew it was right to do it with her.
I think it is a remarkable text. I’ve always loved Kafka and it hasn’t been done very often here. In Germany, acting students do this piece a lot because they want to show off how much they can do! But I mean, how do you go to a woman and say, would you like to play a monkey?! It’s quite rude in a way, but she said that she has always wanted to play a monkey.
Is she playing it as a female?
No, as a male. But the interesting thing is that with Kathryn she has this androgynous appearance anyway, and I think that this is exactly the right thing for this text, because this creature is stuck between a monkey and a human being – something in between, it’s not fully a person. I think the equivalent is that you watch Kathryn and sometimes you don’t know because she has this amazing deep voice and she can be really quite hard but very charming at the same time. I think the more confused the audience gets – ‘who is this?’ - the better.
Have you directed Kafka before?
When I was in Germany studying directing, Kafka was my first piece of work. They set us this task to do a story which was only half a page long, and to come up with something. There was no drama in it and we had to invent a lot of things, and I really enjoyed it. I think that is why I wanted to return to it.
What is it that attracts you to Kafka’s work?
I think he is an amazing writer, he thinks in paradoxes all the time. Your perception of the world changes and you feel quite unsettled. He changes perspectives and also your idea of how to look at the world. He does that with his characters, like in Metamorphosis. It is one of the most remarkable stories because you actually go inside the head of a beetle which is a human mind but still on the outside is a beetle. And here again in A Report to an Academy, there is a former monkey, and he looks at human beings and asks the question, are you human beings really so superior to animals, or are you not? I’m attracted to all these questions.
What kind of research have you done?
I always feel like I haven’t done enough! On the practical side, we did two workshops with Kathryn to work out whether she was going to be on her own or whether there was there going to be a partner on stage. At the beginning, I thought I would focus on the vaudeville and variety stage aspect of the piece, and I thought I would make it quite light. But the more I read about Kafka, the more I realised it was quite disturbing. One of the key lines is ‘Yet essentially alone’ so although we did these workshops with a pianist, we worked out by the end of it that it should just be about her completely on her alone on stage. It is about breaking down the fourth wall between her and the audience – we are the partner, there shouldn’t be another partner on stage.
Reading wise, I have read this wonderful biography of Kafka which was very useful because it describes his sense of isolation. He was a German Jew in Prague, which at the time was made up of one third Czech, one third German and one third Jewish. He never felt he belonged to either, and the question of assimilation, which is one of the key questions in the text – trying to belong, trying to adapt – is of course a Jewish question in the text.
It is not just an historical question though. It is also about looking at the world nowadays and thinking about people who come from say Africa or Pakistan who need to adapt in order to survive, and who take on all these cultural differences, but without ever really belonging. I think that’s how one should look at the text as well. I find that the text is also about globalisation in a way – what does it mean if you loose your roots and you have to live somewhere else and having to struggle. The monkey is an image of that – a metaphor.
But what I am also really interested in is the emotional side of the piece, because what this monkey has experienced is quite traumatic. How do you deal with trauma? It is quite a painful story. In a way it is the history of mankind in one story – being driven out of paradise and then since then, our history is a history of violence. There is also this philosophical idea of living inside a cage, and Kafka described himself as living inside a cage but he said the cruel thing is that there are no bars. I could leave it, but I don’t.
Academics are very keen to label Kafka as part of a particular school such as an existentialist or an absurdist – what do you think of that?
I have read many interpretations of what this story is about. Max Brod – who was perhaps his greatest friend in a way because he didn’t burn all his manuscripts like Kafka instructed him to – said that this is such a Jewish story. He said this was the best story about Western Jews trying to adapt. It is one the few works that was published in a Jewish magazine, which was remarkable because Kafka himself didn’t think his work was so Jewish. So even at that point people were already trying to interpret only what they are interested in, whereas Kafka always makes a statement and then in the next line he destroys it, so that’s why so many people are struggling to interpret so many things in his work. This story has so many colours. For me, I don’t have one interpretation I would like to follow, I am just really interested to find out who this character is and make that as colourful as possible. If we can work out this character as lovable but also not really graspable, then I think we will have achieved a lot. It is hard to put Kafka on stage! It is literature not a play.