Intimate though it might be, the letter is not the most inherently theatrical of literary forms. Unless, of course, the correspondent is as inspired and imaginative as Franz Kafka, whose lengthy “Letter to His Father” went unsent, and remained unpublished until long after the Czech writer’s death in 1924.
We’ll never know if the sensitive Kafka ever found a way to tell his dad—a loud-and-proud self-made man—how he really felt. But actor and playwright Alon Nashman was so touched by Kafka’s aborted correspondence that for the last several years he’s regularly turned himself into the author—and into the author’s father, too—while bringing Kafka and Son to stages worldwide.
The task wasn’t easy—but, then again, it wasn’t as hard as it might seem.
“This letter functions not only as the closest thing that we have to an autobiography from Kafka, but it actually contains an inherently dramatic structure,” Nashman explains, on the line from his home in Toronto. “He writes about his relationship with his father, but increasingly he conjures the father. The father has a voice. Kafka says, ‘He used to tell me this,’ and then quotes the father. And, increasingly, the father takes over the letter, to the point that, at the end, he offers a rebuttal. I mean, Kafka imagines what the father would have said in response to this letter, and effectively destroys every argument that he’s made up to this point. So it is like a Frankenstein’s Monster sort of thing: he wills his father into existence, and then the father gets out of control and puts him back in his place.”
The letter, with its built-in narrative arc, proved a theatrical gift to Nashman and his cowriter, Mark Cassidy. Finding an appropriately Kafkaesque setting was equally straightforward.
“It’s very simple; it’s his bedroom,” says Kafka and Son’s star, who performs alone on-stage. “There’s a desk and a bed and a chair. But the desk and the chair are both dog cages, and the bed is an old, rusty military cot, with no mattress on it. So it’s really being set in a kind of prison cell—a metal labyrinth of his mind. And there’s one other element, which is feathers. So we have the sensual but kind of dead living matter against the industrial, hard metal—and the whole staging is, to my mind, very theatrical, in that these objects become other things. So we’re exploiting the imagination of the audience to reinvent the picture on-stage with us, without ever introducing new elements.
“The feathers are his writing, but they’re also the quill that he writes with,” Nashman continues. “The cages can be his love; at one point the bed becomes the super-taut, strong body of his father, and he embraces it. You can just sense the hopelessness of the warm embrace that Kafka is seeking—and you can see that I’m chuckling when I say this, because as much as the scene is fraught, it is also infused with the kind of ironic humour that Kafka was famous for.”
Not surprisingly, the play—which makes its Vancouver debut as part of the Chutzpah Festival—has prompted complex responses wherever it’s been performed. In fact, Nashman believes that Kafka’s text is so alive and so relevant that it takes on different meanings in different locales.
“For example, I recently performed the play in Germany,” he explains. “It was my first time visiting Germany, so the play became not just about Kafka and his father, but about me and my relationship to the Fatherland, and the incredible contradictions and confusions of the legacy of German culture and history. And in Turkey, where I recently performed, you could feel the weight of politics. There’s a kind of Big Daddy who is in charge there—he was prime minister, and is now president. People can’t really talk about politics as freely as they’d like to: there are imprisonments for protest; people lose their jobs. So it became a political metaphor very strongly.”
Nashman also wants to stress that Kafka and Son is rooted in human archetypes that will be relevant to viewers beyond the sons of outsize fathers. “There’s something in this which echoes every child’s need to define themselves outside of the contours of their parents,” he says. “In a sense, it’s a tragedy of failed love.”
The Chutzpah Festival presents Kafka and Son at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on March 2.