Thursday, May 7, 2009

Kafka's Metamorphosis as Yiddish Theater

Kafkaesque--murky, conspiratorial circumstances or conditions applied to characters without any apparent reason or motive; an adjectival gloss on life coined from the name of the Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883--1924); intended to reflect mordant, irreconcilable life forces.

Kafka's own writings contain numerous events in which characters appear to be persecuted by unnamed social or political forces or in which characters feel isolated, even alienated. 

 The adjective derived from his name has become part of a greater language, describing existential events which are useful for actors and writers in their definitions of characters. To be Kafkaesque in the twenty-first century, a character may well be female, experiencing the cultural gravity of her chronological and social age. 

 A Kafkaesque character or circumstance has come to be for the reader an occasion to question the reliability and/or complicity in victimhood of the character or circumstance.

In his lifetime, Kafka was an ardent follower of the Yiddish theater, which had a strong satiric and irreverent bent, particularly in its hybrid gloss on conventional mores and conventional dramatic icons. 

 Many American writers and actors came from this tradition. Given some of Kafka's own penchant for the dead-pan or understated humor, it is wise to see such attributes of the Kafkaesque as conspiratorial, alienation, and convention determinism in the context of satire, subtext, and the painful revelations of humor.

Hint: Read of Gregor Samsa's plight in Metamorphosis for its more obvious payoff of discomfort and alienation, then reread it in the context of it being a burlesque or a more sophisticated satire on family life. 

 Read The Trial under the same circumstances. In both cases, note the potential for difference between the first impression, in which the author Kafka emerges as mordant, dour, and possibly paranoid. Then consider Kafkaesque as having the same enlightened cynicism of so many of the great ethnic senses of humor. Then consider the delicious irony of a contemporary writer/performer such as Stephen Colbert, being taken with dead seriousness by the very targets of his satire.

The dramatic link between Yiddish theater--which had to be performed outside the synagogue because of its potential for profanity and double entendre--and the theater of the absurd is as evident as contemporary stretches of Route 66. From this connection comes such credible off-ramps to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Don DeLilo, and Joseph Heller.


The old advertising slogan once proclaimed, "You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy's Rye Bread," nor do you have to be ethnic to be Kafkaesque. But a little understatement, a little dead-pan, it couldn't hurt.

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