I went to see Kafka and Son at the Toronto Fringe this afternoon and, having seen it in its original run well over a year ago, i was once again deeply moved by this gripping play. Alon Nashman’s performance makes me wonder about other one-person shows that have moved me and in which i've wondered whether i'm witnessing acting or channeling. I learned about Kafka's letter to his father through this play and, having struggled through most of Kafka's work over 20 years, i wish that i had known of this letter then. Though i'm not wure i wouldn't have gone for the easy psychological (Adlerian and reductionist) interpretation: tyrannical father leads to son who has to overcompensate, producing work that appears to be that of a genius but is really just a boy crying for his father's love and approval. Alon's acting out the words of the letter gives us a Kafka of remarkable complexity - humour, pathos, anger, regret, longing, humiliation - and the play pushes the story beyond the obvious psychological reductionism to the question of whether or not Kafka would have been the iconic Kafka we know without the father he describes. Kafka's work is not therapy writ large as some might have it. He was a participant in the discourses of his time which included surrealism, the relatively new practice of psychoanalysis, existentialism, Marxism and more. He also lived at a time when the 20th Century was young and still trying to sort out the shape of power (personal and political). He wrote the letter after World War I and i imagine that had a rather profound influence on him (he followed the letter with some of his most famous work: The Trial, The Castle, Amerika). His story The Metamorphosis remains one of the most influential tales i read as a teenager (written, interestingly, just prior to World War I).
Are we called into the life we live or are we pushed? Is it possible that Kafka “created” his father; did he need such a relationship to give us the works of genius that are still so frighteningly apt in our less-than-enlightened age of war, “terror”, baby-faced tyrants, shadowy economic hit men and persistently invisible machineries of power? I feel strongly that popular educators and social change activists need to include Kafka in their reading. We need to understand power better. I think there might be a tendency to apply Kafka to interpreting the formerly communist bloc countries while ignoring the relevance to Anglo-American culture except to misuse the adjective kafkaesque. When we wonder about media complicity in the run-up to Bush's war in Iraq and "against terror", when we wonder about Guantanamo and how the US would arrest one of their own soldiers (former US Army Muslim Chaplain James Yee for 76 days in solitary), when we wonder about the health care system in the US (as shown through Michael Moore's new film Sicko) and about those forces perpetually trying to privatize Canadian health care - some of the answer (or perhaps it's better to say, some of the questions) are to be found in Kafka's work.
If you're in Toronto you still have a few opportunities to see Kafka and Son - you can see the listings here. And the play goes on tour next week to Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton. It is a remarkable and memorable piece of theatre. Don't miss it!