As they reach maturity, children sometimes feel obliged to pour out their resentment and rage toward their parents, whom they blame for the deficiencies of their childhood. In his vituperative “Letter to My Father,” the Czech Jewish writer Franz Kafka excoriates his father for abusing him both physically and psychologically. Now comes a new stage adaptation of the letter, in the form of one-man show, that aims to bring out its inherent dramatic qualities — what one translator of the letter, Howard Colyer, has called the “momentum of the prose.” (It runs this month at the Magic Futurebox Theatre in Brooklyn, in tandem with “4.48 Psychosis,” the last play of troubled British playwright Sarah Kane, who took her own life in 2000.)
Kafka grew up in the shadow of his domineering father, Hermann, a clothing retailer who had moved from his native shtetl to Prague, and was eager to acculturate into secular urban life. The 45-page letter, written in 1919 when Kafka was 36 (he died just five years later), spews a complex mixture of fear of his father, guilt, self-loathing, and disdain for his religion — all of which he blames on his father’s harsh, unfeeling attitudes and demeanor.
Directed by James Rutherford, the theatrical version (based on a 2009 translation by Hannah and Richard Stokes) premiered last December at a theater festival in Prague; the director began work on it two years ago while studying for a master’s degree in directing at Columbia. It stars Michael Guagno as an Eastern European spy ensconced in a hotel room who reads the letter into a microphone, which broadcasts to ear buds worn by the audience.
This, Rutherford told The Jewish Week, is a “very intimate and terrifying way of experiencing the letter — it’s a kind of possession by Kafka. He speaks into your ear, so you believe him, making it much more personal and confusing.”
Rutherford compared the letter to a Greek tragedy, in which the hero “kills the monster only to become the monster.” At the end of the letter, the director pointed out, Kafka takes on his father’s voice in order to destroy his own arguments and punish himself for his disloyalty. As Kafka scholar Warren Breckman has argued, “Kafka’s rage against the father was matched only by his sense of personal powerlessness to overcome the father’s authority, to replace the father, or to become the father.”
While Kafka accuses his father of hypocrisy toward Judaism, the letter (which Kafka never actually delivered) is also shot through, according to Rutherford, with a kind of religious sensibility. “Kafka’s father was like a god to him — a strange, unknowable, omnipotent force,” he said. “The letter presents Kafka’s questions in the face of a great emptiness. He is looking out into the void and asking ‘Are you there?’ and ‘Are you hearing me?’”
“Letter to My Father” runs through Sunday, May 27 at the Magic Futurebox Theatre, 55 33rd St. (Second-Third avenues) in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn. Performances are Friday through Sunday at 7 p.m., and May 27 at 2 p.m. For tickets, $15, call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com.