The Understudy

by Theresa Rebeck
directed by David Kennedy
December 29, 2010January 30, 2011

It's okay to laugh at Kafka.

By David Gardner

Kafka: Laughter Lost in Translation

In The Understudy, two young actors and a stage manager rehearse a newly discovered play by literary giant Franz Kafka. As in any great comedy, things go awry, and we laugh with the characters as they try to sort it all out. But what sets The Understudy apart from other comedies is the way Theresa Rebeck allows our laughter to make us more receptive to the deeper truths of her play—truths about the need to be recognized, the fear of being unknown, and the terror of feeling out of control. This is where Kafka comes in, for these are truths about which he wrote at length. By combining Kafka’s dark truths with her own knack for comedy, Rebeck creates a theatrical world where fear and laughter coexist. But much more than that, Rebeck teaches us how to read Kafka, for while this juxtaposition of horror and hilarity would seem out of synch with Kafka, whose work is generally considered to be all gloom and no mirth, Rebeck’s combination of Kafka and comedy turns out to be spot on. Reading Kafka as uniformly dreary is a misreading, due largely to decades of mistranslation.

Before Kafka died in 1924, he had famously asked his friend and literary executor Max Brod to burn his unpublished works. Refusing to comply, Brod published German-language editions of The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika over the next several years, editing these unfinished works in such a way that, by ordering the chapters Kafka had left unordered, Brod allowed his own theological interpretations of the texts to leak in. Brod further affected later readings of Kafka through his biography of Kafka, in which he used his friendship with the novelist to add weight to his personal interpretations of Kafka’s work. Moreover, when these major works, as well as the bulk of his shorter stories, were first translated into English in the 1930’s by Edwin and Willa Muir, the Muirs not only adopted Brod’s interpretations, but also elaborated on them, taking the English-language editions another step further from Kafka’s vision. The Muirs’ English translations would be the standard for years to come.

Recent scholars, however, now see the Muir translations as not only dated, but also unfaithful to the tone and dexterity of Kafka’s prose. For instance, Breon Mitchell, a recent translator of The Trial, claims that the Muirs tried to “improve upon the original” by smoothing over the jarring syntax and idiosyncratic style of Kafka’s German. At the level of language, the Muirs “fell far short, for in attempting to create a readable and stylistically refined version of Kafka’s Trial, they consistently overlooked or deliberately varied the repetitions and interconnections that echo so meaningfully in the ear of every attentive reader of the German text.” Likewise, Mark Harman, a recent translator of The Castle, argues that beyond weakening Kafka’s language, the Muirs’ translation also misrepresents the content of the novel by using religious language that points readers toward a “simplistic theological interpretation” of The Castle as an updated version of Bunyan’s seventeenth-century allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Along these lines, but directing the blame toward Max Brod rather than the Muirs, novelist and critic Adam Thirlwell wittily warned, “It is important, when reading Kafka, not to read him too Brodly.”

While Brod’s simplistic interpretations and the Muirs’ faulty translations are now largely discredited, their legacy endures in the misconception that Kafka is unrelentingly pessimistic. When we call a situation “Kafkaesque” we mean to highlight its nightmarish atmosphere of horror and despair. This is not entirely unfounded, for on the one hand, Kafka’s writings do repeatedly give us worlds of deep hopelessness that feel simultaneously unreal and uncannily familiar.  A man wakes up to find himself on trial for an unnamed crime, or erroneously summoned for a non-existent job, or transformed into a giant bug. Not quite parables—for they provide no clear moral or course of action—they nonetheless describe with shocking accuracy the modern human condition of confusion, alienation, and perpetual delay. 

But on the other hand, if Kafka’s situations are hopeless, they are also laughably absurd, and his characters approach their ludicrous fates with a calm earnestness that can strike us as both frustrating and hilarious. For instance, when inexplicably arrested, the protagonist of The Trial seems less interested in getting to the bottom of things than on retelling the story of his arrest with the utmost fidelity to his neighbor Fraulein Burstner, at one point telling her, “The inspector cries out as if he has to wake me up, practically shouting; unfortunately I’ll have to shout too, to show you how it was.” The protagonist’s priorities seem wildly askew, and it’s both easy and disconcerting to laugh at his naïve responses to a truly frightening situation. According to Max Brod, Kafka himself laughed out loud when reading sections of The Trial to his friends, so why should we be afraid to find Kafka funny? Perhaps it is because this combination of laughter and discomfort unsettles us, leaves us unsure. Far from sitcom humor, this is the troublesome stuff of dark comedy, but any understanding of Kafka—if that can ever be achieved—must take into account the humor as well as the despair. This is exactly what Rebeck’s The Understudy has done.

--David Gardner,
Fels Dramaturgy Intern

About the photo: The Actor Tony Perkins, as Josef K., peers down the stairs in Orson Welles' 1962 film adaptation of The Trial.

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