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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Kafka, the Musical
by Sean Carman
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A Review of Philip Glass' New Opera "In the Penal Colony"

Modern art might be defined by its integration of conventionally separate artistic genres. Still, in this age of artistic innovation, I doubt many composers would think to make an opera out of a Franz Kafka story. Yet that is what Philip Glass has done in his new opera theater work of "In the Penal Colony." Glass' opera recently premiered in Seattle, in a production directed by JoAnne Akalaitis that will appear at Chicago's Court Theater from November 1 through early December. The Seattle premiere demonstrated that Glass' idea, to set an operatic telling of a Kafka story to a modern composition for string quintet, was inspired. "In the Penal Colony" turns out to be more than an unlikely and beautiful presentation of one of Kafka's darker parables. It also offers up some timely and disquieting truths about the evolution of the human spirit in the past Century. It is as if Glass has brought Kafka out, dusted him off, and introduced him to a Twentieth Century he never met, yet already seemed to know.
     The short story of "In the Penal Colony" is a dark parable told in Kafka's simple and deceptively innocent trademark style. In it an officer at a penal colony entertains a visitor with a demonstration of "the harrow," a killing machine invented by the former commander of the colony. The occasion for the demonstration execution is the conviction of one of the colony's soldiers of the crime of falling asleep at his post. The harrow consists of a bed to which the soldier will be strapped down, whereupon hundreds of needles will repeatedly inscribe the judgment against him deeper and deeper into his body. After twelve hours of this torture he will bleed to death and the harrow will dump his body into an earthen pit. One of the haunting aspects of Kafka's story is that its focus is neither the soldier, nor even the morality of his execution, but the machine that will execute him.
     The story is also infused with Kafka's direct presentation of a fairly incomprehsible and horrific state of affairs. In answer to the visitor's inquiries, the officer casually explains that the matter of a formal charge and trial are irrelevant because the soldier is presumed guilty, and in any case will experience his judgment "on his body," where he can "decipher it with his wounds." When the officer produces a parchment which he claims sets forth the judgment to be inscribed on the soldier's body, the visitor finds it inscrutable. The officer takes this in stride, laughing that "it's no calligraphy for schoolchildren."
     "In the Penal Colony" also displays Kafka's genius for gruesome detail. Not only are the details of the harrow's operation truly awful, even sickening, the officer forthrightly presents them with sincere pride, as if he were a child showing off an expensive toy. The visitor's situation forces him to assess the extent to which he is morallly responsible for the apparently senseless murder he is about to witness. The visitor, wondering what exactly his role is with respect to what he is witnessing, balances his obligation to his own morals with his objective role as a supposedly disinterested observer. Thus he faces a very modern dilemma.
      The story also features the officer's explanation of the history of the harrow, that it was the invention of the colony's former commander, recently replaced by a new commander who appears intent on a kind of slow reform. The new commander refuses, for example, to replace the harrow's parts when they fail, and he doesn't attend the executions. As he reaches the conclusion of his explanation, the officer attempts to enlist the visitor's support for the harrow, recounting the glory days of the old commander's rule, when executions were treated as festive public events and the officer, with the children of the colony gathered around him, "profoundly took in the transfigured expression from the tortured face" of the accused. In Kafka's story, the officer rejoices in this memory: "How intensely our cheeks basked in the glow of that justice, attained at long last and already fading! What wonderful times, my friend!"
     The story seems to offer a bleak moral in its resolution. When the visitor finally announces that he cannot condone the harrow, the officer, in resignation, liberates the condemned soldier, programs the harrow to inscribe a new judgment ("Be Just!") and places himself in the machine, under its descending needles. But in executing the officer the harrow slowly self-destructs. The officer and the harrow perish together, but the officer dies without any sign of redemption. "The officer," Kafka writes, "had not found what all the others had found in the machine."
     After the officer's execution, the visitor enters the colony and visits the grave of the former commander, which bears an inscription prophesying the former commander's triumphant return. This discovery convinces the visitor to leave early. Upon leaving the island, the visitor keeps two soldiers who wish to join him at bay by threatening them with a heavy rope he finds on the floor of the row boat that carries him to his waiting ship.
     Glass' operatic rendition of Kafka's story is as straightforward and direct as the original. The members of the string quintet (two violins, viola, cello and double bass) perform a driving composition in Glass' signature style. It is dark and beautiful, slightly more melodic and less repetitive than one might expect from Glass. The music, in fact, finds a perfect balance between the hope it would like to offer the visitor and the grim service it owes the officer. It fills the background of the opera perfectly, darkening the story without overwhelming it.
     Akalaitis' open stage is dominated by the harrow, in her conception a towering metal frame covered in a shroud that is painted with the shadows of cogs and levers projected from its unseen interior. The harrow and its dingy beige shroud loom over the set. There is a rock wall behind the harrow and the players, and a set of folding chairs in the foreground. The members of the string quintet wear what might be penal colony uniforms, but what also might be concentration camp standard issue. The entire set is done in black and muted browns and greys.
     With the entrance of the officer (Herbert Perry) and the visitor (John Duykers), the tenor and bass-baritone for whom Glass wrote the work, the opera begins to tell its story. Rudolph Wurlitzer's libretto follows and to some extent adopts Kafka's text. Against the string quintet's relentless dirge of sixteenth notes, the officer explains the harrow's operation, and he and the visitor engage in the colloquy that moves the parable toward its conclusion. In operatic form, the officer's questions and the visitor's explanations are perfectly stilted for the telling of an unsettling parable about the dehumanization of mankind's devotion to technology and efficiency. Thus the operatic form and Glass' repetitive compositional style turn out to be an inspired combination. The effect is something like in Glass' film Koyaanisqatsi, in which we confront, in driving and repetitious musical phrases, an uncomfortable message about ourselves. It works perfectly in bringing Kafka's prose to life.
     Akalaitis' innovation was to make Kafka himself a character in the production. He is played here by Jose Gonzalez. Even before the house lights have dimmed, Kafka's voice appears over the loudspeakers, reciting fragments from Kafka's diaries. Thus slightly bewildered theatergoers take their seats trying to locate the disembodied voice that is saying such welcoming things as "if I shouted into this day, it would have a disgusting echo," and "two children, alone in their house, climbed into a large trunk. The lid slammed shut and they were suffocated."
     Akalaitis' Kafka character doesn't actually take part in the story, but instead acts outside of it, from a bed of his own in the foreground that somehow conveys the claustrophobia of Kafka's room in his father's house. Kafka here is a meta-character, sometimes stopping the action to read fragments from his diaries, sometimes joining the action. In one striking scene Kafka reads diary entries from under the shroud of the harrow. At another point, while the harrow operates in the background, Kafka joins the other characters in a mechanized dance. In one of the production's more beautiful and ironic touches, the text of Kafka's diaries is super-imposed on the set, bathing the stage and the actors in Kafka's handwriting.
     Kafka's presence as a character is also the only aspect of the production that doesn't always work. Kafka's character and the action of the opera are not always perfectly integrated, for example, perhaps the inevitable result of Akalaitis imposing Kafka's presence on top off an already complete story. Some of Kafka's pronouncements from his diary, furthermore, verge on sounding silly. Kafka the character is, after all, reading diary fragments the real Kafka may not have intended to present to the world as art. There is also the thin line between anxiety and parody that gave Woody Allen his career. All of these factors produce moments when Kafka the character looks like the device Akalaitis had made of him. On the whole, however, his presence effectively lifts the opera out of its literary and historical context, making it a more effective allegory for the dehumanization of the Twentieth Century's fascination with and devotion to technology.
     More than anything else, the Seattle premiere of "In the Penal Colony" conveyed the amazing timelessness and insight of Kafka's 1914 story. The Twentieth Century confirmed Kafka's claim of humanity's tendency to forsake itself for technology, efficiency and what it considers progress. Glass' opera stands as a thoughtful tribute to this horror. The Seattle production of "In the Penal Colony" also suggests that, in composing the opera, Glass saw Kafka's story as a vehicle for examining some of our darkest vulnerabilities from the dual perspective of the beginning and end of the past century. That an opera of a Kafka short story would turn out to be such an instructive and intellectually enjoyable theater experience is a tribute to Glass' own kind of foresight.

Photo credits for Glass picture: © LaCoppola & Meier, 2000.
Photo credits for pictures of scores: © Dunvagen Music Publishing, Inc., 2000.

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