The Ambassador Theater is back with its biggest production to date, showcasing a work of one of the greatest post-war poets and playwrights of the 20th century – Polish-born Tadeusz Różewicz. Produced and directed by Hanna Bondarewska, The Trap takes us inside Kafka’s bizarre life, at the same time making us reflect on the alienation of a modern artist and fragility of life. The US premiere of The Trap coincides with the 1st anniversary of the author’s death, as well as the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, and as such is a timely and important opportunity to carry on Różewicz’s artistic message about the tragic history of WWII.
“After fifty years of composing poetry and plays I came to understand the futility of unravelling the Franz Kafka “mystery”. My only justification is that I worked and wrote as best I could”. “This is my farewell to Franz Kafka. I’m 69. The time of farewells is close” – Tadeusz Różewicz (Rozewicz1:8).
Spellbound by Kafka
The Trap, published in 1982, was not only Różewicz’s farewell to Kafka, but also a ‘crowning’ of his long fascination with the enigmatic writer. Różewicz’s interest began in 1949 when he visited Franz’s hometown, Prague for the first time, returning in 1957. Yet, despite the author’s continued ‘dialog’ with Kafka and few short sketches from the travels, he had not written a major work related to Franz until much later. His play inspired by Kafka and based on his short story A Hunger Artist (where a caged showman starves for long periods for the amusements of crowds), was written in 1979. In the piece titled The Hunger Artist Departs, and regarded as a precursor to The Trap (Filipowicz: 164), Różewicz created his own version of the ’hunger artist’ seen through the prism of Kafka. In the Post Scriptum to the play he wrote: “Franz Kafka himself (…) was one of the great authentic Hunger Artists” (Rozewicz1:111,) an artist known to be obsessed with desire to create, and prepared to sacrifice earthly pleasures in the name of art. The same artist we see in The Trap.
Kafka’s genius aside, Różewicz’s fascination also stemmed from what the two had in common. Both were preoccupied with examination of human soul and fate, and wrote from the heart, without caring about the literary canons. Both shared a common and profound interest in the fundamental issues of human condition, and as artists dealt with and wrote about solitude, estrangement, and the existential pressures. The disturbing and moving atmosphere of Kafka’s works and his way of perceiving reality resonated with Różewicz’s post-war angst, as he was trying to cope with feelings of helplessness and despair. One can see why Kafka’s heroes/victims of fate who were trapped in a prison-like setting desperately looking for escape – struck a chord with Różewicz.
Not surprisingly, Kafka’s symbols of a ‘cage’ and a ‘mole’ found their way into his poems, prose, and plays (Drewnowski:289) demonstrating the alienation of an artist and cruelty of the world.
Victims and Sons
Although the writers were born in different centuries (Kafka in 1883, Rozewicz in 1921), both became innocent victims of their environment and experienced deep psychological traumas. Różewicz lived through World War II and later, living in “free” Poland, suffered under the Stalinist regime. A witness to atrocities of war and the Holocaust, he was never able to free himself from the horrific visions of war crimes. His poetry, prose, and plays strongly reflect the impact those experiences had on his and his generation’s psyche, outlook, and vision of the future:
“I am twenty-four led to slaughter I survived. (…) The way of killing men and beasts is the same I’ve seen it: truckfuls of chopped up men who will not be saved” – he wrote in 1945 in his poem “The Survivor.” In another poem, “Beyond Words,” he wrote, “What are you doing emerged from darkness – Why don’t you want to live in full light – Within me war opens up an eyelid of a million shattered faces – Blood smeared what are you piecing together what is your burden – I am piecing together words – I carry my time (…)” (Rozewicz2).
Kafka’s drama had much more personal roots. Shy and neurotic, trapped between an overprotective, weak mother, and a critical, domineering father, he became an emotional cripple, forever doubting himself and his manhood. The conflict with his father was so deeply embedded in his psyche that neither becoming an adult, and despite securing a job as an insurance official-it did not help him to break the toxic bond or heal the relationship.
Torn between a desire to devote himself to writing, and the pressure to marry, settle down, and emulate his father, he was unable to find peace and contentment – either as a man or an artist. So strong were his fears, self-doubt, and feelings of guilt, and so weak was his health – that he broke off engagements, never married, and ordered his entire writings to be destroyed after his passing.
Family was of the utmost importance to the artists. Różewicz was as devoted to his loving, caring mother (who came from a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism), as was Franz. His father, although of kind disposition, just like Franz’s, was not interested in his son’s literary ambitions. In Mother Departs, a family memoir, Tadeusz writes:
“’I am a poet’, you search for synonyms to help you come out to the world (…) Of course, Mother knows. But to say something like that to my father was unthinkable…So I never did tell my Father (…) he’d be so remote (…)” (Rozewicz3).
Artistic vocation was a source of guilt for both – Kafka felt guilty of not meeting his father’s expectations, Różewicz of being a poet. Both witnessed loss of their siblings. Two of Kafka’s younger brothers died by the time he was six, whereas Różewicz’s elder brother, like him a member of the Polish Home Army, was tortured and killed by the Gestapo.
Kafka and Różewicz’s contributions to literature are highly innovative and unique. Since the posthumous publication of Kafka’s major novels, his original style of writing has been hailed as revolutionary in the way it affected language and expression (Deleuze and Guattari:16). Kafka himself indicated in his diaries and theoretical notes that he was inventing a new type of literature (14). Despite a general consensus that Kafka created “a new literary continent” by wiping out “old topography of mind and thought” (16), his prose has been placed into a variety of literary schools and keeps being examined and interpreted. Yet, irrespective of numerous analysis and attempts to label the style of his unusual writings, it has been impossible to define Kafka’s ‘literature’ and its impact with one term, other than with the word “Kafkaesque.” Used to describe situations and concepts reminiscent of his work, the term is a true testament to uniqueness and originality of Franz Kafka’s artistic creation which keeps baffling readers and critics.
Różewicz, an experimenter and innovator, is known for revolutionizing 20th century poetry after the tragedy of WWII. Deeply hurt, shocked, and ‘maimed’ by the war crimes, the author rejected the traditional poetic language as unsuitable to express the post-war reality, and created ‘anti-poetry’ characterized by stark, direct language, and simple form (Rozewicz2: 337). Concurrently, inspired by ‘theatre of the absurd’ and Kafka’s concept of ‘inner drama,’ the poet experimented with theatrical forms in search of his own style, which he later described as ‘realistic-poetic.’ (Braun: 37). The result was an ‘interior, open theatre,’ in which the stream of consciousness replaced action and became a formless (yet poetic) record of human experience (Braun: 24). The ‘open’ theatre, where plays lack traditional structure with a beginning, middle, and end, may also have been inspired by Kafka, known for starting to write in the middle rather than from the beginning and leaving works unfinished, including his only play, where “the action slowly dies away and eventually comes to a halt” (Rozewicz4: 111).
Traps within The Trap
One of the main themes of Kafka’s writings is an archetypal situation when an innocent human being is attributed a fault, ostracised, and trapped in a hopeless predicament, yet keeps maintaining his innocence and seeks atonement. The world Kafka created in his works was largely a reflection of his own trappings and desperate attempts to escape them. Although The Trap was never intended as biographical, being based on Kafka’s diaries and correspondence (mainly Letters to Father) it dramatizes important images from the artist’s life, especially those illustrating his most challenging struggles and fears. In the play we see glimpses of his childhood; complex relationship with father; his failed attempts to marry; relations with friends and family; and most important, his failing health.
Franz’s predicaments constitute examples of traps and fears felt by other artists and many of us. Biology, psyche, family, and culture are a common sources of barriers on the way to fulfilment. The constraints of his body constituted a serious obstacle for spiritual Franz, as illustrated in the dialog between him and his sister Ottla:
“Ottla – It’s all because you shut yourself up, you slam the door on the world, you lock it out and you build a trap, a burrow, with tremendous effort and the sweat of your brow; and you fall into it ill and tormented. All you have to do is open the door. Life begins outside, you take your first step, then the next, and away you fly!” To which Franz’s responds: “I am a trap, my body is a trap that caught me after birth (…) I do sometimes think of escaping, maybe I’ll free myself at last” (Rozewicz1:42).
Max Brod, Franz’s best friend and literary executor, wrote in his memoirs that his friend Kafka had always been torn between longing for solitude and being part of a group (Brod: 128). It appears that Franz’s shyness and aversion to the physical world held a stronger grip as it often forced him to rely on family and Max to communicate with the outside world:
“Why is it that whenever you have to face life you make use of other people? Apart from writing and dying you’ve always wanted to do things by proxy (…).There you are, rat, burrowing rat! Again you want to hide but you must answer the question“. Says Max in The Trap. ”This isn’t a question, this is a noose”, replies Franz. (Rozewicz1:37).
As if the above hurdles and conflict with the father were not enough, Kafka’s social milieu presented him with a further complication – a trap of culture. Born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Czech-speaking Prague, and educated in German, he developed an identity which was as fragmented as his personal world. Although undoubtedly enriched by multi-cultural environment, he was nevertheless deprived of the stability of mono-cultural upbringing and was disturbed by his diverse background, as indicated in his diary:
“Enclosed in my own four walls, I found myself as an immigrant imprisoned in a foreign country (…) I saw my family as strange aliens whose foreign customs, rites, and very language defied comprehension” (Preece: 15-31).
Kafka’s Prophecy and the Trap of History
What would have been the fate of Franz Kafka had his life not been taken by illness in 1924 at the age of 40? In all likelihood, like his sisters, he would have perished in a Nazi concentration camp. It seems that the destiny of his family and fellow Jews was already being determined when he was still alive and the anti-Semitic sentiments were on the rise amongst Czech and German nationalists (Pavel, p.47). Kafka has been seen as a prophet who had not only sensed his own passing but also the forthcoming tragedy of the Holocaust (Drewnowski: 294). His picture of a prison-like world full of danger and pain inflicted by fellow humans, where the innocent victims go to impossible lengths to survive, came to fruition soon after his death. Kudos to Różewicz for his ingenious The Trap, which completes Kafka’s prophecy and fulfils his vision of the world (Braun: 55).
The Trap’s originality stems from a number of sources. First, from Różewicz’s unique vision of Kafka seen through the image he had built over the period of fifty years, and the prism of his own war-time experiences. Secondly, from the freedom offered by the ‘openness’ of his theatre, which allowed him to ‘travel ’ beyond 19th century Prague and place Kafka and his family in the ultimate nightmare and trap of the 20th century-the Holocaust. By doing so, he is able to continue sharing his painful, wartime past, and remind audiences that the memory of ‘hell on earth’ should never be forgotten and must be kept alive as a warning to future generations.
The Trap, Różewicz’s last piece written for the theatre, is an important and highly original play, with complex layers of meaning and a crucial message for its audiences. In it, Różewicz lets us inside Kafka’s personal fears, anxieties, and struggles, imparting knowledge about the writer’s complex existence as a man and a writer. On a higher level, he builds a generic portrait of a modern artist alienated and trapped by an archetypal struggle between art/spirit and life/matter, and shows us the fragility of artistic creation and human existence.
The Trap is a serious play, yet not without potential for comedy. Director Hanna Bondarewska, builds on the absurdity of some of Franz’s phobic behaviours and discovers many moments of laughter. Let’s not forget about Kafka’s wit and sense of humor and the fact that his personal world was not devoid of hope and respect for life, as his Diaries indicate:
“Let the heavy rain fall on you, let it cleanse you, join the stream that wants to take you; but persevere, keep standing straight and wait until the sun comes out and fills you up.”
Does Różewicz offer us hope in his play? I sincerely hope to see Kafka’s ‘ray of sunshine’ in The Trap before leaving the theatre.
Rozewicz, Tadeusz. The Trap. Translated by Adam Czerniawski. Harwood Academic Publishers, Amsterdam, 1997.
Rozewicz, Tadeusz. Selected Poems. Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow 1995.
Rozewicz, Tadeusz. Mother Departs. Translated by Barbara Bogoczek, storkpress.co.uk.
Rozewicz, Tadeusz. Mariage Blanc and The Hunger Artist Departs. Translated by Adam Czerniawski . Marion Boyars, London, New York, 1983.
Braun, Kazimierz. MojTeatr Rozewicza. Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Rzeszowskiego, Rzeszow 2013.
Brod, Max. Franz Kafka. Czytelnik, Warszawa 1982. Translated from German by Tadeusz Zabludowski. German title Franz Kafka. Eine Biographie.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari Felix. Kafka. Toward a Minor Literature. Translation by Dana Polan. Theory and History of Literature, Vol 30, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London.
Drewnowski, Tadeusz. Walka o Oddech. O pisarstwie Tadeusza Rozewicza. Wydawnictwo Artystyczne i Filmowe, Warszawa 1990.
Filipowicz, Halina. A Laboratory of Impure Forms. Plays of Tadeusz Rozewicz. Freenwood Publishing Group, Westport, CT, 1991.
Pavel, Ernst. Franz Kafka. Koszmar Rozumu. Translated from English by Irena Stapor. Twoj Styl, Warszawa 2003. English title The Nightmare of Reason. A Life of Franz Kafka.
Preece, Julian. The Cambridge Companion to Kafka. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2001.
The Trap plays from May 28-June 21, 2015 at The Ambassador Theater performing at XX Bldg at the George Washington University – 814 20th Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, purchase them online.