On the wall of the apartment turned-studio that is the rehearsal space for the new play Kafka And Son, a piece of paper is filled with marks much like the kind prisoners scratch into their cell walls to count down days. These chicken-scratch lines indicate the number of times the word "Kafkaesque" has come up during rehearsals. So far, 18.
Make that 19. Mark Cassidy, the director and co-writer of the piece, is walking me through the studio, which contains collages created by the artistic team to evoke Kafka's life. Then we come to the piece of paper and he says the word: "Kafkaesque."
We laugh. He doesn't have to explain it. After all, the overused term has come to mean a nightmarish feeling of metamorphosing into a bug (as in Kafka's story The Metamorphosis) or being accused and interrogated by faceless bureaucrats (as in the novel The Trial).
Anyone who's felt alienated by society -- anyone in the 20th century, I'd say -- tends to identify with this at some point in life.
Kafka And Son is inspired by Franz Kafka's relationship with his dictatorial father Hermann, who's largely responsible for his son's nano-sized ego. It's based on a 50-page letter Kafka wrote but never sent to his father detailing the parent's constant efforts to belittle him.
Kafka wrote it over 10 days while recuperating from tuberculosis in a sanitorium. He had just broken off his engagement with his fiance because his father disapproved of her, and the letter seems written as much for his own sake as his father's.
"He wanted to understand himself and how he could sacrifice his possibility for love to his father's demands," says co-writer Alon Nashman, who plays Kafka and his father in the show. "So he chronicled the whole labyrinthine relationship from the beginning."
Like most tales of fathers and sons, there are biblical echoes in the story.
"The first time we read through the letter, it sounded like a person talking to God," points out Cassidy. "It was like Kafka was referring to an entity who had withdrawn but was very much the reason why he was there."
Also important was the cultural and political milieu at the time.
"Kafka and his family were doubly unwelcome in society as German-speaking Jews in Prague," says Nashman. "The father had a lot of self-hatred. What's fascinating is that a lot of the language the father used to denigrate Franz -- calling him vermin -- came from anti-Semitic tracts circulating at the time."
Cassidy and Nashman collaborated before on Howl, the vivid and powerfully evocative staging of Allen Ginsberg's famous poem. The two wanted to work again -- the idea of Ginsberg's Kaddish came up. When Cassidy mentioned the Kafka letter to Nashman, the actor was intrigued.
"Kafka is an accessible genius," says Nashman, who's played his share of brainy guys, from astronomer Johannes Kepler in A Short History Of Night to a frizzy-haired Albert Einstein in Picasso At The Lapin Agile.
"He's the pinnacle of stripping away all the layers of bullshit, someone who has the insight and the courage to discover all these things about himself."
Originally conceived as a solo show, the work has evolved into a two-hander. The second performer, Karen Graves, doesn't speak, but sometimes stands in for Franz or one of his lovers or plays the violin to evoke a larger world of cafés and society that Kafka sometimes frequented when not hermitted up writhing and writing.
Just like Kafka scholars, Cassidy and Nashman agree to disagree over the nature-versus-nurture argument. That is, would Kafka have been the same writer if his father hadn't screwed him?
"His themes would have been different," argues Nashman. "In the letter he talks about his father as this anonymous authority making laws for him alone that he cannot ever completely comply with. He speaks of himself as vermin, as a bug."
"Everyone identifies with him because he evokes the essential relationship between the 20th-century individual and the larger social body," says Cassidy. "But Shakespeare wrote about these things in King Lear. I think you can imagine things without being treated a specific way. Suffering is there in our world -- it's in our condition. You don't have to put a writer in prison for five years and feed him bread and water to make him a better writer."
Both acknowledge that the letter -- whether written as personal therapy or to be actually delivered to his father -- helped Kafka's creative process.
"The letter came at the end of a dry period when he had essentially abandoned writing," says Nashman. "Right after, he began work on two novels and started editing some of his other work. I think one of the results of writing it was the freeing up of his creative spirit."