Adapting Kafka's Metamorphosis for the Stage
by E. Thomalen
I first became interested in adapting Kafka's novella after completing a play about the life of German artist Käthe Kollwitz. An important part of the Kollwitz play dealt with the Nazi holocaust. After World War I, Germany failed to metamorphose into a responsible democratic republic as people had hoped, instead transforming itself into a horrible and horrifying regime. Symbolically, a culture changed itself into a hideous bug. Did Kafka have any answers?
Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis in the fall of 1912. During the two years prior to writing the novella, he frequently attended theater, especially Yiddish theater, and his diaries include commentary on plays he saw. One of the plays that is often referred to in his diaries of the time is Der Wilde Mensch (The Wild Man). He related the essence of the story as: "[A] young widow marries an old man with four children and immediately brings her lover…along into the marriage. The two proceed to ruin the whole family … (the youngest) is driven to idiotic insanity by hate…" and kills his stepmother. This melodrama intrigued Kafka. Yet, he criticized the drama because most of the characters "remain[ed] incomplete."
Kafka's novella has the structural tightness of a theatrical piece, but still clearly articulates the character and motives of the members of the family, not just of the leading character. It involves two metamorphoses: the son who has changed into a bug and the reaction of the family to this disaster that has befallen them. The metamorphosis of the Gregor is surrealistic, but that of the family quite ordinary. The particular circumstances that may bring an individual to rage and despair as in Der Wilde Mensch are often unique, while the reaction of a family to a changed member has a commonality and familiarity that the reader easily recognizes. The Samsa family eventually realizes that, whatever the alterations of Gregor are, they will be enduring. When they cannot change the situation, they just want to get on with their own lives. Their pity and guilt give way to anger and a desire to be rid of the problem. Though the reader and audience identify with the family as survivors, they feel guilty about being so hard-hearted and callous. In the story, one can sense contemporary society's attitudes toward many intractable social problems. The novella presents the adapter with an immediate challenge: How to understand and translate the metamorphosis in Gregor into theatrical language? One could see the novella as a science fiction piece à la Star Trek and The Twilight Zone or one could see it as Gregor having a nightmare and his "awakening" as simply part of the dream. I have chosen the latter approach.
The change in form presents another challenge: How much should we see of the bug and how much of the man? I believe that Kafka intended the bug as a metaphor for anyone who fails to meet the expectations of others who are important to him (Kafka had personal experience with this). In this respect, I think it is more important to see the man in the bug than the bug in the man. While changing form is part of a "metamorphosis" in nature, there are other elements as well: 1. A barrier through which a creature must break to emerge as an adult; and 2. A timeframe within which this must be accomplished.
In the play as in the story, the former element is represented by Gregor's struggle to open the door to his room, which (metaphorically) is the door to the world, while the time element is to be found in Gregor missing the morning train, which sets the action in motion. To represent the difficulty that Gregor and the family have in communicating, Gregor has no spoken lines and his role is taken by a mime. The poignancy and despair of the piece is easily seen behind the scrim of the absurdist humor. Kafka, I believe, meant for us to laugh wryly and sigh regretfully that the world is the way it is. How well I have captured Kafka's story will be judged by how far I have succeeded in these aims.
It is clear that Kafka's novella is not an autobiographical account of his life, as he never turned into a beetle of any kind, yet descriptions of Gregor Samsa's parents do bear a resemblance to portraits of Franz Kafka's parents rendered in his diaries. Kafka is known to have drawn his characters from people he encountered. And he speaks, teasingly, of himself in an entry from September 1911:
I too have a curious talent for metamorphosing myself which no one notices…The alien being must be in me, then, as distinctly and invisibly as the hidden object in a picture-puzzle where, too, one would never find anything if one did not know that it is there.
I feel this work is an important one to bring to the theater at this time. The end of the Cold War held out hope for a safer and freer world, but, instead of beautiful butterflies, we are again faced with hideous bugs. We need to ponder the reflections of a gifted writer who struggled with profound changes in his own culture and personal life and absorb the insights he has left us. What are the lessons that Kafka embedded in his story? Each person reading it will gather his own. For me, one is that the "black beetle" will always be with us; it is in ourselves, our families, our communities, and among nations. A second lesson is that its sudden appearance will always come as a surprise. Yet another is that it is important to choose life, whatever that may mean in a particular situation!