Saturday, 9 April 2016

On Theatrical Self-Presentation as a Mechanism of Power in Franz Kafka's "Der Process" (The Trial, 1914-15)

In 1934, Theodor Adorno suggested that the novels of Franz Kafka “read like texts accompanying silent films”[1]. Whilst Adorno refers to silent cinema, that is to say a medium whose prolific golden age is more or less coterminous with Kafka’s, the extent to which Kafka is indebted to theatrical convention is perhaps even more pronounced – and lingers on to this day, in the form of Steven Berkoff’s renowned Kafka adaptations for the stage. Kafka’s works have, in common with the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (who had a profound and lasting impact on him), an irrepressibly melodramatic quality; an element of theatricality that makes itself present in dialogue, in stage directions, in the physicality of certain scenes. As Goebel attests, one of Kafka’s principal achievements as concerns his understanding of theatrics is turning them to the purpose of “mechanisms of power”[2]. We are all familiar with the praise heaped upon a particularly successful performance at the theatre, an occasion at which we may use phrases such as “spell-binding”, “commanding the stage” and “leaving the audience rapt”. The suitable application of such phrases to displays of political authority, and the close relationship between political and theatrical rhetoric, is where we find the intersection of Kafka’s musings on theatricality and power. These are at their most obvious in his novel of 1914-15, Der Proceß, but also recur in numerous shorter works.
From its opening Verhaftung segment onwards, Der Proceß is a novel which plays up its relationship to the theatre. The lights go up, and, in Walter Benjamin’s words, “man is on stage from the very beginning”[3]. Just as a novelist arranges a dramatic opening (and this novel boasts one of the finest, only beaten by Die Verwandlung by the same author), so too does the court arrange a dramatic intrusion into the everyday life of the man it wishes to arrest. Knocking from off-stage to signify presence (‘sofort klopte es’) is an emphatically theatrical device, as is the nature of the on-stage/off-stage relationship between Joseph K. and the Wächter; it is K.’s cry (‘läutete er’) which seems to conjure them into being and allow them entrance (‘Sie haben geläutet?’). The familiar, homely backdrop receives these unfamiliar entrants who have been waiting in the wings, and the resulting events are explicitly observed by ‘die alte Frau…mit wahrhaft greisenhafter Neugierde’, thus there is an audience within the closed structure of the novel itself as well as outside it. Visual details (clothing, furniture) are lent great significance, just as in stage directions: K. is struck by the ‘besonders praktisch’ suit of the man who arrests him, and, in keeping with a world of duty, order and hierarchy, pedantic ceremony is insisted upon to the extent that K. must have the right attire and costume (‘es muß ein schwarzer Rock sein’, he is told with all the finality of a director addressing a quarrelsome performer).
Similar artifices recur throughout Der Proceß. When K. arrives for his first examination, we read that ‘eben begann ein in bessern Stadtvierteln ausgedientes Grammophon mörderisch zu spielen’, as if carefully arranged for mood-setting effect. The multitudes in the examination hall react with laughter or silence, much like any audience would, but also seem to be under the theatrical power of the Untersuchungsrichter – K. himself notes ‘es sind also Leute unter Ihnen, die von hier oben dirigiert werden…’ (though ‘dirigieren’ possesses no theatrical sense of ‘to direct’ as we would say in English, its legitimate musical definition of ‘to conduct’ nevertheless justifies this reading) and he furthermore suggests that the judge may as well come outright and instruct the audience with explicit commands such as ‘jetzt zischt’ or ‘jetzt klatscht’. Later in the same segment, the parallel is made still more explicit when K. describes the crowd as ‘Zuhörer’ and uses the verb ‘applaudieren’, evoking both its political and theatrical connotations. The Richter is portrayed as an awe-inspiring figure on a throne, but in reality is nothing of the kind; art is mere artifice to embellish his significance. The rhetoric of the Advokat is ‘ein einstudiertes Gespräch, das sich schon oft wiederholt hatte, das sich noch oft wiederholen würde’, the verb choice calling to mind echoes of repeating lines of dialogue or reprising a part. As Heller notes[4], the multifarious instances of nightmare and paranoia are relayed theatrically (faces in windows, ears pressed up against doors, figures in shadow, eyes peering through keyholes, etc.).
Everybody has their own place in the dramatis personae (‘ich bin zum Prügeln angestellt, also prügle ich’, a literal-minded, sadistic whipper tells K.), a role which they cannot escape; the all-pervasive nature of such roles in the court’s eyes is enhanced by the general predilection for titles rather than names. The Wächter, the Untersuchungsrichter, the Advokat, the Direktor-Stellvertreter, the Geistliche, the Diener, the Prügler… just as with the four unnamed figures in In der Strafkolonie, these characters are all compartmentalised and defined by the performance they give in the drama, by their precise role within their given scenes, rather than by any other characteristic. Even the Onkel is introduced as, and (almost always) referred to by, his titular ‘role’ within the family; even what we might perceive as free-thinking artists do not really possess the humanity of a name, but rather a court-given epithet (‘Titorelli ist nur sein Künstlername. Seinen wirklichen Namen kenne ich gar nicht’); by the time Joseph K. meets Block, the merchant and long-suffering client who really is granted a name, he almost can’t quite believe it (‘ist das Ihr wirklicher Name?’).
The court, then, succeeds in its aim of using theatrical self-presentation to intimidate, destabilise and unnerve Joseph K., and, in presenting itself as all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful, it gives K. the impression that this is really so; in Robertson’s words, “authority results from the performance of authority”[5]. What is of perhaps even greater interest than individual instances of the court’s “mechanisms of power” is the reality of Joseph K.’s role in the performance – specifically, his awareness of what his role should be according to the script which the court metaphorically sets before him. Privy as we readers are to the central character’s interior monologue through Kafka’s use of limited perspective or Einsinnigkeit, we are aware from the start that K. sees this Proceß as roleplay. ‘War es eine Komödie, so wollte er mitspielen’, we read shortly after his arrest (akin to Herr Bendemann’s admission in Das Urteil, ‘freilich habe ich Komödie gespielt!’). By the time of his rendezvous with Fräulein Bürstner, he sees himself as ‘die wichtigste Person’; he has, in other words, cast himself as the central role of this show. For her edification, he literally re-enacts the strange events of that morning; indeed, he does so with some considerable zeal (‘K. war zu sehr in der Rolle’), re-creating ‘a play within the play’[6]. Much like an actor commanding the stage, he enjoys being the centre of attention in the examination hall (‘sofort war es still, so sehr beherrschte K. die Versammlung…denn ihn freute das angespannte Aufhorchen der ganzen Versammlung’).
But as the Geistliche tells K. about the parable Vor dem Gesetz, ‘die Schrift ist unveränderlich’: the script is not his to change, and the story heads towards a fixed point. Much like Shakespeare’s ‘poor player’ – or, if we borrow from a different play, he who ‘has his exits and his entrances’ – K. is at the mercy of whoever is directing this production (‘das Gericht will nichts von dir. Es nimmt dich auf wenn du kommst und es entläßt dich wenn du gehst’). The novel’s final segment, Ende, makes it clear that K. has come round to accepting his part in the play for what it is; when, in a clear parallel with the story’s beginning, two men arrive at his door ready for his execution, K. is ‘gleichfalls schwarz angezogen’ – that is to say, he is correctly costumed. He is fully aware of the theatrical aspects of the situation, asking his two companions ‘an welchem Teater spielen Sie’, and when it comes to the instant of his death, K. is aware that it is his ‘Pflicht’, his legal duty, to take his own life. K. partially resembles another of Kafka’s protagonists in this regard – Georg Bendemann in Das Urteil – who accepts his father’s enraged declaration ‘ich verurteile dich jetzt zum Tode des Ertrinkens!’ as gospel truth, as though he must, simply because that is how the story goes (though the comparison is imperfect, because K. tries to resist the certainty of his fate at the last moment, both characters seem to see their deaths as things which have to happen).
At this juncture it is of considerable worth to take stock and ask why K. is such a self-aware protagonist, and how his experiences of the court’s theatrical self-presentation also illuminate his recognition of his own standing in the law’s eyes, of the power play between the court and himself. There may well be no single clear answer, though there are countless places in which to look for it – for instance, the short story Ein Traum with its own Joseph K., a man who dreams an astonishingly vivid premonition of his own death. Whilst in a coma-like state, but free from the gloominess of Der Proceß (instead the lexical field is dominated by ‘mächtigen Zieraten’, ‘viel Jubel’, ‘entzückt’, ‘schöner Tag’ and other such phrases), this Joseph K. seems to know that the grave being dug is his, and he accepts that fact. Perhaps it is crucial to our understanding of the Joseph K. of Der Proceß that the character as presented here grasps the concept that his fatal role is pre-ordained or literally pre-written (since the story revolves around the inscription of letters by means of a ‘Bleistift’); perhaps, if Ein Traum is regarded as a fragment of Der Proceß, it holds the key to K.’s response to the court’s “mechanisms of power”.
Another such answer is K.’s status as a receptacle, a vessel, of the script he is meant to be playing[7]. Throughout the novel, K. has been an audience member as much as he has been an actor. He has been subjected to a variety of different scenes, including observing a brutal whipping taking place in a storage cupboard. He has been the recipient of rumours, official statements, and quasi-mystical parables told in the hallowed, Gothic chiaroscuro of a cathedral. This character has been continuously bombarded by the court’s theatrical devices, and eventually, perhaps, he starts to subscribe to them.
This notion of an individual as something upon which a text imprints itself recurs elsewhere in Kafka, most notably in the grotesque short story In der Strafkolonie, written in October 1914 whilst he was also working on Der Proceß, and with which it shares a number of similarities (Kruse labels it a “Komplementärtext”[8]). Here, too, we have a condemned man who seems to play his part willingly (‘übrigens sah der Verurteilte so hündisch ergeben aus, daß es den Anschein hatte, als könnte man ihm frei auf den Abhängen herumlaufen lassen und müsse bei Beginn der Exekution nur pfeifen, damit er käme’ – and note the obvious parallel between ‘hündisch’ and Joseph K.’s final words). Here, too, we see the process of punishment, a demonstration of political power, fashioned into a performance[9] – the phrase ‘nun beginnt das Spiel’ introduces the main event, and the Offizier recalls the ‘hunderten Augen’, the ‘Zuschauer’, the appreciative audience who used to flock to this desolate sandy valley to watch the horror-show.
But Kafka does not stop there, going far beyond the relatively simple panem-et-circenses display of a death sentence as spectator sport. The Apparat, the machine in question, functions by inscribing the aforementioned death sentence into the skin of the accused. In a detailed, highly convincing study of In der Strafkolonie which directly echoes Derrida’s 1972 paper “Freud and the Scene of Writing”, Clayton Koelb argues that the central act of this story (and, arguably, Der Proceß) is a scene of reading[10]. His principal contention is that Kafka saw powerful texts as things which penetrate the reader, which show initiative and act upon us, and to which we submit (though Koelb does not cite this particular example from Kafka’s diaries, it would be remiss not to invoke the novelist’s much-quoted belief that ‘ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns. Das glaube ich’[11]). The text has thus aggressively forced its way into us and made us into a copy of itself, just as the inscription of the Apparat does to the prisoner. In reference to the dramatic construction of the story and the ready-made roles played by each of the four principal characters and by the fifth character, the machine itself, Koelb cites drama as the text to which actors must passively adhere in their performance of a play, and states that “acting in a play and being a citizen in a society ruled by the Law are two forms of essentially the same activity”[12]: receiving the formidable, unalterable power of a script from on high.
This brings us neatly back to Josef K. and to Der Proceß. Like a performer on a stage, like Georg Bendemann under the heel of his tyrannical father, like those subjected to the machine in In der Strafkolonie, Josef K. has the court’s “script” (the world as it sees it) imposed upon him as a mechanism of power, as part of the apparatus of administration. So far, so good; there remains, however, one stone left unturned, and that is the degree to which Der Proceß functions as a script imposed on us. The Erzähler of this narrative would appear to be on a higher plane than even the court; the book is by Kafka and not the court, after all. The fact that he wrote the first and final chapters (Verhaftung and Ende) simultaneously at the inception of this work points towards the teleology of this narrative – it would always end in the same way; K.’s fate truly was pre-ordained and pre-written.
But Der Proceß is a uniquely fractured book, a fragmented, haphazard collection of episodes that can be – and have been – rearranged in different orders; even the sequence generally agreed upon is not Kafka’s doing, but that of his friend and editor Max Brod. Brod, then, also plays a role in shaping this narrative, this script (and, to some degree, our understanding of its author – “in a curious sense Kafka is Max Brod’s creation”[13]). When we hold a physical copy of Der Proceß in our hands, what we hold is not so much a flowing narrative, chapter-by-chapter, as the author intended us to read it, but a disparate collection of exhibits, little titbits of evidence. Power has left the author’s hands, for he wanted this novel destroyed long ago, and is thus unable to impose his script on anybody. Instead, we read something more insidious: Der Proceß as a remnant of the Tower of Babel, Der Proceß as disorientation, Der Proceß as communication’s end. Thomas M. Kavanagh contends that “Kafkaesque man is a semiologist. Accustomed to understanding, he finds he can no longer understand”[14]. To our considerable concern, we find ourselves in the same predicament, and so the theatrical instabilities, intimidations and confusions in which the court carries out its mechanisms of power exert their influence on us. Kafka’s success with this novel is therefore Pyrrhic in the extreme: conjuring into being an abstraction so powerful, so terrifying, and so unknowable, that it ultimately conquers Kafka as Erzähler, defying both narrative and his desire for its destruction, and survives to imprint itself upon any and all future readers.

  1. Brumme, Christoph D., “Schuld und Unschuld des Josef K”, in Akzente 5, 1998, retrieved from
  2. Corngold, Stanley, “The Hermeneutic of The Judgement”, in The Problem of The Judgement: Eleven Approaches to Kafka’s Story (ed. Angel Flores), Gordian Press, 1977.
  3. Dodd, W. J., Kafka and Dostoyevsky: The Shaping of Influence, St Martin’s Press, 1992.
  4. Goebel, Rolf J., “The exploration of the modern city in The Trial”, in The Cambridge Companion to Kafka (ed. Julian Preece), Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  5. Heller, Erich, Kafka, Fontana Modern Masters (ed. Frank Kermode), Fontana/Collins, 1974.
  6. Heller, Peter, “On Not Understanding Kafka”, in The German Quarterly XLVII, 1974.
  7. Kafka, Franz, Der Proceß and Fragmente (with Nachbemerkung by Malcolm Pasley), Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1993.
  8. Kafka, Franz, Sämtliche Erzählungen (ed. Paul Raabe), Fischer Bücherei, 1970. Includes Das Urteil, Ein Traum, Vor dem Gesetz and In der Strafkolonie.
  9. Kavanagh, Thomas M., “Kafka’s The Trial: The Semiotics of the Absurd”, in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol 5 No 3, Duke University Press, 1972.
  10. Koelb, Clayton, “‘In der Strafkolonie’: Kafka and the Scene of Reading”, in The German Quarterly Vol 55 No 4, Wiley, 1982.
  11. Kruse, Jens, “Lukács’ “Theorie des Romans” und Kafkas “In Der Strafkolonie”: eine Konstellation im Jahre 1914”, in German Studies Review Vol 10 No 2, John Hopkins University Press, 1987.
  12. Neider, Charles, The Frozen Sea, Oxford University Press, 1948.
  13. Norris, Margot, “Sadism and Masochism in Two Kafka Stories: In der Strafkolonie and Ein Hüngerkünstler”, in MLN, Vol 93 No 3, John Hopkins University Press, 1978.
  14. Phelan, James, “Progression, vitesse et jugement dans “Das Urteil” ou Ce que Kafka et une théorie rhétorique du récit peuvent faire l’un pour l’autre”, in Théorie, analyse, interprétation des récits, Theory, 2011.
  15. Robertson, Ritchie, Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  16. Rolleston, James, Kafka’s Narrative Theater, Penn State Press, 1990.
  17. Trujillo, Guillermo Sánchez, Crimen y castigo de Franz Kafka: anatomía de El Proceso, Arte Peatonal Ediciones, 2002.

[1]Theodor Adorno, cited in Robertson, Ritchie, Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2004.
[2]Goebel, Rolf J., “The exploration of the modern city in The Trial”, in The Cambridge Companion to Kafka (ed. Julian Preece), Cambridge University Press, 2002.
[3]Walter Benjamin, cited in Rolleston, James, Kafka’s Narrative Theater, Penn State Press, 1990.
[4]Heller, Erich, Kafka, Fontana Modern Masters (ed. Frank Kermode), Fontana/Collins, 1974.
[5]Robertson, Ritchie, Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2004.
[6]Gesine Frey, cited in Rolleston, James, Kafka’s Narrative Theater, Penn State Press, 1990
[7]Rolleston, James, Kafka’s Narrative Theater, Penn State Press, 1990.
[8]Kruse, Jens, “Lukács’ “Theorie des Romans” und Kafkas “In Der Strafkolonie”: eine Konstellation im Jahre 1914”, in German Studies Review Vol 10 No 2, John Hopkins University Press, 1987.
[9]Rolleston, James, Kafka’s Narrative Theater, Penn State Press, 1990.
[10]Koelb, Clayton, “‘In der Strafkolonie’: Kafka and the Scene of Reading”, in German Quarterly Vol 55 No 4, Wiley, 1982.
[11]Kafka, Franz, Letter to Oskar Pollak, 27 January 1904, retrieved from
[12]Koelb, Clayton, “‘In der Strafkolonie’: Kafka and the Scene of Reading”, in German Quarterly Vol 55 No 4, Wiley, 1982.
[13]Neider, Charles, The Frozen Sea, Oxford University Press, 1948.
[14]Kavanagh, Thomas M., “Kafka’s The Trial: The Semiotics of the Absurd”, in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol 5 No 3, Duke University Press, 1972.

No comments:

Post a Comment