“Metamorphosis” could be the title of many Kafka stories—not just the famous one about a man who goes to bed as a traveling salesman and wakes up as a gigantic bug. Kafka’s characters, even if they don’t undergo such radical change, are looking for answers or epiphanies, hoping their lives will be transformed. There’s the ape in “A Report to an Academy” who strives to become human, or the pathetic Hunger Artist who slowly starves to death, not out of principle, but because he’s never found the food that would satisfy him—the crucial manna that would make life worth living. Stories themselves, Kafka once wrote, should “act upon us like a misfortune” and “serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.” Only then can they lift us “into the pure, the true, and the immutable.”
Composer Philip Glass has chosen one of Kafka’s darkest, most mysterious tales, “In the Penal Colony,” as the subject of his new work. He calls it a “pocket opera”: It’s only 90 minutes, with two singing parts and music for a string quartet plus double bass. This kind of compact opera can be within the reach of small theaters, he notes, where it can be produced more often than full-scale operas can be in large houses. Glass has many ideas for such pocket operas—it’s “what you do if you want to write operas and you can’t always go to the Met,” he says. In the Penal Colony was commissioned by Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre, where it premiered last September. It has since found a home at Chicago’s Court Theatre and this week makes its New York debut at the Classic Stage Company.
“It’s a quintessential modern story, about transformation,” Glass explains. The horrific premise is that, in an African penal colony in 1907, capital punishment is delivered through an elaborate death machine, the Harrow, which inscribes the broken law upon the naked body of the prisoner through a series of pulsating needles. The “transformation” takes place after six hours, when the torture is supposed to give way to something else—clarity, understanding, or release. The officer in charge of the machine—one of its last remaining defenders—speaks of the crowds that once gathered to witness “the look of transfiguration on the face of the sufferer” and to bathe “in the radiance of that justice.” Transfiguration with a capital “T” is a central event on the Christian calendar, the day when Christ took three disciples to a mountaintop and—with his face suddenly radiant and luminous—revealed himself as the son of God. Although Kafka’s story has all the trappings of a biblical parable—guilt, suffering, and redemption—we sense that, in this universe, God has long since left the scene.
For Glass, who has composed operas based on the lives of Gandhi, Einstein, and Akhenaten, Kafka was a unique challenge. He first read the story as a college student, but didn’t begin composing the music until a few years ago. Kafka’s tale is confounding: superficially straightforward and concise but, as Glass points out, nowhere near a “one-way ride to the execution.” “The piece keeps changing, all the way through,” he says “and you begin to realize there are certain things that you read and you don’t even understand.” To deal with these narrative fluctuations, Glass composed music that constantly shifts in tempo and tone.
When Glass first approached JoAnne Akalaitis, his longtime collaborator, about directing the opera, she balked. “I thought it was a very bizarre choice,” she says. “Actually impossible, just in terms of staging, and the practicality of theater. But I like to do things that I don’t know how to do.”
Akalaitis eventually found a way into the story through the figure of Kafka himself, whom she has made into a character in the opera. “I can’t imagine it being done without Kafka,” she says now. “He’s an absolutely compelling person.” Speaking words that Akalaitis culled from the writer’s diaries, the Kafka character describes the story’s creation, seeming to will it into existence and inviting us to share in his nightmare. “I think everything Kafka wrote is about the horror of creating, of writing,” Akalaitis says. “If you read the diaries, it’s all about ‘I’m terrible. I can’t get anything done.’ He wanted Max Brod to burn everything. . . . It’s not about lack of confidence—that’s too easy. It’s about the torture of creation.”
The problem of creating the death machine itself still remained. It would have been tempting to leave it in the realm of metaphor and avoid the problem of having to build it. But Kafka goes through the trouble of describing the machine in detail, three times: It’s the menacing, palpable heart of the tale. “At first I said to librettist Rudy Wurlitzer and Philip, ‘We can’t have it,’ ” Akalaitis recalls. “Then I realized that we had to have it.” Putting the machine on stage was “an amazing collaboration” involving set designer John Conklin, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, and sound designer Dominic Kramers.
In the Penal Colony is being performed as the country prepares for its first federal execution since 1963. Kafka—who died in 1924—has never seemed out of date, but his obsessions with human cruelty, justice, and redemption now seem eerily prophetic. Of course, the story is not really about capital punishment, just as Hamlet is not really about murderous revenge. The topic of execution, as Glass says, is “the one thing that challenges rationality more than anything else.” It’s Kafka’s way of getting our attention and fixing it on our most naked selves. And then—when we can no longer stand it—he gives us a glimpse of hope: As Glass says, even “in the darkest possible story, there’s a moment of illumination.”