05 November 2015

Shaliko’s 'Kafka: Father and Son,' Part 1

[In July, I saw the Lincoln Center Festival presentation of Yukio Ninagawa’s stage version of Kafka on the Shore, an adaptation of a novel by Haruki Murakami.  Though neither the book nor the play were strictly about the Czech author Franz Kafka (1883-1924), the self-named central character said Kafka was his favorite writer and Murakami is heavily influenced by the Czech’s work.  Back in the early ’90s, I was doing a profile of the stage director Leonardo Shapiro and his experimental Shaliko Company that required me to shadow him while he worked.  At the time, one of Shaliko’s productions in rehearsal was a revival of Kafka: Father and Son, a Russian play by Mark Rozovsky (Strider, 1979-80) which Shapiro had directed twice previously, including both the world première at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (1985) and the Russian-language première in Moscow (1990).  It seems a propitious time to put together a discussion of these productions as a sort of off-center follow-up to my report on Kafka on the Shore (on ROT on 11 September).  This article is assembled from my original notes at the time, interviews with Shapiro and some of his colleagues and associates, the reviews of the three stagings, and sections of a long profile of Shapiro and Shaliko (an expansion of a Drama Review article, “Shapiro and Shaliko: Techniques of Testimony,” Winter 1993).]


In March 1984, Leonardo Shapiro, founder and artistic director of the 12-year-old Shaliko Company, and Shapiro’s new partner for the third and last Shaliko Company, Elena Prischepenko, whose stage name was Elena (or Helen) Nicholas, had gone to Russia on a three-week theater tour with a group of theater professionals under the auspices of the Citizens’ Exchange Council.  The group, organized by Prischepenko, included director Peter Sellars, Quaigh Theatre artistic director Will Lieberson, and about 15 other writers, directors, and academics.  The tour spent two weeks in Moscow and one in Leningrad and at the Soviet writers’ union, Shapiro made “a rather intemperate . . . speech” about seeing so many plays in Moscow with “happy endings.”  He asked the assembled playwrights why they didn’t “have the courage to talk about life as it really was.”  According to Shapiro, after the session, Mark Rozovsky told him, “I have play, no happy ending, you want?”  They arranged to meet secretly and the playwright turned over the manuscript of Kafka: Father and Son, “[j]ust like . . . a spy novel.”  Rozovsky had workshopped Kafka, based mostly on a 100-page letter Franz Kafka wrote, but never sent, to his father (“Letter to His Father,” November 1919) and parts of “The Judgment” (1912), Kafka’s most autobiographical tale, at the Moscow Art Theater Studio around 1983, but Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov’s Minister of Culture, Pyotr Demichev, cancelled the performances after the second preview, apparently because of the implied scrutiny of authority and repression, so it never officially opened. 

Shapiro and Prischepenko smuggled the manuscript out of the U.S.S.R. in their suitcases, and Prischepenko translated it when they got back to the United States.  In March 1985, following a non-Shaliko directing gig, Shapiro presented the world première of Kafka at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York’s East Village in an attempt to relaunch Shaliko, which had been disbanded twice, as a company.  He would do the play twice more after its 1985 début: its Russian-language première in 1990, after glasnost was initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, at Rozovsky’s own Nikitsky Gates Theater in Moscow and on tour in both the Soviet Union and the United States; and a New York revival, also at La MaMa, in 1992, after the Soviet Union collapsed.    

Rozovsky’s Kafka is a two-character play (there’s a non-speaking appearance of a woman who wasn’t even credited in the Shaliko programs) that’s essentially a debate between writer Franz Kafka and his domineering father, Hermann.  There’s little plot to synopsize—the play ran an hour in its 1985 première and 80 minutes in 1992—but a lot happens; here’s the outline as described by The Nation reviewer Paul Berman in ’85:

In fact the play is strictly psychological.  We see Kafka, 36, quarreling with his elderly father.  Son is thinking of [not] getting married.  Doubts and terrors plague him.  There’s much to discuss.

So they talk, which is to say, spend an evening knifing each other with truths.  Father has always loomed like a giant in Son’s eyes and has crushed him with his giant’s power and insensitivity.  So Son declares, and we believe him.  Father replies that power and insensitivity are the stuff of life.  Father is crude, simple, joyful.  That is equally believable.  Father complains that endless accusations from Son have weighed him down, that it has been terrible to receive nothing but blame.  Son is a parasite; he sucks his father’s blood.  This, too, we accept.  And Son replies that Father is still a giant—for these paternal accusations are undeniably just and utterly devastating and they have crushed Son once again.  True!

For most viewers, the play is about the relationship between the Son and the Father, which one reviewer described as “the classical Oedipal struggle,” though it’s more complex than that.  It appears realistic at first because of the details Rozovsky provides, but it’s not—at least in Shapiro’s mounting.  The Father, for instance descends from the height of his strength to abject senility in less than an hour, promoting the interpretation that the events are probably occurring in the Son’s mind and that the Father of the play is a creation of the Son’s imagination.  The director insisted that both actors represented the same “character” and that, in fact, “[t]he father is a voice inside the son.”  Nor is Kafka a sentimental or romantic portrait of the writer as a narcissistic, eternally suffering artist.  Both men are monsters in their own ways—the Son a master of passive aggressiveness and the Father, a self-righteous bully—and neither is especially likable.  Rozovsky’s play, in Shapiro’s presentation, becomes increasingly ominous and illusory as it progresses. 

But art and artists were fundamentally political for Shapiro.  He viewed Kafka: Father and Son as “another exploration of social creativity and repression through the autobiographical lens of the misfit artist . . . .”  (Shaliko’s The Yellow House, about Vincent van Gogh, was a variation on this theme as well.)  The Shaliko Company’s 1992 program for Kafka included a statement from Shapiro clearly affirming that the play was, among other things, “a warning about the new wave of repression of the creative spirit building here in the United States.”   In an interview with Shapiro, Rozovsky described this idea of the artist as rebel and political bellwether. Comparing himself to Franz Kafka, Rozovsky said:

[T]he only way of surviving those [pre-glasnost] years was to write “for the desk drawer,” to write for the salvation of one’s own identity, as Kafka did, and be free only in art.  And this gave rise to a paradox: a blank sheet of paper, a pen, ink, a table and a chair, nothing more, and that is me.  But out there is a huge world, a colossal bureaucratic machine, the army with its tanks and rockets, the navy with its aircraft carriers, the Ministry of Culture, and thousands, tens and hundreds of thousands, millions of people in the service and in the pay of the system.  And only one man stands up against that system, one man with a pen and blank sheets of paper.  And his only act is, from morning to night, from left to right, writing his manuscript.

Kafka knew that “the world around him was unjust and harsh,” asserted the playwright, so his art became his only outlet for his freedom.  He also knew that, like Rozovsky himself and another dissident Soviet author, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago, 1973), “one man holding a pen in his hand, was mightier than the whole world with its army of millions and its bureaucracy of millions.”  The Czech writer “had a lot of insight into the world of fascism and ‘socialism,’” observed Rozovsky.  “The only other writer who has such insight into our times, Dostoyevsky [Crime and Punishment, 1866; The Brothers Karamazov, 1880].”  The Russian playwright confessed that Kafka’s “way of life had become my way of life.”

Mark Grigorievich Rozovsky was born in Petropavlovsk on Russia’s far-eastern Kamchatka Peninsula on 3 April 1937.  Both his parents were engineers, but his father, an old-school Leninist, was arrested in a Stalinist purge in October when Mark was only a few months old.  (The persecution may have had something to do with the family’s Jewish background.  Mark’s father was Jewish and his mother was half Greek and half Russian.  This fact would return to plague Rozovsky as a young adult in the anti-Semitic Soviet Union.)  Originally sentenced to death, the older Rozovsky’s sentence was commuted to ten years due to personnel changes in Stalin’s government.  The inmate’s wife visited the prison to bring her husband bread, until she, too, was arrested—for “giving aid to the enemy of the people.”  While his parents were incarcerated, Mark Rozovsky lived with his grandmother in a town that was subject to German bombing and strafing during the Nazi assault on the Soviet Union, and young Mark was wounded in the leg despite his grandmother’s efforts to protect him. 

In 1947, Mark Rozovsky finally got to know his father and the family moved to Moscow, where they lived in the basement of a vermin-infested building with 83 others who all shared one toilet and a single sink with running water for both their collective bathroom and kitchen use.  During those post-war years, Rozovsky suffered the losses of both his grandmother and his father. 

The incipient playwright studied journalism at Moscow State University, but in 1958, he started Nash Dom (Our House), a student theater troupe, and devoted his time at MSU to running it.  Very popular, Nash Dom launched the careers of many of the Soviet Union’s best known actors and directors.  He went on to work at the Moscow Art Theater and the Bolshoi (Great) Drama Theater in Leningrad.  In the 1960s, Rozovsky conceived the notion to write a play based on a Leo Tolstoy story, “Kholstomer” (“Strider,” 1886) which eventually became Strider: The Story of a Horse.  The Rozovsky adaptation, a play with music, débuted at the Gorky Theater in Leningrad in 1975 and then was staged in New York (Off-Broadway, 1979; Broadway, 1979-80).  That same year, Rozovsky directed the Soviet Union’s first rock musical, Opheus and Eurydice.  In 1983, Rozovsky opened his own theater, the Nikitsky Gates, even while Soviet censorship kept watch over the repertoire until glasnost was established.  Though Rozovsky was himself accepted as a prominent member of the Soviet theater community as an artist, working as a guest director at other companies such as the MAT, the Nikitsky Gates was a “studio” theater, operating without a license or government funding.  (The company’s status may have been upgraded to “official” after 1990, or the distinction may have disappeared after the Soviet Union dissolved.)

Rozovsky’s theater has always been politically oriented, and that tendency plus his Jewish roots kept him under the constant scrutiny of the Soviet state.  He liked to poke the Russian bear, and was not infrequently called to account.  As early as Nash Dom in the 1950s, which was co-directed by two other Jewish students, he was summoned to the office of a local Communist Party chief who asked him why, in one of the troupe’s productions, a character was on stage holding a yellow folder.  The young director must know, the CPSU official demanded, that yellow was the national color of the Jews.  (The folder had been taken at random from the theater’s prop room, but Rozovsky decided to take a stand—theatrically, of course.  He yelled and cursed and played the wild-eyed artist, totally intimidating the unprepared bureaucrat who retreated—and the yellow folder stayed in the show.)  Nash Dom was shuttered in 1969 and the young director was blacklisted.  A friend who worked in television told him that his name was on a list of people banned from appearing on air.  Instead of emigrating, as many of his Jewish contemporaries had (using their backgrounds to enter Israel), he stayed in the Soviet Union.  He got personal connections to help him mount productions in Leningrad and Riga, Latvia, and his shows received critical acclaim.  Rozovsky found himself back on the road to recognition.  Even now, with Russia no longer a communist state (though in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, there’s still a tacit form of censorship and the persecution of dissidents is common), Rozovsky and the Nikitsky Gates Theater regularly provoke both the establishment and the public.  Shapiro was convinced “that in Rozovsky’s mind [Kafka] had to do with the government and the artist.”  He added, “And I think the government’s mind, too.”

(Beginning in March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, newly-elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, launched a policy of glasnost—‘openness,’ ‘transparency’—that provided public access to information after almost seven decades of state censorship.  It was just prior to this act that Shapiro and Prischepenko made their journey to Moscow, brought the script of Kafka: Father and Son out, and produced the first Shaliko production.  In March 1990, Gorbachev was elected President of the Soviet Union but on 8 December 1991, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus signed the Belavezha Accords dissolving the Soviet Union.  The Moscow première of Rozovsky’s play was presented during the final year of the USSR’s existence.  On 25 December 1991, Gorbachev resigned the presidency of the USSR and yielded his authority to Boris Yeltsin as president of Russia.  The last Shaliko staging of Kafka occurred after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.).

Rozovsky didn’t recall exactly when he wrote Kafka—sometime in 1980 or maybe 1981, he guessed— but the idea was generated as far back as the 1960s.  That was when the first book by Franz Kafka was published in the Soviet Union, and the German-speaking, Jewish Czech writer became the center of an intellectual fad that lasted for about a decade.  Furthermore, the brief blossoming of the Prague Spring in 1968 (which, coincidentally, had also given Gorbachev the initial concept for glasnost) became identified with Kafka’s writings.  Rozovsky said he’d wanted to write a play about the Czech author, who “continued to be the writer on whom our freedom and spirituality were tested,” because “those times remain important to me.”  The Russian dramatist found an inviting theme in Kafka’s writing when he saw that “Kafka loved life, and his works are life affirming.  The morbid nature of his work and his inner depression,” Rozovsky maintained, ”are a means of doing battle for his love of life.” 

He first contemplated basing a play on “The Trial” (1925), which Rozovsky felt “was similar to what our history was covering up.”  But the playwright reconsidered because the story of K, a man arrested and tried for a crime whose nature neither he nor we ever learn, “reflected that history too clearly.”  (Rozovsky doesn’t say directly, but I suspect that only part of his reluctance to use “The Trial” was artistic.  Another part was likely his presumption that any play that obviously and directly characterized or criticized the Soviet administration would be banned and, at a minimum, jeopardize the author’s freedom.)  So he reread Kafka’s stories and the “Letter to His Father,” and “it seemed to me that these two things could be joined together, making a more profound, more indirect work.” 

Leo Richard Shapiro was born on 7 January 1946 in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Family problems, which Leo and his mother, Florence, blamed on Irving Shapiro’s selfish, domineering, and unfaithful nature, ended his parents’ marriage in divorce in 1951.  Florence Shapiro took her sons, Leo and his older brother Gary, to Miami, Florida, when Leo was 5½.  Shapiro’s strained relationship with his father, who visited Miami periodically, caused great emotional and psychological stress and Shapiro had trouble in school and ended up with a bleeding ulcer before he was 14. 

In 1960, Leo was enrolled in the Windsor Mountain School in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he flourished in an atmosphere free of rules and administrative repression (see my article on “Max and Gertrud Bondy,” 12 October 2011).  He hitchhiked to New York City on weekends where he began seeing Off-Off-Broadway theater in Greenwich Village (see “Greenwich Village Theater in the 1960s,” 12 and 15 December 2011).  Formerly a budding poet, Shapiro had begun to shift his focus to theater at Windsor Mountain, but this new theater, with its political and social conscience and the European influences, being presented by innovative and experimental artists and companies, clinched the change.  It was also during his three years at Windsor Mountain that Leo Richard Shapiro became Leonardo Shapiro.

Already politically active with the anti-war, civil rights, and anti-nuke movements, Shapiro participated in many demonstrations, protests, and marches both in New York and beyond.  He began hanging around the Living Theater because the 1962 General Strike for Peace was headquartered there and the theater of Julian Beck and Judith Malina showed the neophyte that the stage and politics could be combined.  His political activism also got him arrested not a few times, both as a teenager (his first arrest for political activity came in 1959, at age 13) and as an adult (his last roust was in 1992 in New York at 46). 

After graduating from Windsor Mountain in 1963, Shapiro hopscotched among a couple of colleges, always participating in the schools’ theater activities, until, in 1966, he started at New York University’s year-old School of the Arts (now the Tisch School of the Arts) as a directing student.  In 1967, while still a student, he and a handful of schoolmates launched what became the New York Free Theater, a leftist street-theater troupe (see my blog post of 4 April 2010).  That same year, the young director was also introduced to one of his major theatrical inspirations when he participated in theater innovator and theorist Jerzy Grotowski’s first U.S. workshop, an experience that influenced the rest of Shapiro’s professional life.  (His other principal inspiration was Bertolt Brecht and his art would always be an attempt to synthesize the ideas of these two theoretical giants.) 

In the summer of 1969, upon finishing NYU, Shapiro headed to California, but he stopped in Taos, New Mexico, and ended up staying for almost two years, forming the Appleseed Circus, a guerrilla theater troupe that performed all over the Four Corners (see my articles “Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos),” 5 August 2009, and “Cheerleaders of the Revolution,” 31 October 2009).  Shapiro experienced a reinvigoration of his fascination with American Indian culture, performance, and religion that he had begun as a boy.  (His company was named for a Zuni Pueblo deity and ceremonial rite, on which I posted “‘May You Be Blessed With Light’: The Zuni Shalako Rite,” 22 October 2010.) 

The Appleseed Circus dissolved in the fall of 1971 and Shapiro returned to New York City.  He formed The Shaliko Company in 1972 and they presented Children of the Gods, a collage of Greek tragedies, at a 1973 NYU showcase.  Joseph Papp, the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival (now called the Joseph Papp Public Theater), saw a performance and immediately invited Shapiro and his company to work at the Public, where Shaliko resided until 1976 when Shapiro disbanded it.  Shapiro turned to teaching and free-lance directing until Papp fired him in 1977 over a dispute about a musicalization Shapiro conceived of Molière’s The Misanthrope.  Shapiro never got over what he saw as a betrayal by his mentor and surrogate father and the two men never reconciled before Papp died in 1991.  (Irving Shapiro had died in 1974.)

Shapiro re-formed Shaliko in 1981, but it lasted only a single season.  In 1983, after returning to the ranks of free-lance directors, he and Elena Prischepenko launched the third and last Shaliko incarnation at La MaMa E. T. C., beginning the company’s association with Ellen Stewart (see my blog profile, “The Pushcart Theater: Ellen Stewart (1919-2011),” 4 April 2011).  The first Shaliko staging of Kafka: Father and Son followed in 1985.  During this period, Shapiro and his company produced their most ambitious and impressive works, created collectively by the company, including The Yellow House (the first Shaliko show I saw), 1986, and 1990’s Strangers (about which I posted “Shaliko’s Strangers” on 3 and 6 March 2014). 

Following the revival of Rozovsky’s play in 1992, Shapiro directed his final New York production, Blue Heaven by Karen Malpede (retitled Going to Iraq afterwards) at Theater for the New City.  A bitter dispute with the playwright resulted in Shapiro’s firing and he decided to accelerate his plans to retire to New Mexico.  In May 1993, he disbanded the last Shaliko Company and in June, he moved to the tiny town of Chamisal, New Mexico, south of Taos, to live in a house he and his son had built in the sacred Sangre de Cristo mountains.  He was diagnosed with terminal bladder cancer in June 1995; nevertheless, the director took on a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, a play that meant a great deal to him, with a company of young actors from Albuquerque.  The play was performed there in September 1996 and in November, the company brought it to the Theatre Project in Baltimore—where Shaliko had given its first performances in 1973.  The director was too ill to make the journey east, and Leonardo Shapiro died on 22 January 1997 at barely 51.

The America director saw Kafka as “a Jewish family play, a play about fathers and sons.”  It was, he averred, his “most overtly personal piece” and he remarked, “In rehearsal, I find that I am dramatizing my own life.”  Shapiro, indeed, felt a connection among his father; Joseph Papp, the Public Theater impresario who’d been a surrogate father in the director’s early years; and Hermann Kafka, but the connection to Irving Shapiro was more pervasive even than that.  “The play struck a very deep chord in me,” Shapiro admitted.  “It spoke to me immediately about my own childhood and my own difficult relationship with my father.”  Everything in the production—the sets, costumes, props, images—was drawn from his childhood “encounters” with his father.   Shapiro revealed that for him, the play “is about child abuse and the ways in which we internalize this repression of it and support it.”  One of the recurrent themes of Shaliko productions, and a focus of Shapiro’s stretching back to his guerrilla theater days in the 1960s and ’70s, was the “sacrifice of children.”  This theme appeared both literally, as in Children of the Gods, Shaliko’s very first production which was a compilation of Greek classics that included the sacrifice scene from Iphigenia in Aulis, and Punch!, based on the Punch and Judy shows in which Punch throws his baby out a window, and figuratively, as in Kafka: Father and Son; The Yellow House, in which Shapiro saw the artist as a child of society who was sacrificed; or The Seagull, the director’s last production, in which Arkadina derides her son Treplyev.  This focus sprang from Shapiro’s own experience first as a son alienated from his biological father, then as a protégé spurned by his theatrical mentor, Joseph Papp.  His own memoirs attest to his full understanding of the damage and pain caused by a distant and abusive father.  

“What was interesting to me about this play,” explained Shapiro, “was not the surface reality of two men having a conversation, but the interior reality of Kafka’s memory and imagination.  The effect on him of the pressures of his family, especially his father, and the eventual leap of the imagination he made to create a world of his own.”  Beside the theme of sacrificing children was a second focus for the director, the place of the artist in society.  In many of his productions, the central figure struggles with the creation of a work of art: just as Kafka writes “The Judgment” in Kafka: Father and Son, in The Yellow House, van Gogh paints his Self-Portrait and Starry Night; Aria, a sculptor in Blue Heaven modeled on environmental artist Ana Mendieta, fights a creative block; and in Chekhov’s The Seagull, a play in part about art and artists, Treplyev stages a play he’s written.  (In Runaway Sam in the Promised Land, an autobiographical teleplay Shapiro wrote in retirement shortly before his death, the character Max, the stand-in for the director, is a sculptor who “makes weird statues” which he displays on the streets, refuses to make anything saleable.  People on the streets where Max puts his art “just trash it or take it away.  People don’t want to see that stuff in their neighborhood.”) 

[“Shaliko’s Kafka: Father and Son, Part 1,” has covered the play’s development and background and the bios of both playwright Mark Rozovsky and director Leonardo Shapiro.  In a few days, I’ll post a production-by-production description of each of Shapiro’s three stagings of Kafka: Father and Son with a round-up of the critical reception in 1985, 1990, and 1992.  Please log onto ROT again and read the rest of this history.  ~Rick]

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