Source: Franz Kafka (ed. Max Brod, trans. Joseph Kresh), The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1948), pp. 79-82
Production: Joseph Lateiner, Der Meshumed, Café Savoy, Prague, 4 October 1911
Text: October 5 … Last night Café Savoy. Yiddish troupe. Mrs. K., “male impersonator.” In a caftan, short black trousers, white stockings, from the black vest a thin white woolen shirt emerges that is held in front at the throat by a knot and then flares into a wide, loose, long, spreading collar. On her head, confining her woman’s hair but necessary anyhow and worn by her husband as well, a dark, brimless skull cap, over it a large, soft black hat with a turned-up brim.
I really don’t know what sort of person it is that she and her husband represent. If I wanted to explain them to someone to whom I didn’t want to confess my ignorance, I should find that I consider them sextons, employees of the temple, notorious lazybones with whom the community has come to terms, privileged shnorrers for some religious reason, people who, precisely as a result of their being set apart, are very close to the center of the community’s life, know many songs as a result of their useless wandering about and spying, see clearly to the core the relationship of all the members of the community, but as a result of their lack of relatedness to the workaday world don’t know what to do with this knowledge, people who are Jews in an especially pure form because they live only in the religion, but live in it without effort, understanding or distress. They seem to make a fool of everyone, laugh immediately after the murder of a noble Jew, sell themselves to an apostate, dance with their hands on their earlocks in delight when the unmasked murderer poisons himself and calls upon God, and yet all this only because they are as light as a feather, sink to the ground under the slightest pressure, are sensitive, cry easily with dry faces (they cry themselves out in grimaces), but as soon as the pressure is removed haven’t the slightest specific gravity but must bounce right back up in the air.
They must have caused a lot of difficulty in a serious play, such as Der Meshumed by Lateiner is, for they are forever – large as life and often on tiptoe or with both feet in the air – at the front of the stage and do not unravel but rather cut apart the suspense of the play. The seriousness of the play spins itself out, however, in words so compact, carefully considered even where possibly improvised, so full of the tension of a unified emotion, that even when the plot is going along only at the rear of the stage, it always keeps its meaning. Rather, the two in caftans are suppressed now and then, which befits their nature, and despite their extended arms and snapping fingers one sees behind them only the murderer, who, the poison in him, his hand at his really too large collar, is staggering to the door.
The melodies are long, one’s body is glad to confide itself to them. As a result of their long-drawn-out forward movement, the melodies are best expressed by a swaying of the hips, by raising and lowering extended arms in a calm rhythm, by bringing the palms close to the temples and taking care not to touch them. Suggests the šlapák …
The talmudic melody of minute questions, adjurations or explanations: The air moves into a pipe and takes the pipe along, and a great screw, proud in its entirety, humble in its turns, twists from small, distant beginnings in the direction of the one who is questioned.
October 6. The two old men up front at the long table near the stage. One leans both his arms on the table and has only his face (whose false, bloated redness with an irregular, square, matted beard beneath it sadly conceals his old age) turned up to the right toward the stage, while the other, directly opposite the stage, holds his face, which old age has made quite dry, back away from the table on which he leans only with his left arm, holding his right arm bent in the air in order better to enjoy the melody that his fingertips follow and to which the short pipe in his right hand weakly yields. “Tateleben, come on and sing,” cries the woman now to one, now to the other, at the same time stooping a little and stretching her arms forward encouragingly.
The melodies are made to catch hold of every person who jumps up and they can, without breaking down, encompass all his excitement even if one won’t believe they have inspired it. The two in caftans are particularly in a hurry to meet the singing, as though it were stretching their body according to its most essential needs, and the clapping of the hands during the singing is an obvious sign of the good health of the man in the actor. The children of the landlord, in a corner of the stage, remain children in their relationship to Mrs. K. and sing along, their mouths, between their pursed lips, full of the melody.
Comments: Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a Bohemian Jewish novelist and short story writer, author of ‘Die Verwandlung’ (‘The Metamorphosis’) and Der Process (The Trial). He first encountered Yiddish theatre in his home city of Prague in 1910, and between September 1911 and January 1912 documented in his diary his close interest in a Yiddish theatre group that performed at the Café Savoy. The entertainments were a mixture of songs, turns, jokes and plays. The play Kafka saw was the prolific Yiddish playwright Joseph Lateiner‘s Der Meshumed (The Apostate). His impressions were recorded over two day entries in his diary, and he goes on to describe the action of the play in great detail. Mrs K was the actress Flora, or Florence, Klug. A šlapák was a type of dance. Kafka’s diary reveals how the theatre troupe affected his imagination and his dreams, with elements of this helping to inform his subsequent novels.
Guido Massino, ‘Franz Kafka’s Vagabond Stars’, Digital Yiddish Theatre Project