Kafka’s Penal Colony on stage

This video says about itself:

Franz Kafka‘s In the Penal Colony

A dramatic short film (13 minutes) offering a faithful adaptation of Kafka’s famous story.

A lone officer in a deteriorating penal colony tries to convince a visitor of the importance of his execution machine. As he prepares to put a prisoner to death, he wanes nostalgic for the old ways of the colony, and tries to enlist the visitor to help in his cause to make the colony the resplendent place it once was. The visitor, he sees, is his last hope for salvation.

As I have said, immediately after the first one of two plays based on Franz Kafka short stories had finished in Ghent, Belgium, the second one started.

It was In the Penal Colony. Its theme is torture, the death penalty, and other human rights violations by authorities.

It is set on an island, not in Europe. Kafka, writing the original short story in 1914, probably thought about the infamous Devil’s Island near French Guiana. Where Jewish French officer Dreyfus had been banished to unjustly (more on the Dreyfus affair here). Also, later, the inspiration for the well known “Papillon” autobiography by Henri Charrière.

In an interview with Bart Meuleman, who translated In the Penal Colony into Dutch to make a play out of it, Meuleman said: “We want to establish a relationship of Kafka’s work with the world of today”. Today, people may think of places like Guantanamo Bay in Cuba with its United States prisons. On an island, like Kafka’s fictive colony. Like in Kafka, Guantanamo prisoners are tortured and do not get fair trials. A difference is that most Guantanamo prisoners were never accused of any crime at all. While in Kafka’s story and the play performed in Ghent, prisoners are accused and do get trials. However, in these trials, the accused are automatically assumed to be guilty, and do not have the right to defend themselves. They also never hear what they have been accused of, and what their sentence was.

At least until they are subjected to a complex torture and death penalty instrument, which kills them slowly, taking twelve hours. The machine writes what they are accused of on their backs.

Another parallel with Guantanamo (I am not sure whether the Belgians who made this play intended it), is that the old commander of the penal colony and inventor of this horrible way to kill prisoners has died. The new commander does not really like the torture instrument. Still, he has not yet ordered the officer who is the military judge to stop it, being too hesitant for that. One is reminded of new United States President Barack Obama, who before and after his election promised to close down the Guantanamo Bay torture camp of his predecessor George W. Bush, and to stop torture, but who still has achieved neither of those two things.

Neither the old commander nor his successor have roles in the play. The two main roles are the officer-military judge and an outsider, “the explorer”. Two more minor roles are for a soldier who helps the officer with executions, and another soldier, condemned to death for subordination (without knowing that, as usually in the penal colony).

Most of the dialogue in the play is by the officer, who thinks that the explorer may be a tool of the new commander to abolish his beloved death penalty system. He tries to get the explorer on his side, but gets hardly any reaction from that outsider. After the explorer finally says he opposes the execution machine, the officer commits suicide on it.

Another play based on this Kafka story: here.

President Obama’s hopes of closing Guantánamo, which were already gravely wounded by his inability to meet his self-imposed deadline of a year for the prison’s closure, now appear to have been killed off by lawmakers in Congress: here.

Tuesday will see a demonstration outside parliament calling for the release of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident still held in Guantanamo: here.

Human rights activists have stepped up their campaign to secure the release of a British resident who has been held in Guantanamo Bay for more than eight years by lobbying the US government: here.

Guantanamo Prosecutor Faces Retaliation for Testimony Exposing Constitutional Violations: here.

“Who Are the Guantanamo Prisoners Released in Cape Verde, Latvia and Spain?” – 176 prisoners now remain: here.

World Without Torture: here.

Britain: Amnesty International UK has told the coalition government that it must live up to its pre-election pledges to end Britain’s shameful role in human rights abuses: here.

UK STILL IMPICATED IN TORTURE – charges Amnesty report: here.

Ten Infamous Islands of Exile: here.

Another play based on Kafka: here.

A “Lieutenant Kafka” was a US soldier at Guantanamo (no, not a joke): here.

Chris Hedges | America’s Disappeared. Chris Hedges, Truthdig: “Tens of thousands of Americans are being held in super-maximum-security prisons where they are deprived of contact and psychologically destroyed. Undocumented workers are rounded up and vanish from their families for weeks or months. Militarized police units break down the doors of some 40,000 Americans a year and haul them away in the dead of night as if they were enemy combatants. Habeas corpus no longer exists. American citizens can ‘legally’ be assassinated”: here.

17 thoughts on “Kafka’s Penal Colony on stage

  1. I have also seen this play in Ghent! What impressed me was the almost childish, dependent way in which the officer defends the torture machine. Of course, his job, the whole meaning of his existence depends on it.
    Guantanamo Bay offers a lot of meaning to the guards and their superiors, their jobs and a whole ‘way of life’, a set of ‘beliefs’ about who is inferior and who is a threat. A sad system. Barack Obama should pay attention to it very soon indeed.
    Greetings, Gerie


  2. Hi Gerie, thanks for commenting. Indeed Obama should pay attention to this. But to really close down Guantanamo (and other torture prisons like Bagram in Afghanistan etc.) and really stop torture, he needs to get rid of lots of top people in CIA, Pentagon, etc. Will he dare to do that?


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