Any reader familiar with Franz Kafka’s Metamorphoses would agree without doubt that that work concerns itself with alienation of the self. We see the protagonist being isolated from his family due to the odd working hours he is subjected to, he is part of the proletariat machine. Furthermore his transformation into a beetle one morning leaves him remarkable distanced from his family in that now he will spent the rest of his living days locked up in his room. However this subversion of his position in terms of his relationship with his family, as much as it imprisons him, in the long run it liberates his family, which had been dependent on him for its livelihood, to fend for itself and realizes that it actually did not have to rely on him to get by – that there is life without him.
Kafka’s A report to an Academy deals with a similar situation as far as politics of power and control expressed in one’s alienation are concerned. If in Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa turns into a Beetle to be further alienated from his family in addition to his work as a sales persons, in A Report to an Academy Adam is alienated from his apehood in order to survive captivity. The self transformation he goes through in order to be humanized distance him from his original self. He looses himself at the expense of becoming free as a human being in order to avoid being placed in a Zoological Garden. The success of his transformation into a talking ape begs the attention of the Scientific Academy Society, he is called to give a report of his previous life experience as an ape. His report to the Scientific Academy is not deliverable due to the fact that he has lost the memory of that life due to the transformation that his mind has been subjected to.
I had recently had the opportunity to see Sello Maake Ka Ncube’s performance of Adam in A Report to an Academy on show at the South African State Theatre and I find my self at a loss of words in describing the sterling performance he gave as Adam. However I doubly feel inspired to jot the present piece.
The set, minimal with animated charcoal drawings projected at the back of the rostrum at the opening of the scene was impressive. The background was white and flowed from a giant scrawl on which the projection was thrown. As Adam walked into the set – he carried the globe of the earth made from wires with the continents cut from cans.
Remarkable also in the opening of the act was the modern approach of merging the fictional world and the real world which was employed when Adam revealed to the audience that one of the interesting things that he learned from the humans was to shake hands; at that point he invited one member of the audience to shake his hand; eliminating the fictional textuality of the play in process. He then proceeded to narrate the tale of how he came to be able to speak and walk like humans. We learn that he was captured in the Equatoria, caged, brought on board a ship filled with other cages within which there were other exotic animals bound for Europe. Adam points out that it is inherent within an animal to contemplate escape in such dire state of captivity and he immediately did likewise. However as he banged his head against the steel bars of his cage he realized that the act itself was futile. He reasoned that even if he were to be able to get out of the cage and jump into the ocean his freedom would be short lived in that he would soon drown. Thus he had to come up with another means of escape which would not pose danger to his life, this then sets the tone for his self enculturation into the human ways. He learns human behavior from the shipmates who frequent his cage. Interestingly one of the lessons he painstakingly had to learn is how to drink Whisky, however he has remained forgetful of rubbing his belly afterwards as it was the habit of his teacher.
It is this Whisky drinking that would set him apart from the other animals when it came to either being sent to the Zoological Garden or the Music Hall. In the narrative Adam points out that there is no logic in being send to the Zoological Garden – for there is lack of freedom. Amusingly the word ‘Zoo’ is the first word he learnt to utter in mastering human speech.
There comes a moment in the unfolding of the dramatic performance riding on soliloquy delivery where Adam tells of an event at the Musical Hall where his captives abandons him in his cage and a particular gentleman places a bottle of whisky absent mindedly near his cage and having learnt the whisky drinking method used by humans he takes the whisky and ‘methodically’ un-cogs it and drinks the entire contents of the bottle much to the amazement of the human onlookers. As he finishes the bottle one of the onlookers murmurs the words
And these words are spread throughout the crowed. Adam points out how that murmur felt like a caress that filled him with an ecstatic feeling simply because he had achieved a human act and the humans were acknowledging him, the animal, the ape – the other. It is at this point that the genius performance of Maake ka Ncube explodes when he spread his arms akimbo in an ape like fashion mimicking that of a human who has triumphed in accomplishing an exceptional feat.
This ‘other’, Adams highlights again when he speaks about the female Oran-utan with whom he has his way now and then, is confusion; He points out that She, the Oran-utan, has a mad look about herself which is characteristic of the semi trained chimpanzees. Which, because it is in the mid point of training, it is torn between the known and the unknown outlooks as far as life experiences are concerned. We can infer that he is here talking about the mid point of his own transformation – the breaking point into loss of previous identity, which has in itself a naturalized behavior inherent in apehood (the uncivilized) and the door step into human conception of reality.
What the audience learns at the end of the play is that the report itself is a critique on Adam’s achievement in mimicking human behavior. The vulnerability of human civilization, by default European, is thus cast in stalk light and questioned as to its validity in being unique and of the highest order ever achievable by any being in the planet. Adam, though his passage to Europe began as that of a captive, it concludes as that of a master to whom humans bow in their hunger to understand the phenomena that has transpired.
The pity state that the humans, the Academy, find itself as far as understanding the remarkable transformation of Adam is concerned is beyond their control; it is beyond bounds of the civilized race – the human, the European.
I find it quite disappointing that this play has not received the critical acclaim that it deserves through our media. Is it because the question of power in our state has become a thorny issue? In this little writing I have given an interpretation of the play that has its roots in revisionist leanings, the reader wouldn’t be wrong in gathering that that revisionist interpretation is post colonial in nature. Perhaps Kafka could have meant something else as far as Adam as a sign was suppose to signify. Perhaps he meant the European mastery over the savage when he thought up the plot for the narrative. But I cannot help reading more into the text. I am not ignorant of the polysemic nature of the interpretation of the sign as far as the signified is concerned. That it is subjective. However my historical positioning privileges me to read into the play what I feel is relevant: Africa’s relation to the west and by this in the context of the play – Europe, on the one hand. And on the other hand I can give a Marxist critique by saying the proletariat’s position (Adam’s position in his former life) in relation to the capitalist (Eurocentric ideals) are inaccessible to the capitalist. That once the proletariat has been won over into the capitalist’s fraternity, that fraternity finds it difficult to access problems and experiences he was subjected to in his former position as a subservient subject once the transformation into the bourgeois class has been complete; ironically he himself (the new bourgeois) is barred from accessing his former experiences due to the ‘survival of the fittest’ phenomena, inherent in all animals including man. Thus his former self is suppressed. We would no longer connect with the working class, the connecting thread is severed forever and the remaining proletariat remains at a subservient position.
© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2009