This paper examines life as a continuous string of theatrical performances where people are actors acting the act. This view of life will be closely examined in relation to the ideas presented in Kafkas book The Castle (1997). Firstly, this paper gives an introduction into some of the main ideas presented in the book and then how these ideas relate to the notion of roles that people play in their everyday, societal lives. Using roles to present peoples everyday lives is the tool to study life in the way expressed by Shakespeare when he wrote the world is a stage and all men and women are merely players. If people are always playing a role then the inevitable question what is real becomes a major concern in our lives. This idea is closely studied in relation to what Goffman (1959) has named as the divide between the conscious and the unconscious intellect.
What follows then is an example from a business organization used as a metaphor to show the similarities between what happens on stage in theatres and a board meeting of the directors of that organization. A central focus is the divide between the backstage and the front stage. In the backstage, invisible and unknown to the audience things take place whereas in the front stage the only spatial relationships that exist are those known to the audience. Some very interesting points are then given from an interview conducted with an actor from the Theatrical Organization of Cyprus (THOC). Remarks about The Castle and how this relates to the theatricalities presented in our lives will conclude the paper.
In his book The Castle, Franz Kafka reflects a view of life as a proliferation of obstacles splitting off into more obstacles. This paper will examine this view of life in relation to an ongoing research that tries to use the theatrical metaphor to understand organizational and societal life. Shakespeare wrote that the world is a stage and all men and women are merely players. It is in exactly this sense that life is a group of obstacles that split into more obstacles and more obstacles. If in the Shakespearian sense we are all actors on a stage then when we try to understand our lives both in the society and in organizations, we are all bounded by acts and actors and not by the true meaning and intentions of the people surrounding us. In The Castle, the main protagonist K. is in a constant and endless search of the way to the Castle. The Castle is always there, as firm and as powerful as ever, yet K. never finds the way to reach the Castle which culminates into his scope for life. It is because of the relations between the people in the village that surround him, that Ks journey is endless and quite impossible to reach an end.
A central concern of this paper is this period of transition from one role to the next, the points at which roles give place to new roles. It is fascinating to explore what happens during this period of change within the human mind. Kafka (1997, p.128) makes an interesting point in The Castle, it almost seemed a vigorous intelligent far-sighted man spoke, but who then the next minute, without transition, was a mere schoolboy who failed to consider a good many questions. This gives rise to a few good points to consider like what happens in the human mind during this period of transition from one role to the following or what actually happens when there is literally no time to effect this transition just as with this intelligent far-sighted man in Kafkas passage. There can be problems when people expect you to change roles without having the proper time to effect this transition just as what the gentlemen expected of the barmaid in The Castle, the gentlemen didn’t have the patience to wait and see how you developed but wanted immediately without transition to have a proper barmaid. Even then though there is always the possibility of manipulating the situation in our own way when she was at work all doubts disappeared, she thought of herself as the loveliest girl in the world and knew just how to plant the idea in every head (Kafka, 1997, p.261).
Using the Shakespearian metaphor of the world and people as stage and actors, this paper will examine how the ideas presented by Kafka in The Castle do represent many realities of our lives. Why do we feel the need to play a role, or to act our behavior before we engage with certain people, how visible or invisible are the masks that we are assuming in every engagement, are all central themes in this paper in an effort to seek an answer to the multiple transitions of ourselves but at the same time an answer to this multiplicity of relations that split into more and more endless obstacles to overcome.
2. General ideas presented in The Castle – the notion of roles
In The Castle, everything is covered by a layer of snow, duplicating every shape and making it more and more indistinguishable. People are addressed with different identities according to the context and the people surrounding them there were places where he was addressed as a freeman..there were places where he was frankly or by implication treated as a minor employee (Kafka, 1997, p.22). The possibility of achieving something contrary to the norm regulations and traditions is presented; if at one instant you are that but since at another instant you can be something else, then if at any instant you can are capable of being something else from what people expect you. At the same time, the impossibility of reaching the most visible is presented too; through the eyes of K. (the main protagonist in the book) the outlines of the castle started dissolving yet the castle laid there as still as ever the eyes kept wanting to, they refused to accept the stillness. The watchers gaze found no purchase and kept sliding away, the longer K. looked the less he could make out, the deeper everything sank into semi-darkness (Kafka, 1997, p.89).
The following is an excellent comment reflecting how someone can possess different roles, which sometimes can be quite contradicting he looks quite different when he arrives in the village and different when he leaves it, different before he is drinking beer, different afterwards, different awake, different asleep, different alone, different in conversation, and, understandably after all this, almost totally different up in the castle (Kafka, 1997, p.158). A pessimistic view of the above may be that life is probably a pointless journey, a probably empty hope for achieving the unknown. An optimistic view may be that you can always catch someone outside of the context that you usually encounter him, where no laws apply and they are governed by their own, true insatiable desires.
In other words, what is presented as a relatively simple task to do, K. reaching the Castle, is quite subverted into an impossible task because of the roles that people are playing in every engagement with other people. What we are seeing here is that every individual possesses a host of many different roles, appropriating each one according to whether he is alone, with certain other people, to the bar, or at work. If in our every encounter with other people those other people are always playing a role appropriated to our own engagement with them so as to manipulate us and get more from us from the same situation then it is natural to feel that even the most seemingly easy and obvious things to do are in fact quite impossible. Just like K. arrives in the village and wants to reach the Castle which lies there as powerful as ever, what lies between where K. is and the Castle makes this a very difficult task to accomplish. It is not simply a matter of considering on the surface how easy it is to go from point A to point B but much more complicated and deeper than that is to actually find the best way to go from A to B.
3. The Castle and the theatrical metaphor
What has been said about The Castle so far, is summarized by Craigs (1998) term social identities and the idea of life as consisting of interactions between different people, in different settings, at different times. Goffmans comment is also useful individuals meet under a temporary truce, a working consensus, in order to get their business done (Goffman, 1959, p.73). In other words, individuals adapt their behavior according to the characteristics of the particular people they are engaged with and the particular setting that they find themselves into. In every encounter, individuals apply one of their roles most suitable to get the most out of each situation. In essence this may mean that we are always preconditioned to act in a certain way in every encounter. This is in many ways similar to the preconditioned act that actors put on theatrical stages which is sometimes contrary to how these actors actually feel about the role that they are putting on stage. Theatres therefore present a useful metaphor to understand many aspects of our lives.
In a similar sense, and borrowing a phrase from Hopfl (forthcoming), in theatres, nothing is what it seems and it is the place where the most revealing transformations take place. In other words, going a bit further from Goffmans analysis of how individuals adapt their behavior, people can be seen as the actors of everyday life, the different contexts/settings as synonymous with theatrical stages, and the everyday behavior of these unseen actors as the performed act. Kafka gives an interesting account of the above through his main protagonist K. in the finishing lines of The Castle; you are not just a landlady, as you pretend; you wear dresses that don’t suite a landlady and are like no one else in this village wears (Kafka, 1997, p.279). Here Kafka raises an interesting point in that he tries to match the name of the role, in this case the landlady, with what would be suitable to wear for that role. In this particular incident and according to K, there is a major mismatch between the clothes that the landlady wears and the way she acts her particular role as landlady. In other words, the mask doesn’t fit with the role and it raises in fact questions about our ability to ever distinguish between how an actor acts in his role and what is the true meaning behind those actions.
4. The Castle andwhat is real
One of the most central concerns of this paper is the idea of masks and masking and trying to answer the question what is real, in other words where does true reality lay if there is any. According to Goffman:
It is probably no mere historical incident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role. It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves. (Goffman, 1959, p.30)
In a similar sense, Kafka points in The Castle that it was because of him (K.), that the gentlemen had been unable to emerge from their rooms, because in the morning, having just woken up, they were too ashamed, too vulnerable, no matter that they were fully dressed, felt too naked to show themselves (Kafka, 1997, p.252). Interesting is the term used here dressed but yet too naked. Try to imagine the meaning of this phrase with the following dressed, but not with the appropriate mask being worn. Whereas the first phrase indicates that the gentlemen were actually dressed but not as ready yet to put on a particular performance, the second phrase indicates that the gentlemen were dressed but they didn’t have time to prepare themselves for the appropriate morning mask. According to Kundera, people are always anxious of how their image will appear into the eyes of other people he is anxiously scanning the eyes of the young people he is addressing, watching his own image. He checks the firmness and manliness of his words in the eyes of his audience (1973, p.163). This may mean that whereas we are vastly concerned about to prepare our mask to fit with our appropriate for the particular instant role, we are equally concerned with how will our addressors judge this fit between the mask and the role. In other words, it may be that it doesn’t matter as such how we feel about what we are doing as long as we manage to give to other people the impression of an intentioned role most successfully carried out.
If we therefore accept the fact that people are always wearing a mask, always playing a role then it is natural to question the reality of acts and actions around us. How do we know that our encounter with particular people an instant ago was real? How do we know that what those other people were not saying one thing but would actually prefer to say another? Think of the times that you have been in a plane, especially those times that you enter the plane before the take off and those times that you exit the plane just after landing. One of the most vivid things that are happening at these points of entry and exit are the hellos and goodbyes from those that have served you during the flight, the cabin crew members. My guess is that in at least half of those times the cabin crew members wouldnt say a hello or a goodbye if they were given the choice to say something else, whatever that may be. Their ability to say something, or better the restricted set of words that they are allowed to use during those times is directly tied to the costume that they are wearing, and the role that they have to play just before, during, and just after the flight. The characteristic of this situation is that certain people, the customers, do know that there is a performance taking place but even then we have to consider which things go on consciously and which unconsciously.
5. The Castle and the divide between the conscious and the unconscious
Goffman argues that roles are always being played, either consciously or unconsciously. This divide according to Irigaray is responsible for an upsetting contradiction which is the characteristic operation of the unconscious that always inevitably upsets the conscious discourse (Irigaray, 1985, p.110). In the same sense Messinger et al talk of the perspective of being on treating activities as performances, other people as audiences, and the world as a series of scenes (Messinger et al., 1975, p.107). For the gentlemen in The Castle this was indeed a problem especially when they are getting out of their everyday roles when the gentlemen get out of their desks, that’s what they are; they don’t know how to cope with the world (Kafka, 1997, p.175).
In other words this may mean that there are always 2 sets of roles being played; those that people are playing unconsciously and those that people are playing consciously. In the first case, unconscious roles take place without a particular preparation of the forthcoming act and this is perhaps tied up with the simple everyday life; going to the newsagent, talking to a friend on the street, going to the cinema. In the second case, conscious roles need a particular intentioned and well thought out preparation to make sure that everything goes well. These roles can be imagined to be tied up with more important issues; meeting with your boss, going out on a very important date, doing a presentation in a conference. Some of us here in the conference are presenting for the first time and some of us have done it so many times that it has actually become a habit. For those of us that are presenting for the first time, preparing for this conference can possibly take more time during which a lot of time will be spend on trying to imagine things like how should I start, how is it going to feel having all those eyes directed at me. For those that have made numerous presentations in conferences in the past these questions don’t exist simply because they have already encountered with them in the past and we have a trained way of how to deal with them. In other words the role that used to be prepared consciously is now so much in their system that it is actually being prepared more or less unconsciously.
5.1 The Castle and the idea of a dual consciousness / personality
In her paper Playing the part (2002), Hopfl raises the issue of people possessing a dual consciousness and personality. This is in some ways similar to the Goffmanian conscious and unconscious roles which when they come together they lead to a contradiction between the true self and the role to be played. Hopfl argues that the separation of the act-action-acting from the actors experience has been regarded as the most significant achievement of the actors skill; a willingness to submit to the performance – I can play this role because I am detached from it (2002, p.260). In other words it can be argued that the most successful actors are those that are able to make a division between their true self and the role that they are playing on stage.
Successful actors are those that have the charisma of being able to make use of the unavoidable contradiction when the conscious comes to meet the unconscious. The Greek word hepocrisia or hypocrisy means playing a role entirely different from what you truly feel at the particular instant. As Hopfl puts it hypocrisy is the skills which permits performance, which masks the actor and achieves the concealment of the actors true character (2002, p.263). It is the actors achievement to professionalize the two-facedness of the self and the role that he is carrying with him simultaneously. It is perhaps for this reason that Kafka argues that unconscious harmony is traded for the conscious intellect (Kafka, 1997, p.xv).
6. The Castle and acting the act in organizations
The following example of an organisations board meeting is an interesting metaphor of what has been said so far. During the informal board meeting of an organisation in the summer of 1983, Mangham (1986) gives an example of an incident of a perfect theatricality taking place; George, this time with much less aggression, appears to be keen to skip through the text as quickly as possible, making reassuring noises to his colleagues, that what they have in front of them conforms very broadly to what we agreed at our last meeting (Mangham, 1986, p.20). Within seconds, one other board member appears to be hesitant to the figures in front of him; that wasn’t what we agreed last time (Mangham, 1986, p.21). Two things are shown here; George is acting differently in this incident (with less aggression) because he and the other members have done something for which another member (Alec) would possibly disagree. Some board members thus put on a performed play where George is quickly shuffling through the text, is less aggressive and keeps repeating that the information is the one that was agreed last time. This is an intentional effort to make Alec go through the text equally quickly so that he wouldn’t notice the difference in the figures. In other words, George and the other board members act in a certain way to avoid making Alec aware of certain information that they wouldn’t like him to be aware of.
This example is in many ways similar to what happens at various instances in our lives in general. We shouldn’t forget that in the boundaries of our workplace we probably spend more time than in any other place, sometimes even from our home. And the very fact that we go to work lists a whole set of things that we need to do before going to work and after we leave work. Work starts at say 9 o’clock in the morning but in order to be there at 9 o’clock in the morning we need to get up 1-2 hours earlier so as to start putting ourselves together and dressing ourselves with the appropriate for work costume, which will then help us to assume the particular role and subsequent act for work. In the example of the above meeting, George and his associates knew from the time they got up in the morning that they would need to act in a particular way (going through the papers as quickly as possible, making the reassuring noises) in order to get their business done for the day (not allow Alec to become aware of the difference in the figures presented to him). So George and his associates started their preparation for their role during the organisational board meeting well before the actual commencement of the meeting.
It can therefore be said that the workplace isn’t only the physical infrastructure of our organisation. The mask, the role, the act, the setting of work does not come together only as soon as we enter the workplace and disappear as soon as we leave it. The workplace can be extended to minutes, hours before and after we leave the workplace. I am sure that you spend anything from minutes to hours during different nights just after you switch off your bed-light, thinking and planning in your mind the particulars of the following day trying to imagine how you would behave in the different meetings that you plan to have. Think of this conference that we are about to have in Krakow; does the acting of it involve only the time of our arrival and registration at the conference to the time everyone goes back home? Think of those that are going to do a 20-minute presentation; does the acting involve only the time from the beginning to the end of the presentation? Although this is not to say that all our time in Krakow is necessarily acting the act like in the above example, it is a fact that our preparation for the four days of the conference and in particular for the 20 minutes of each presentation will involve preparing for the acting of the act well before the actual gathering in Krakow and the commencement of the different presentations. The different times before, during and after the act closely relate to the following ideas which discuss the role of the theatrical backstage and front stage in our lives.
7. The backstage and the front stage of The Castle
In the effort to use the theatrical metaphor to understand societal and organisational life, one of the central concerns of this paper is to explore what we know in theatres as backstage and front stage. The backstage world, as Hopfl argues, is the territory in which the actor perfects his craft in order to enter and exit the role with practised facility (2002, p.265). In other words the backstage offers the actor the appropriate place in order to assume the role and mount on stage. The backstage is owned by the actor it is the place offered to him to appropriate his role and give the performance expected of him on stage. It gives the time desired by the actor to prepare his role, leave his self in the corner and enter a new self, the self associated with the role on stage. When the backstage is absent then the actor feels to naked to play his role, just like with the gentlemen in The Castle mentioned above, who had been unable to emerge from their rooms just because an intruder, K., was present on their backstage which was transformed, just because of this intruder, into another front stage setting.
Wiles, raises an interesting point here when he argues that on the theatrical stage there are spatial relationships visible to the spectator (1997, p.114), implying that in theatres both the actors and the audience are aware of a performed act taking place. On the contrary, this may mean that on the organisational stage where the actors are both the employees and the employers, there are both visible but also invisible spatial relationships. The two stages presented here, the theatrical and the organisational, can be associated with front stage and backstage situations respectively. In the former situation, the theatrical performance is the front stage performance because there is nothing hidden from the spectators, from the audience. In the latter situation, the organisational performance is the backstage performance because there are always spatial relationships invisible to the spectators. The gentlemen felt quite uncomfortable at the presence of K. because he entered their backstage and he was in a position to observe the, unseen to the public eye, relations that could possibly make him change his mind about these gentlemen when they were acting on their front stage (castle).
This distinction between the backstage and the front stage setting of everyday and theatrical life presents us with something unique. It is the moment where the performer leaves his region or returns back to it, it is the place where he puts on or takes off his performed character. Control of the backstage gives actors the opportunity to buffer themselves from the deterministic demands that surround them (Goffman, 1959, p.116). It gives them the opportunity to relax, let go the speaking lines of his acting self and step out of the performed character. According to Goffman (1959, p.83) the performance serves mainly to express the characteristics of the task that is performed and not the characteristics of the performer. It is perhaps to the actors ability to give the impression of the closest link possible between the performance taking place and the true self of the actor.
7.1 Interviewing an actor from the Cypriot Theatrical Organisation (THOC)
About a month ago, I had a very interesting discussion with an actor from the Cypriot Theatrical Organisation (THOC) on different aspects of his work. One of the most important points that George raised was that the roles being played on the theatrical stage are quite numerous and important. Roles can range from the family man to the teacher, and they contain values that are violated from the media, the public thus creating conscious differences between different roles. According to him, this meant that he possesses a number of roles and his ability to play them successfully is the conscious knowledge of the fact that he is playing different roles that are some times contrary to the values he has for himself.
In relation to the previous section, of the most important settings in the life of an actor, are the backstage and front stage ones. We shouldn’t forget that in passing from the backstage to the front stage, the on the wings state used by Hopfl et al. (forthcoming), there is a certain time for which the person in everyday life or the actor before mounting on stage, should make best use of. Theatres give a wonderful opportunity in exploring an actor who, being between the backstage and the front stage, has minimal time to prepare himself before entering his performance. Being questioned on this, George said that there are many ways that an actor can pre-prepare himself for the period just before he enters the theatrical stage. One way can be that an actor can make bodily exercises minutes, or hours, before the performance. Another way can be that an actor exercises only those certain parts of the performance that involve particular distinctive expressions. In some cases, an actor doesn’t prepare at all and just mounts on stage. George believes that every performance has its own special requirements and the good actor needs to discover them and use them to his own advantage. Due to the multiplicity of roles that an actor has to play in his life, and due to the fact that these roles grow more complicated from everyday life, one of the best things that the actor has to do is to relax and let go all those things that can complicate the role. In other words, the key to the on the wings state is to decompress from the schizophrenia involved in the actors life.
It has been mentioned previously that the gentlemen in The Castle, didn’t have the patience to wait and see how you developed but wanted immediately without transition, to have a proper barmaid (Kafka, p.1997, p.261). The gentlemens impatience positions the barmaid in exactly the same position as an actor just before he enters the theatrical stage. One of the best abilities of a good actor is perhaps to practise himself so that whether he has seconds or hours or days, he can transform himself to this role without the proper transition time just like the barmaid manages to do when she was at work all doubts disappeared, she thought of herself as the loveliest girl in the world and knew just how to plant the idea in every head (Kafka, p.1997, p.261).
This idea of planting a self into peoples minds is very important. George said that his own personality is created and shaped from within the theatrical performances. This may mean that the audience never has a complete whole picture even of the most distinguishable roles like Hamlets. The barmaid is just a barmaid in that instant when she has to serve the customers in the bar. In all other instances she is not a barmaid but something else, she is a lot of other different selves at different moments. The power to play each of our roles and mostly moving from one role to another, lays in the ability of the actor to find a way to do these transitions unconsciously. As George said, the actor needs to recognise the particulars of each theatrical performance; the setting, the role, the audience.
The audience; one shouldn’t forget that every performance and every role is followed by an audience. There is no theatre without an audience. And it may be that the actor lives several different lives simultaneously (Kundera, 1973, p.197). The oxymoron is that at the same time, as it is mentioned in a previous section, a good actor can play this role because he is detached from it (Hopfl, 2002, p.260). In other words the good actor lives several different lives all at once but at the same time in order to be able to live them he must be detached from them so that he gives the impression to his audience that he is what he actually performs at that particular moment.
This paper has mainly concentrated on exploring the theatricalities of everyday, organisational and theatrical life. One of the focal points is that the earth is a worldwide stage and all humans are players acting certain roles. In this world everybody is playing a role whether this is taking place in organisations, in theatres or in simple everyday encounters. There may be differences in the settings but the idea is that in organisations and societal life there is always a theatricality conquering our actions just like when we are watching a play on a theatrical stage. In a similar sense, the village and K.s quest for reaching the Castle is another theatrical stage where everybody is playing his or her role in throwing obstacles on K.s way to the Castle.
K.s discovery of the landlady’s different dresses in her wardrobe at the end of the book is quite dramatic and open to numerous interpretations. The position of this paper is that K finds himself between the backstage and the front stage of the village/castle setting. In a single moment the landlady’s room is transformed into the place where an actor finds himself seconds before he is about to mount on stage; in other words on the wings. K. realises that there is something weird going on; the landlady has dresses that don’t suite her role as a landlady. Maybe then for K. the landlady is not only a landlady. She is a landlady whenever it suits her. But she can be a lot of other things; she can play a lot of other roles relative to the requirements of each particular instance. K. perhaps ceases to be the nave audience the nave spectator who is driven by the desires of the roles that the actors are performing. He enters into the backstage of the landlady and violates the space where the actor, the landlady, can put on and take off her role. He is himself in a backstage. Without realising it perhaps K. has been playing a role to.
Now K. can see the spatial relationships that were invisible to him since he came to the village. He can see beyond the front stage of the theatre where only visible to the spectator spatial relationships exist. He himself is transformed from the simple spectator to an actor. He realizes that he has been an actor in a theatrical play for which he didn’t know that it existed, for which he wasn’t aware that he was part of. Now perhaps he can understand why the gentlemen didn’t want him to be on their own backstage. Now perhaps he can understand why the gentlemen once they get out of their desks they don’t know how to cope with the world. One can say that it all comes down to the very first lines of the introduction; life is a proliferation of obstacles splitting off into more obstacles. Or it may be that the roles that people play, consciously or unconsciously, are obstacles on their own and the interaction between these roles/obstacles splits off into more roles/obstacles and so forth.
If we accept the view that we actually consist of a number of different and often contradictory roles and if we accept the view that even the most well known roles, like Hamlets mentioned above, have aspects that are not known to everybody then Irigarays remark is intriguing on the social level, how can one take part in social life when one has no available currency, when one possesses nothing of one’s own to put in relation to the properties of the other, or others (Irigaray, 1985, p.119). If therefore, and according to George’s comment above, we don’t have something of our own but a bit of each of the roles we have learned to perform up to a certain point in our lives, then what lays between the now and going schizophrenic is whether we are playing the different roles unconsciously or consciously. Going schizophrenic isn’t necessarily our end. On the contrary, and according to George, going schizophrenic is equated with the ability of people to put on and take off roles whether in everyday life, in organisations or in theatres. It is our ability to recognise our different roles and at the same time detaching ourselves from them keeping the role most associated for the present situation.
Craig, I. (1998) Experiencing Identity, London: Sage Publications
Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, London: Penguin
Hopfl, H. (2002) Playing the part: reflections on aspects of mere performance in the customer-client relationship, Journal of Management Studies, Vol.39 (2), pp.255-267
Hopfl, H. el al. (2006) On the Wings, Forthcoming
Irigaray, L. (1985) Speculum of the Other Woman, New York: Cornell University Press
Kafka, F. (1997) The Castle, London: Penguin
Kundera, M. (1973) Life is Elsewhere, London: Faber and Faber Limited
Mangham, I. (1986) Power and performance in Organizations, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd
Messinger, S. et al. (1975) Life as theater: some notes on the dramaturgic approach to social reality, In Brissett, D. & Edgley, C. (eds), Life as theater: a dramaturgical sourcebook, Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company
Wiles, D. (1997) Tragedy in Athens, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press