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In the Penal Colony

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Wurlitzer, Rudolph (American librettist, screen playwright), “In the Penal Colony,”

a 90-minute pocket opera adapted from a Franz Kafka (source Austrian writer, 1883-1924) short story into a libretto by Wurlitzer (American librettist, screen playwright), with music by Philip Glass (American composer, January 31, 1937-20__), set on an African prison island, 1907.


 •  © 2000 by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Philip Glass;  •  reviewed by Stephen Kinser, “A Pocket-Size Opera From a Harrowing Kafka Story,” The New York Times, December 6, 2000, The Living Arts section, p. B2.

  §  Dramatis Personae The Visitor (m), an observer; The Officer/Eugene (m), supervisor of the execution/twin of the Execution Officer; The Commentator (m), Kafka.

  §  Synopsis An officer at a prison camp confronts a visitor who has come to witness an execution not by hanging or firing squad but by a gruesomely efficient, barbaric machine that tattoos prisoners with a system of plunging antique needles, inflicting up to twelve hours of unspeakable torment before the death of the victim. The camp’s former commander, a genius at devising pain, left this machine as his legacy, and his influence reaches its peak in The Officer, who takes great pride in efficiency.

  §  Another Synopsis Kafka observes and comments on the events occurring in the Penal Colony. A European Visitor arrives to witness the execution of a soldier condemned to death. He has been invited by the New Commander of the Penal Colony, who has begun to question the method of punishment still in place from the former Commanders regime. The Visitor meets the Officer in charge of the execution, who is performing the final preparations on the machine. The Officer describes the machines three distinct components: the bed where the prisoner is laid, the draftsman which controls the writing of the harrow, and the harrow itself, with its teeth-like needles which inscribe the commandment that the prisoner has broken onto his body. The Officer then relates the
condemned mans offense: insubordination. The Officer quotes his Old Commander's philosophy: guilt is always beyond
doubt. Thus, this man can be executed without a chance to defend himself. He explains how the condemned man is to experience his punishment—the needles will etch for six hours onto his skin: Honor Thy Superior. The condemned man is then brought to the machine, stripped, and placed onto the bed. As the harrow descends, a strap breaks and the machine stops. The Officer begs the Visitor to give a positive report on the execution which would convince the New Commander of the efficacy and importance of this method of capital punishment. The Visitor replies that he cannot do this because he still opposes the procedure, and, in any case, he is to depart early the next day. Suddenly, the Officer sets the condemned man free. He then presents the Visitor with a piece of paper and asks him to read it, but the Visitor cannot decipher the script. The Officer reads aloud Be Thou Just, and then proceeds to take his fate into his own hands. . . .”—Liz Engelman, Dramaturg, ACT, Court Theatre: In the Penal Colony Playnotes, http://courttheatre.uchicago.edu/features/penalnotes.html, accessed December 7, 2000.

  §  Comment Premiered earlier in 2000 at A Contemporary Theater. in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. Off Broadway premiere is scheduled at the Classic Stage Company, June 6, 2001. The production reviewed here was at the Court Theater, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. in December, 2000.  •  Stephen Kinser writes, “Philip Glass wrote the music to what he calls this ‘pocket opera,’ and the production is directed by his longtime collaborator and former wife, JoAnne Akalaitis. It is compact, reflecting the advantages of this form over the full-scale opera, which, with its range of characters, elaborate costuming and other features, is vastly more expensive and difficult to mount. . . . ‘I came across this story probably 40 years ago when I was at the University of Chicago,’ Mr. Glass said. ‘It took that long for me to write the piece. The theme of enlightenment or transfiguration is what motivated me. There’s a crucial moment when we find out that the old commander used to want children to have priority during the executions, to be right down in front. He says that at this moment, knowledge and understanding floods their faces. If you listen to the music, it’s hard to miss that.’ Although the former commander is no linger living and thus does not appear in the story or in this production, his figure hovers over the whole proceeding. He represents the extremes to which some people are willing to go in order to achieve what they consider pure justice. . . . ‘It’s always risky interfering in other peoples’ business,’ the visitor sings at one point. ‘I oppose this procedure, but I will not intervene.’ As the officer supervising the execution, Herbert Perry conveys single-minded dedication to his calling, which is to run the machine. His passion for it brings the story to its violent climax. In Kafka’s story only these two men speak, but in the opera there is a third speaking character, a commentator in the form of Kafka himself. He speaks words that Ms. Akalaitis culled from Kakfa’s diaries. . . . ‘In the Penal Colony,’ one of the few stories Kafka published in his lifetime, is less than 25 pages long, yet it is so disturbing that some readers cannot finish it in a single sitting. Mr. Glass’s opera is not so devastating. . . . .”  •  "A world premiere produced in collaboration with A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle. A visitor comes to witness an execution by a machine of capital punishment which he deems as antiquated and inhumane. But the colony’s presiding officer cannot imagine justice without this machine, his ‘work of a lifetime.’ On the surface, Kafka wrote of capital punishment and justice, but as his tale unfolds we see a struggle between enlightenment and the conquering of the human spirit. Philip Glass’ haunting score for two opera singers and string quintet brings Kafka’s masterpiece to life. Mr. Glass, Ms. Akalaitis and a brilliant design team will create a rare and innovative piece of music, theatre and movement."—Court Theatre: Classics Online, In the Penal Colony, http://courttheatre.uchicago.edu/features/penal.html, accessed December 7, 2000.  •  Direction by JoAnne Akalaitis, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, set design by John Conklin, music played by the string quintet Metropolitan String Ensemble of Seattle.

  §  Themes atrocity, commentator, dedication, execution, enlightenment, intervention, justice, Kafka (Franz Kafka, Austrian writer 1883-1924), opera, pocket opera, short story adaptation, torture, transfiguration.

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