Theatre: Whoops, professor, there go my trousers

Alan Bennett's play Kafka's Dick is a `philosophical farce'. But isn't that a contradiction in terms?

The wittiest definition of a philosophical farce was provided by James Fenton back in the days when he was theatre critic of the Sunday Times. Reviewing Michael Frayn's Balmoral, he contended that, in this kind of drama, "the trousers of an Idea are discovered around its ankles, a Notion is interrupted in bed with a Postulate, or a Proposition sets its foot on a banana skin. To adapt the standard definition: ordinary men are discovered in extraordinary situations because of extraordinary reasoning."

Notions with their knickers in a twist, the sine qua non for this form of farce, are in abundant supply in Kafka's Dick, the Alan Bennett comedy which opens next week in its first London revival directed by Peter Hall. It's an astutely equivocal play about the English vice of prurient literary biography ("In England, facts like that pass for culture. Gossip is the acceptable face of intellect") and about a writer's ambivalent relationship to same. Kafka is an ideal focus for this discussion, because he shrank from the intrusion of having his fiction - let alone his life - pored over by posterity. The play begins, however, with a scene that casts doubt on the sincerity with which the dying Czech author ordered his friend, Max Brod, to burn his writings.

Bennett creates an ingenious farce scenario for testing Kafka's qualms by having him and Brod materialise decades later in the suburban Leeds home of Sydney, an insurance man and confirmed Kafka buff who is writing an article about his hero for the trade journal Small Print. If Brod had kept his word, of course, Sydney's shelves would not be groaning with the products of the tireless Kafka industry (Kafka's Loneliess, the Agony of Kafka etc). Cue a scene in which Brod and Sydney desperately try to sneak away all these offending volumes behind the back of our genius, who is still supremely ignorant of his posthumous celebrity.

There's a wry twist in this, though. Farce is a form normally populated by frighteningly single minded characters. But Kafka, like the author of Kafka's Dick, is chronically in two minds about everything. So in one strand of the play, there's a calculated, drolly revealing mismatch between the genre and the leading character who is writhingly only half horrified to discover he is a literary legend. The further joke is that as well as being the figure from whom things must be hidden, he is also the figure who has something embarrassing to hide. To conceal the fact that he has a tiny penis, he will have to rewrite the biographical record and deny that his overbearing father was a big prick.

Philosophical farce works best if there's an intriguing conceptual relationship between form and content, even when, as in Kafka's Dick, it consists in a witty discrepancy. Perhaps the most devilishly clever, neo-Stoppardian marriage between these elements to date was pulled off by Terry Johnson's 1993 play Hysteria which is set in the mind of Sigmund Freud shortly before he died from cancer. The aged psychoanalyst has just, we are led to believe, been to see the famous Ben Travers farce Rookery Nook. What follows is like Rookery Nook after a severe collision with the surrealism of Salvador Dali. Indeed, the ego maniac Spanish painter arrives on the scene to discover a pressure-bandaged Freud holding a bicycle covered in snails, with a hot water bottle attached, and a naked lady in his closet. "Maestro," he proclaims, sinking to his knees in admiration, "What Dali merely dreams, you live!"

The idea that Freud went to a performance of Rookery Nook is a naughty fabrication, reinforced by a po-faced programme note that succeeded in fooling a lot of people. What is not in dispute, though, is the fact that there is a perfect metaphoric co-relation between farce and Freudian method and hence some justice in springing such a play on him. The problem with Hysteria is that it includes material too anguishing to be accommodated in this uproarious scheme - specifically the charge that Freud, for defensive and opportunistic reasons, changed his view that child abuse is a fact to the theory that it is a fantasy borne of desire. In its awkward gear changes, Hysteria demonstrates how often philosophical farce is forced to suspend farcical operations or face the charge of exuberant heartlessness.

Form and content achieve a blither, cheekier, but no less telling partnership in Blue Murder, Peter Nichols' canny farce about theatrical censorship. In the second half of this work, a dramatist arrives at the swanky St James' Palace office or the Lord Chamberlain to defend the one-act play we have just seen in the first half. The date is 1967, the year before the Lord Chamberlain and his anachronistic team of retired military men lost their power. The excellent joke is that, while the sensors sit solemnly running a blue pencil through any hint of impropriety in the script ("a stiff one" for a whisky instantly gets the chop), precisely the kind of kinkiness they would delight in removing from a play (bisexual, blackmailing guardsmen holed up in lavatories etc) is proliferating around them. Exposing this supposed bastion of respectability as a hotbed of hanky panky - the image of what it professionally abhors - is the play's adroit, self-reflexive of spurring the absurdities of censorship.

Farce is a brutally difficult form to bring off and all the harder if the frantic physical shenanigans are meant to be the reflection of an intellectual debate - a sort of No Sex Please, We're Neo-Hegelians. There have, unsurprisingly, been some dismal failures, such as The Life of the World to Come, Rod Williams' limp, untidy farce about the ethics of cryogenics suspension. And the form has even defeated dramatists whose intelligence and powers of construction would, you'd have thought, earmark them as natural.

Despite a number of rewrites, Michael Frayn has never cracked the problem of Balmoral, a farce which takes off from the reverse-image idea that the Communist Revolution of 1917 took place in England. Frayn has subsequently argued that the play, with its counter-factual world, is inherently flawed. But if that is so, it is hard to account for Kafka's Dick and Hysteria. Another reason for its comparative failure might be that the piece - in which a capitalist Russian journalist visits the State Writers' Colony at Balmoral and, through a series of farcical misunderstandings, is converted to ardent communism - never brings into sufficiently animated play the philosophical underpinnings of these opposed ways of life. There's a distinct shortage of conceptual twists.

Of course, the final twist in Kafka's Dick is that the play is comically complicit with the gossipy culture it condemns. After all, if Kafka affects to be appalled at publications like The Loneliness of Kafka and Kafka's Agony, he would surely also have a real job trying to keep his cool at a performance of Kafka's Dick.

Piccadilly Theatre, London (booking: 0171-369 1734)

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'