Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy, a satirical comedy about the least coveted role in a play, portrays theatre’s social pyramid through the imaginary pages of a nonexistent Franz Kafka play. 20th century Prague fiction writer, Kafka, is known for his magical realistic manner of writing that exhibit a senseless direction. His major works are The Metamorphosis (1912), The Trial (1925), and The Castle (1926), all of which are alluded to in The Understudy. To express this magical realism, their protagonists undergo strange experiences in a dream world that they cannot escape from. Kafka manages to make these stories sound completely credible.
Born in 1883 into a large and dysfunctional middle-class Jewish family, Kafka developed a brooding and pessimistic outlook apparent in his novels. He held a few “bread jobs,” as described by his overbearing father, for doing things just to pay the bills. He also studied law and earned a degree in the subject. He worked as a law clerk for civil and criminal courts and learned a great deal about the government and justice system, which he heavily incorporated in his novels. Later in his life, he suffered from tuberculosis and left his works to close friend, Max Brod, whom he’d met in law school. He’d asked Brod to burn them, but luckily, Brod did just the opposite, and we owe him for the incredible contributions Kafka has made to literature.
To better understand the underlying concepts of The Understudy, one must understand the essence of Kafka’s texts. Kafka’s works convey a distortion of family, a lack of trust in the law, and a pessimistic view of bureaucracy (which he saw as a tangled web deceiving citizens). For instance, Josef K, the protagonist in The Trial, is caught in this web when he is convicted of certain charges and never learns the nature of his crime. The character known only as K in The Castle, is a man who struggles with authorities for a job in a castle and eventually dies before competing the task. Tragic hero, Gregor Samsa, is a man who becomes an insect overnight in The Metamorphosis, and faces a family that he realizes barely cares for him although he has sacrificed all his wishes just to satisfy their needs.
Jake and Harry’s fictional role in The Understudy envelops all three of these characters. Both share a part that shows a despairing and alienated man undergoing an investigation before ultimately losing his mind.