Kafka’s “A Message From the Emperor” made its first appearance in the Prague Zionist journal Die Selbstwehr (“Self-defense”) in September 1919, the year the thirty-six-year-old Kafka composed his famous letter to his father. Hauntingly oblique, the story weaves together child-like hopefulness and stoical resignation, metaphysical yearning and psychological insight, a seemingly Chinese tale and covert Jewish themes. When the composer Martin Bresnick asked me for a new version that he could set to music, I was mindful of the fact that Kafka often read his stories aloud with the “rhythmic sweep, dramatic fire, and a spontaneity such as no actor achieves” (Max Brod). I wanted to create a text that could be read aloud in English since the very sound of Kafka’s German and the pattern of his syntax evoke the at-first unimpeded progress of the emperor’s messenger and then the obstacles that begin to clog his path.
A Message from the Emperor
The emperor—it is said—sent to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun . . .