Mysteries of Prague is a two-act full-length play with four men (two playing three roles) and eight women (two playing three roles). DR a small table and a large chair, DC a dining table and a sofa, and DL a café table. Upstage a “strange labyrinth of cobbled streets and arched passageways, stairways, the insides of old houses at many different levels.” Actors can appear at any level at any time by going up and down stairs or in and out of windows and doors in fluid, dreamlike action.
In darkness we hear the sound of canaries singing and then a growing cacophony of cabaret/sideshow music, barrel organ, and carousel. As lights come up we see Kafka writing at the small table DL as shadows of carousel horses and revolving carnival lights swirl over him and we hear Lowy as a carnival barker welcoming people, dogs, roaches, stink bugs, dung beetles, and burrowing creatures of all denominations to the Yiddish Theatre of Oklahoma. We hear a loud train whistle as the lights fade on Kafka and a giant Ground Mole crawls across the stage. A pool of light comes up on Kafka who tells us that on Alchemists Street in Prague everything is in a constant state of metamorphosis and is written in code. Another pool of light shows us Max as an old man who tells us that he met Kafka after giving a lecture on Schopenhauer. Dora crosses the stage holding a stack of twenty old notebooks, saying that Kafka is delirious with fever before she goes back into the darkness. Kafka speaks of a man writing a book that sold eleven copies, ten of which the man bought, but he wonders what happened to the eleventh copy. We hear a voice from above making a loud eerie insect sound, then scuttling sounds and what seems like a large ball rolling across the floor and a ticking clock. Max says Kafka left only a piece of paper instructing him to burn everything. Milena appears in a window saying that she is not a child and we hear the sound of a child crying in the darkness. Julie appears and says she wants the woman’s address so she can write to her. She coughs into a handkerchief and we see red where she has coughed. She moves into the darkness as Kafka tells us that the only way to write is in a trance. Felice and Greta walk through a pool of light speaking of love and sex as they move into the darkness. Milena tells Kafka she is only there to translate his writing. We hear the sound of children crying and Ottla says that the train is moving out of the station. We hear the train beginning to move and a whistle as lights go out on all but Kafka at his table.
We hear “horrible banging and rolling sounds” and a person making sounds like a cross between an insect and a pig. Kafka asks if someone is up there and after three loud knocks all the noise stops except for a ticking clock. A door opens and the Landlady enters with a lantern asking what Kafka is yelling about. He says he hears sounds every night and she suggests he has been dreaming or has had too much Schnapps. He tells her he comes to the room to write, although he doesn’t know what he’s writing. But now the noise upstairs disturbs him and he sometimes hears a mouse singing opera. Hearing the sound of a goat bleating, the Landlady leaves, threatening to have Kafka arrested if he complains about noise again. Kafka says that writing is a form of prayer to him but everything comes to him in fragments. As he writes we hear the high-pitched, squeaky voice of the Mouse Singer singing “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.
At the café table, Max asks Dora if Kafka left any of his writing with her. She says he gave her twenty notebooks but told her to burn them. Max calls her a stupid woman and she throws a drink in his face as she leaves. Kafka sits at the table with Max who says he can’t understand how Kafka can destroy his own work. Kafka wants Max to promise to burn everything Kafka has written but Max says he doesn’t believe him. We hear the Mouse Singer sing the final phrases of “O Mio Babbino Caro” as Kafka moves to his writing table and Blumfeld, drinking, joins Max. They speak of Kafka’s death and his writing and Blumfeld says that Kafka had a child. Blumfeld laments his lonely life and says he has to get up early to catch a train to Poland. Ottla repeats her line, “The train is moving out of the station.” Blumfeld leaves and Max says he is sure Kafka would have told him about a child. Kafka says only an unfinished work of art has any integrity. Felice, “looking at Kafka from another time and plaee,” wonders why he smelled her neck. Max says that she must have been the mother.
The light fades on the café table as Max leaves and we see Kafka and Felice in their own circles of light, surrounded by darkness. Felice says that she is in Berlin and he is in Prague, and although he writes her a great many very long rather odd letters they almost never see each other. Kafka wants to know specific details about her life, the doorknobs in her bedroom and the number of her teeth. He wants her to send pictures of everything because he is desperate for something to replace reality. The light on her goes out abruptly and fades on him as he starts writing.
At the café table Felice asks Max if Kafka is insane and Julie, “commenting from elsewhere,” says he is a little insane and Milena says Kafka can only approach women like a crab, sideways. As Max tries to explain Kafka, Grete and Dora comment and Lowy, the Yiddish actor, tells Kafka that God is everything and nothing. Kafka, walking with Felice, describes his process of writing as a chaos that helps him keep the connection to the demon whispering in his head. He tells her he wants to marry her, that he is deeply in love with her. She says she doesn’t understand him although she will count her doorknobs and send him pictures of them, but she will never count her teeth for him.
The light fades on them and comes up on Max asking the Landlady if Blumfeld lives there. She says he hanged himself but left a suicide note for someone named Max. Blumfeld appears in a spotlight, speaking the letter, saying that he might as well tell him who the mother of Kafka’s child was. But as he is about to say her name, he starts burbling incoherently and the light on him goes out. The Landlady goes and Ottla says the train is moving out of the station. Max thinks that Ottla, Kafka’s sister, might know the mother’s name. As they talk at the café table, Kafka at his table says that he liked hiding like an insect under the sofa and told his publisher that the insect must not be seen on the cover. Max tells Ottla that he has been told that Kafka fathered a child. Ottla says neither she nor her parents know anything about it and the scene morphs into a family dinner with Papa, Mama, Kafka, and Ottla, canaries singing, Mrs. Tschissik juggling dead canaries, and Lowy standing on his head.
Kafka tells his parents that he is a vegetarian and Papa complains about having actors in the house and wonders why Kafka isn’t married. Ottla supports her brother and leaves and then Mama, shouting about eating meat, also leaves, followed by Papa. Lowy and Mrs. Tschissik join Kafka at the table and begin finishing the meal, “hungry like the Marx Brothers.” They describe the play they are performing, gather up the last of the food, and go. Kafka joins Felice who says that her favorite writer is Strindberg and admits that she doesn’t understand the book Kafka sent her and thinks he is weird. She says she hates her job demonstrating the proper use of dictaphones and thinks that a giant ground mole is lurking in a dark stairwell in the building where she lives, waiting to eat her. Kafka says they were made for each other and goes to his desk to write. Felice joins Max at the café and he asks her about the possibility of there being a child. She says if Kafka didn’t tell him who the mother was he didn’t want Max to know. She says she asked Grete to find out Kafka’s intention but that did not turn out well. Ottla speaks her line about the train moving out of the station; Kafka says he closes his eyes and finds himself on a train in the dark, heading into a tunnel towards an unknown destination. Dora says she did something she’s ashamed of and Julie says she saw him putting flowers on a child’s grave. We hear the sounds of a train picking up speed, a train whistle, and a child crying. Lights fade on Max drinking and Kafka writing and go out, ending the act.
Act Two begins with Kafka writing, complaining about the noise of squirrels bowling above him. Grete tells Felice that Kafka has been writing long, strange letters to her and is genuinely puzzled that Felice accepted his marriage proposal. She suggests that they meet Kafka together. There is a lightning strike and a loud thunderclap then darkness and the sound of rain as Kafka greets Felice, Grete, and Felice’s pregnant sister, Erna. Felice tells him that he doesn’t love her and never will. Erna says that men are monsters and should be killed. She and Felice leave and Grete tells Kafka that Felice has problems and responsibilities that Kafka doesn’t know about. Grete suggests that she, Kafka, and Felice might go on a vacation together.
We hear the sounds of cuckoo clocks and Lowy yodeling as lights come up on Kafka, Felice, Grete, and Fraulein Steinitz, who is a little drunk. She asks why Felice and Kafka are afraid of each other and why Grete is there. As Felice leaves, Fraulein Steinitz says the rest of them are going to have an orgy but then follows her. Grete suggests to Kafka that they could go to her room, but Felice returns and Grete leaves. Felice asks Kafka if he has ever actually had physical relations. He says he goes to brothels and she says they need to have sexual intercourse and asks for the key to his room. She leaves and he starts coughing, putting a handkerchief over his mouth, and sees a large red splotch of blood on it. He says the truth is that God is “an enormous, sadistic, carnivorous dung beetle.” Julie says she saw him putting flowers on a child’s grave.
At the café table Kafka tells Max that he has ended his relationship with Felice. Max suggests he go to a sanitarium to get some rest. We hear thunder and then the sound of a child crying. Ottla says they’re loading children onto the train. At the café, Julie tells Max how she met Kafka at a boarding house. She and Kafka then talk and she tells Max that Kafka made her laugh every day. She says they were going to get married but his parents thought she was a fortune-hunting slut. Papa appears and says she is. Julie says they were happy until the Czech translator came along. Pollak tells Kafka that he told his wife, Milena, that she should translate his work. Milena tells Kafka that translation, done well, is an act of love. She says her husband cheats on her a hundred times a year but now her greatest desire is to spend the rest of her life translating Kafka’s writing. We hear the sound of children playing as Kafka and Ottla talk with Julie sitting in the park and Milena on the other side of the stage as Max watches from the shadows. Kafka tells Ottla that he knows Julie loves him but he desires Milena. Ottla says he has to tell Julie and goes. Julie asks Kafka if he would like to have a child with her. He says he is not sure he is able to be a father or a husband. He says he has met someone else and thinks Julie should go. He tells her the woman’s name is Milena and she is translating his plays into Czech. Julie wants her address so she can write to her. Kafka scribbles in a notebook, tears out a page and gives it to Julie who kisses him and sits at his table to write. Ottla tells Max that Kafka found it terrifying to be loved. Max says Julie told him that she had no child but did say something odd about children. Julie tells Max that she once saw Kafka take flowers to an old burial ground and put them on a child’s grave. The light fades on Julie as Ottla says she can’t imagine whose grave it might have been.
Kafka tells Milena that he wants her to leave her husband and that he gave her address to the girl he was going to marry. Milena says her husband has a gun and lights come up on Pollak reading a letter. Milena says she loves Kafka and can’t live without him. Pollak tells her he will never let her go. She looks at Kafka, then at Pollak who tells her to come to him. She hesitates as the light fades on Pollak and comes up on Max. Milena wonders if things might have been different if she had the courage to leave her husband. She says she should have been with Kafka when he was ill and dying. Max says Dora took care of him at the end and tells her that Milena told Kafka that her brother, who died as a child, was buried in a Prague cemetery and Kafka probably put flowers on his grave. She asks if Max knows someone named Grete and thinks she might know something. Milena says she hopes he had a child and wishes it was hers.
At the café table, Grete tells Max that she doesn’t have any manuscripts but that she knew about the child. Lowy, from elsewhere, speaks of the Sephiroth and reality being Russian dolls. Grete speaks to Kafka, kissing him twice, as Kafka says that “this” is the fever dream of a dying man. She says she was the mother of Kafka’s child, but the boy died. She says she doesn’t know any lawyer named Blumfeld, and that he was lying. As light fades on them it comes up on Kafka, dying, sitting with Dora. He tells her she could be enjoying her life instead of trapping herself with a dying man. She says he is not going to die and the light fades on Kafka as she talks with Max, a decade later. She says she kept the twenty notebooks that Kafka gave her but the Gestapo took them and she doesn’t know where they might be. Max says that Grete was the mother of Kafka’s child, but Dora tells him the father of Grete’s child was a married man, not Kafka. Lowy speaks about uncovering secrets as Max moves to his DR chair, getting older as he walks, and sits.
We hear the sound of the ocean and Kafka stands behind Max. It is many years later and Max tells Kafka that he talks more to him dead than he did when he was alive. He says he has dreams about Kafka and Kafka says he also dreams. When Max asks about the child’s mother, Kafka says he always asks the wrong questions. Max says he has made Kafka very famous and asks to be forgiven for not burning his life’s work. Kafka goes to his table and begins writing as Max speaks about Ottla, Grete, Julie, and Milena being killed by the Nazis. He drifts off to sleep as the light fades on him and Kafka continues to write. We hear the sound of balls rolling and strange noises. Kafka shouts for quiet and, after a short silence, we hear something heavy lumbering down the steps. There are three loud bangs on the door and Kafka asks who is there as he rises and moves to the door, opens it, and looks into the darkness. We hear squeaking noises as Kafka says that he told them that the insect must never be seen. One insect leg reaches through the door, wrapping around Kafka’s leg and dragging him through the door. Kafka struggles frantically, screaming as he disappears, his cry ending with a horrible gurgling sound. Carnival music and eerie lights from the opening of the play return and Lowy shouts out his welcome to the Yiddish Theatre of Oklahoma where your most secret desires and darkest fears will come true and where nobody ever leaves. As the lights swirl and the stage grows darker, an enormous Dung Beetle moves into the room and we hear the Mouse Singer singing the concluding phrases of ”O Mio Babbino Caro,” ending in darkness.