What are the themes of the play Warden of the Tomb by Franz Kafka?

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Lynn Ramsson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Kafka is known for his contributions to the theater of the absurd, and The Warden of the Tomb, a relatively unknown one-act drama, with its unclear structure, ambiguous time period and setting, and employment of the "undead," fits well into that genre.

During the first lines of the play, the character of the Chamberlain says: "Let the dead rest in peace." This initial mention of a disturbance to the dead and the "wrestling bouts" with "the blessed ancestors" that the Warden endures suggests an important theme: let the past stay in the past. The Warden also describes the voices of the undead that haunt him from outside of his house, which suggests a complicated angle on the theme of the past staying in the past; sometimes, the past will come back, irrespective of if it is invited.

Kafka's use of the imagery of the undead and specifically, the speech that the Warden hears coming from the undead invites interesting discussion of another theme: language is not always reliable. At one point, the Warden emphasizes the futility of speech, as when the Warden tells the Prince that a Duke Friedrich appears at his window: "When he opens his mouth to speak, the wind blows his old beard between his teeth and he bites on it." The frustrated attempts of the duke to speak may represent the frustrated attempts of all speakers to communicate. This theme is ironic, as the entire drama is made up of language and words. If language is so unreliable, what is the point of the drama?

Some scholars believe that the interplay between the Steward, Prince Leo, and the Warden is Kafka's dramatic interpretation of the tension around the challenges to the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I. With this historical context in mind, another theme takes the form of a warning: the preestablished order may not prevail.