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A Hunger Artist

Hunger artists were a form of performance art that began in the 17th century, but reached a peak of popularity in Europe and the United States in the 1880s. Hunger artists, who were almost always men, would travel from city to city and fast for upwards of 40 days. The Hunger ArtistDespite the discovery that many of these hunger artists cheated during their performance, the phenomenon has been preserved through Franz Kafka’s 1922 short story, “A Hunger Artist.”

The short story by Franz Kafka explores many themes common to his work, including the alienation of the individual by society. In the story, a narrator looks back on the hunger artist craze and its decline in popularity. The protagonist tells of the performances of one man, how he would lock himself in a cage, attended by three butchers who would make sure he did not cheat. The artist was forced to confine to the 40-day time limit, frustrating his ability to set a personal record. As public interest waned, the artist joined a circus, where he fasted, ignored, to a point near death. Finally, the man dies in the cage, and is replaced by a panther.

American playwright Richard Greenberg adapted Kafka’s short story, as well as incorporating Kafka’s letters and other stories, into his 1987 play The Hunger Artist. The play served as the text to Martha Clarke’s multimedia performance art piece, incorporating dance, narration, and drama.

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