Jan Kott’s writing has encompassed a variety of genres—poetry, a series of translations of French literature into Polish, and the 1990 autobiography Przyczynek do biografii (Still Alive)—but his reputation is primarily based on essays related to the theater. Kott’s theatrical essays have in turn embraced various forms and perspectives over the course of his career, ranging from performance reviews, to critical investigations into theater history, to visionary or speculative essays on the contemporary performance of classical drama. It is for the last of these that Kott is most renowned, particularly for the essays contained in Szkice o Szekspirze (1961, revised and enlarged, 1965; Shakespeare Our Contemporary) and The Eating of the Gods (1973).
The impact of Kott’s essays on 20th-century theater practice was unprecedented and remains unique. Rather than merely research or critically respond to the performances of the plays he considered, Kott instead tacitly wrote from the perspective of a contemporary theatrical director or production dramaturge preparing a staging of the text.
While his style of writing in early works such as Shakespeare Our Contemporary was energetic and designed to be accessible to a general audience, it had its most profound impact in professional theater circles in the 1960s and 1970s—particularly among those involved with experimental or alternative theater. On this score, the influence of Kott’s writing could be compared to that of the earlier theoretical writings of Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud. Among the directors most deeply influenced by Kott’s essays in Shakespeare Our Contemporary were Peter Brook and Peter Hall in England, Ariane Mnouchkine in France, Giorgio Strehler in Italy, and Andrzej Wajda and Konrad Swinarski in Poland.
The popular style of Shakespeare Our Contemporary made it one of the most widely read and translated books by any contemporary Polish writer; the book has long been required reading in England’s secondary schools as well as in American college and university theater programs. Kott’s essays on Shakespeare were published and translated into various languages before he had any direct experience with theatrical production or even a reading knowledge of English. As a result of the success of Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Kott received his first opportunities to study and teach in the Englishspeaking world as well as his first invitations to work as director or dramaturge on various productions in Western Europe and the United States. In 1969, he was granted political asylum in the U.S. after being denounced by the Polish Communist Party as a result of the turmoil in Poland following the so-called “events of March 1968”—which included an anti-Semitic campaign instigated by Stalinist elements in the Party.
Kott’s personal and political biography are inseparably linked to the content of his essays. He was a child of the secularized urban Jewish bourgeoisie in interwar Poland and was fully assimilated into Polish language and culture. In the wake of the fall of Poland following the combined Nazi and Soviet invasions of the country in 1939, Kott joined the tiny and embattled Polish communist underground movement, a choice that
initially secured his position in the postwar Polish communist cultural establishment. He won the Polish State Prize in Literature and Literary Studies twice (in 1951 and 1955), only to resign from the Communist Party in 1957 in protest against the excesses of its Stalinist elements. In 1964, he cosigned “The Letter of the Thirty-Four” protesting against censorship in Poland, and left the country the next year to write and teach abroad.
Shakespeare Our Contemporary was a landmark in the Marxist humanist school of cultural criticism that emerged in the wake of Stalinism in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere, with its emphasis on the dramatic play of historical forces and realpolitik. The book presented Shakespeare’s history plays, for example, as a variety of Brechtian Lehrstücke, or “learning plays,” on the dialectics of political history. In other regards, however, the book went beyond Marxism, with one of Kott’s most famous essays connecting King Lear with Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Kott’s anti-sentimental reading of Shakespeare’s comedies in the book emphasized their brutality and eroticism, particularly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in a manner that owed little to Marx but proved immensely popular with young British and Western European directors at the time. Peter Brook’s landmark production of the play at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970 was one of several productions that acknowledged the influence of Kott’s essay “Titania and the Ass’s Head,” and is now regarded as a turning point in the production history of the play in Great Britain.
Kott’s writing changed markedly after his emigration from Poland. Marx receded as an influence; in his stead emerged a complex hybrid of archetypal mythology and the carnivalesque theories of Mikhail Bakhtin. The essay “Orestes, Electra, Hamlet,” found in The Eating of the Gods, displays Kott’s archetypal approach at its best, using the characters and scenarios of The Oresteia and Hamlet to highlight each other. The essays in The Bottom Translation (1987) marked the height of Kott’s work under Bakhtin’s influence. The book’s title essay (devoted to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is primarily a study in the aesthetic and transcendent reconciliation of opposites, a quite different principle indeed from Marx’s dialectical materialism.
Kott’s influence on the “director’s theater” that emerged in Europe and America in the 1960s and 1970s came full circle in several late essays devoted to the work of experimental directors such as Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeusz Kantor, and Peter Brook. His late writings in the collections The Memory of the Body (1992) and Nowy Jonasz i inne szkice (1994; The new Jonas and other sketches) and his autobiographical book Still Alive leave the Marxist and Bakhtinian theoretical armatures of his early and middle periods behind. Instead they freely move between autobiography, reflections on the theater, and philosophical meditations on literature, nature, and Kott’s growing sense of his own mortality as a result of a series of strokes, heart attacks, and related medical crises. In spite of his declining health, Kott has taken an avid interest in Poland’s cultural and political life since the fall of the Berlin Wall, after many years of being denied access to the country as a result of his public protests against the declaration of Martial Law in 1981. He remains a vital and vocal presence in Polish émigré circles in the U.S. and Western Europe.
Born 27 October 1914 in Warsaw. Studied at the University of Warsaw, law degree, 1936; the Sorbonne, Paris, 1938–39; University of Łódź, Ph.D., 1947. Married Lidia Steinhaus, 1939: one daughter and one son. Served in the Polish Army, defending Warsaw, September 1939; member of the Polish resistance movement, 1941–45. Member of the Polish Communist Party, 1943–57: resigned. Professor of romance languages, University of Wrocław, 1949–52; professor of Polish literature, University of Warsaw, 1952–69: dismissed. Cosigned a public letter protesting against Polish censorship, 1964.
Visiting professor of Polish literature and drama, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1966–67 and 1978–79, and of drama, Catholic University of Louvain, 1968.
Sought political asylum in the United States, 1969. Professor of drama and Germanic and Slavic languages and literatures, 1969–73, and of comparative literature and English, 1973–83, State University of New York, Stony Brook; visiting professor of drama, Hebrew University. Became an American citizen, 1979.
Awards: Polish State Prize in Literature, 1951, 1955; Herder Award, 1964; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1972–73; Alfred Jurzykowski Award, 1976.
Essays and Related Prose
Mitologia i realizm, 1946
Po prostu, 1946
O społecznym awansie, 1947
O “Lalce” Bolesława Prusa, 1948
Szkoła klasyków, 1949; revised, enlarged edition, 1955
Trwałe wartości literatury polskiego Oświecenia, 1951
Wiktor Hugo: Pisarz walczący, 1952
Jak wam się podoba: Spotkanie pierwsze (theater reviews), 2 vols., 1955–57
Postęp i głupstwo, 2 vols., 1956
Szkice o Szekspirze, 1961; revised, enlarged edition, as Szekspir współczesny, 1965; as Shakespeare Our Contemporary, translated by Bolesław Taborski, 1964
Aloes, dzienniki i male szkice, 1966
Theatre Notebook, 1947–1967, translated by Bolesław Taborski, 1968
The Eating of the Gods: An Interpretation of Greek Tragedy, translated by Bolesław Taborski and Edward J.Czerwiński, 1973
The Theater of Essence and Other Essays, 1984
Kamienny potok, 1986; enlarged edition, 1991
The Bottom Translation: Marlowe and Shakespeare and the Carnival Tradition, translated by Danieła Międzyrzecka and Lillian Vallee, 1987
Przyczynek do biografii, 1990; as Still Alive: An Autobiographical Essay, translated by Jadwiga Kosicka, 1994
The Memory of the Body: Essays on Theater and Death, translated by Jadwiga Kosicka, 1992,
The Gender of Rosalind, translated by Jadwiga Kosicka and Mark Rosenzweig, 1992; as Płec Rozolindy: Interpretacje Marlowe, Szekspir, Webster, Büchner, Gautier, 1992.
Nowe Jonasz i inne szkice, 1994
Other writings: poetry. Also translated many writers from the French, including Molière, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Eugène Ionesco.
Vasco, Gerhard, and Hélène Volat-Shapiro, The Publications of Jan Kott, Stony Brook: State University of New York, 1979
Barker, Clive, and Simon Trussler, editors, “Jan Kott: An Eightieth Birthday
Celebration,” New Theater Quarterly 10, no. 40 (1994)
Brockett, Oscar G., and Robert Findlay, Century of Innovation: A History of European and American Theater and Drama Since the Late Nineteenth Century, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1973
Brustein, Robert, “Jan Kott, Super Dramaturge,” in his Who Needs Theater: Dramatic Opinions, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987; London: Faber, 1989
Elsom, John, “Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary?,” Contemporary Review 249, no. 1451 (1986):315–19
Guczalska, Beata, “Jan Kott: Pisarz i krytyk,” Dialog 33, no. 5 (1988):123–35
Guczalska, Beata, “Shakespeare Jana Kotta,” Dialog 33, no. 6 (1988):125–37
Houliston, Victor, “Shakespeare Not Our Contemporary,” Shakespeare in South Africa 3 (1989):67–77
Kennedy, Dennis, editor, Foreign Shakespeare: Contemporary Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993
Krajewska-Wieczorek, Anna, “Still Contemporary: A Conversation with Jan Kott,”
Yale/Theater 25, no. 3 (1995):85–89
Krzemiński, Adam, “Opowieści Jana Kotta,” Dialog 36, no. 1 (1991):86–91
Kuharski, Allen, “Beyond Criticism: The Theatrical Poetics of Jan Kott,” San Francisco Review of Books 13, no. 1 (1988):29–30
Kuharski, Allen, “Identity and Improvisation: Backstage in the Theater of Jan Kott,”
Yale/Theater 25, no. 3 (1995):80–84
Lichtenstein, Leonie, “Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary?,” Shakespeare in South Africa 3 (1989):78–86
Miłosz, Czesław, The History of Polish Literature, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983 (original edition, 1969)
Pieczara, Marek, “Kott wspóiczesny,” Dialog 36, no. 1 (1991): 100–05
Selbourne, David, The Making of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, London: Methuen, 1982
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