Kott Scholarship Essays



Cover of Jan Kott's Shakespeare our Contemporary

Each passion has its beginning. Kott, before he started to write about Shakespeare, absorbed the bard's writings for an extensive period of time before acting upon his findings. At the beginning he did it unconsciously and as if by chance, and later - more and more intentionally. He read dramas, watched plays. Through Shakespeare's tragedies he saw his own experience, both personal and historic

In the turbine of the Grand Machine

Jan Kott found Shakespeare in literature, theatre, art, but also in everyday life. Under his hand Beckett, Kantor, classical tragedy and a young denim-clad couple at a Stockholm disco were rendered "Shakespearean".

He went into the Second World War with "the baggage of various experiences and intellectual fascinations, he left the war as a historian and a Marxist", writes Grażyna Borkowska in the essay "Jan Kott, 'trickster' ". A youthful fascination with Marxism was common for a great number of intellectuals but many of them, after their intital contact with the Soviets, quickly and permanently recovered from that fascination. Kott however, in spite of his stay in occupied Lvov at the beginning of the war, joined the Polish Workers' Party and the People's Army in 1944. Maybe - as Adam Michnik once wrote - because "he wanted to be in accordance with History. He wanted to choose the kind of fear. He wanted to be on the side of the progress, of the modernity, of the social reforms". During the war Kott had an opportunity to see the moving wheel of history crushing everything on its way. He saw two powers and only one gave him a fighting chance - he had no illusions about the Allies and their help for Poland. But he believed, instead, in the military power of the Red Army. He wrote: "Marxism taught me the laws of history and allowed me to trust it. When I joined the People's Army, I stopped being afraid". Russia was terrible but powerful. One could find shelter in her dangerous shadow. Kott wanted to be on the side of historical right, he believed in history's rationality.

Kott attempted a deeper analysis of his relations with communism in the essay "On Bites". He wrote about his own mistake and the mistake of other Polish intellectuals of his generation, about something that Czesław Miłosz called the "Hegelian bite". Kott added that "for the first time for the Hegelian bite history was biting". After 1945 many people believed that history can be controlled, that in the name of its making every deed should be justified. And that a lot, maybe everything, can be explained by means of historic necessity.

Without trying to analyse Kott's relations with communism, without research on those difficult and ambigous beginnings, one cannot fully understand his work. Without personal experiences from the post-war years and Stalinism that gave him a glimpse "from inside", Kott could not have written Shakespeare Our Contemporary nor the essay "The Kings" where the main hero is history's wheel, bringing people to the top and immediately bringing them back down. Kott himself felt the workings of this mechanism.

In The Holkham Bible Picture Book from the early fourteenth century, one of the most beautiful English manuscripts, the wheel of Fortune bears four views of a monarch. In the first he is a youth with streaming hair and a crown raised in one hand as rises to the top of this ferris wheel of royal fate: Regnabo. At the very top the still youthful ruler is shown with crown and sceptre: Regno. He ages quickly, however. When next we see him, his beard is gray, his hair matted, and he tumbles headlong from the same wheel, scattering both crown and sceptre: Regnavi. Finally, at the very bottom, deprived of royal ornament and insignia, he lays shriveled and barefoot in a threadbare cloak: Sum sine regno.
Jan Kott, "The Cruel Webster" in: The bottom translation. Marlowe and Shakespeare and the Carnival tradition, Evanston, Ill., 1987, Nortwestern University Press, p. 153

As for the tragic Shakespearean scope of the Stalinist period, Kott recognised and described it many years later. Over the first few years after the war he still did not know that he himself was little but a small gear in the Grand Mechanism. He was busy making history. Or at least he so thought.

In the defense of a "green monkey"

For Jan Kott the post-war assimilation of Shakespeare was related most of all with theatre criticism. His great interpretations of dramas started modestly - with writing reviews from theatre plays, among others Shakespearean. In the mid-forties, theatre for Kott was only a marginal element of his literary criticism. He was more interested in the novels of the nineteenth-century, in Voltaire and Diderot (soon he was to devote some time to the literature of the Age of Enlightenment), in the problems of social advance and socialist economy. These were the main points of interest when in 1944 he found himself in Łódź and started to work at the Kuźnica periodical, edited by Stefan Żółkiewski.

Kuźnica was a magazine of leftist intelligentsia that propagated Marxist philosophy. But at the same time - the place for different thoughts and hot arguments and opinions. Kuźnica's authors "were trying to combine the communist ideology with the Enlightenment, not without silent opposition to Moscow because 'we will do it better then them'. [...] To tell the truth this heroic period did not last long but it is worth mentioning in Kott's biography", wrote Czesław Miłosz in "Kott, the Wanderer" (Zeszyty Literackie 2002 No 79).

Intellectuals from the Kuźnica circle were called "furious" not without reason - they were radical and uncompromising, merciless in their attacks on ideological enemies, they tirelessly fought "reactionary attitudes" and metaphysics. Realism was for them the basic problem and objective. They wanted to change literature and give it new tasks - the Enlightenment was an example, the thought of Encyclopedists and the realistic novel based on history. The realism propagated by the Kuźnica's authors did not yet have the prefix "socialist". It was yet to be incorporated in a writer's philosophical idea, in the way he presented relations between man and society.

The main field of the ideological battle was literature but the theatre, rising from the ruins, also found some place in Kuźnica. The first post-war years "were a time of rise in the interest of criticism as a form of participation in common life. Almost every writer, publicist and literary critic writes about theatre, some of them would for ever remain in an armchair of a theatre critic", wrote Eleonora Udalska in Theatre Criticism. Discussions and Analyses.

According to the principles of Kuźnica Kott proposed such interpretations of Elizabethan plays so as to expose their realism - painting a true picture of Renaissance reality, great passion, brutality and authenticity, vulgarity and plebeianism. Earlier interpretations of Hamlet and Middsummer's Night Dream irritated Kott. He wanted to see an undistorted Shakespeare, without aesthetical ornaments.

It seems that in Kott's case it was an earnest demand but quite impossible to fulfill. Kott quickly discovered that his battle for "realistic Shakespeare" was met with reluctance and suspicion. And not from "reactionaries" - quite the opposite: from people who equally violently fought "bourgeois traditions" and theoretically were on the same side of the barricade. Kott did not appreciate the radicalism of other "progressives". Even the classics such as Fredro, Molière or Shakespeare were starting to appear ideologically suspicious. Cultural politics was aiming at adapting classic works to the needs of the present.

Kott was fiercely fighting for the presence of classic playwrights in Polish theatre. While defending their works he argued with more "progressive" critics. Such as, for example, Jan Nepomucen Miller who in 1946 sharply attacked Shakespeare. "He called him [...], quoting Voltaire, a 'green monkey'. Then Bohdan Korzeniewski, defending historical truth stated that Voltaire called Shakespeare a 'monkey' and not a 'green monkey'", wrote Kott in his text About Contemporary Plays, Shakespeare and Miller. Miller was against Shakespeare's plays in Polish theatres. As the complete elimination was not possible, he proposed to change and colour them in order to make them relevant and ideologically "correct". Kott sneered at that presumption:

I will not defend Shakespeare against neither Voltaire nor Miller. But if we quote the classics I will revoke Diderot who wrote in his Paradox of Acting that "Shakespeare is like the monument of St. John the Baptist in the Notre Dame, primitive and barbaric, but so big that we all can pass between his legs without knocking our heads against his genitals'. [...] Did Jan Nepomucen Miller knock his head?...
About Contemporary Plays, Shakespeare and Miller" in: Progress and Rubbish, Warsaw 1956, vol. 2, p. 111

The line of one "truth"

At the end of the forties ideals of the "furious" young people were gradually simplified and cut off to fit into the obligatory pattern by the official propaganda. Daring demands were changing into stiff dogmas. In the profession of a critic, even a keen Marxist, there was no place for dash and freethinking.

The evaluation of aestethic values in theatre goes into the background. The most important is political content and specific social didactics. The role of a critic is the role of a "duty ideologist". A critic [...] becomes the interpreter of ideological values, understood according to the current propaganda.
Eleonora Udalska, Theatre Criticism. Discussions and Analyses, p. 196

Was Jan Kott even then such a "dutiful ideologist"? Not yet. He was an avid Marxist, an idealist to a certain extent, he propagated realism but, at the same time, he demanded respect for classical literature. Gifted with remarkable intelligence and a sense of humour, he fiercely fought "bourgeois" and "reactionary" traditions but, on the other hand, he equally heatedly and without an ounce of pity sneered at ignorance and at increasingly widespread idiocy. Assured of his own righteousness, full of belief and enthusiasm, he nonchalantly laughed at those enthusiasts of changes who passed the borders of common sense. He allowed himself quite a lot and did not yet feel the growing threat.

And the threat grew more and more real. In the autumn of 1948, in the Polish press there appeared the first of many articles about Andrei Zhdanov (as a theoretician of socialistic realism) and discussions about realism began again in Kuźnica. The newest theories were soon, pronounced obligatory (in January 1949, in Szczecin, during the congress of the Polish Union of Writers).

At the same time new cultural politics, imposed from the top, began. It centralised the management of culture and education and formally linked the artistic milieu with party structures. "Criticism, nominated as the political authority, got the right to pronounce 'one truth' dependent on the official line. The line of 'one truth' was the saddest card in the history of post-war theatre criticism", wrote Eleonora Udalska.

In December 1948 Kuźnica was finally closed. Soon it was to be united with Odrodzenie and come back to life as Nowa Kultura. Its seat was moved to Warsaw and Paweł Hoffman became the new editor-in-chief. The journalists who started the magazine, now dispersed all over Poland.

The Grand Mechanism moved almost imperceptibly - a quarter of a turn. Kott, who not long before was full of enthusiasm and ideals, who could believe in the immediate fame and say to himself with conviction: regnabo, in 1949 was suddenly moved to the side track, in the safe distance from the political centre. But not yet sine regnum because he got his kingdom - the professorial nomination at the Wrocław University and the Romance literature department (a year later he switched to the Polish literature department and started to lecture on the Age of Enlightenment literature). He also got a job of a theatre reviewer. In July he started regular collaboration with Gazeta Robotnicza (Worker's Daily) in Wrocław.

Apart from analyses of the Enlightenment literature and occasional other texts (for example the essay "The greatest humanist of our times" written on the seventhiest birthday of Joseph Stalin) in Gazeta Robotnicza and its weekly social-cultural supplement Sprawy i Ludzie (Issues and People), Kott wrote mainly about theatre. In those times art did not have almost any, even limited, autonomy. The task of art was to be socially useful. In 1951 Jan Kott wrote about basic aims of the new theatre:

Theatre should fulfill the servile role in relation to the socialist base which is successfully being built in Poland. It should play the active role in the great process of making the national front for fight for peace and realization of the six years' plan. We have to translate the great theoretical achievement of the VI Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee of the Party into the language of the theatrical practice in order to define the way that our theatre has gone and put new tasks in front of it.
Jan Kott, "For theatre worthy of our epoch", "Sprawy i Ludzie" 1951, No 12, p. 3

A duty ideologist

Teresa Wilniewczyc notices that Kott propagated obligatory ideas with even greater enthusiasm than necessary, more eagerly than other critics of those times. None of them wrote a text such as "For theatre worthy of our epoch" - "so affirmative of the politics of the totalitarian system" (Teresa Wilniewczyc, "Two directions of the attack" in Notatnik Teatralny 2002-2003 No 27, p. 26).

The years 1949-1956 are in the Jan Kott's biography probably the years most influenced by the "Hegelian bite". As he said himself, he no longer believed in communism but he still wanted to be in the main stream of history and not to lose his influence on the events. Thus was pushed into the role of a "duty ideologist", agreeing to the new reality and his place in it.

At that time Kott mainly wrote reviews. Some were about new, socialist-realist plays. He drifted from the style of early Kuźnica. In the new reality there was no place for such realism. But Kott did not like much socialist-realist drama - full of simplifications, with black and white heroes. He wrote about these new plays without enthusiasm and thought that they lacked real human conflicts which "always were the blood of every great drama" (Jan Kott, "There is no drama without a conflict" in Sprawy i Ludzie 1952 No 68, p. 3). The argument between "a master-pioneer and a master-traditionalist" was not enough. A truly valuable play should be written in an intelligent and interesting way and should be able to compete with the classics.

All the while he continued to write about stagings of Molière, Fredro - and Shakespeare. He underlined, in this being faithful to his beliefs from the times of Kuźnica, that they should be performed. Even after 1949 he did not intend to resign from Shakespeare without a fight. Apart from the propaganda texts and reviews of socialist-realist plays Kott began to write about Shakespearean productions - "and those texts", as Teresa Wilniewczyc writes, "were the beginning of his important and original reflections about Shakespearean drama". Sketches on Shakespeare were being born.

Vigilance, ruthlessness, taste

Kott's fifties-era reviews could be blunt and pitiless - at times even cruel.

The situation of Shakespeare on our stages is not good. It must be clearly said that we are at the beginning of the road to the new, realistic, Rennaisance and humanist Shakespeare. And that is why every Shakespearean production requires especially tender and vigilant attention. Jan Kott, "Shakespearean Misunderstandings" in Gazeta Robotnicza, Sprawy i Ludzie 1953 No 4, p. 1.

This is the initial fragment of "Shakespearean Misunderstandings", the review of the 1953 production of Midsummer Night's Dream by Wilam Horzyca at the Teatr Polski in Wrocław. The appeal for realism and for the truth of emotions can still be heard in this text but there is also new dangerous tone, especially audible in the words about "vigilant attention". Midsummer Night's Dream, with the set design of Leonard Torwirt - silvery steps, a forest of fantastic trees growing out of the steps and a Ionic column in the centre - was in a way a repetition of the earlier Dreams... produced by Horzyca in Toruń in 1946 and in Poznań in 1948.

"Third time lucky! 'Time, contamination of things', as Zbigniew Morsztyn beautifully wrote, more and more clearly demonstrates the anachronism of this production", thundered Kott. The main reason of his displeasure was - seemingly - the style of the spectacle. Kott called the production "falsification of Shakespeare from the period of the Vienna Secession", a "Viennese-Berlin operetta", "lunar ballet with no style at all" and "cold decorative pseudo-extravaganza".

Eight months after the publication of "Shakespearean Misunderstandings" the director was dismissed from the theatre. So the attack was not only brutal but it had far-reaching and long-lasting effects. The question remains whether the tone of the review was based only on anideological premise. How important was politics, guarding the principles of the obligatory aesthetics of realism or - maybe - the personal taste of the reviewer? Wojciech Dudzik points to the first aspect and sees Kott, first of all, as "a functionary of repressive criticism" who "persecutes any departure from the obligatory pattern".

This blindness, this condemnation and rejection of other interpretation than 'canonical' (in this case resulting from the 'model' book of the Soviet specialist in literature Mikhail Morozov titled "Shakespeare on the Soviet Stage") was only an example of what was common in the years 1949-1955 - the practice of stating the lack of alternatives in all fields of life. There could only be one truth.
Wojciech Dudzik, Wilam Horzyca's Drama of Unfulfillment (years 1948-1959), Warsaw 1990, pp. 163-164.

The problem with Jan Kott lies in the fact that for him there never was one truth. If he had liked Horzyca's Midsummer Night's Dream, he could have written quite a different review. He was a juggler. He played with words, ignored the basic facts and was looking for the Marxist thought where nobody ever saw it. On the other hand, even a work that was entirely "sound" in terms of ideology was deemed "false" if he was not fond of it. If Kott did not like something, he was ruthless.

Already in the text of Shakespearean Misunderstandings there are two parallel different truths, two levels. The text is characterised by certain schizophrenia as if it was written by two different people using different languages and different arguments. "Every Shakespearean production requires special tender and vigilant attention...". Paradoxically the rhythm of the review of Midsummer Night's Dream is both tender and vigilant. Kott is tender towards Shakespeare and vigilant towards himself. He does not forget about his responsibilities of a "duty ideologist" and every few paragraphs are ornamented with the interludes typical for those times:

In every Shakespearean play different ideological and artistic elements are specifically sharp but in all of them 'a forest' combines in itself folk and anti-feudal traditions of the robbers' free lives...
Jan Kott, "Shakespearean Misunderstandings", op.cit.

In the review from Edmund Wierciński's staging of As You Like It (Teatr Polski in Wrocław, 1951) Kott said that when presenting on the stage the Forest of Arden, one should bring out and emphasise the "folk criticism of feudal injustice and folk picture of noble robbers, folk belief in the victory of justice" (Jan Kott, "Shakespeare in Wrocław" in Gazeta Robotnicza, Sprawy i Ludzie 1951 No 82, p. 3). Wandering in the Forest of Arden the troupe of Peter Quince, "the crude troupe of carpenters and pot makers" - could only be a group of representatives of the oppressed proletariat, "the only English folk family". Those statements came straight from Morozov.

Morozov's sheep

Morozov's Shakespeare on the Soviet Stage is a fascinating book for many reasons. It is diffcult to say that it clearly contains some explicit interpretation guidelines. It consists of some superficial information about the dramas and of many praises of the Soviet productions. Its main part is the biography of "one of the favourite writers of Marx and Engels" - William Shakespeare whose ancestors "were ordinary farmers and sheep breeders". The playwright deplores the times in which he lives - "it was an epoch when the relations of the old feudal world fell down, the relations which for ages seemed inviolable and constant, an epoch in which new bourgeois relations were born. Marx called this epoch 'the northern lights of the capitalist era' ". In his dramas Shakespeare describes the oppressed simple people of England and calls for the social justice and restriction of the hegemony of the then kulaks who, unlike "ordinary farmers", breed sheep on the massive scale. The playwright's biography is also fictionalised in a specific way, full of surprising scenes from the life of Elizabethan England.

He travels in silence while his companions talk among themselves. Times are difficult. Price of wool goes down and a modest farmer from Stratford is helpless when confronted with great landowners - sheep breeders! The landowners stole common fields, put up fences, changed into pastures and breed thousands of their sheep... Rich landowners crammed the market with their wool and there is no place for an ordinary farmer. Is not it so, Mister Shakespeare?
Mikhail Morozov, Shakespeare on the Soviet Stage, quoted after the Polish translation by Władysław L. Evert, Warsaw 1950, p. 42

It would be difficult to believe that Kott - whose intelligence and sense of humour almost never failed - could take this "model" book seriously. But he had to use it - he knew his responsibilities of a "dutiful ideologist".

One has to remember that it was necessary to prove all the time ideological usefulness and correctness of Shakespeare, his right to exist on the theatre stages in Poland in those times. Shakespeare had to be "anti-feudal" if he was to be produced at all. If a critic wanted to say something in his own words, he had to take into consideration the Morozov's guidelines, to pay tribute to the obligatory ideology. Kott knew this very well. And that is why he was so "vigilant" in his review of Midsummer Night's Dream.

But even in that - not very kind - text from behind the folk-anti-feudal arguments the author's emotions sometimes come to light. Quite different reasoning can be visible. Apart from vigilance there is also tenderness, Kott's admiration for Shakespeare's genius. Even then, although very shyly, his own personal reflection on Shakespeare's dramas was burgeoning:

Shakespeare builds his plays from great opposities, after poetry there come crude and bawdy jokes, sublimity and shallowness mix all the time [...]. But the world shown by Shakespeare in brutal and sudden contrasts is always full of human truth.
Jan Kott, "Shakespearean Misunderstandings", op. cit.

Soon after 1953 Kott showed the world an entirely different face of Shakespeare. The dangerous and bitter face. In the light of this new look at the Elizabethan tragedy a man is only a little gear in the Grand Mechanism, cannot influence his fate and is an actor in the theatre of the absurd. For a long time Jan Kott was such an actor. His Shakespeare Our Contemporary was born not only out of reading and looking at the plays. It was, first of all, a sum of historical experience.

Four o'clock in the morning - or about the Kings

"The death of a tyrant is not the end of tyranny" but it is always the end of an epoch. Joseph Stalin was a tangible sign of grim and dangerous reality, but reality chosen by Kott. He was the incarnation of History. Not surprisingly then the first reaction at the news of his death in 1953 was shock.

"I was terrified. I thought that the world collapsed", Kott wrote in his Still Alive. Similar feelings were shared many intellectuals of his formation and millions other people. There was the first signal that the ice was melting. The thaw came only three years later, together with the Khrushchev's report about the "period of mistakes and perversions", but even in 1953 everything that so far was taboo, was slowly surfacing. Soon it would be possible to talk about it, the time of revision and changes was to come. The fear was going away. The situation was surprisingly new and, in a way, also terrifying. Tadeusz Nyczek in the introduction to Kott's Selected Works wrote: "spiritual-political problems, his own and Polish in general, from the times of the biggest breakthrough - the crash of the Stalinist vision of the world - Kott solved... by means of Shakespeare".

It is already four o'clock in the morning. [...] It is an hour between a night and a daybreak, an hour when there, on the top, decisions were made, when what had to happen happened, but is the hour when one can still be saved, the hour of freedom of choice. The last one. Somebody will quickly knock on the door.
Jan Kott, "The Kings", op. cit., pp. 36-37

The above paragraph sounds like a relation from the times of the German occupation or the bleakest years of the Stalinist terror. But it is the description of the second scene in the third act of Richard III, a fragment of the essay "The Kings".

In Richard III, the most mature tragedy in the whole Chronicles series the pattern of the Grand Mechanism is most distinctly outlined. In the Chronicles Kott saw the metaphor of the Wheel of Fortune from the medieval print. "History for Shakespeare stands still. [...] In every Chronicle history makes a circle and comes to the point of departure. Those repeated and constant circles made by history are subsequent royal reigns", Kott wrote in "The Kings". Yearning for power, reaching for power, reigning and, at the end, decline. A new hopeful for the throne arrives, a new turn of wheel begins. "And when the new prince found himself near the throne, he brings with him a chain of crimes as long as that of the previous king". He gradually murders all the enemies and when he comes to power - he gets rid of the old supporters and inconvenient witnesses. Nobody can feel safe, nobody can sleep soundly at four o'clock in the morning.

On the steps of History

During the German occupation, when it was necessary to quickly leave a "hot" place, friends woke up - sometimes in the middle of the night - Jan Kott, a Jew, a member of the underground People's Army endured this. But Kott, comparing Shakespeare to his present times, also meant his later historic experience. Other wakings up and other messengers. The fear of "four o'clock in the morning", even if after the war it passed for a while, soon came back. The fact that Kott was a "dutiful ideologist", a member of the party, that many people feared his opinions and his sharp pen, did not let him get rid of fear. "The Kings" as the first essay in Sketches on Shakespeare (and later in Shakespeare Our Contemporary) determine the way of Kott's thinking of history. The principle of working of the Grand Mechanism described here in detail penetrates too the analysis of Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet. Everywhere there is the same picture of a hero who is unable to undertake independent decisions or who is condemned to decisions with tragic consequences, determined by historic necessity or absurd of own existence. It is a deeply pessimistic vision, the vision of a man who is a serrated wheel in the Grand Mechanism that even without him would turn equally well.

The second metaphor of the Grand Mechanism, next to the medieval Wheel of Fortune, is for Kott that of "the steps of History". The next in line to the throne climbs them very diligently, with every step he is closer to power, the bodies of defeated and assassinated persons lie along the way. But the top step is, at the same time, the last step. One cannot go back, he can only fell down. Or rather - be pushed down by the next king heading to the top.

Richard III, as he climbs great steps, gets smaller. As if he was seized and absorbed by the Grand Mechanism. Slowly he becomes only one of its wheels. He stopped being a hangman and became a victim. He got into the gears.
Jan Kott, "The Kings", op. cit. p. 68

In 1953 Jan Kott probably had such a vision of history - everything that he saw around him, he inscribed into the reading of Elizabethan tragedies. The mechanism is universal. For Kott it was the picture of great political careers of all times, also during the Stalinist era. The higher a person was in the party hierarchy, the easier it was for him to fall down, the bigger the fear of a four o'clock in the morning visit.

Shakespeare, read anew by Kott, became brutal and stripped of metaphors. It was also a new reading of Shakespeare - through the 20th Century experience as well as a new look on the events that had passed - through a look at the mechanisms of power presented in the Elizabethan tragedy and constant in all the ages.

In the second French edition of Shakespeare Our Contemporary [...] the essay "The Kings" was preceded by the photograph from Stalin's funeral. Malenkov, Molotov, Bulganin, Khrushchev and Beria, in long coats or military jackets, in big fur hats, carry Stalin's coffin. Stalin's funeral took place in March 1953; Beria was killed, according to an official statement, in July of the same year. All others who carried the coffin went away, pushed from the top into oblivion.
Jan Kott, "The author's introduction to the second edition", op. cit., pp. 10-11

The period of Stalinism became the incarnation of the Grand Mechanism's working principle, read about in Shakespeare's tragedies. It was then that Shakespeare imperceptibly came into Jan Kott's life. After the "moment of seeing through" and shaking off "red fever" Kott could see in Shakespeare the reflection of his own fate, the reflection of contemporary history which was also his history. Such a reading of Shakespeare through the prism of collective historic experience made Kott famous.

Hamlet of the Polish October

Events of the year 1953 shook the Grand Mechanism and changed the run of history. Kott, still a member of the party, felt himself the results of the political change - his "exile to Wrocław" finished and he found himself again in the main stream. He went back to Warsaw, got a flat in the prestigious Aleja Róż and a job of a theatre critic in the cultural periodical Przegląd Kulturalny (Cultural Review). Here, in 1953, he started to write a series of reviews titled As You Like It. But now he did not care about their demands because he was now "writing in his own voice".

Sketches on Shakespeare (and later Shakespeare Our Contemporary) owed a lot not only to history. Also the theatre productions seen in the fifties helped Kott to formulate main theories and ideas. One of the most famous spectacles produced on the wave of thaw was Hamlet of Roman Zawistowski commonly called "Hamlet of the Polish October". It made great impression on Kott.

My review of the Kraków performance of Hamlet with Leszek Herdegen from the last days of September 1956 was called "Hamlet after the XX party convention". With that Elsinore where "walls have ears" but people do not have ears started all my later and the latest interpretations of Hamlet.
Jan Kott, "The author's introduction to the second edition", op. cit., p. 9

Hamlet at the Stary Teatr in Kraków was, like Kott's interpretations, infected with what was happening at the time. It was read through the prism of mutual experiences of the audience and actors. "Only one thing is important: to reach through the Shakespeare's text into the contemporary experience, into our anxiety, our sensitivity", Kott wrote in "Hamlet of Mid-century". And, in his opinion, Zawistowski reached this goal. The spectacle lasted three hours and was a "thoroughly political drama".

Peter Brook's contemporary Shakespeare

Kott not only drew his inspiration from Polish productions. After 1956 theatres from behind the iron curtain started coming to Poland. One of the foreign spectacles made a special influence on the Polish Shakespearean specialist - Peter Brook's Titus Andronicus.

In 1957, when - two years after the premiere - the performance came to Warsaw, Kott already had two first volumes of As You Like It published, with Othello without Passion, reviews of Wierciński's and Horzyca's plays and of Zawistowski's Hamlet. "The Kings" was published in November of the same year, outlining the direction of Kott's ruminations about history.

Brooks' Titus Andronicus placed Shakespeare onto much wider plane. The review in Przegląd Kulturalny (reprinted in Sketches on Shakespeare, and later - with some changes - in Shakespeare Our Contemporary) was enthusiastic. For the first time since the war Kott saw a Shakespearean play not contaminated by any ideology, not burdened with Stalinist experience, produced far away from the political reality known to him. And at the same time alive and moving, unexpectedly brutal and first of all - contemporary.

The visit of The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in June 1957 was an catalyst which allowed for gathering previous thoughts, crystallise ideas, generalise reflections on single dramas. To a certain extent it also took out Kott from the vicious circle of seeing Shakespeare's plays exclusively through the prism of totalitarian experiences (although for him that perspective was for a long time the most important; for his readers all over the world it was considered the most innovative point of his interpretations).

The last turn of the Wheel of Fortune

The first attempt to organise experiences connected with "consuming Shakespeare" was for Kott Sketches on Shakespeare published in 1961 - the result of over ten post-war years of living with Shakespearean dramas. The section titled "From Reading" contained analyses of the Chronicles, six tragedies and one comedy. The second section- "From the Audience" - comprised reviews of the most important (in Kott's opinion) Shakespearean productions. The book provoked lively interest of Polish critics.

But it was not Sketches on Shakespeare that brought Kott the international fame. In 1962 in Paris Shakespeare notre contemporain - Shakespeare Our Conteporary - was published, the book of an author almost unknown in the West. But this book, translated later into over twenty languages, became the world bestseller. "Consuming Shakespeare" had come to fruition.

Jak Kott's life was also changing. In 1957, together with a group of writers, formerly associated with Kuźnica, he left the party. The writers protested against the withdrawal of the authorities' promise to allow for a new monthly called Europe. In his essay "Gogolian bite or about lost illusions" Adam Michnik wrote: "in those times it was an unprecedented gesture: nobody left the party, one could only be expelled. Leaving the party by a group of writers had the symbolic meaning. The same people who after the war persuaded Polish intellectuals to support the communist power, now publicly expressed their disobedience".

In 1964 - a year before the first Polish edition of Shakespeare Our Contemporary was published - Kott was among the group of writers and scientists who signed the "Letter of 34" in defence of freedom of speech. But he could still travel abroad. In 1965 he received the Ford Foundation scholarship, a year later he started lectures as a visiting professor in the Western universities: in Louvain (Belgium) and at Yale and Berkeley (USA). Kott was at Berkeley when in Poland the March 1968 witch-hunt began. Soon Polish authorities did not permit Kott to extend his stay abroad and, at the same time, they took away his title of a professor in the Warsaw University. Simultaneously the books of a "dutiful ideologist" from the forties and fifties were forbidden in Poland. Kott did not have any reason to go back to Poland and he had no choice but to embark on a life in exile.

It was the last turn of the Wheel of Fortune - Kott who climbed all the steps of the ladder only now could say: sum sine regno. But, paradoxically, thanks to it all he was beyond the reach of the Grand Mechanism. He had finally freed himself from its cogs.

Written by Zofia Sawicka, November 2009. Revised February 2011.

Tags: shakespeare


Language & Literature


Does anyone still read Jan Kott? For those unfamiliar with the name, Kott (1914–2001) was a Polish professor whose book Shakespeare Our Contemporary, published in English in 1964, had a profound impact on theatre. Reading it again today, I am stunned by how much of it has been absorbed into our theatrical culture. Although we live in an age of great Shakespearean scholarship, represented by figures such as James Shapiro, Jonathan Bate and Stephen Greenblatt, I can't think of anyone today who influences production in quite the same way as Kott.

Partly, that stemmed from Kott's experience of living in a Poland that was either under Nazi occupation or Soviet domination. As Peter Brook wrote in the introduction to the English edition, Kott is the only Elizabethan scholar to assume that his readers "will at some point or other have been woken by the police in the middle of the night." But Kott also, crucially, saw a direct connection between Shakespeare and the modern European drama of Brecht, Beckett and Durrenmatt. His famous essay, Shakespeare or Endgame, drew provocative parallels between King Lear and Beckett's compressed masterpiece and suggested that in both cathartic tragedy had been replaced by a sense of the grotesque: this bore immediate fruit in Brook's production of Lear at Stratford in 1962, in which Gloucester's attempted suicide, in hurling himself off a non-existent cliff, seemed violently absurd in the Beckettian sense.

But isn't all this old hat? Don't we now accept as a matter of course Kott's arguments that A Midsummer Night's Dream is packed with animal eroticism, that Shakespeare's histories are about grand mechanistic forces, and that Hamlet is a deeply political play about surveillance, fear and corruption that ends with a foreign military invasion? Maybe. But it's interesting how these points still, subconsciously or not, affect productions. Even in Filter's madcap version of The Dream, currently at London's Lyric Hammersmith, Theseus's reference to conquering Hippolyta with his "sword" acquires a Kottian phallic association. Michael Boyd's RSC "Shakespeare history" cycle in 2008-09 demonstrated impersonal forces at work in its progress from late medieval England to the modern world. And I've seen countless productions of Hamlet, from Richard Eyre's and Nicholas Hytner's in the UK to Yuri Lyubimov's Russian version (its set dominated by a terrifyingly mobile white curtain), based on eavesdropping and espionage.

Anyone who doubts Kott's continuing relevance should first read his essay on Coriolanus and then go and see Ralph Fiennes's viscerally exciting new film. Kott shrewdly analyses the contradictions in the character of Coriolanus and the play. As Kott says: "Coriolanus wanted to play the role of an avenging deity while in the scenario of history he was given only the role of traitor. All that is left to him is self-destruction." In Fiennes's reimagining, set in the modern world of Balkan conflict, we see exactly how the hero, who is persuaded he can transfer his military invincibility into the political sphere, is finally shown to be helpless against the power of history.

I suspect Kott goes a bit far when he argues that it is the cinema, not the theatre, that best conveys the "fluency, homogeneity and rapidity of action" of Shakespeare's plays. But I would put the argument the other way around: it's not that I primarily want to see Shakespeare in the cinema, but I certainly crave to see the cinema in Shakespeare. We expect any Shakespeare production to possess the fluidity and speed of a good movie.

That's yet another reason why I find Rupert Goold the most exciting Shakespearean director around today. His celebrated 2007 Macbeth, with Patrick Stewart in the lead, was not only stuffed with filmic references but possessed the edge-of-the-seat-quality we associate with a vintage horror movie. And Goold's Merchant of Venice, which the RSC has criminally allowed to disappear from the repertoire after it closed last year, took us into a Las Vegas-style world of casinos and gameshows that I suspect Kott would have appreciated. If we still see Shakespeare as our contemporary, we have a largely forgotten Polish theatrical scholar to thank for it.

Required reading:Shakespeare Our Contemporary by Jan Kott (Methuen, 1964)

Life and times:Michael Kustow's obituary for the Guardian

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