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Living Theater

The Theater of Essence

by Jan Kott
Northwestern University Press, 218 pp., $9.95 (paper)

In his introduction to Jan Kott’s new collection of essays, The Theater of Essence, Martin Esslin calls him a vestige of a vanishing intellectual class: the guardian of culture and homme de lettres. It is a surprising way to characterize a maverick who turned Shakespeare into an anti-Stalinist and read Greek tragedy through the bifocals of Bertolt Brecht. But I think Esslin is essentially correct. A literary humanist infatuated with live theater, a classicist absorbed with advanced dramatic forms, an ex-Marxist still dreaming revolutionary fantasies, Kott is something of an anomaly among contemporary scholars—aloof yet engaged, ironic and passionate, maintaining a neutral position in the battle of the ancients and the moderns. Kott can employ arcane structuralist and semantic methods to unearth the radical implications of a text while affirming that a play has no real life until it is staged.

This suggests a certain indifference to current literary debate, but it is precisely because he is more interested in performance than in argument that Kott has had so powerful an influence on modern theater. As the intellectual inspiration for Peter Brook’s production of King Lear, Kott’s most famous essay “King Lear or Endgame” (included in his widely praised Shakespeare Our Contemporary published twenty years ago) had an impact on Shakespeare production comparable only to that of Granville-Barker’s essays on Shakespeare early in the century. But I suspect that all of Kott’s writings have such ambitions—that he sees them as seeds scattered in the rehearsal room as well as the classroom, later to flower in the form of directorial ideas.

Much of Kott’s appeal springs from his uncontainable enthusiasm, a natural energy which one finds even in his speech (an often incomprehensible mixture of squeaks and shrieks that Martin Esslin calls “Kottish”). In his new book, his enthusiasm is largely aroused by the artistic products of his native Poland—the “no-where” Alfred Jarry made the mythical setting of Ubu Roi. Seven of the sixteen essays in The Theater of Essence (eight if you count the piece on the Rumanian Ionesco) are about Slavic writers or stage directors, five of them Polish. Yet, even those who do not share Kott’s fascination with Witkiewicz or Gombrowicz or Borowski will be interested in the connections he finds between what is for most of us an isolated Central European literature and the more familiar avant-garde movements of the West.

Modern Polish dramatists have never received the acclaim in this country that was given to such innovative Polish directors as Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor; they have interested recent critics largely for the ways they pointed toward the theater of the absurd. Kott himself is inclined to read them as road maps. His essay on Stanislaw Witkiewicz (or Witkacy as he called himself), for example, is an intriguing analysis of “a man who came too late”—a precursor of existentialism, who painted and wrote under the influence of narcotics, a prophet of the university revolts of the Sixties, an ancestor of Artaud in his approach to the theater as a sacred place of myths and dreams. Yet Kott here seems reluctant or unable to inspire interest in Witkiewicz’s work for its own sake; he is mainly drawn to it for its resemblance to the work of other writers or thinkers.

The importance of Witold Gombrowicz for Kott, on the other hand, is in the way he turned him toward the drama of the past. In Gombrowicz’s play Ivona, Kott discovered Shakespeare; in The Marriage, he found Molière and Rabelais; in Operetta, he writes,

Gombrowicz displays all the daring of Aristophanes in mixing “the monumental idiocy of the operetta…with the monumental pathos of history: an operetta mask concealing the bloody visage of mankind, contorted by a ridiculous pain.”

In his tendency to find such correspondences, Kott may strike casual readers as academic, but they reveal a deep metaphysical or social or political response to the work. It may be that in studying these Polish writers, particularly the novelist Tadeusz Borowski, who wrote about Auschwitz and committed suicide at thirty, Kott is attracted by precisely the quality of their lives as desperate men living in extremis under some form of totalitarianism.

Kott’s essays on such experimental directors as Grotowski and Kantor—and on Peter Brook, whom he admires most of all—are more suggestive because these directors have had the greatest influence on our own theater. His accounts of Kantor’s harrowing The Dead Class and Wielopole Wielopole, and of Peter Brook’s Carmen (which Kott admires considerably more than I do), are splendid demonstrations of his capacity to surrender himself to what he considers “perfect” theatrical experiences: “Perfection signifies only itself and its own possibility. Like a beautiful nude girl. Like a beautiful nude boy. Perfection signifies nothing other than its own existence.” Kott’s identification of perfection with the human form suggests one reason why he cares so much about theater—its traffic with the flesh. (His first backstage experience took place in 1932 when he brought flowers to the Polish actress Lena Zelichowska, and as they talked the beautiful woman continued to take off her costume. The young Kott, in confusion and enchantment, threw the flowers at her feet and fled.)

But Kott’s admiration for the fleshly creatures who walk the stage has always been inseparable from his sense of destiny and fatality. Both life and death go into his idea of “the theater of essence”—“the human drama freed of accident and of the illusion that there are choices. Essence is a trace, like the still undissolved imprint of a crustacean on a stone.” It is what follows an existence created with a sense of free choices, and cancels it. Kott believes we can find in the theater “what remains of us” when everything else has gone, in situations of doom and finality like death or the Last Judgment. “In the second scene, Act I, of Macbeth,” he writes,

a messenger arrives from the battlefield. Shakespeare does not give him a name.

What bloody man is that? He can report
As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt
The newest state.

Half-naked, drenched in blood, and nameless, the messenger from the front is the Unknown Soldier and so the very essence of history. This is the essence I see in Kantor’s theater.

It is wonderful that Kott has this grand vision of theater, Sir Philip Sidney’s “poor stepsister of the arts,” so long disdained by literary humanists. Like most passions, however, Kott’s love of “essential” theater can easily be converted into rage over failed hopes. The examples he gives here of the meretricious are not, as one would expect, drawn from the commercial stage, but, surprisingly, from among the more celebrated avant-garde creations. Two of his key essays are fierce attacks on Grotowski—a director whose influence on our own theater in the late Sixties and Seventies was without precedent or equal, especially, as Kott puts it, for its “corporality…the ultimate precision of gesture, faces transformed into masks by a single contraction of muscle, the sounds as language.”

Significantly, Kott attacks Grotowski not for any artistic failing but rather for his relentless aestheticism and monasticism, and particularly for his religiosity. “After Grotowski’s appearances in England and the United States,” he writes, “a couple of nimble-witted critics noticed with a certain astonishment that the greatest artistic success of a country which considered itself ‘socialistic’ was the mystic theater of obscure religious experiences.” Kott is able to admire the heroic discipline of Grotowski—and particularly of his leading artist, Ryszard Cieslak, whom Kott calls one of the great actors of the world—without abandoning himself to the uncritical awe it inspired in many critics during the Seventies. Kott’s objection to Grotowski’s theater, to put it simply, is that it is wholly apolitical, that it is infatuated with torture, humiliation, and death—a theater, as it were, for sadomasochistic monks. “I am not sure,” he writes, “whether, to accept Grotowski’s metaphysics, one must believe that there is a God. But I am certain that one must give up hope and renounce the possibility of revolt.”

This was written before Grotowski abandoned directing for a time to become a guru, encouraging his followers to hug trees and chase the vernal equinox. But it was the first shot in Kott’s war on the entire phenomenon of what Herbert Blau called “impossible Theater” in his book of that title. Grotowski, the Living Theater, Schechner’s Performance Group in New York, even his admired Peter Brook at the time of Orghast at Persepolis, were all improvising an aesthetic that led nowhere, in which actors learned to scream before they learned to talk; the window connecting spectators to the stage was shut down by self-obsessed performers engaged in ceaseless rehearsals. Kott saw the clearest reflection of Impossible Theater in the Haight-Ashbury scene, where flower children turned into pimps and hookers, and pot-inspired Bacchic revels were replaced by heroin-influenced violence, just as he saw its consummation in the Kool-Aid killings in Guyana.

These passages suggest that a deeply conservative impulse underlies Kott’s sympathies for avant-garde experiments. Often he shows the awesome difficulty of combining a radical aesthetic with a radical politics. Nevertheless, I believe his obituary for the avant-garde (“postmodern…sounds like post mortem“) is premature. I am not certain what he would say about the new life that has stirred in the movement he once declared moribund—the mesmerizing images of Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, the savage ironies of Mabou Mines’s Dead End Kids, the powerful postlapsarian visions of Martha Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights. But I suspect he might find his demand for a social-metaphysical “theater of essence” entirely satisfied by these recent works, for they represent a significant theatrical development that future historians, perhaps Kott himself, may one day characterize as virtually unprecedented.

If Kott can be at times a poor prophet, he is still unequaled in his ability to explore the limits of theatrical achievement. Two of the essays in this book are appreciations of Japanese theater, which is one of the strongest influences on current postmodern theatrical expression. His descriptions of Noh drama (“surrender to the art of Noh begins with fatigue”), of the Bunraku puppet theater (“in which the mechanism is completely bared”), and of Kabuki (“sex and cruelty in this theater are signs…cruelty changed into rigor becomes a ceremony”) could be applied not only to many contemporary productions of Brecht and Genet but also to some of the recent work of Robert Wilson, JoAnne Akalaitis, Andrei Serban, and Patrice Chéreau. Indeed, Oriental influences have now reached down even to Broadway musicals such as Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, though not exactly in the form Kott would praise.

The two essays that show Kott’s virtuosity at its most dazzling, however, are not about performance at all, and one of them is not even about theater. “The Serpent’s Sting,” which he calls an introduction to his autobiography, uses etymology as a way of discussing religion and history. Kott here follows the evolution of the word “sting” from its association with the serpent in the Garden of Eden to its development into the “Hegelian sting” which turns history itself into a form of poison—all as a way of explaining the experience of Kott and his generation with the Communist party:

The best went to Spain to join the International Brigades, and so gave their answer to the Moscow Trials. Others among us said that whatever is necessary is also rational. Years had to pass before painstakingly, bloodying our hands, we climbed out of this abyss.

His essay on Gogol’s The Inspector General, the most brilliant in the entire book, has insights into the bottomless wonders of this strange work that rank with Nabokov’s. Nabokov interpreted the play as a nightmare; Kott reads it as a tragic farce, and shows its affinities with commedia dell’arte, the Marx Brothers and Chaplin, and Beckett, Ionesco, and Kafka. For Kott, Gogol has created a funny-dreadful world that could best be illustrated by Daumier, where food and eating are the animating images of the comedy, and the nose is the most important organ. He identifies Khlestakov with Harlequin and analyzes the action as a conflict between a house of virtue and a house of deceit, thus managing to explore not only the classical roots of the play and its place in theatrical history but also its importance for the history of totalitarianism—not to mention his own history at the hands of the communist secret police.

The remaining essays in The Theater of Essence are of uneven quality. A piece on Las Vegas as a gigantic setting for the theater of the absurd (“At five in the morning Las Vegas offers one of the most perfect visions of hell”) strikes me as rambling and forced. His essay on Ionesco, while properly admiring of the early short farces, fails to notice the deterioration of focus in Ionesco’s bloated later plays. And his effort to read Ibsen “anew,” while crammed with fresh historical insights (he associates the liberated Hilda Wangel in The Master Builder with the first woman to cast off corsets, and observes that the play, which culminates in Solness’s fatal fall from a tower, was completed in the same year as the construction of the Eiffel Tower), seems occasionally shaky in judgment. I can’t agree that John Gabriel Borkman is Ibsen’s finest work (“the only one without a fracture and the only one in which Ibsen is not self-indulgent”), especially when Kott seems to admire it largely because it reminds him of Endgame.

While I’m quibbling with these masterly essays, I should mention that Kott’s use of different translators (thirteen in all) for different essays results in uneven prose, and that the book is indifferently edited. Names of characters and playwrights are inconsistently spelled—one finds Chekhov and Checkhov sharing the same page, and Beckett’s Hamm is misspelled as “Ham” (though the spice in this gammon is accurately rendered as Clov)—while other errors result from mistranslations. The famous wails of the Living Theater in Paradise Now! (“I’m not allowed to travel without a passport,” “I’m not allowed to take my clothes off,” “I’m not allowed to smoke marijuana,” etc.), for example, appear as: “We are not allowed to walk around naked—undress…and share grass with each other.” (When describing the first performance of the work at Yale, Kott speaks of students “mating in a difficult, uncomfortable, and elaborate lotus position,” whereas what I remember is a good deal of groping with no sexual consummation whatever.)

Still, the importance of the essay on the Living Theater lies not in its minor details but in the seriousness of its moral position, and this is true of most of the other essays in the book. In The Theater of Essence, Kott is attempting to do for modern theater what he previously did for Shakespeare and the Greeks, to provide a new way of seeing and staging plays in the hope of changing the way we think about our lives. In this he continues to be a pivotal figure among theater commentators—generous, dedicated, original, profound—a superdramaturge leading the benighted practitioners of the stage through the thickets of theatrical possibility.

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