Living Theater

The Theater of Essence

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

Jan Kott
Jan Kott; drawing by David Levine

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…

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