The Theater of Essence Analysis

Jan Kott

The Theater of Essence

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Jan Kott is a Polish-reared, internationally seasoned critic whose vast knowledge of world drama puts him in the select circle of Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, Maurice Valency, and very few others. In his preface to this volume, Martin Esslin calls him a representative of the vanishing category of homme de lettres, at home not only in literature and the theater but also in politics, philosophy, linguistics, and anthropology.

Kott was born in Warsaw, wrote surrealist poetry as a young man, received a doctorate in literature from the University of Lodz, and belonged to an extreme left-wing resistance group battling the Germans during World War II. In the postwar period he came to reevaluate his Marxist thinking and, allied with the brilliant philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, broke with Stalinism in 1956. In the mid-1960’s, Kott migrated to the United States. Since 1969, he has held a professorship at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Kott’s first important book, Szkice o Szekspirze (1962; Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 1964), has also been his most famous. In it, he interprets the Shakespearean historical cycle, the Roman plays, and the tragedies as akin to the twentieth century’s Theater of the Absurd. The book’s best-known essay, “King Lear or Endgame,” inspired Peter Brook’s direction of a distinguished production starring Paul Scofield as Lear. It also caused many Shakespearean specialists in academic halls to denounce Kott as a licentiously adventurous, ahistorical critic willing to stretch a text’s meaning beyond its proper bounds and argue his case with rhetorical extravagance.

In The Eating of the Gods: An Interpretation of Greek Tragedy (1973), Kott tries to show that Greek drama belongs not only to the ancient but also the modern stage, with Sophoclean spectacle and ceremony as contemporary as Jean Genet’s. Kott views Attic tragedy against his own background of European violence, its cruelty in the light of today’s totalitarianism. What he addresses is a central problem with works of antiquity: how to have them speak to our eyes and ears and hearts yet respect the nature and context of their original culture. He thus views Ajax, Oedipus, and Antigone as isolated and self-consciously absurdist protagonists, while Euripides’ Alcestis (438 b.c.e.) is a very dark pièce noire.

In The Theater of Essence, Kott has collected sixteen of his essays, translated with varying competence by thirteen different hands. (Kott’s own version of English, heavily flavored with Polish and French words, is called “Kottish” by Esslin.) The range is from Oriental and European theater to American, from Nikolai Gogol to Jerzy Grotowski. The tone is lively to the point of rhapsodic; the argument is bold, sometimes arcane, occasionally subtle; the orientation is toward production considerations in the theater, with Kott consistently analyzing the playworthiness of plays—yet his learned love of reading frequently solidifies his comments.

The longest and most probing critique deals with Gogol’s The Inspector General (1836), which Kott reads as a descendant of ancient comedy and the commedia dell’arte, but also as a forerunner of Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, and Marx Brothers comedies. Kott stresses the work’s archetypal conflict between a house of virtue and a house of ill repute, with Gogol’s tragicomedy anticipating the dark farces of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Harold Pinter. Gogol’s play is a graphic daytime nightmare whose grotesque clarity foreshadows Franz Kafka’s. Kott even links Gogol’s denial of his own work’s satiric thrust with the denial practiced by the newspeak propaganda of present-day police states.

A reader unfamiliar with modern Polish writers may find Kott’s half-dozen essays on them the most valuable in the book. The study of Stanislaw Witkiewicz—who preferred the name Witkacy—regards him as a premature prophet of today’s drug culture and yesterday’s student rebellions, who nevertheless strikes Kott as “a dazzling relic from the very beginning of the Twentieth Century who had strayed into the present.” Poland’s most eminent author between the wars, Witkacy also painted the kinds of portraits that were later to be called psychedelic and dabbled eloquently in both philosophy and poetry. As a dramatic theorist, he shares many grand and grandiose visions with Antonin Artaud, whom he never met. Curiously, Kott barely mentions such important Witkacy works as The Madman and the Nun (1923) and The Water Hen (1921). Kott’s primary emphasis is on his subject’s affinities and resemblances rather than artistic achievement.

The younger Polish novelist and playwright Witold Gombrowicz reminds Kott of François Rabelais and Molière in his stress on comic role-playing. More currently, he recalls to Kott’s memory a party in German-occupied Warsaw where he saw two gifted young writers, Jerzy Andrzejewski and Czesaw Miosz, devoting hours to competitive grimacing learned from Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke (1937). Gombrowicz’s fascination with mocking ceremonies, shame, and debasement points backward to Alfred...

(The entire section is 2171 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Library Journal. CX, January, 1985, p. 87.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, March 14, 1985, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, February 10, 1985, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, November 9, 1984, p. 54.