October 27, 1914|
|Died||December 23, 2001
Santa Monica, California
|Notable works||Shakespeare, Our Contemporary|
|Notable awards||Herder Prize (1964)|
Jan Kott (October 27, 1914 – December 23, 2001) was a Polish political activist, critic and theoretician of the theatre; a leading proponent of Stalinism in Poland after the Soviet takeover of the country. Kott emigrated to the United States in 1965.
Born in Warsaw in 1914 to a Jewish family, Kott was baptized into the Catholic Church at the age of five. He became a communist in the 1930s, and took part in the defense of Warsaw. He spent the war years in the Soviet Union where he joined the communist partisan People's Army (Armia Ludowa). After World War II he became known initially as the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Kuźnica and as Poland's leading theorist of Socialist realism. In 1949, as the communist authorities tightened their control over all aspects of life in Poland, Kott obtained a position of a professor in Wrocław and moved away from political life. He wrote high praise panegyrics about Joseph Stalin, but mostly concentrated on theater. In 1951, during the darkest period of terror, Kott published an ideological manifesto about the role of theater, entitled "O teatr godny naszej epoki" (For theatre worthy of our times), in which he demanded a "new" theater subservient to the Party and its ideology. Historian Teresa Wilniewczyc noted, that his zeal for totalitarian control over the world of Polish culture was "far more than was required". Only after the Stalin era came to an end, did he became its ardent critic (March 1956). He renounced his membership of the communist party in 1957.
Kott travelled to the United States in 1965 on a scholarship from the Ford Foundation. He lectured at Yale and Berkeley, but spent the years 1969 to 1983—when he retired—teaching at Stony Brook University. The Polish authorities refused to extend his passport after three years, at which point he decided to defect. As a result, he was stripped of his professorship at Warsaw University. A poet, translator, and literary critic, he became one of the more prolific essayists of the Polish school in America. He died in Santa Monica, California after a heart attack in 2001.
As theatrical reviewer, Kott received praise for his readings of the classics, and above all of Shakespeare. In his book, Shakespeare, Our Contemporary (1964), he interpreted Shakespeare in the light of philosophical and existential experiences of the 20th century, augmented with his own life's story. This autobiographical accent became a hallmark of his criticism. Kott sought to juxtapose Shakespeare with Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, but his greatest insight came from the juxtaposition of Shakespeare with his own personal life. He took a similar approach to his reading of Greek tragedy in The Eating of the Gods. Reportedly, Peter Brook's film King Lear and Roman Polanski's Macbeth (both made in 1971) were influenced by Kott's view of Shakespearean high tragedy in relation to the 20th-century "nightmare of history".
Kott wrote many books and articles published in American journals such as The New Republic, Partisan Review and The New York Review of Books. Aside from Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, he also wrote about Japanese theater, Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski. He translated works by Jean-Paul Sartre, Denis Diderot, Eugène Ionesco and Molière into Polish and English.
- Małgorzata Ptasińska, OBEP IPN Kraków (October 2002). "Co z tą Akademią? (What’s with that Academy?)" (PDF 1.23 MB). Instytut Pamięci Narodowej (Institute of National Remembrance) Bulletin No 10/21. pp. 42–44. Retrieved December 20, 2011.
- Zofia Sawicka (November 2009). "Jan Kott - droga do Szekspira". Culture.pl Instytut Adama Mickiewicza. Retrieved 26 December 2011.
- Eric Pace (January 4, 2002). "Jan Kott, 87, Critic and Shakespeare Scholar". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
- Jan Kott Dies; Helped Recast Shakespeare | Article from The Washington Post | HighBeam Research
- Stowarzyszenie Willa Decjusza (2011). "Jan Kott" (in Polish). Culture.pl. Retrieved 26 December 2011.