Cold War Shakespeare

Jan Kott 1914-2001

Jan Kott 1914-2001

In the 1960s the Polish literary critic Jan Kott revolutionized approaches to Shakespeare. British directors Peter Hall and Peter Brook were so transfixed it might be said Kott made their careers. As a cycle of the first three of the History plays, Hall’s The Wars of the Roses pioneered a newly realistic savagery. Kott’s astonishing erotic reading turned Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into an orgy of Freudian symbolism and flower-power couplings. From Warsaw to Stratford, Bratislava to Bucharest, a young man called Hamlet, in a black polo neck sweater and a scarf, became a political rebel prescient of the 1968 student revolutions, because Kott saw him that way. Experts who gathered in Kingston’s Rose Theatre in February 2015 agreed on the dates and the upheaval Kott’s 1965 book Shakespeare Our Contemporary provoked. But in a lively Thames-side conference just outside London their views on what Kott’s legacy meant radically diverged. Hours of solid talking and avid listening showed (once again) how East and West Europe had radically different experiences of  politics and art in the second half of the twentieth century.

In the sessions I dropped in on, Kott ‘blew away any Romantic theatre’ left attached to British Shakespeare productions in historic ‘doublet and hose’. Kott was the man who pushed out the authenticity championed by Edwardian playwright Harley Granville Barker in favour of Shakespeare being relevant. But that was a mixed gift, the British scholars and critics gathered in Kingston felt. Fifty years on too many bad productions had twisted the original texts to make them fit a half-digested politics. Such work was even dangerous. Indeed, Kate McLuskie from the Shakespeare Institute insisted Shakespeare’s world was not ours at all, and that his dramas could shed no light on what was happening, say, in present-day Ukraine. Lingering in the unspoken background to the discussions meanwhile were other kinds of second-order politics familiar on the British arts scene. University attitudes to drama as a bona fide academic subject brought back painful memories of an establishment ‘pride, bigotry and prejudice’ that Kott’s fresh approach helped demolish. Ken Pickering of Kent University felt this keenly.

In short you got the impression that for Britain, aside of the influence on Hall and Brook, which then fed into stage practice more generally, Kott was a mover and shaker in the theatre world, but one fairly easily forgotten. Unless that is, moving on from Shakespeare, you followed up the references in Kott to Sartre and Ioncesco, Brecht and Beckett, and let him transport you into the world of continental modernist theatre. If you saw him like that he was close to a saint. Both kinds of critic were speaking at Kingston’s thriving Rose Theatre.

rose theatre

Re-reading Shakespeare our Contemporary myself, I was struck what a Cold War text it was, calling for a certain kind of reading, as well as a sharp awareness of who ‘our’ referred to. Kott was writing in the first instance for Poles, and then for anyone living in the Soviet bloc where Communism found its various ways to power after the war, in the various countries, and stayed put until 1989. Born in 1914, Kott had just turned thirty when, successively, the Red Army ‘liberated’ Poland from the Germans, a Communist government answerable to Moscow took over from the pre-war nationalist republic and over the next twenty years, until his book was published in English, his country passed through waves of repression and revision of its official Communist doctrine. In the collective memory of his generation were the prime horrors of the century, Nazism and Stalinism, but particularly the Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38, and the Prague Show Trials in 1951, that brought man’s inhumanity to man to the house next door and actually your own. Kott noted, just a few pages into the first essay in his book, that Richard II, a King now deprived of his power, ‘has  already renounced his power, rent and revenues, He has cancelled his decrees and statutes, What else can they want of him? What more remains?’ And the answer comes, as if the King were Bukharin or Slansky, representatives of an ousted Moscow or Prague faction, in the words of Shakespeare’s Richard II. The new oppressors want to hear their defeated opponents confess:

                          No more , but that you read
These accusations, and these grievous crimes
Committed by your person and your followers
Against the state and profit of this land;
That, by confession them, the souls of men
May deem that you are worthily depos’d.

So although Kott was a scholar of Shakespeare we know exactly where he was coming from: an era of forced confessions, ideological purges and terrible fear.

With his seminal allusions, repeated over and over, to The Grand Mechanism of History, Kott had himself experienced ‘the very moment when power was changing hands’ and knew full well about ‘fear, flattery and “the system”.’ To know how it feels to worry that the police will bang on the door in the middle of the night is a frequently quoted sentence from Kott’s text, but much more subtle in its pain to the soul is the passing sympathy he gives  to ‘people who try to bargain with history for a little self-respect.’ Subtle again is the sentiment that ‘history in our lives is a more or less uncomfortable garment.’ As if conjuring with the inverse of the spectre that once haunted Europe, Marx’s vision of a Communist future, Kott evokes as ominpresent a century later ‘a mechanism that forces people to violence, cruelty and treason.’ As a final reminiscence of how it was for an ordinary person to live in a Communist state in the first three decades after the war, he remarks on something that reads oddly (p.25) in the English translation: ‘The kingdom is ruled like a farm and falls prey to the strongest.’ An allusion to George Orwell’s Animal Farm would fit. But I suspected the ‘farm’  of Kott’s original was more like those mechanized and collectivized social machines with which Communism transformed agriculture from the Soviet 1920s on. Some writers at the time compared them to the machinery of the Nazi death camps. They were a parallel horror in the memory. Aleksandra Sakowska of the British Friends of Gdansk Theatre Trust tells me Kott’s Polish was ‘folwark’, pointing to a large agricultural enterprise in Polish feudal history run on serf labour, and which lasted into the nineteenth century. The Communist system saw it as typical of the unjust system it had overthrown. But then, just in case anyone was mistaken as to what was really going on under the tyrannical Marxist-Leninist system, as early as 1947 Animal Farm was translated into Polish as  Folwark Zwierzecy.

Now the difficulty with all this Cold War reality, admitted McLuskie, was that British scholars didn’t know it then and still don’t now. So it was always a different Jan Kott who impressed and perplexed them. For those on the Old Left, like long respected academic author and teacher Graham Holderness, who well into the 1960s viewed Stalin as a hero and looked to Moscow for a lead to world communism, Kott was puzzling in his dissent. For others – Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore’s Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism (1994)  was cited – Kott’s Shakespeare was even reactionary. The problem here was of two Marxisms versus an individualist outsider. Cultural materialism was our British way of banalizing and materializing our intellectual heritage, substituting an academic discipline for an Old Left political vision that just couldn’t change things at grass roots. And so, perhaps, one of the longest-experienced moral dilemmas of the twentieth century, how to live with totalitarian power, was missed in my country. Put otherwise, Kott’s contribution to understanding the average intelligent citizen’s ‘bitter lucidity’ (Madalina Nicolaescu, Bucharest University) remained accessible only to the cognoscenti of the East Bloc.

When four speakers, including Nicolaescu, began to explain what Kott had meant to readers and theatre directors in their native Romania, Serbia, (Czecho-)Slovakia and Bulgaria, not only did we hear of the Shakespeare critic who stressed situations in which there were no ethical choices to make, but also of the tension between socialism and modernism that shaped the intellectual 1960s, and after. I remember, when  travelled in Czechoslovakia in 1985 (See my 1990 book In the Communist Mirror): to me the examples of modernist architecture I came across stood for everything that was not the official cultural outlook of the Communist day. Long live modernism, still today!

Lesley Chamberlain In the Communist Mirror (1990)

Lesley Chamberlain In the Communist Mirror (1990)

The Communists of his day attacked Kott for a modernism incompatible with socialist realism. A Slovak student learning Shakespeare in the 1950s had to understand that the Bard’s twentieth-century home was the Soviet Union, we heard from Jana Wild of Bratislava University. Shakespeare was the master (socialist-) realist! By modernism the Communists meant subjectivity, abstraction, ideality, and also I suppose the elitist cynicism of the disillusioned intellectual, which Kott was, at least in their terms.

We heard from critic John Elsom that Kott did not always think things through. Another British critic, Ian Herbert, wondered whether he had been necessary to ‘us’ at all. In the United States the impact of Kott’s ‘Grand Mechanism’, of a cruel and senseless power- game played by the strongest, was muddied by parallel experiences of the Vietnam War and all the protest it sparked, critic Ned Chaillet observed. In other words the anglophone world simply didn’t know what Soviet-style power was like and why it above all brought the threat of moral emptiness. In 1965 quite a few British Marxists of an older persuasion didn’t want to know, and those of a newer persuasion found Kott reactionary.  They meant by reactionary not hopeful about the future of humanity. But looking at where he came from why would he be? Communist Poland wasn’t ‘a debate within Marxism’ as Holderness construed the kind of theoretical tensions that brought new revisions and repressions and ruined lives. The Marxist-Leninist monolith was the pitiless Grand Mechanism.

Two views of history played in Kott’s mind as he wrote his book:

‘There are two fundamental types of historical tragedy. The first is based on the conviction that history has a meaning, fulfils its tasks and leads in a definite direction. It is rational, or at least can be made intelligible…[the second originates] in the conviction that history has no meaning and stands still, or constantly repeats its cruel cycle…’

None of the British Shakespearian scholars who addressed us wanted to follow Kott into the meaninglessness. His pessimism seemed positively wrong.  Kott’s text however was more complicated, I felt, for the first view of history was clearly the one that Soviet Communism, or call it Marxist-Leninism, taught, based on the Marxist theory of dialectical materialism. This was the engine-of-history ideology that moved the economic organisation of the world in the favour of the working-class. The glorious meaningfulness of a certain portion of humanity was its motor oil. Kott perhaps once believed in this proletarian directedness of history. In any case he was a Party member for many years and was bound to pretend. But what he was saying, in his book that first appeared in Poland in 1964, was look: this is what our masters say history is about, and this, theory number two, is the reality we live: the reality of naked power fighting for supremacy from generation to generation, in an otherwise meaningless world. No wonder that Kott defected to North America the very next year, having unmasked the fundamental philosophy of his country. Decades later he was moved to call the idea of ‘Shakespeare Our Contemporary’ a forgettable little phrase, well in the past. Something like that. I forget the exact words. He may well have thought the idea once so useful to him as the means to a personal political confession had turned into a not very helpful critical generalization quite out of his control.

Before I left this interesting and adventurous conference, held under the auspices of Richard Wilson’s always lively Kingston Shakespeare Seminar, I heard a voice, possibly Polish, certainly not English, denouncing Kott for the decade and a half, at least, he served the cause of the comrades, and I was sorry.  Kott, I felt, was about to about to have his critical reputation unpicked, on the basis of his biography.

Against that impulse, it seems to me clear that in his book Kott tried to recover some self-respect, after all the fear and flattery to which he surely did succumb in the prime of his official Communist political life. I hope in his own mind he managed some kind of personal reconciliation, for his work is memorable. In any case we have his wonderful readings of Shakespeare to which to return.

He died in 2001.

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