At Culturebot today, Jeremy M. Barker responds in a lengthy but essential essay to Robin Detje and myself. While Barker, Detje, and I dig rather deep in this contemporary though far more modest version of Aesthetics and Politics, these contributions indicate why Twitter and Facebook will never replace the blogosphere as a space for this kind of extensive discussion about performance, theatre, and drama — and they’re certainly questions that go to the heart of contemporary performance. Brew a cup of coffee and hie thee hence. I would also advise taking note of Alison Croggon‘s and Jana Perkovic‘s comments here.
It is coincidental — and not inappropriate — to note here Michael Billington’s essay on critic Jan Kott, which appeared on 21 February as part of the Guardian‘s series “Michael Billington’s A to Z of modern drama.” To Mr. Billington’s opening question — “Does anyone still read Jan Kott?” — I at least can answer in the affirmative. Below is a short piece on Kott that was originally published here on 29 September 2010, which also reprints my 2008 review of Kott’s late collection, The Memory of the Body.
While for some critics of theatre Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, Martin Esslin, and Michael Billington remain the high-water marks of the trade, for me it’s been Jan Kott (1914-2001), the Polish critic and theoretician who is probably best known for his Shakespeare Our Contemporary; his essay therein on King Lear provided Peter Brook with the concept for his groundbreaking 1962 production of the play with Paul Scofield. Kott’s marriage of the consciousness of the theatre to his own remains, for me, a far more supple and imaginative, as well as compassionate, critical perspective than any of the writers I mention above; we have had very few similar critics in the English-language tradition, unfortunately; one might do well to put The Playwright as Thinker and The Theatre of Revolt into storage for a few years and instead leaf through Kott’s collections The Theatre of Essence or Theatre Notebook 1947-1967, discovering a sensitive means of allowing a broad erudition and wit to inform personal and aesthetic experience, and vice versa.
In October 2008 I wrote about one of his late collections of essays, The Memory of the Body; this short notice is reproduced below.
The Memory of the Body: Essays on Theater and Death. Jan Kott. Translated from the Polish by Jadwiga Kosicka, Lillian Vallee and others. 153 pages. Northwestern University Press, 1992.
Since my return to New York from Montauk it’s been a slow few weeks, theatrically speaking; the invitations to openings are few (though the invitations I’ve received have been gracious and flattering). So most evenings are spent reading. And, to a large part, reading about theatre: plays and essays, mostly, including quite a lot of Greek plays, mostly in preparation for seeing them — Iphigenia in Aulis last week, this week Philoktetes. As I sit in my apartment or on the subway reading through these scripts, I feel that I’m still participating in the theatre; I take the theatre with me on my commute or in my evenings. This integrates drama into my days and nights, when I’m away from auditoria. I’m also writing a lot about the theatre.
The experience of theatre and its threads through everyday life were a part of Polish critic Jan Kott’s project as well. Especially in his later essays, for instance those in his 1992 collection The Memory of the Body, there is little or no differentiation between body, quotidia and theatre, drama. The same characteristics affect his earlier criticism (the insights contained in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, The Eating of the Gods and The Gender of Rosalind could not have emerged without Kott’s experiences in first Nazified then Stalinist Poland), but as he aged and his body began to fail him, his essays became more intimate. The theatre is a bodied art, and we all have bodies. Kott examined his more intensely than most theatre writers, the way it moved through the streets of Poland, Vienna and Korea.
Kott may be best remembered now for his influence on Peter Brook, Peter Hall and other directors, but it seems to be Kott that will last. For all that Brook is a fine director, there’s also something of the charlatan about him, and there’s something very cold about his books The Empty Space and The Open Door; his facile division of the art into Deadly Theatre, Holy Theatre, etc. seems simplistic when one recognises the broad multidimensionality, the personal risk and vision, of Kott’s writing; a lot of Peter Brook’s theory reads like a self-help book, as elegant and high-falutin as it most undoubtedly is. Hall is firmly of the institutional theatre now — no more empty spaces for him without an elegant foyer and stars on the stage. Not that there isn’t a place for this too, and not that Hall isn’t a brilliantly talented director himself. But his diaries and his writing about Shakespeare are no match for Kott’s incisive, idiosyncratic and (yes) lyrical dramatic consciousness.
“There are experiences one undergoes but does not talk about,” Kott writes at the beginning of his essay on his own struggles with heart disease, “The Memory of the Body.” “The experiencing of extreme situations should be remembered.” Kott is primarily a critic, an abstractionist, though, and his training is in talking about things one does not — or, perhaps, can not — talk about. “An orgasm given by a body is inarticulate speech, a cry, quickened pulse, trembling, sweat. Right now I am trying to change this into discourse, but I know that there is an entire dimension that is inexpressible,” he continues in the same essay. The struggle for both critic and dramatist is to not describe but to suggest the inexpressible, that bodied rhythm that is available to the theatrical experience in a way that is not suggestible in any other art form.
These late essays of Kott’s are largely about sex and death, but about other everyday matters as well. In the first third of the book, Kott is on more familiar territory. There’s a lovely, comic essay about the uselessness of dramaturgs (Kott was one himself for many years, so he knows whereof he speaks), and fine essays about Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz (introducing the idea of “lyrical friendships,” which I find quite delightful and, more to the point, accurate), Kantor, Mrozek and Grotowski; his description of Tadeusz Kantor’s I Shall Never Return at La MaMa E.T.C. in June 1988 would be a textbook example of how to write about avant-garde theatre were it not for Kott’s inimitable personal insight, not to mention a length that would test the patience of mainstream editors everywhere.
But this is a death-haunted book (Kott himself died in December 2001). The final essay is a lengthy disquisition on the Gilgamesh myth and its evocation of mortality, much on Kott’s mind then, given his medical history. But his deepest insights are saved for his descriptions of pain and the heart, the nexus between sex and death. This is never far from eros, and Kott draws this final parallel:
We use two words in reference to the erotic: sex and love. Throughout the entire Greek and Roman tradition, the word eros or amor is used and each of these contains both concepts. What is essential is that need, desire, is given free from the outside, it is inborn, a consequence. It is, simultaneously, the need to join bodies and to join souls. I once introduced the concept of soul-bodies or body-souls which desperately seek one another. Which is to say that what is encoded in the body — need and longing — is also the soul. Soul-bodies in Eros are inseparable.
In the experience of death, in the actual experience of dying, you know that you die as a soul-body. I have no doubt about this. When the heart hurts and it hurts very intensely, then the soul-body or body-soul hurts. Maybe that is why the heart is a sign of love. And death — you die alone in the world. You are in love with someone, and lose the very boundaries of your flesh. But you die in something that is not only you, because you die with everything all around. The soul and body are inextricably bound to one another.
“The soul flew from the body,” goes a Polish folk song. In my dying the body falls away from the soul. Only the heart, in a great spasm of pain, clings to the soul to the very end.
If one were a gossip one might ask for more: descriptions of the experience from which these insights were painfully extracted. But these are precisely the experiences one “does not talk about”; the insights should be enough for us, and if they’re not, that just says more about our own small-minded tendency to gossip and moral judgment than about Kott’s expressions. And over the past several years in the New York theatrical critical sphere, the insights are lacking, theatre writers and critics seem to have become bored with theatre itself. In the print press, critics approach new plays as they would approach new cars, quick five-star ratings and descriptions of new features; in the blogosphere, fragmentation and lack of attention has led to a plethora of plugs, of quick hits here and there, of dull academic theorising, of political jeremiads. The uplift of shambling, careerist mediocrity is everywhere, in both arenas. (I’m almost tempted to say that there is too much room devoted to theatre in the daily press, if that’s all there’s going to be.) There is theatre, and there is life, but their essential codependence — a codependence as intimate and catastrophic as the codependence of sex and death — is ignored.
There are a lot of walks in Kott’s more autobiographical essays: walks with friends, through old neighborhoods. Bearing Kott’s thoughts within my own on my walks through the streets of New York, even as I lack the resources or the status to see all of the theatre I might like to see (and as indigent dramatists do, I borrowed this book from the public library too), he accompanies me and teaches me to see, as he does, the theatre in the everyday, the everyday in theatre, not unlike composers like John Cage. It is in my broadest public statements, in my most intimate personal experience. In “The Memory of the Body,” Kott demonstrates that this insight can continue to life’s end — which, for dramatist and audience both, is theatre’s end as well.