K is for Jan Kott | Michael Billington's A to Z of modern drama

The largely forgotten Polish professor, who drew a connection between Shakespeare and 20th-century European theatre, had a huge impact on modern-day theatrical culture

Does anyone still read Jan Kott? For those unfamiliar with the name, Kott (1914–2001) was a Polish professor whose book Shakespeare Our Contemporary, published in English in 1964, had a profound impact on theatre. Reading it again today, I am stunned by how much of it has been absorbed into our theatrical culture. Although we live in an age of great Shakespearean scholarship, represented by figures such as James Shapiro, Jonathan Bate and Stephen Greenblatt, I can't think of anyone today who influences production in quite the same way as Kott.

Partly, that stemmed from Kott's experience of living in a Poland that was either under Nazi occupation or Soviet domination. As Peter Brook wrote in the introduction to the English edition, Kott is the only Elizabethan scholar to assume that his readers "will at some point or other have been woken by the police in the middle of the night." But Kott also, crucially, saw a direct connection between Shakespeare and the modern European drama of Brecht, Beckett and Durrenmatt. His famous essay, Shakespeare or Endgame, drew provocative parallels between King Lear and Beckett's compressed masterpiece and suggested that in both cathartic tragedy had been replaced by a sense of the grotesque: this bore immediate fruit in Brook's production of Lear at Stratford in 1962, in which Gloucester's attempted suicide, in hurling himself off a non-existent cliff, seemed violently absurd in the Beckettian sense.

But isn't all this old hat? Don't we now accept as a matter of course Kott's arguments that A Midsummer Night's Dream is packed with animal eroticism, that Shakespeare's histories are about grand mechanistic forces, and that Hamlet is a deeply political play about surveillance, fear and corruption that ends with a foreign military invasion? Maybe. But it's interesting how these points still, subconsciously or not, affect productions. Even in Filter's madcap version of The Dream, currently at London's Lyric Hammersmith, Theseus's reference to conquering Hippolyta with his "sword" acquires a Kottian phallic association. Michael Boyd's RSC "Shakespeare history" cycle in 2008-09 demonstrated impersonal forces at work in its progress from late medieval England to the modern world. And I've seen countless productions of Hamlet, from Richard Eyre's and Nicholas Hytner's in the UK to Yuri Lyubimov's Russian version (its set dominated by a terrifyingly mobile white curtain), based on eavesdropping and espionage.

Anyone who doubts Kott's continuing relevance should first read his essay on Coriolanus and then go and see Ralph Fiennes's viscerally exciting new film. Kott shrewdly analyses the contradictions in the character of Coriolanus and the play. As Kott says: "Coriolanus wanted to play the role of an avenging deity while in the scenario of history he was given only the role of traitor. All that is left to him is self-destruction." In Fiennes's reimagining, set in the modern world of Balkan conflict, we see exactly how the hero, who is persuaded he can transfer his military invincibility into the political sphere, is finally shown to be helpless against the power of history.

I suspect Kott goes a bit far when he argues that it is the cinema, not the theatre, that best conveys the "fluency, homogeneity and rapidity of action" of Shakespeare's plays. But I would put the argument the other way around: it's not that I primarily want to see Shakespeare in the cinema, but I certainly crave to see the cinema in Shakespeare. We expect any Shakespeare production to possess the fluidity and speed of a good movie.

That's yet another reason why I find Rupert Goold the most exciting Shakespearean director around today. His celebrated 2007 Macbeth, with Patrick Stewart in the lead, was not only stuffed with filmic references but possessed the edge-of-the-seat-quality we associate with a vintage horror movie. And Goold's Merchant of Venice, which the RSC has criminally allowed to disappear from the repertoire after it closed last year, took us into a Las Vegas-style world of casinos and gameshows that I suspect Kott would have appreciated. If we still see Shakespeare as our contemporary, we have a largely forgotten Polish theatrical scholar to thank for it.

Required reading: Shakespeare Our Contemporary by Jan Kott (Methuen, 1964)

Life and times: Michael Kustow's obituary for the Guardian


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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