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Jan Kott : biography

October 27, 1914 - December 23, 2001

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 defence of Warsaw. He spend 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 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 theatre. In 1951, during the darkest period of terror, Kott published an ideological manifesto about the role of theatre, entitled "O teatr godny naszej epoki" (For theatre worthy of our times), in which he demanded a "new" theatre 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.

Later career

Kott travelled to the United States in 1965 on a scholarship from the Ford Foundation, and lectured at Yale and Berkeley. The Polish authorities refused to extend his passport after three years, at which point he decided to defect. He was stripped of his professorship at Warsaw University as a result. 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) are 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 theatre, Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski. He translated into Polish and English, works by Jean-Paul Sartre, Denis Diderot, Eugène Ionesco and Molière.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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