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This article is taken from PN Review 221, Volume 41 Number 3, January - February 2015.

Jan Kott and the 1960s Theatre Revolution David Herman
Jan Kott, wrote Peter Brook in his Preface to the English translation of Shakespeare Our Contemporary, ‘is undoubtedly the only writer on Elizabethan matters who assumes without question that every one of his readers will at some point or other have been woken by the police in the middle of the night’.

Brook first met the Polish drama critic Jan Kott in Warsaw. Their encounter ‘ended at about four o’clock in the morning with Kott and myself in the supreme headquarters of the Polish police’. Brook noticed that the police were calling his new friend ‘Professor’. ‘“Professor of what?” I asked as we walked home through the silent town. “Of drama,” he replied.’1

From the beginning Brook sensed something thrilling about Kott, as a person and as a theatre critic. For Brook, and later for many of his readers, Kott brought Shakespeare to life because he sensed that the plays spoke to his experience of mid-twentieth-century Poland. The plays were not remote, a matter of pure diction and poetry as they might have seemed to some English readers in the 1950s. Reading Kott’s essay ‘The Kings’, Richard II and Richard III have never seemed so menacing or modern. He could almost be writing about the death of Stalin. Indeed, in the French translation of Shakespeare Our Contemporary, the chapter on Shakespeare’s history plays is preceded by a photograph of Stalin’s funeral. ‘His enormous coffin’, Kott wrote later in his memoir,

is borne on the shoulders of Malenkov, Molotov, Bulganin, ...

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