Every so often, usually on a weekend, I would meet Jan Kott in Santa Monica for coffee and a bagel. As he‘d been weaned in the seedier cafes of Paris and Warsaw, this was a cozy reminder of the bohemian life he led before becoming an academic, a critic, a Resistance fighter and an emigre. (He died in Santa Monica last month of heart failure at the age of 87.)
Jan’s reputation was twofold: the most searingly brilliant critic of Shakespeare‘s world and the most irrepressible Don Juan to have journeyed from Warsaw to Paris to London to New York. Women were irresistible to him. It was an idolatry just as charged with passion and worship as his bardolatry. And it was that same understanding of love, sex, passion, vulnerability and promiscuity that informed his comprehension of Isabella’s repressed yearnings for Angelo, Desdemona‘s flirtatiousness with Cassio, and Cressida’s duplicity with Troilus. It was his understanding of the human heart, from having his own wrenched, tugged at and broken, that made him so shrewd a guide to the temperament of Shakespeare‘s characters.
The conversation would usually comprise a critique of contemporary events, the glaring absurdity of certain clownish politicians, the pomposity of certain public figures who were promoting personal agendas. His contempt for these things was invariably free of rancor. In its place, there was a kind of twinkling tolerance of man’s worst behavior predictably living up to his lowest expectations. Where I might rail and vituperate at some gross injustice or corrupt practice, Jan would smile and brush it aside with an indulgent shrug that would imply: “What do you expect? After all, these are human beings.” It was the philosophic detachment, I later realized, of someone who, during World War II and the Soviet occupation of Poland that followed, had seen the grisliest sights, the most bestial atrocities, and had managed to assimilate them. With Jan, when you got past the most egregious examples of Man‘s Inhumanity to Man, you reached a kind of absurdist plane where things became, if not exactly forgivable, at least not surprising.
I first met him at the Edinburgh Theatre Conference in 1962. It was in some noisy nameless pub not far from the Usher Hall that I heard Jan, knee-deep in gregarious rabble, speculate about the origins of theater; how, in the midst of tankards of ale and the dramatization of some local event, an impulse is born on the part of one speaker that automatically grips the attention of everyone else, and how that story becomes elaborated and developed by others who, initially part of the audience, gradually become drawn into the action as surrogate performers. That is perhaps a long-winded way of paraphrasing what for Jan was a simple telling insight about how a storyteller emerges from a group.
His physical condition had been fragile since bypass surgery in the ’90s, and there had been several emergencies in California. One early morning, after a particularly close call, when I went to see him at St. John‘s Hospital in Santa Monica, I remember him saying to me, “Charles, it is so easy to die.” It was the observation of a man who, with the same critical detachment that scanned classical texts, was informing me of some shrewd nuance he had gleaned about the human condition. It was impersonal, wholly dispassionate. After he lost his treasured wife, Lidia, two years ago after a marriage of 60 years, I hope that, at the end, he still found it “easy.” His is a passing that will never be easy for those who knew him and loved him.
The Roar of the Canon: Kott & Marowitz on Shakespeare (Applause Books) arrived in bookstores last week.