First and foremost, Bernard Kops is a lyric poet who uses the theater, television, and radio as vehicles for poetry. Theatrically, he is an innovator in his use of music and songs and in his often successful attempts to restore vitality to hackneyed themes. Kops’s exploration of fantasy, of inner states of being, and of schizophrenia is juxtaposed to the presentation of realistic, sordid surroundings. His handling of dream logic is superb and explains why he is so attracted to the radio as a dramatic form. Radio drama depends on pauses, sounds, words, silences, and the intimate relationship between the listeners (the unseen audience) and the unseen performers in the studio. Such a form is ideally suited to Kops’s synthesis of past and present, actuality and fantasy.
Kops’s plays have been hailed as triumphs of sordid realism much in the kitchen-sink mold, as imaginative explorations of psychic worlds, and as politically charged allegories. Kops was at first bracketed with Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker, two other East End Jewish dramatists who emerged in the new wave of British drama heralded by the 1956 Royal Court Theatre performance of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Each subsequently went his own way, the differences being greater than the similarities. Unlike Pinter’s work, Kops’s theater is frequently overtly Jewish. While hostility in Pinter is characterized by innuendo and body movement, sometimes erupting into violence, hostility in Kops is overt; it does not simmer. Unlike Wesker, Kops does not preach. Most of Kops’s drama, even when focusing on old age and death, has a vitality, an instinctive sense of life, and often a coarse humor that are lacking in Wesker.
Much of Kops’s work revolves around family situations, the basic conflict he sees in such situations, and the individual’s doomed attempt to free himself from the family and its nets. He is obsessed with family themes, with people tied together in intense love-hate relationships. Like O’Neill, Kops uses the theater to express the inner life of human beings. All of his plays are shadowed by the streets and sounds of the London of his childhood, by his Jewishness, by his family, and by his wild, anarchic, surrealistic inner life.
The Hamlet of Stepney Green
The plot of The Hamlet of Stepney Green provides a good illustration of the nature of Kops’s drama. Kops transforms William Shakespeare’s Hamlet into an East End London Jewish lyric fantasy. Hamlet becomes David Levy, twenty-two years old, tall, and intelligent, who wants to be a singer like Frank Sinatra. He refuses to see his future in terms of inheriting his aging father’s small pickled-herring street stall. Kops describes two ways in which David Levy can be played—as someone who can sing, or as someone who cannot: “The crucial thing about David is that although he is bored with the life around him he is waiting for something to happen.” Hava Segal, the daughter of Solly Segal, David’s father’s best friend, becomes Ophelia and dotes on David. Throughout the first act, Sam, David’s father, is dying; the curtain to the first act falls as he dies. At the moment of death, father and son are united. Like so many of Kops’s subsequent creations, the old man is unwilling to relinquish his hold on life. He is sad because there is a gulf between him and his son and because there is no love in his relationship with Bessy, his young and still quite attractive wife.
In the second act, Sam returns to the stage as a ghostly figment of his son’s imagination, calling on David to avenge his death. In David’s heightened imagination, his mother has poisoned his father. Bessy is going to marry Solly Segal. David, imitating Hamlet, dresses in black and is treated as though he were insane by relatives and a chorus of salesmen. Meanwhile the ghost attempts to dampen David’s vengeful desires. Sam, aware that only good can come through Bessy’s marriage to Solly, arranges, through a séance, for the marriage to take place.
In the final act, the ghost persuades David to mix a seemingly deadly potion to be used on the wedding day, but the potion is actually life-giving. The drama concludes on a frenzied note of love and reconciliation, and the ghosts haunting David’s mind are liberated and disappear into nothingness.
Throughout The Hamlet of Stepney Green, realism and fantasy interweave. The play, like much of Kops’s work, is rooted in the East End of London (the equivalent of New York’s Lower East Side)—its characters, noise, bustle, rhythms, and songs. Music is used to great effect by Kops, to re-create the East End ambience, to evoke nostalgia, and to provide a sad, ironic commentary on the action. During the mourning period at the end of the first scene of the second act, for example, Sam’s family and friends gather around the home in the traditional Jewish way to remember him. David, in black, disrupts tradition by singing “My Yiddisher Father” to the tune of Sophie Tucker’s famous “My Yiddishe Mamma.” The “shiva” rituals (for mourning the dead) are parodied by transforming the gender of popular song lyrics. Reviewers noted that the play was far too long, especially when it indulged in lyric fantasies concerning the past—a reflection of Kops’s lack of discipline. Kops often forgets his plot, forgets the limitations of the stage, and even forgets the patience of an audience; Sam takes a long time to die. In spite of these defects, the play generates a tremendous sense of life and bustle, brilliantly rendering ordinary London Jewish existence with its hopes, fears, music, and tears.
Good-Bye World, performed in Guildford Surrey in 1959, has long, rambling dream sequences that make it theatrically unsatisfactory. Kops enjoys conveying the details of low-life London. His setting is a Paddington boardinghouse, and the protagonist is a thuggish, obsessive dreamer, a hardened criminal of twenty-two who breaks out of prison because his mother has committed suicide. The play contains three of Kops’s basic dramatic ingredients: London rhythms and atmosphere, dreams and fantasies, and mothers and their influence on their sons. The protagonist, John, has two objectives: to find out whether his mother has left him a message, and to give her a decent burial. In his room, the characters who knew his mother—a landlady, a drunken Irishman, and a blind circus clown—come and talk to him. While John listens, the police wait outside to recapture him. The long personal monologues of each character reveal Kops’s fascination with the poetry of the inner mind, his handling of dream logic, his sudden switches of mood and tone, and his exploration of schizophrenia. These dramatic elements achieve their summit in his mature drama, Ezra.
Change for the Angel
Kops’s next play, Change for the Angel, which...
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