Bernard Kops’s work is intensely autobiographical. Details of his early life may be found in The World Is a Wedding. He was born in Stepney in the East End of London in 1926. His father was a Dutch Jewish immigrant cobbler who came to London’s East End in 1904, and his mother was born in London of Dutch Jewish parents. Kops was the youngest of a family of four sisters and two brothers. Although his family was very poor, Kops grew up in an intense, colorful, and cosmopolitan environment. The English fascist demonstrations and counter-demonstrations of the late 1930’s in the East End of London provided a personal background for the awareness of anti-Semitism that pervades Kops’s work.
Kops left school when he was only thirteen to earn a living as best he could—as a docker, chef, salesman, waiter, liftman, and barrow boy, selling books in street markets. Already writing and reading intensely, he was particularly moved by Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (pr., pb. 1931) and its depiction of family conflicts and fantasy states. T. S. Eliot was another early literary influence, from whom Kops gained insight into the theatrical use of popular songs. The foundations for Kops’s dramatic methodology were formed at the evening drama classes he attended at Toynbee Hall in London’s East End.
During World War II, Kops’s family moved around England in frequent evacuations and return trips to the badly blitzed East End. The postwar years saw Kops acting in repertory theater; traveling through France, Spain, and Tangier; living in a caravan in Camden Town, North London; and taking drugs. Following the death of his mother in 1951, Kops was committed to a psychiatric hospital. Kops has twice been institutionalized; the concern with extreme mental states in his work clearly has a personal genesis. Kops’s meeting with and marriage in 1956 to Erica Gordon, a doctor’s daughter, eased his bereavement and transformed his life, giving him the support he so desperately needed. They had four children, and, beginning in the late 1950’s, he earned his living as a professional writer.
Kops’s first play, The Hamlet of Stepney Green, was produced by Frank Hauser at the Oxford Playhouse in 1957, subsequently moving to London’s Lyric Theatre and then to New York. With the success of this play, Kops arrived on the theatrical scene. Kops settled in London, where he continued to write frequently on the artistic life, especially in retrospect from his earlier days in SoHo. His play Ezra, based on the life of Ezra Pound, is often performed in colleges; Simon at Midnight was broadcast on radio in 1982 and was made into a stage play in 1985.
Bernard Kops was born in Stepney, a Jewish immigrant area in the East End of London, to a Dutch-Jewish immigrant cobbler and a Dutch-Jewish mother. He was the youngest of four sisters and two brothers. Among the experiences that found their way into his work were his growing up in an intense and cosmopolitan (yet impoverished) environment, Fascist demonstrations and counterdemonstrations of the pre-World War II period, life in wartime London, and cultural (rather than religious) Jewishness. In Kops’s adolescent years during World War II, his family moved around England attempting to avoid the German bombing of London.
After 1945, Kops acted in repertory theater and traveled in France, Spain, and Tangier. His mother’s death in 1951 deeply affected him, and he was committed to a psychiatric hospital; these experiences were recorded in his 1959 narrative poem An Anemone for Antigone. Kops’s concern with mental states is found in his novel On Margate Sands, a study of five former psychiatric hospital patients. His writing is inhabited by frenetic characters plagued by extreme mood changes. His central preoccupations are the borderlines between sanity and insanity, dreams and psychiatric disturbance, and creativity and madness.
Stability came into Kops’s life with his meeting Erica Gordon, whom he married in 1956. They had four children. Beginning in the 1950’s, Kops made his living as a professional writer; he also taught and served as a writer-in-residence. Theatrical writing has been Kops’s main form. The early autobiographical play The Hamlet of Stepney Green used music to evoke nostalgia and to provide a melancholic and ironic commentary on the action. The central figure of the drama Enter Solly Gold is a charlatan, rather than—as in The Hamlet of Stepney Green—an oedipally obsessed working-class figure. David, It Is Getting Dark focuses on a reactionary writer plagiarizing the work of a poor Jewish writer. Ezra Pound is the subject of Kops’s well-known radio and theatrical play Ezra; at the drama’s core is Pound’s imprisonment and release. Irving Wardle noted in his London Times review that “no other living” dramatist matched Kops in the virtuoso handling of dream logic. In Playing Sinatra, an obsession with Frank Sinatra dominates the thoughts of the protagonists. Dreams of Anne Frank, a drama for children, is similarly preoccupied with flights of imaginative fantasy from the harsh realities of everyday existence. Call in the Night is concerned with the plight of childhood genius, memories, and the fate of the prodigy unable to perform. Sophie (The Last of the Red Hot Mamas) is about the great Yiddish music hall singer Sophie Tucker, and it juxtaposes song, dance, and memory to evoke atmosphere and to continue Kops’s explorations into memory, experience, and fantasy.
Radio was a natural medium for Kops’s explorations of lyrical dream fantasy; Ezra, for example, was originally written for the radio. Among his other radio plays was Trotsky Was My Father, which used a historic figure as the vehicle for reflections on dreams and disillusionment. Kops also wrote frequently for television; he adapted plays and wrote documentaries about the wartime bombing of London. Night Kids focused on contemporary social problems—child runaways in London, drugs, and prostitution.
Kops, highly skilled in many genres, was largely unswayed by the literary or political fashions of the second half of the twentieth century. Surrealism, fantasy, and the problems of identity pervade his novels. For example, in The Passionate Past of Gloria Gaye, presented through the use of first-person narrative, an evocative representation of the urban landscape of London is juxtaposed with surreal passages and images to convey the psychological disintegration of a suburban housewife. A nonfiction work, the autobiographical The World Is a Wedding, contains some of Kops’s most powerful and sustained writing focusing on childhood experiences and family conflicts; it eloquently depicts financially impoverished East End London Jewish life. Kops’s poetry, punctuated with lyricism and surrealism, frequently celebrates his love for his wife and concern for his children.