The Hamlet of Stepney Green Critical Context - Essay

Bernard Kops

Critical Context

Penguin’s publication of the play in the first volume of its New English Dramatists series shows the significance of The Hamlet of Stepney Green for the British theater in the late 1950’s. After several decades of highly stylized upper-middle-class comedy, young British playwrights had revolted and set their plays in what they saw as the realities of working-class and lower-middle-class postwar Britain. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956, pb. 1957) is generally seen as the first of such dramas.

The Hamlet of Stepney Green is perhaps more immediately to be compared to the plays of Arnold Wesker, especially Chicken Soup with Barley (pr. 1958, pb. 1959), which is also set in a Jewish milieu in the East End of London. Kops’s mood is much more celebratory and optimistic than either Osborne’s or Wesker’s, and his bizarre humor avoids the grim absurdism of Harold Pinter, another Jewish dramatist of the period. Kops also lacks Wesker’s political commitment, though his intuitive sympathies are not dissimilar.

The production of The Hamlet of Stepney Green soon moved from Oxford to London; the play was subsequently performed in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States. It was generally hailed as the work of a promising dramatist, and on the strength of it, Kops was given an Arts Council bursary. Some critics believe that it is better than any of the more than two dozen others written since (which include some for television and radio). Other critics, however, see formal weaknesses and incoherences in The Hamlet of Stepney Green and prefer Enter Solly Gold (pb. 1961, pr. 1962), another Jewish tragicomedy, or Ezra (pb. 1980, pr. 1981), a play about Ezra Pound’s last years.

Certainly, the play has had only intermittent revivals and has not been readily reprinted. Besides drama and his autobiography, Kops has written several volumes of poetry and more than a half dozen novels. He was classified as primarily a novelist in the late twentieth century, though it must be said that his reputation as a writer rests firmly on his drama, a reputation bolstered by plays in the 1990’s that included Sophie (The Last of the Red Hot Mamas), pr. 1990, Playing Sinatra (pr. 1991, pb. 1992), Dreams of Anne Frank (pr. 1992, pb. 1993), and Call in the Night (pr. 1995, pb. 2000).