The Hamlet of Stepney Green

by Bernard Kops
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The Play

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 825

The Hamlet of Stepney Green unfolds as Sam Levy, an invalid, has his bed pushed out into the garden by his old family friend Solly Segal and the latter’s daughter, Hava. The lower-middle-class Jewish milieu is discernible in the dialogue. Two conflicts are immediately apparent: Sam believes himself to be dying, while the other characters, including his wife, Bessie, believe that he is exaggerating; and Hava (recently returned from an Israeli kibbutz) is interested in David, the Levys’ son, but he ignores her. Sam’s main worry is whether David (Davey, as Sam calls him) will settle down to take over his small pickled-herring business. David himself has ambitions to be a famous crooner. “I want to hear my voice blaring from the record shops as I whizz by in my Jaguar,” he declares, and he appears to have no desire to satisfy his father in any way. This conflict emerges as the main issue in the first act, although the father and son are in no way antagonistic to each other. In fact, Sam’s values are revealed to be ambivalent as the play proceeds, for he vacillates between urging David to settle down and urging him to be adventurous. Sam is also concerned that Davey marry for love and suggests that his own marriage was a second-best affair. He goes so far as to claim, “I’ve been poisoned by someone or something. What’s the odds? By my life or by my wife . . . so my wife poisoned me.” Davey does not understand the life/wife play of words and takes his father literally, especially when his father then suddenly collapses and dies.

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Act 2 is divided into two scenes, both set in the living room of the Levy house, a week apart. Sam’s funeral has just taken place, but Sam appears to David, who is sitting alone in the living room, waiting for the others to return from the service. Sam is now a ghost; he appears solid enough, but he tells David, “I live only in your mind and heart. No one else will see me; nobody else will want to.” Parallels with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), begin to manifest themselves, especially when David suggests the need for revenge. Sam, appearing not to realize that David has misunderstood his claim to have been poisoned by his life and wife, does not stop David’s increasingly frantic talk.

They are interrupted in the debate by three salesmen coming in one after another, two apparently seeking to sell tombstones, the other to sort out Sam’s life insurance. David continues to talk to Sam, and as the others cannot see him, they believe David to be mad. Consequently, it is not clear whether he can be paid any money from the insurance. The others return from the funeral and indulge in typical postfuneral talk. David reappears dressed as a teddy boy (“but the similarity to Hamlet must be stressed,” Bernard Kops writes in his stage directions), makes a bizarre oration, and points a finger at his mother.

The second scene is set at the end of the week of mourning required by Jewish ritual; everyone is there as before. David now wants to put into motion a plan for revenge, but his behavior appears increasingly irrational. Sam’s ghost reappears and tries to calm David down, telling Davey to treat his mother gently. David has noticed that Solly Segal is beginning to see Bessie as a future wife and that she is offering little resistance to the idea. Sam welcomes this turn of events, however, and sees a possible way to “take revenge.” While the salesmen play cards, the women try to start a séance. Sam interferes, and the scene ends in total confusion, with Sam getting the message through that he is happy for Segal to marry Bessie.

Act 3 is set eight months later. It is early spring, and the scene shifts between living room and garden. The room is decorated for a festivity, apparently the wedding of Segal and Bessie. The three salesmen reenter, though they have now switched jobs. David and Sam also reenter. Sam sees that the only way to rid David of his fixation on revenge is to play along with it; he suggests that David concoct a poison to be drunk as part of the wedding toast. The concoction is, in fact, an aphrodisiac, and the incipient gloom of the wedding party is transformed into joy as the “poison” is drunk.

Only Hava and David do not drink. She goes into the garden, and David, encouraged by Sam, follows her. Suddenly, David realizes that he loves her. Sam’s revenge is successful—if a Levy becomes a Segal, a Segal should become a Levy. The play ends happily on a note of celebration of David and Hava’s love, echoed by their parents. Sam departs, his ghostly duty done.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698

The parallels between The Hamlet of Stepney Green and Shakespeare’s Hamlet are particularly noticeable in the dramatic devices employed. There is a ghost who can be seen by only David, a fact that leads to charges of insanity. However, David’s behavior, like Hamlet’s, really does appear bizarre anyway, and he seems out to shock his family. There is also the question of how seriously the audience should take the ghost. In this play, though, the incongruities do not matter; it is all part of the joke.

Revenge by poison is another parallel device, though there is no accompanying duel. The poison is turned into a love potion—an unexpected twist by the playwright and one of the more successful. The three salesmen could be seen as acting as Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Osric figures—petty courtiers now become salesmen. They are ordinary hommes moyen sensuels, ambitious in only a petty way, in contrast to David with his great dreams of glory. It could be equally well argued, though, that Kops simply enjoys crowding his stage—there seems to be little other reason for the Stones, a nondescript middle-aged couple. A final possible Shakespearean parallel is Bessie’s remarriage; the device of a parent’s remarriage features in other writings by Kops, for example, The Dream of Peter Mann (pr., pb. 1960) and Yes from No-Man’s Land (1965). This common theme may reflect his own father’s remarriage after his mother’s death.

Kops appears to have consciously reworked an aristocratic hero into a lower-class one. The guise of a teddy boy (the proletariat youth’s cult image of the 1950’s) is intended to shock David’s family, not to imitate Hamlet. In fact, Kops does not make it clear whether David himself is at all conscious of being a modern-day Hamlet. He is perhaps not aware of imitating, but occasionally he lets slip such phrases as “Prince of Herrings,” which follows a takeoff of the “to be or not to be” speech.

Ultimately, however, the devices modeled on those of Shakespeare should not be seen as predominant. It has been suggested that the play stands in a long tradition of Jewish folk drama, especially popular in the nineteenth century, with songs frequently interspersed with dialogue. Children’s games and songs open the play; later there are further songs sung by the children, as well as songs at the wedding feast and those David sings. This song device is used more systematically in The Dream of Peter Mann.

It could be argued that such devices show the great (and acknowledged) influence of Bertolt Brecht on Kops. While Kops has neither Brecht’s political commitment nor his powers of social analysis, the mixture of comedy and tragedy, serious and bizarre, the disorientation, and even the antiheroic elements in Sam and David could be seen as Brechtian. They are also, however, typically Jewish. Jewish ritual is prominently featured; act 2, scene 1, ends with the Kaddish, the Jewish mourning ritual, but its mournful effect is lessened by both Sam’s participation in it and David’s bursting in wearing his teddy boy outfit and singing the song “My Yiddisher Father.” The week’s gap between scene 1 and scene 2 is also based on the Jewish ritual of family mourning, which Kops describes fully in his autobiography. Act 3 is based on a Jewish wedding. Kops himself evidently is not an Orthodox Jew, yet he sees his roots in the observation of such rituals and makes them a basic structural device for this play.

One other device that must be mentioned is the dividing of the stage between the interior of the house and its garden. Act 1 takes place in the garden, but the audience is aware of the house, act 2 reverses this situation, and act 3 strikes a sort of balance. Echoes of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949) might be intended, but Kops does not work the tension out systematically as Miller does. The garden becomes a pastoral motif and a fitting place to celebrate David’s avowal of love to Hava. The gesture is too slight and too unsystematic, though, to have great impact on the play as a whole.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 76

Sources for Further Study

Dace, Tish. “Bernard Kops.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1999.

Kops, Bernard. Shalom Bomb: Scenes from My Life. London: Oberon, 2000.

Lumley, Frederick. New Trends in Twentieth Century Drama: A Survey Since Ibsen and Shaw. 4th rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Taylor, John Russell. The Angry Theatre: New British Drama. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969.

Wellwarth, George. Theatre of Protest and Paradox. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1965.

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Critical Essays