- Bernard Kops: Fantasist, London Jew, Apocalyptic Humorist by William Baker and Jeanette Roberts Shumaker
Bernard Kops: Fantasist, London Jew, Apocalyptic Humorist is a welcome addition to the small but growing number of critical works on twentieth-century Anglo-Jewish writers. Indeed, this is the first book-length study of the works of Bernard Kops, the understudied contemporary playwright, poet, and novelist. In this new volume, William Baker and Jeanette Roberts Shumaker make the case that Kops is important to the so-called new wave of British drama as well as to the [End Page 315] historical and social critique of Jewish life in twentieth-century London. So too, much of his work details the London Bohemian subculture of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s of which he was a part. As surely as this is a study of Kops the innovative contemporary writer, it is also a study of Kops the social critic, the activist, and the careful chronicler of London’s Jewish East End.
Baker and Shumaker’s approach to Kops’s work explores not only his techniques but also “the subjects that inform his work” (xv). Kops’s texts are examined within chapters that are organized according to themes and issues of identity. For example the first three chapter titles (of seven total) are titled, “The Writer’s I,” “The Role and Function of Family,” and “Identity Formation, Self-Discovery, and Aging.” While these chapter titles are useful for exploring the central themes of Kops’s work, they make locating specific works difficult. Due to the inevitable complexity of themes in any given work, the discussion of a play or novel may be scattered throughout several chapters. For example, The Hamlet of Stepney Green is found in chapter 3, “Identity Formation, Self-Discovery, and Aging,” under the subheading “Breaking Bonds, Skinning Cats, Talking Animals.” It is also discussed in chapter 4, “Jewish Identity within British Culture.” While these titles make navigation of the text confusing, the authors do provide a useful set of subsections within each chapter: “Fiction,” “Non-Fiction,” “Plays,” “Radio Plays,” and “Poetry.” These subheadings remain consistent in each chapter, making browsing within the chapters more efficient.
Bernard Kops is well known for his depictions and critiques of Jewish London, and the authors are careful to include discussions of the places and events that inspire Kops’s writing. Central to the setting and political contexts of many of Kops’s works are the marginalization of Jewish writers, the experiences of the war years in London, and the shifting populations of the East End community. For example, Kops reconstructs the world of the London Blitz in his radio play The Lost Love of Phoebe Meyers (2006). Though the play is set in Whitechapel in 1994, Baker and Shumaker suggest that flashbacks to the destruction of 1940s bombed-out London (created in part through the skillful use of sound and music) mirror the lost world of the once-vibrant Jewish community in the East End (xiv). The many historical connections made by the authors throughout the text sharpen their focus on Kops’s portrayal of his own identity, and on Jewish identity more generally. The authors claim rightly that “Kops’s plays, poems, and novels express this poignant quest for meaning,” particularly in a demoralized post-Holocaust world (xviii).
Critical volumes such as this generally include at least one critical reassessment of an author’s work. Baker and Shumaker’s analysis of one of Kops’s most well known plays, The Hamlet of Stepney Green (1956), though an astute interpretation, may finally oversimplify the play. The authors approach this rich text by comparing the characters to those of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Baker and [End Page 316] Shumaker suggest that the Hamlet figure, David Levy, is a portrayal of “the era’s so-called angry young man” (35), a character caught in the languishing Jewish East End and burdened by the Jewish legacy of the Holocaust. David struggles with his father’s ambiguous accusation that David’s mother has...