Shelagh Delaney 1939–
English dramatist, scriptwriter, and short story writer.
Delaney's first play, A Taste of Honey, became an unexpected success when it was first produced in England in 1958. Disappointed in the contemporary dramas that were being performed in London, Delaney believed that she could write a better play, and she reworked a novel-in-progress into a piece for the theater. Delaney sent the finished script to Joan Littlewood, director of the Theatre Workshop, who immediately put the play into rehearsal. Littlewood is credited with tightening some scenes and pruning the dialogue; however, the essence of Delaney's original script remained intact. Critics were impressed by the young playwright's wisdom and maturity, and they praised her deft recreation of British regional speech.
Delaney emerged in the theater at a time when young British playwrights were staging a revolution against the genteel, upper-class drama prevalent at the time. Her depiction in A Taste of Honey of an interracial love affair and the introduction of a homosexual companion for her female protagonist led critics to group Delaney with John Osborne and his socially involved contemporaries, the "angry young men." However, although the play subtly advocates certain social changes, Delaney is most concerned with the realistic portrayal of her characters and their struggle for dignity amidst the poverty of their working-class existences. Her humor and underlying optimism are other essential elements of the play.
Delaney's second drama, The Lion in Love (1960), is more ambitious in scope. As in A Taste of Honey, her focus is on familial and personal relationships, but this play has more characters and a more complex plot than her first work. Critics were divided in their opinions of the play: for some it reinforced their assertion that Delaney's initial success was a chance occurrence, while others contended that it was a transitional piece and hoped that it would lead to more polished, important stage work. The latter expectations have remained largely unfulfilled, however, for, excepting a short story collection, Sweetly Sings the Donkey (1963), most of Delaney's work since The Lion in Love has been as a scriptwriter for film and television.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed. and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13.)
W. A. Darlington
[In "A Taste of Honey," Shelagh Delaney's] odd little collection of low-grade human beings is loosed on to the stage with vitality, humor and an understanding far beyond the author's years….On the other hand, it was pretty obvious that when the author had got her characters on the stage she had very little idea what to do with them. Neither she nor they seemed to have any purpose. Each of them pursued his or her uncharted course without reference to the others or any but the most inconsiderable influence upon one another. There was no continuity and no progress; the only individual concerned who seemed to be making any headway was the baby, and even that had not got so far as to be born when the action broke off. Even the mother's walk-out at the end was meaningless. It was not in the text of the play as written, and one's guess is that it was inserted to get the curtain down somehow. It left no guarantee behind it that she would not be back in five minutes with a bottle of milk, or a new lover.
W. A. Darlington, "London Letter: Experimental Workshop and a Young Author in Theatrical Spotlight," in The New York Times, Section 2 (copyright © 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 15, 1959, p. 3.
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[Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey] is the first English play I've seen in which a coloured man, and a queer boy, are presented as natural characters, factually, without a nudge or shudder. It is also the first play I can remember about working-class people that entirely escapes being a "working-class play": no patronage, no dogma—just the thing as it is, taken straight. In general hilarious and sardonic, the play has authentic lyrical moments arising naturally from the very situations that created the hilarity; and however tart and ludicrous, it gives a final overwhelming impression of good health—of a feeling for life that is positive, sensible, and generous.
With a small chosen range of five persons, remarkable variations are played. The mother and daughter are firmly fixed and held as absolutely central figures: their drama is the eternal struggle of the generations, and what binds them together (in spite of the irrelevancies of the three men) is their instinct for continuing life, whatever its conditions. With the men, the choice of the mother's lounge-bar lover, and of the coloured and queer boys referred to, enables the author to introduce the subsidiary themes of faded commercial love, of compulsive young animal love, and of tender but sterile love, all with assurance, tact, and skill. And because the relationships between all the five characters have been completely worked out (in so far as they appear on stage...
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THE TIMES, london
Miss Shelagh Delaney's second play [The Lion in Love] makes a lesser impact than her first. The difference is considerable and may be measured roughly by the greater distance she now places between herself and her material.
She seemed in A Taste of Honey to be writing of an experience which she knew, as though at first hand to be essentially true. The result was a play which, however little of a work of art, conveyed its truth fragmentarily but memorably. Her subject in The Lion in Love … is marriage—the marriage that is led into rashly and chancily by street courtship and turns into a dog and cat relationship which, strangely, neither victim, however many attempts are made is ever able or even perhaps willing to break.
The particular marriage which the play explores has the air of being glanced at rather than of being thought out. We do not get the impression this time that Miss Delaney is writing of something which she has had good reason to study closely. It is a marriage which she has perhaps invented to fit a theory of marriage; and she is not yet possessed of the technical resources that are needed to make what she has invented work as though it were something that had actually happened and could have happened in no other way….
It would be a pleasant thing to say that Miss Delaney's second play, though disappointing in itself yet marks an advance in her development as...
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Shelagh Delaney was nineteen years old when she wrote "A Taste of Honey," and the only thing that puzzles me is why she hasn't written the Divine Comedy and the collected works of Henry Fielding since. She was a talented nineteen.
She was also a very understanding nineteen. Her intention, she reports in a program note …, was simply to "write as people talk." But that isn't what she's done at all. As a matter of fact, her people talk most strangely. For all that they are empty-headed chatterboxes slaving out an existence in a cheap attic "with a lovely view of the gasworks" alongside a "river the color of lead," they rap out words and phrases that now and then suggest they've all been given an aborted college education….
And there must be few people in the world with such nonstop tongues, ready with a whole new, slam-bang sentence before the gasping and garrulous fellow or girl in the opposite corner has managed to spit out the words, flying like tracer-bullets, that constitute the sentence before that. This is more like a funny and bitter and outraged soundtrack being played at excess speed than it is like speech. Leaves you breathless. Miss Delaney does.
All in the interests of accomplishing a great deal more than she suggests. What is really interesting about "A Taste of Honey" is the social, psychological and moral strip-tease Miss Delaney performs. She has ripped from the backs of her...
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The dramatist's problem of securing an adequate response was brought into focus for me by seeing recently, on successive evenings, performances of Tennessee Williams's Period of Adjustment and Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey. Both plays are skillfully written in the vernacular of present-day concerns; both are admirably produced and performed. Mr. Williams calls his work a "serious comedy"; Miss Delaney offers no label, but hers could fairly be called a witty tragedy. It comes to much the same thing; but Period of Adjustment dulls the spirit, and A Taste of Honey puts new shine on the human race. (p. 102)
Jo Smith, the girl [in A Taste of Honey], is a vulnerable little bitch with a sharp tongue and a ready heart, both engendered by loneliness. Helen, her mother, is an overblown peony, with a mind as errant as a kite let loose and appetites as sharp as a fox's. Geoffrey, a sort of Dutch aunt to Jo, saves his dignity from the traps of pettishness and a tendency to flounce by a real generosity of concern.
One falls quickly, almost eagerly, into intimacy with these people because they possess that most engaging virtue of understanding themselves. Helen, in brief lapses from avid sensuality, grimaces sourly at the comedy of her aging susceptibility; Jo is rarely quite free of a self-mockery induced by admitting that the very real misery of being a waif is considerably softened in her...
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Shelagh Delaney is a natural playwright if ever there was one. She is able to give the audience—or this member of it, at any rate—not only a sense of the diversity of the life she depicts but a feeling of being part of it. The characters in "The Lion in Love" … are all working-class people in a small town in the North of England, and through the small incidents of their daily existence runs a story about a man and wife whose marriage is in pieces and who live with their grown son and almost grown daughter in a cottage belonging to the wife's father. The husband, Frank, is a peddler of toys. The son is about to emigrate, and the daughter is about to marry a young Scot and go with him to London. The wife, Kit, is a natural disturber of the peace, but although Frank has left her from time to time in the past, and again tries to leave her for another woman, he never really makes it. It is all rather sad, but somehow there is more ebullience in it … than in many comedies I can think of.
According to a note in the published version of the play, Miss Delaney got her title from a fable by Aesop about a woodchopper's daughter who was courted by a lion…. In this case, twenty-two years have passed since the lion married the woodchopper's daughter, and the emphasis has shifted from helpless Frank to Kit, who has become a kind of lioness, fighting a last-ditch fight against misery and worry and middle age. She is tipsy most of the time,...
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["Sweetly Sings the Donkey"] is a collection of eight stories, character sketches and assorted fragments of varying length and merit…. Miss Delaney writes well, and none of these pieces is without some charm or interest; nearly all deserve magazine publication—isn't that what magazines are for?—and, in fact, several appeared previously, as an acknowledging note tells us, in Evergreen Review and the Saturday Evening Post. But there is no particular reason for them to appear between hard covers, except that the present literary situation seems to demand of authors—and especially of those whose extreme youth is one of their selling points—that they produce a volume with metronome regularity at least once every two years….
The best and most ambitious section of this volume is the long title piece, "Sweetly Sings the Donkey." This is a memoir of time the author spent as an adolescent in a seaside convalescent home on the coast of England. In her description of the place and its inmates and the Catholic nuns who ran it, Miss Delaney combines flat, dry, naturalistic understatement with occasional passages of almost surrealist fantasy to great effect—much as she did in "A Taste of Honey."
Here, too, as in that play, she shows herself very gifted at dialogue, achieving the difficult task of rendering the direct speech of herself, the narrator, without that coyness which usually imperils the enterprise. Like the...
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Sister M. Gregory, O.P.
The jacket blurb, just short of ecstatic, hails Sweetly Sings the Donkey as a "sad, funny, beautiful, utterly captivating memoir" in which Shelagh Delaney "reveals herself as a young woman not only of uncommon talent but of rare charm and appeal."… Sweetly Sings the Donkey is a collection of her acrid memories, perceptive observations and stringent comments.
This ode to disenchantment brings into sharp focus the author's strange ambivalence; compassion and cynicism, tenderness and brutality, despair and laughter battle for supremacy. But how this girl can write! The natural sense of theatre, so brilliantly demonstrated in her plays, is equally evident in this collection. Her taut dramatic situations are handled expertly; her characters, stripped of non-essentials, have size, dimension and throb with life; but, without question, Miss Delaney's forte is her impeccable ear for dialogue. She unerringly chooses the words and rhythms that are precisely right for each character but which also enrich the emotional texture of the scene.
However, this Lancashire lass is not everyone's sip of absinthe! Her point-of-view is pessimistic, (and that is probably the understatement of the week), her style is frankly and explicitly realistic and her material is unpleasant, often sordid. However, these qualities are somewhat mitigated by her respect for the dignity of the human personality, her uncompromising honesty and...
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John Russell Taylor
[Shelagh Delaney's] future career remains the big question-mark in the English theatrical scene; it is quite possible that she will never again live up to the achievement of her first play, A Taste of Honey, and after her second, The Lion in Love, a number of commentators were quite ready to write this off as a freak success. Too ready, perhaps, for despite its obvious weakness and overall inferiority to A Taste of Honey, The Lion in Love does show in certain respects an advance on the first, and may well prove to be a transitional work. (pp. 130-31)
[There] sounds to be little to [A Taste of Honey], and indeed in conventional terms there is little: it has no 'ideas' which can be isolated and considered as such apart from their dramatic context, and if one tries to read the play away from the theatre, without attributing to its characters the personae of the actors who originally played them, it is virtually non-existent. One does not even notice the improbabilities of the men, Peter in particular (is he a serious George Sanders-style world-weary charmer or merely a phony with a shaky accent and a shady past?), because all the characters seem equally shadowy. And yet in the theatre the whole thing works, and works almost infallibly—it has the unique power of holding us simply as a tale that is told, and the words the characters are given to speak take on, when spoken, a strange independent life of...
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[First produced in 1958, A Taste of Honey] is as alive and moving and real today as it will be forever. (p. 60)
It is a gutsy play, full of rowdy impertinence and genuinely comic indignation. Its characters, even the weakest, have enough spine for a brontosaurus, which doesn't stop them from getting temporarily discouraged and bitter. But their sense of humor prevails, and their loving quarrels with life and one another are full of wry, understated heroism. Helen's ghastly hats are worn as bravely into the fray of scrambling ahead as Achilles's helmet was to the Trojan battlements. Jo's rough-hewn, slightly dented innocence shines with tomboyish dauntlessness: This kid is fierce and funny, rolling her vulnerability into a ball and bouncing it off anything and anyone. Even Helen's worthless Peter is as absurd as he is mean and menacing, and can be cut down with a sharp laugh. Geof is too intelligent to become maudlin, but his cleverness is only a jump ahead of his loneliness; still, that jump makes all the difference. Only the black sailor is a somewhat shadowy figure, but even he has a simplicity that is not simplistic or a piece of auctorial patronization.
And how good the writing is! "I don't care for the cinema any more," grumbles Helen; "it is getting more and more like the theater." Such an unassuming line, yet it contains a critique of film, theater, Helen herself, and a funny joke at the play-wright's...
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