Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789
Shelagh Delaney is highly regarded for her ability to create plays about working-class characters and to express the difficulties of their lives in industrial northern England. She is a playwright of a particular region and social class. Delaney was born on November 25, 1939, in Salford, Lancashire, England, the daughter of Joseph and Elsie Twemlow. She remembered her father, a bus inspector, as a great storyteller and reader. Delaney’s education was erratic, with attendance at three primary schools and failure of the eleven-plus qualifying examinations for grammar school. After admission to the Broughton Secondary School and a fair record of achievement, she was transferred to the more academic grammar school. At fifteen, she took her General Certificate of Education, passing in five subjects, and at seventeen she left school. After a few minor jobs, she took a position as an assistant researcher in the photography department of a large industrial firm.
Her teachers at Broughton School encouraged Delaney to continue her writing. She had already begun a novel when she saw a performance of a Terence Rattigan play, which she disliked. The experience inspired her to recast her novel into dramatic form. She sent the revision to Joan Littlewood, leader of a radical London group called Theatre Workshop, who accepted it. A Taste of Honey began its initial run of a month at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. When it opened in New York, in October, 1960, it was well received and ran for 391 performances.
Delaney’s second play, The Lion in Love, attacked as verbose, without unity and focus, had only a brief London run in 1960. Afterward, Delaney turned to television and film, occasionally adapting material from her short stories. In 1961, she worked with director Tony Richardson to produce a successful, realistic film version of A Taste of Honey. The production won for her a British Film Academy award. Her 1963 collection of short stories, Sweetly Sings the Donkey, also contains a version of “The White Bus,” later filmed but never released. Her 1968 screenplay for Charlie Bubbles, reportedly based on a short story, won for her a Writers’ Guild Award. Throughout the 1970’s, most of Delaney’s work was in television, including a series, The House That Jack Built, which she adapted for an Off-Off-Broadway production in 1979. Her 1985 screenplay Dance with a Stranger was her first work based on historical characters and situations. That same year, she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She has worked as a director for Granada Television Network.
Delaney’s two earliest works, A Taste of Honey and The Lion in Love, though superficially different, share themes and devices to which she returned. Both treat working-class characters who yearn for affection and a way out of their social and economic situation. Despite the Brechtian style of the first work and the sprawling, almost circular movement of the latter, the characters in the works are quite similar. Both plays portray families whose members are essentially strangers to one another, with little or no stability in their lives.
A Taste of Honey succeeded in part because of its daring plot, which involves an interracial affair, but primarily because of strongly portrayed female characters. Characterization is also the strength of The Lion in Love. Delaney has been applauded for her realism, especially in her language and her treatment of relationships. She succeeds, nevertheless, in evoking powerful mythic situations in the midst of everyday life. When the plays appeared, critics recognized her regionalism, humor, and vivid female characters. Yet Delaney’s early critics frequently assumed that the plays should be closed, climactic, showing issues resolved and measurable growth. Neither The Lion in Love nor A Taste of Honey fulfills such expectations, although A Taste of Honey continues to attract and move audiences. Instead, Delaney’s world is marked by little change and circular action; most of her later works reemphasize this mood. Her characters fear and hurt too much to become vulnerable, and so they repeat self-destructive patterns and behaviors; they can experience only brief moments of consolation, followed by antagonism.
Delaney’s early work for the stage and her later television, film, and radio plays seem to center on the dreams and frustrations of women in contemporary society. Although at first mistaken as an “angry young woman,” she generally focused not on large social issues but on individuals confronting economic and social limitations and dealing with their illusions. Her radio plays of the 1980’s and her screenplay for Dance with a Stranger show her continuing these themes; the continuing popularity of her works, at least in England, where she is best known, speaks to her success. That Delaney’s characters face their difficulties with humor and wit sets her apart from many of her contemporaries.
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