Shelagh Delaney’s stage plays A Taste of Honey and The Lion in Love, though very different in style, share several themes and emphases. Despite early critics’ comments that the plays have “no ideas” and nearly no plot, both communicate effectively the loneliness of their working-class characters and their dreams and frustrations as they deal with the realities of love. In both plays, families are portrayed who, except by accident of birth and location, are strangers. Cut off from security and stability by education, social class, and economics, these characters are further isolated by a peculiar stubbornness and pride, in part a defense against the vulnerability love brings.
Delaney has been applauded for her realism, especially in her language and her treatment of relationships. She deserves, however, equal praise for her creation of a mythic world, filled with powerful symbols of brokenness. When the plays appeared, critics recognized her regionalism, humor, and vivid women 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. Instead, Delaney’s world is one in which change is slight and in which circularity is common: Sons behave like fathers, and daughters follow their mothers. This world is, despite Delaney’s humor, a difficult one. Her characters fear and hurt too much to become vulnerable, and they are ultimately detached from one another save for brief moments of consolation followed by antagonism.
A Taste of Honey
A Taste of Honey is briefly told in two acts. As the play opens, Helen, a “semi-whore,” and her sixteen-year-old daughter Josephine, or Jo, are moving into a desolate two-room flat in Manchester. Helen soon decides to marry Peter, a raffish one-eyed car salesperson, and the two abandon Jo. Jo, too, has a love interest, in a black sailor, who proposes to her and consoles her as Helen and Peter leave. The second act, set six months later, introduces Geof, a homosexual art student, who moves in with Jo, now pregnant from her Christmas affair. He fixes up the apartment, attempts to help Jo accept the child, and eventually offers to marry her. In Jo’s last month of pregnancy, Helen returns, her marriage having broken down. She bullies Geof into leaving and takes over as Jo goes into labor. When she discovers that the baby may be black, she leaves, ostensibly for a drink, promising to return. Jo’s last lines are from a nursery rhyme of Geof’s, holding out the promise of a benefactor who will care for her.
A Taste of Honey succeeded in part because of its daring plot, but primarily because of the strength of its characterizations, especially of Jo. Delaney’s realistic dialogue creates a sense of authenticity of character that masks considerable implausibility. Particularly in the opening scenes with Helen and Jo, the rhythm of attack and defense, the revelation of past failures, the barely concealed insults, the self-deprecation, the sharpness and sustained talk tantalize the audience. Out of fragments of conversation, partial revelations, and even asides to the audience, Delaney creates individuals with deep and universal human needs. Out of this battle of words, partially revealing Jo’s hope for love and her need for affirmation from her mother, come the forces that propel her into her love affair.
Delaney’s male characters are significantly weaker than her women. Peter is more a caricature, some of his mannerisms suggesting a middle-class dropout now slumming with Helen. His villainy is stereotypical: Complete with eyepatch for a war wound, he carries a walletful of pictures of other girlfriends, though courting Helen. Geof is equally vague, in part because of his homosexuality. He is clearly the more sympathetic, in that he makes no demands on Jo, but is an easy and deferential target for Helen when she returns.
Although it may be said that little happens in the play, its physical and verbal compression makes the interaction of the characters overwhelming. Jo and Helen’s two-room flat reflects a world lacking intellectual and physical privacy, in which the characters literally lack room to grow and develop. Similarly, the play’s allusiveness contributes to a sense of the mythic nature of the action: References to other works of literature ranging from nursery rhymes to Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715) are embedded in the dialogue. That they are suggested, rather than developed fully, may reflect Delaney’s youthfulness.
The play’s style, a result of...
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