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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.)
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[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...
(This entire section contains 437 words.)
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 together), we even have such sub-sub-themes as the reaction of the "normal" mother to the queer boy, and of the daughter's attraction-repulsion to her mother's H-certificate Lothario.
It is, of course, wonderful that a woman of nineteen has written this play, but I must make it clear I think no note of condescension is permissible on account of Shelagh Delaney's age. The play lives in its own right entirely. It is true it is so very good one feels that the author could, at certain moments, have gone even deeper—but perhaps not without upsetting the structure, which at present exactly holds the weight of the dramatic situations. Greater depth, if necessary, will doubtless come with the next play, and the next. The only defects I could see were that the girl's mental-spiritual-physical age seemed to fluctuate a bit disturbingly (especially between scenes 1 and 2), and that the mother's solo piece on the wonder of first love verged (for an agonised moment) on the purple aria.
The play gives a great thirst for more authentic portraits of the mid-20th century English world. (p. 70)
Colin MacInnes, "A Taste of Reality," in Encounter (© 1959 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XII, No. 4, April, 1959, pp. 70-1.
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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 a playwright. Unhappily it shows no more than we already knew.
She can write lively and realistic dialogue but there is little or no sign that she is learning how to resolve this talk into satisfactory dramatic action. Talk may be part of the action, "and much the noblest" as Dryden said, but not when the talk is so often irrelevant as it is in this play and is apt to come from characters who are not properly related to the theme.
"Lesser Impact of Miss Delaney's Second Play," in The Times, London (© Times Newspapers Limited 1960), September 13, 1960, p. 13.
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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 clattering and loveless Lancashire people every last vestige of the claims to character and the pretensions to dignity most of us expect of the species.
Affection is gone….
Patience is gone, kindness is gone, the forms of adult civilization have flown the coop in this industrial trash-heap: nothing is truer, more telling, or—if you want to get right down to it—more attractive than the spectacle of [the daughter] clouting a worthless visitor on the head with a box and subsequently kicking him with the vigor of a flatfooted child. These are people living hand-to-mouth and making a bad meal of it, revolving with intense animation in a world from which form, shape, and all standards have vanished. When the male 'big sister' who is nursing the lass through her pregnancy mutters, "It's simple—you live and you die," our fiery-eyed heroine will have none of it. "It's not simple," she snorts. "It's chaos."
What the chaos makes clear is that when every hope, along with every support, has been peeled away, there is still something endearing left…. [Our] interest is not centered on [the girl's] sorrows. It is riveted to the restless and inexplicable gayety that overtakes her as she swings backward from a flight of rickety stairs like a clockwork doll, and to the droll, frisky tease she becomes as she takes a floor-mop to her pliant male-nurse….
"A Taste of Honey" doesn't taste like honey, it tastes like vinegar spiced with ginger. It will not, I should add, be to every one's taste, and it may very likely add fuel to the fear that the contemporary theater is obsessed with the dingy. Even so, despair is not in it. It is fresh in its accents, funny in its perceptions, somehow wistful beneath the caterwauling.
And oh my goodness, it is talented.
Walter Kerr, "First Night Report: 'A Taste of Honey'," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), October 5, 1960 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXI, No. 18, October 10, 1960, p. 227).
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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 case by the virtuosity with which she rings changes on the role. And Geoffrey's too fragile outburst of masculine aggression not only defines for us his essential femininity, as no amount of attenuated extravagance could do it, but confirms himself to himself. He becomes a denser, a more substantial, figure after one flaccid embrace has shown him pitilessly what way he will never go.
When these three defiant egos cross one another, wit flashes, the sensibilities bleed, allegiances are sprained. It is a battle for communication, a struggle for security, a search for purpose; and it is not resolved—except for the resolution that it will go on. When the curtain falls on A Taste of Honey, Jo and Helen and Geoffrey are licking their paws and planning their next sorties on life; when it falls on Period of Adjustment, the characters are stacked in the wings, ready for the next demonstration. (p. 103)
Robert Hatch, "Human Beings and Substitutes," in Horizon (© 1961 American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc.; reprinted by permission from Horizon, March, 1961), Vol. III, No. 4, March, 1961, pp. 102-03.∗
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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, singing and dancing in the street at night, getting arrested and fined for disorderly conduct, and doing anything that comes to hand to head off the blues. (pp. 90, 92)
The play as a whole is, I suppose, undisciplined and somewhat lacking in depth and focus, but many of the individual scenes are good. There is one moment when the whole theatre is suddenly transformed into the buzzing market at the center of town, with venders hawking their wares up and down the aisles; at another time a pair of gossipy shrews give a tongue-lashing to a streetwalker who is supporting an unemployed acrobat. The courting scenes of the daughter and her young man are just right, and so is the one in which Kit, thinking that Frank has left her forever, sits quietly talking to her father. The spunky, coruscating North of England dialogue is fine. (pp. 92-3)
Edith Oliver, "How Do You Say 'Love' in Hungarian?" in The New Yorker (© 1963 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXIX, No. 11, May 4, 1963, pp. 90, 92-4.∗
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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 best writing about adolescence, the title piece communicates a sense of it as a period of time-serving, a jail sentence before the subject can escape into adulthood. This memoir is spoken in that same arresting voice—dry, entirely without literary pretension, honest to the point of brutality—that made Miss Delaney's first work so striking. Here and there that voice is heard again in this volume, but all too often, as in the story, "Pavan for a Dead Prince," it rings ever so slightly false. The flatness which the author has overdone, no doubt to avoid falsifying above all in talking about death, does not work; the pseudo-toughness becomes in the end its own kind of sentimentality.
When Miss Delaney leaves the area of character study and personal recollection and ventures into political reportage, one wishes she hadn't. Not that "Vodka and Small Pieces of Gold," an account of a trip the author took to Poland, is about politics—it isn't. It is deliberately only a travelogue—impressions of houses, trees, trolley cars and people; by refraining from speaking of the obvious things one would bring up on a trip to Poland, Miss Delaney seems to be acting as spokesman for a disaffected younger generation, one that trusts only what it sees with its own reliable eyes, one that refuses to inherit or to be implicated in the problems it did not create.
Miss Delaney, in common with many of her contemporaries, seems to be saying that she isn't buying any of the goods from one side or the other. Yet this standard British neutralism always appears a trifle tipped to one side; a plague on both your houses, yes, but a tiny bigger plague on the other one….
On the political issue, as nowhere else in her writing, Miss Delaney seems to be trading on the privileges of her extreme youth—naughtily setting up straw men and then kicking them down again, perhaps to annoy the grownups.
Marion Magid, "Miss Delaney's Bittersweet Adolescence," in Books (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), August 18, 1963, p. 8.
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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 her wry humor. Sweetly Sings the Donkey not only reflects Miss Delaney's skill and sensitivity as a writer but also her personal desperation, loneliness and youthful intolerance. After reading "Tom Riley," "Pavan for a Dead Prince" and "All About and to a Female Artist," which are the highpoints of the collection, one is stirred by the magnitude of this talent and exasperated because it has developed so little during the past five years.
Sister M. Gregory, O.P., in a review of "Sweetly Sings the Donkey," in Best Sellers (copyright 1963, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 23, No. 11, September 1, 1963, p. 185.
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[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 their own. A lot of it, admittedly, is in any case very funny: one thinks of Helen gazing thoughtfully at her unpromising urchin of a daughter and wondering if she could turn her into 'a mountain of voluptuous temptation', or Jo, remarking wrily of Peter's suggestion that she should give Helen an engagement ring 'I should have thought their courtship had passed the stage of symbolism'…. (pp. 132-33)
But more than that, it has—such of it as concerns Jo and Helen at least—the disturbing ring of truth about it: the two characters individually, and the relationship between them, are completely believable, though their situation must surely be exceptional to the point of uniqueness, even if it is not completely impossible. There is more than first meets the eye in Jo's assertion that she is contemporary—'I really do live at the same time as myself, don't I?' She accepts life, as it is, without looking for a loophole in time or place: even when she takes an exotic lover it is for here and now, not as a way out (and anyway he proves to come from Cardiff); she makes no attempt to move away from the squalid flat in its squalid area when her mother has gone, and does not even want to go to hospital to have her baby. Her only moments of rebellion, when she announces that she does not want to be a woman, or have the child, are over almost before they have begun. Helen, too, is in her way a realist: she will try various means of escape, but never with any great conviction that they will work, and when things go wrong, as with her marriage, she is not really surprised.
They accept their life and go on living, without making any too serious complaint about their lot; unlike Jimmy Porter and his followers, Jo is not angry, nor does she rail savagely and ineffectually against the others—authority, the Establishment, fate. In practice, she recognizes that her fate is in her own hands, and takes responsibility for the running of her own life without a second's thought—indeed, in almost every way the action might be taking place before the Welfare State was invented. And this is perhaps a clue to the almost dreamlike effect the play has in performance. None of the characters looks outward at life beyond the closed circle of the stage world; they all live for and in each other, and finally the rest, even Helen, seem to exist only as incidentals in Jo's world, entering momentarily into her dream of life and vanishing when they have no further usefulness for it. (pp. 133-34)
[The play is] intensely introspective,… very much the acting out in dramatic terms of a young girl's fantasies, and extraordinary achievement as it remains, the perceptive critic of the day might be pardoned for wondering what would happen when its author, like her own central character, opted for adult life and moved out from her own world of fantasy into the real world about her. In the circumstances The Lion in Love, though by no means totally successful, or even as successful as A Taste of Honey, is a remarkably encouraging sign. Its scope is much wider than that of the earlier play; it has more characters, a more diffuse action, and the central character is now a mature woman, instead of a girl just emerging from childhood. For though the relationship between Peg and her drunken mother Kit is in some ways similar to that between Jo and Helen, there is no doubt this time that the mother is the centre of interest, and the world outside Peg's own private world breaks in with a vengeance instead of being kept discreetly at a distance. (p. 136)
While in A Taste of Honey the essence of the piece lies primarily in what happens to Jo, here the action counts for virtually nothing: rather do the fragments of plot serve as an excuse for us to examine these people, to see how they live together and to try and understand why they are as they are as we follow them through a few inconclusive weeks of their life. For the first time the author tries to offer some explanation: where A Taste of Honey really gave us little chance to speculate on the reasons for what we saw, The Lion in Love proclaims even by its title that its intentions are more far-reaching and ambitious. For the reference is to the fable of Aesop in which a lion falls in love with a forester's daughter and allows the forester to remove all his defences as a condition of the marriage—after which, of course, he has his brains beaten out for his pains, the moral being 'Nothing can be more fatal to peace than the ill-assorted marriages into which rash love may lead'.
The ill-assorted marriage here is that of Frank and Kit, which is tearing them both apart but keeps them trapped together in a bond of pity and desperation. Kit drinks in her misery and once unsuccessfully attempted suicide, but feels in general 'What good does regretting do? We've just got to make the best of a bad job, haven't we?' Frank, who tells Kit at one point that he has regretted marrying her every day of his life, and believes that if 'it was a pretty poor bargain all round, I got the worst of it, didn't I?' (he married her when they discovered she was pregnant) dreams of escape with Nora, but finds that he cannot make the clean break he wants with Kit whatever he does and returns home at the last.
The relationship between them rings completely true and the character of Frank in particular is perhaps the first really believable man Shelagh Delaney has created. The other principal male, however, the ebullient dress-designer Loll, is not at all convincing, and his romance with the thoroughly real and down-to-earth Peg is consequently one of the weakest elements in the piece. Its chief weakness, however, is not in either the characterization or the plotting, but in the quality of the dialogue the characters are given to speak. One would not question Shelagh Delaney's ear, which seems, as far as a non-Salfordian can judge, impeccable, nor her skill in noting down precisely what she hears, but in this play her critical sense and her ability to select seem at times to have deserted her. A lot of the writing here not only seems like the small change of unintelligent everyday conversation, but actually is just that, virtually untouched by the dramatist's art. It needs thickening in some way—the close-ups of television would help, or the sort of elucidatory narration in which a novel would embed it—but as it stands it makes quite unfair demands on the actors. Take the character of the old grandfather Jesse, with his seemingly endless fund of worn and featureless traditional sayings: if he is meant to be lovable and 'real' the actor must work overtime to make him so, with virtually no aid from the dramatist, who has simply made him as boring as such a person would be in real life to someone with whom he did not share a history of affectionate regard. (pp. 136-38)
John Russell Taylor, "Way Down East: Shelagh Delaney," in his The Angry Theatre: New British Drama (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.; in Canada by A D Peters & Co Ltd; copyright © 1962, 1969 by John Russell Taylor), revised edition, Hill and Wang, 1969, pp. 117-40.
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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 own expense. "Oh well," says Geof, his marriage proposal rejected by Jo, "you need somebody to love you while you're looking for someone to love." Note how heartbreaking that statement is, yet with what casual gallantry it is tossed off. And now how, by using the longer, heavier "somebody" to describe himself, and the lighter, more discardable "someone" to designate the future successful lover, Geof betrays his unconscious attempt to salvage some dignity and importance for his generous but thankless role. And when Jo, uncharacteristically anguished, exclaims, "And me, I'm contemporary. I really am, aren't I? I really do live at the same time as myself, don't I?" this moving cri de coeur is sheer poetry. There is the growing urgency of the progression from "me" to "I" to "myself"; there is the shortness of the sentences, made more jagged by the questions appended to their ends; and there is the powerful image of split personality expressed in the plainest and starkest words. (pp. 60-1)
[A Taste of Honey is] honest rather than stagy, forthright rather than would-be-symbolic—in short, pungently, poignantly, unself-consciously human. (p. 61)
John Simon, "Paris When It Almost Sizzles," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1984 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 14, No. 19, May 11, 1981, pp. 58, 60-1.∗