The early critics of A Taste of Honey, most of whom greeted the play with enthusiasm, commented especially on three features of the play: its looseness of structure, the authentic flavor of its dialogue, and its overall vitality.
The play’s structural looseness may reflect the limits of its young and inexperienced playwright’s skill at plotting. Shelagh Delaney was only seventeen years old when she began writing A Taste of Honey, and she was for the most part unfamiliar with the classics of dramatic literature. What spurred her to write was her belief that she could come up with something better than the play by Terence Rattigan, a successful commercial playwright, that she had been watching while working as an usher at a local theater.
Thus, there was a pleasing air of amateurism about Delaney’s emergence as an important new playwright of the British theater in the late 1950’s. Yet the structural openness of Delaney’s play may not be merely a consequence of amateurism. Whatever his limitations as an artist, Rattigan was a polished craftsman; the structure of his plays was normally impeccable. It was probably in part against this very quality, the neatness with which everything is made to fit together, that Delaney was reacting. The absence of a conventionally constructed plot, in favor of a structure closer to the random nature of life as it is lived, may then reflect a conscious decision on the part of the young playwright. At any rate, audiences have accepted the play’s structure as appropriate to the dramatic material. Unlike the conventional dramatic hero, Jo is not defined by her pursuit of goals. She lives in the moment, accepting what life gives her. She could hardly have been realized in a more tightly constructed play.
If Delaney’s sense of plot was uncertain, her ear for dialogue was remarkable. The speech in this play often has the air of discontinuity that one hears in everyday speech, in which one is accustomed to speakers jumping from topic to topic with minimal respect for the rules of coherent composition. Yet because of its unfailing truth to character, the dialogue contributes positively to the coherence of the play as the plotting does not. It also captures the diversity of the characters, each of whom has an individual style of speech; but it is dramatically right that in Jo’s style there are clear echoes of Helen’s.
It is ultimately the characters who give the play its remarkable vitality, although Jo’s lover is more a function than a character and Peter seems rather a thin creation (nevertheless, a good actor can bring him to life on the stage). In Geoffrey, Delaney has created a character who explodes two stereotypes, that of homosexuality and that of masculinity. What may be more impressive, however, is that Geoffrey assumes an individual identity as well. In giving him a conventional streak and in finding his emotional vulnerabilities, Delaney moves beyond commenting on stereotypes to the much more difficult accomplishment of creating a living character.
Jo and Helen remain Delaney’s greatest achievements, both as individual characters and in their relationship to each other. The relationship of mother and daughter has rarely been explored on the stage with such unsentimental, but not uncompassionate, clarity. Their differences create vital dramatic tensions, yet one never forgets that Jo is Helen’s daughter—that Jo’s amused resignation in the face of an indifferent world, her resilience in response to adversity, and her focus on the here and now are variations on qualities that are present in Helen. The interplay of similarity and difference gives a vital edge to the relationship between these two characters, and that relationship is a significant source of the vitality of the play.