Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 809
Shelagh Delaney, who wrote A Taste of Honey at the age of eighteen, clearly drew on aspects of her own experience to create the world of the play. Like Jo, she grew up in a gritty Lancashire town and left school at sixteen to work at various menial jobs. By identifying closely with her character Jo, Delaney was able to present an adolescent’s perspective with uncanny accuracy. The incessant conflicts with her mother—with their fluid mixture of sarcasm, sensitivity, neediness, sullen rebelliousness, and longing for affection—are especially believable. In the dialogue between Helen and Jo, Delaney reflects tensions common to most mother-daughter relationships, regardless of geography or class. The play also evokes the perpetual “now” of adolescence and the sense of drifting in the present and of being neither child nor adult. As Jo puts it, “I really am [contemporary], aren’t I? I really do live at the same time as myself, don’t I?” Significantly, Jo speaks of herself in question form, which accurately mirrors her uncertainty about who she is and what she wants from life.
The play’s focus on life from Jo’s perspective comes at a price, however, and the scenes with Helen can give the audience an uneasy sense that the author is settling old scores. Helen always appears unsympathetic, with Jo her victim. Their dialogue sounds so real that it might have been quoted verbatim from actual quarrels between Delaney and her mother, unmodified by artistic insight. The male characters fare even worse than Helen. They float, shadowlike, at the periphery of Jo’s small world, fulfilling functions in the plot but having no real lives of their own. The audience does not even learn the name of Jo’s boyfriend until the second act, after he is long gone. Peter stands in for all the men who have cheated Jo of her mother’s affection over the years, while Geoff sets a standard of good mothering that Helen (or almost any real human being) could never actually achieve. The play shows all the characters as Jo sees them, almost exclusively in terms of their relationship to her. While this self-centered worldview has resonance for the adolescent in everyone, it could be said to lack the complex insights of a more mature artist.
A Taste of Honey nevertheless represents a remarkable achievement for a young woman writing her first play in the mid-1950’s, a time when “angry young men” were dominating the English theater. Following John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956), plays about working-class life became enormously popular, but hardly any were given a female perspective. In these “kitchen-sink” dramas, women were usually nurturing mother surrogates, objects of frustrated male rage, or (quite often) both. How to be a real man in the postwar, welfare-state world remained the central question for an entire generation of new playwrights. Delaney had the originality to examine the same social milieu while focusing on working-class women.
Although A Taste of Honey won prizes, became a hit onstage and in film, and continues to be performed, Delaney’s contribution has been largely overlooked or marginalized. In the context of “angry” theater, her interest in women and mothering has been treated as less relevant than issues of masculine violence. Feminist theater criticism has considered Delaney a foremother who prefigured important themes but never achieved her full promise. Some, holding Delaney’s youth and inexperience against her, regard the play as a fluke and attribute its success mostly to director Joan Littlewood’s modifications and insights. The failure of Delaney’s subsequent play, The Lion in Love (pr. 1960), and her later abandonment of the stage have confirmed these opinions. She continued to write, however, primarily for television and film, a choice that seems reasonable given the way her work uses music and “cinematic” emotional close-ups. The high quality of her screenplay for the film Dance with a Stranger (1985) should refute charges that her early success was an accident. In her later works, Delaney retained her bitter humor, her insight into characters, especially women, and her impressive gift for pungent dialogue.
A Taste of Honey remains relevant for the way in which it focuses on women’s emotional struggles with motherhood and their sexuality. The similarities of Helen’s and Jo’s experiences (working in bars, pregnancy and single motherhood at an early age, desertion or rejection by men, bare economic subsistence) compellingly convey the tragic cycle of poverty, child neglect, and hopeless alienation from mainstream society, problems that certainly continued after the 1950’s. The play also marks one of the earliest positive stage portrayals of a gay male character; neither a joke nor a stereotype, Geoff retains his human dignity and freely nurtures those who need him. In addressing these issues, Delaney blazed a trail for other playwrights, both male and female.