Diverse Reactions to A Taste of Honey

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Critics greeted the Broadway premier of A Taste of Honey with conflicting critiques. Many reviewers found the plot pointless and boring, while others found it honest and real, with wonderful authentic dialogue. It is worth considering what elements of Shelagh Delaney’s play created such a diverse reaction. The New York critics were prepared to like Delaney’s play, since they had received advance word from the English press that the young playwright was, as John Chapman of the Daily News reported, ‘‘a fresh, forceful new talent.’’ But as were many critics in the New York theatre world, Chapman was disappointed to find that A Taste of Honey had no purpose, no idea, no emotional pull that commanded interest. Why this huge disparity between the British critics and the New York ones? It is possible that there is no concrete answer to that question, but it is worth considering why the same plot and characters are capable of engendering such different reactions.

Delaney’s play appeared on the British stage only a year after John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, and the British critics were quick to put Delaney in the same class as other literary protesters— such as Osborne—who were seeking political and social change. But Delaney’s writing was not motivated by such ideals. She has stated that her intent was to create realism, to bring the voices of the working class into the theatre; she did not have a political agenda to promote. As Susan Whitehead noted in Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, the British critics acclaimed Delaney’s play as one which would ‘‘interpret the common experiences of today.’’ Delaney’s play offered something to the working class audience, whose existence the British theatre community had just discovered. The work was also heralded as providing ‘‘all the strength and none of the weaknesses of a pronounced, authentic local accent.’’ For British audiences, Delaney offered the opportunity to see and hear a way of life different from that of most audience members.

And for those viewers who were of the working class, this play allowed them to remember how very lucky they were compared to the characters portrayed on the stage. While Delaney might describe the play as representing authentic working class dialogue and situations, in fact, Helen is described as a semi-whore, and Jo is described first as a student and then later as largely unemployed as she hides in her flat. Neither appears to be working class. But what Delaney did bring to the stage, Whitehead noted, is ‘‘a badly needed influx of new ideas from the provinces.’’ These ideas included the use of music and a dance-hall atmosphere and the artifice of having a character address the audience, in asides. While critics are notoriously captivated by the idea of something new and different, with ‘‘innovative’’ too often substituted for ‘‘content,’’ in this case, it seems that it was largely the British critics who provided enthusiastic approval for Delaney’s A Taste of Honey.

The American critics greeted the Broadway debut of this play with a more tempered enthusiasm. Indeed, several disliked the play. Of those who did find something to recommend in Delaney’s work, critics often qualified their review to note that, while the play lacked purpose and or plot, the performances of the leading actresses helped to offset the defects in Delaney’s writing. For the New York critics, few of whom even mentioned anything new or innovative in Delaney’s play, the idea of a working class audience seemed to hold little attraction. In reviews of A Taste of Honey , the New York critics focused largely on...

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the cast, especially on the actresses playing Jo and Helen. In many cases, critics either ignored the problems with the play’s content, glossed over the character inadequacies, or narrowly focused their reviews to the performances of the actors.

And yet, the lack of content in the plays performed in the contemporary theatre is the very reason Delaney gave for writing the play. According to Whitehead, Delaney says that ‘‘she saw Margaret Leighton in Terrance Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme. She [Delaney] told one interviewer: ‘It seemed a sort of parade ground for the star . . . I think Miss Margaret Leighton is a great actress and I felt she was wasting her time. I just went home and started work.’’’ It would turn out that this is the same complaint that New York critics leveled toward Delaney’s work. Chapman’s enjoyment of Joan Plowright’s performance as Jo, as well as that of Andrew Ray’s as Geof, was tempered by his disappointment in the material provided to them.

Chapman complained that both actors’ performances were commendable, except that, ‘‘in the end, he [Ray] doesn’t know what do about the situation—and neither do I and neither did the author.’’ Several other New York critics complained that the play was boring; crude, contrived, and of negligible craftsmanship; offered nothing to say, was an ode to misery, cynical, a thin script, and without purpose; and that it did not prove much. These are completely opposing views than those offered by the British critics. American reviewers were expecting something more from Delaney’s play.

What should have occurred on stage was a more defined plot, driven by ideas and purpose. For example, early in Act I, Helen implies that she and Jo have moved to this shabby flat to get away from Peter, whom she later accuses of having followed her. He wants to marry her, but Helen gives no reason for her flight from her boyfriend—nor is there any obvious reason presented to reinforce Peter’s desire to marry her. He shows Jo multiple photos of women he carries in his wallet implying that he is involved with them. So why is he so ardently pursuing the middle-aged Helen? It makes no sense, and indeed, within months, he has once again taken up with other women and thrown Helen out. There are other holes as well, including why the black sailor would give Jo an engagement ring, promise her love and marriage, and then simply disappear. Men often promise love and marriage to secure sex, but they rarely spend money on a ring for just that purpose.

There is also a potential plot in the relationship between Jo and Helen, but Delaney barely touches upon the possibilities. As William C. Boles noted in Text and Presentation, there are many similarities between mother and daughter, including the fact that Jo is repeating much of her mother’s history: she is working in a bar, turning to sex out of loneliness, conceiving a child as a result of her first sexual experience, enduring pregnancy under severe economic hardship. But Delaney never really develops these or any of the plot’s other narrative possibilities. Instead, the audience is left to wonder what purpose Delaney intends in creating these people.

In his book The Angry Theatre: New British Drama, John Russell Taylor explored some of the problems presented in Delaney’s work. Taylor singled out several serious problems, including the lack of ideas or purpose that the American critics noted. According to Taylor, Delaney’s play ‘‘has no ‘ideas’ which can be isolated and considered as such apart from their dramatic context.’’ That is, it is difficult to define any theme significant enough for discussion. There is no appreciable depth for either actor or audience to explore, and, as Taylor observed, ‘‘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.’’

Interestingly enough, Taylor thought the play worked in spite of this very significant problem. The critic argued that ‘‘in the theatre . . . 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.’’ Taylor was saying that it is the actors who made the play work for him and that the material was less important than the actors’ ability to deliver the lines.

An assessment of other reviews, however, indicates that many critics disagreed with Taylor. Another point that Taylor made is that the relationship between Jo and Helen seems believable, but it is also, as he noted, ‘‘completely impossible.’’ Here, Taylor offered a contradiction that cannot be explained. The critic attempted to explain this by saying that Jo creates her own little world and that in spite of her misery, she also makes no effort to move beyond that small space. It is true that plays need to be seen and heard on stage to be properly appreciated and understood, but at the same time, no play should be so dependent on an actor that it cannot be appreciated without that performance.

Delaney has said that she wrote A Taste of Honey in two weeks. Perhaps an extra week or two of development might have allowed for some greater depth and purpose in this play’s construction.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Metzger is a Ph.D. specializing in literature and drama at the University of New Mexico.

Shelagh Delaney

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Contemporary serious dramatists fall into two broad structural groups: experimenters in form and traditional naturalists. On one side we find such playwrights as Edward Albee, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jack Gelber, and Jean Genet; and on the other, Peter Shaffer, Arnold Wesker, John Osborne, and—surprisingly—twenty-two-year-old Shelagh Delaney, whose first play has had an enormously successful career on the professional stage since its first production, when she was eighteen. The structural distinction is an academic one; both groups of dramatists are desperately concerned with the same twentieth-century problem: man’s inability to communicate with man; and each seems to use the same icon, images, and basic symbols. The icon is the fundamental if despairing honesty of the pervert and the social rebel and the essential deceitfulness of the conformist; the images deal with the delusive qualities of time, experience, social institutions, and religious and sometimes political dogmas; the basic symbols are the whore, the homosexual, the frustrated mater-familias, the drug addict, the confused, or uncommitted young adult.

We should have expected Miss Delaney, in her youth and comparative innocence, to experiment rampantly, to reject the traditional forms of dramatic communication, to seek for models among the caustic obscenities of Genet or the surrealistic redundancies of Beckett or Ionesco. Instead, she is among the dramatic communicants who express modern anxiety in comparatively old-fashioned or academic dramatic forms; she seems to have chosen to rank herself with such dramatists as Osborne and Shaffer who employ dramatic techniques which are cousin-germain to those of Brieux, Shaw, Pinero, and Terence Rattigan; this, however, is not enough to bring her to our attention. It is her recent success on Broadway and in London that forces her upon our notice and scrutiny.

It is too early to assess the young Miss Delaney’s position in the drama either as the exponent of one sort of dramatic expression or the other, but her success in the East End of London, the West End, and on Broadway, makes clear at least the attraction these elements at modern American and European drama have for writers. We must examine her play, A Taste of Honey, with these symbols and forms of contemporary drama in mind.

By her own confession, Miss Delaney is a neophyte in the theatre, unpractised and unsophisticated; however, she is exasperated both by the inarticulate and the excessively articulate practitioners of drama who play at writing about modern problems or placating the contemporary lares and penates. It is not clear whether her impatience is directed toward Ionesco’s ilk or Rattigan’s. She set out to write A Taste of Honey in order to express her own view of her generation, and with the panache of a novice poker player she succeeded brilliantly in dealing herself a full house.

A Taste of Honey, in its present Broadway production, directed by Tony Richardson and George Devine, designed by Oliver Smith, and acted by Angela Lansbury, Joan Plowright, and Andrew Ray in the principal roles, is amusing, touching, lit with occasional flashes of optimism, darkened with irony and despair, alternately sophomoric and mature in its language, and cluttered with meretricious but effective theatrical tricks. Its success on Broadway is no surprise, for the play contains those elements most likely to appeal to a popular audience: a sensational theme, a ‘‘distinguished’’ cast, and a kind of vulgar, outspoken humor which flatters the self-styled broad-minded; moreover, it comes to the hub of American professional theatre at the heels of some of the most widely applauded and well-attended British plays of recent seasons, Look Back in Anger, Five Finger Exercise, and Irma la Douce. Osborne, Shaffer, and the English adapters of Breffort’s French musical revue, More, Heneker, and Norman, prepared the Broadway audience for a play which takes homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, prostitution, and social irresponsibility for granted as the furniture of the twentieth century. More significantly, the play has also made an enormous appeal to the intellectual brigade who, like Miss Delaney, accept unblinkingly the sordid agglommeration of characters and ideas contained within the play as the undeniable sign of the zeitgeist. This joint approval of Miss Delaney’s play testifies that the problems she writes about are not merely intellectual considerations but pervading conditions, and that her concern with the treatment of these problems is not a youthful pose but an honest preoccupation. The things she writes about are the facts of life in this decade at least of the twentieth century; and the lexicon of images, icon, characters, symbols is the accepted if not the only possible means of conveying the facts.

The central figure of the play is Jo, young, confused, searching for some sort of creative foothold in life, through whose tentative contacts with other characters in the play—her mother, Helen; her lover, the Negro sailor; her friend, the homosexual Geof; and her mother’s alcoholic husband, Peter— Miss Delaney presents a world of sterile or warped human relationships. Jo is the Everywoman of this world. Whatever Jo attempts in her efforts to bring life into the cramped and squalid world she lives in meets with frustration. She brings tulip bulbs into the flat, they do not grow; she draws pictures with a talent even her mother grants her, they remain unseen, uncommunicating; she enters into a love affair with a Negro sailor who leaves her pregnant with a child doomed to an outcast’s life. Her periodic efforts at organizing herself, her flat, and her personal relationships with Geof or her mother end in failure.

It is in the interacting relationships between Jo and her mother and Jo and Geof however, that Miss Delaney drives home the central point of the play: Jo’s taste of honey, her brief experience with love, only serves to emphasize the remoteness of one human being from another. If they do not selfishly deprive one another of warmth and sympathy, the moves they make toward love are abortive. The mother-daughter relationship in the play shows this clearly: Helen takes off whenever mother-love, the most reiterated twentieth-century middle-class virtue, becomes too exacting or threatens her comfort. Helen’s attitude toward love in general is that it is a physical convenience: ‘‘It wasn’t his nose I was interested in,’’ she says of an old lover. Helen is a curiously contradictory character, whose inconsistencies are seemingly rooted in life and in literature: she accuses her daughter of selfishness, yet behaves selfishly herself, selfishly and unforgivably. She has a clear, realistic view of life, and the necessity to observe the traditions, and yet leads a questionable life herself. On one hand, Miss Delaney presents us with a human being, and on the other with a symbol.

Geof also reflects this inconsistency; signifi- cantly it is he who provides Jo with the most prolonged and unwavering sympathy and devotion of any of the characters in the play, precisely at the time when she most crucially needs it. She is in hiding from society, waiting for her baby, anxious about its possible insanity, and frightened of what is to come. He loves Jo and offers to marry her. The one character who offers Jo a chance at stability, a sociable conformity, and an emotional steadiness, Geof is ironically the character who, because he is homosexual, cannot succeed in giving her any of this. As a result, his love for her is futile, and foreordained to sterility. He too is a compound; in part drawn from life, in part a symbol.

Jo moves between these characters, alternately affected by them and detached from them. She comments upon the society of these people not as if they touched her, but in the manner of a curiously amused, laconic sociologist: of her mother’s and Peter’s engagement, ‘‘I should have thought their courtship had passed the stage of symbolism;’’ of the children in the neighborhood, ‘‘It’s their parents’ fault. There’s a little boy over there and his hair, honestly, it’s walking away. And his ears. Oh! He’s a real mess! He never goes to school. He just sits on that front doorstep all day. I think he’s a bit deficient . . . His mother ought not to be allowed;’’ of life, ‘‘It’s not [simple], it’s chaotic—a bit of love, a bit of lust and there you are. We don’t ask for life, we have it thrust upon us.’’ Even when she is frightened, hurt, angered by what she sees or what happens to her, her sense of humor, even of detachment, certainly of resignation, remains: to Geof: ‘‘You’ve got nice hands, hard. You know I used to try and hold my mother’s hands, but she always used to pull them away from me. So silly really. She had so much love for everyone else, but none for me;’’ of her birth, ‘‘A frolic in the hay loft one afternoon. You see her husband thought sex was dirty, and only used the bed for sleeping in. So she took to herself an idiot. She said he’d got eyes like me . . . He lived in a twilight land, my daddy. The land of the daft.’’ Jo, too, is both character and symbol—the uncommitted, unresolved young adult, separating herself from her actions, only tentatively claiming that a thing is right or wrong.

Shelagh Delaney seems to maintain a stronger, healthier, more humanistic point of view than her contemporaries of either dramatic camp in her treatment of these symbols. Genet’s homosexuals in a play such as Death Watch are nihilistic, anti-human, or to use Sartre’s word, ‘‘de-real.’’ Maurice and Lefranc symbolize destructive impulses of which Genet seems to be a perverse partisan; they are not human but incarnate intellectual concepts of a complex, depraved view of man and the theatre. They have in common with Geof an underlying sense of sterility and impotence, but unlike him they are without hope; they repel, he attracts sympathy: hence, he has greater tragic connotations. Similarly with the whore: Irma in The Balcony is without illusions, fidelity, a sense of shame; she shares this with Helen, whom Miss Delaney tentatively designates a semi-whore in the dramatis personae. However, Irma like Maurice and Lefranc is not a character rooted in humanity but an allegoric device to embody a corrosive view of a society founded on self-willed, hypocritical illusions; the whore-house she governs is the world, modern Europe, modern civilization, where she panders to the desire of these illusions. Helen panders only to herself; she achieves her impact on the audience by way of her human failings, not as an intellectualized, ‘‘de-real’’ symbol. She, like Geof, connotes a great deal more than Genet’s figures.

Peter Shaffer and John Osborne share Miss Delaney’s view of this generation; a contrast between them and her is perhaps fairer than that between her and Genet; they are closer to her in age, and the England they write about is essentially the same. Both these men are more polished literary craftsmen than she; Osborne has an ear for dialog which snaps with verisimilitude, Shaffer’s prose is more elegant, precise, and evocative of complex states of mind within his characters than Miss Delaney’s is at this stage. Moreover, their plays are more directly related to a social and historical point of view. Osborne sets his plays, Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, in an England which suffers by a sentimental comparison with the good old days of the Edwardians and from an outdated system of class distinctions. The lack of communication between his characters, their frustrations in human affairs, seem to stem as much from the conflicts of class mores as from any inherent human disabilities. Alison, Helena, Cliff, and Osborne’s angry young Everyman, Jimmy Porter, seem to fail as much through class differences as through anything else. Although Miss Delaney’s play is set in a slum, class and social distinctions, the England of the past as it is seen by the present, do not operate in her play. A minor sociological failing in character motivation perhaps, but it results in characters who, like Jo, seem to command more maturity and tragic consequence than the mewling, puking Porter. Nonetheless, the same protest is there against a world where communication between human beings is seemingly doomed, for whatever reason, to failure or to halfhearted, unsatisfactory compromise. Moreover, some of the same symbols seem to operate; the relationship between Cliff, Jimmy, and Alison is ambiguous. Cliff’s devotion to Porter has understated homosexual elements in it; his sympathy for Alison cannot provide any help for her; the destructive love which Jimmy and Alison bear for one another results in a miscarriage which makes her barren. Human beings, proclaims Jimmy, ‘‘all want to escape from the pain of being alive. And, most of all, from love.’’

Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise is set in an upper middle class household; his characters’ inability to communicate also stems in part from class or social distinctions. The difference of experiences between father and son, husband and wife, as the family moves from one social level to a higher, contributes to their individual isolation. Again the basic symbols are there: the mother, unhappy in her marital situation, looks for love and sexual gratifi- cation where it is impossible to find it; the son senses his own love for the German tutor, whose pathetic attempts at achieving some permanent relationships with human beings are countered either with uncomprehending rebuff or misunderstanding sympathy. Shaffer’s characters are more complex than Miss Delaney’s; they are better educated, more subtly articulate, but also less capable than Jo of detaching themselves from their predicament. This middle-class English family is a torture rack of poses, misunderstood feelings, repressed emotions, self-imposed isolation. Shaffer’s characters are not so different from Miss Delaney’s, but Shaffer’s greater maturity gives his characters larger, more human dimension. However, because they are so much a part of the middle class, whereas Miss Delaney’s are not of the lower class, they lack her universality.

Miss Delaney’s characters seem to contain greater symbolic values than either Shaffer’s or Osborne’s, although she is more nearly aligned to their tradition than she is to Genet’s, Albee’s, or Ionesco’s. The historic or social background against which Shaffer and Osborne place their characters tends to limit their symbolic significance while it enriches their human values. They seem frailer, weaker, more individual than Delaney’s Jo, Helen, or Geof— who are in part romanticized versions of the symbols which the experimental dramatists use in their dramatic allegories, and in part extremely humane portraits of very human types.

Source: G. J. Ippolito, ‘‘Shelagh Delaney’’ in Drama Survey, Vol. 1, no. 1, May, 1961, pp. 86–91.

Lancashire Lass

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The origins of ‘‘A Taste of Honey,’’ which is now at the Lyceum, have the flavor of a fairy tale. The author of the play, Shelagh Delaney, is an English girl from the North Country, and a couple of years ago, while she was working as an usher in a Manchester theatre, she decided that she was wasting her time lighting people to seats so that they might behold dramas of no merit whatever. Miss Delaney, then nineteen, accordingly proceeded to write a drama of her own, and, having done so, dispatched the script to Joan Littlewood, who runs the Theatre Workshop, in Stratford. Miss Littlewood, whom you will recall as the highly capable director of ‘‘The Hostage,’’ put Miss Delaney’s work into rehearsal almost immediately, and it presently came about that ‘‘A Taste of Honey ’’ moved from Miss Littlewood’s experimental theatre to the more commercial environs of London’s West End, where it played for over a year. Obviously, Miss Delaney’s coach was not going to turn back into a pumpkin, and so David Merrick, an American producer who likes to gamble when somebody else has shuffled the deck to his advantage, has brought the play to Broadway.

What Miss Delaney has wrought is something very special. Unless you have led a life much less sheltered than mine, you will probably find it hard to take her characters in stride. The central figures in ‘‘A Taste of Honey’’ are a sleazy whore and her love-starved young daughter; among their associates are a one-eyed lecher who fancies Mother, a Negro sailor who has his way with Daughter, and a homosexual who serves as a sort of handmaiden to the girl when she is quick with the Negro’s child. All this no doubt sounds quite sordid, and during much of the first act, when Miss Delaney is establishing the personalities of the mother and daughter and sketching in their life in a horrible flat in a Lancashire industrial town, you may well begin to think that you are in for something pretty bad. But let me assure you that you are not, for Miss Delaney soon demonstrates a remarkable knack for involving you emotionally with her strange quintet. They may be a tawdry lot, but when the author gets them into motion you can hear a heartbeat. ‘‘A Taste of Honey’’ isn’t long on plot—the crux of the matter is the daughter’s dilemma after the sailor has impregnated her and gone off to sea—but if the playwright’s tailoring is somewhat haphazard, there is nothing shoddy about her cloth.

As directed by Tony Richardson and George Devine, the performers in ‘‘A Taste of Honey’’ are completely satisfactory. In the role of the mother, Angela Lansbury is at once appalling and appealing, and Andrew Ray, as her lover, has a seedy insouciance. In his brief appearance as the colored sailor, Billy Dee Williams is a plausible sort, and Nigel Davenport, who plays the homosexual, exhibits both wit and resourcefulness as he excites our sympathy even while he outrages our ethics. But it is to Joan Plowright, who portrays the daughter, that the highest praise is due, for she galvanizes every scene in which she appears. Oliver Smith has provided a properly squalid setting for the play, and the production is helped along by an instrumental quartet headed by Bobby Scott, who composed the incidental music.

Source: John McCarter, ‘‘Lancashire Lass’’ in the New Yorker, Vol. XXXVI, no. 35, October 15, 1960, p. 73.

Review of A Taste of Honey

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A remarkable new play is coming to Wyndham’s Theatre on February 10th, after having a three-week refresher return run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford (the East End Stratford-atte-Bowe, not Shakespeare’s home), where it was first put on, with resounding success, last May. The play is the Theatre Workshop production of ‘‘A Taste of Honey,’’ by a tall, good-looking nineteen-year-old Lancashire girl, Shelagh Delaney. Stratford has been for the last six years the permanent home of the Theatre Workshop, and, like the Lyric, in Hammersmith, and the Royal Court, in Sloane Square, is the London equivalent of Off Broadway. It is farther off Shaftesbury Avenue than either of the others, but, like them, it is the home of consistently intelligent theatre, and has a highly individual producer, Joan Littlewood. Miss Delaney, who used to work in a Lancashire factory before she started writing, knocked off ‘‘A Taste’’ in two weeks flat. It has won her, to date, an Arts Council bursary of a hundred pounds and the Charles Henry Foyle New Play Award for 1958, besides rounds of applause from the critics. She is an original, exuberant writer, with a wonderful ear for a theatrical line. Her play takes place entirely in a scruffy bed-sitting room in her known Lancashire world, inhabited by a middle-aged tart called Helen and her daughter Jo, and later (after the mother has gone off with a well-heeled admirer) by the girl and a homeless art student, who live in a sort of pathetic, platonic babes-in-the-wood relationship after he has drifted in to anchor on her sofa. Jo is now pregnant by a colored sailor, who never makes good his promise to come back for her, and the second and best half of the play is the touching, funny, often bitingly frank domestic dialogue between her and the sofa’s lodger, who maternally shoulders the cooking and scrubbing, insists on her drinking milk and reading a baby-care manual, soothes her out of her nightmare fears of inherited insanity, and is himself helped to escape from homosexuality. The play ends tragically, as might be expected. In the roles of the daughter and the boy, Frances Cuka and a thin, pale young actor named Murray Melvin are perfect.

Source: Mollie Panter-Downes, review of A Taste of Honey, in the New Yorker, Vol. XXVI, no. 51, February 7, 1959, pp. 86, 89.


Critical Overview