The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

A Taste of Honey opens in a large, comfortless flat in an apartment house in a very poor district of Manchester. The first scene introduces Helen and her daughter Josephine (Jo), who are moving in with their baggage. Through the half-humorous, half-spiteful banter between them it becomes clear that Helen, who drinks whiskey throughout, resents Jo because she interferes with her good-time life-style and that Jo is counting the days until she can leave school and gain independence from her neglectful, promiscuous mother. Helen’s current boyfriend, Peter, a brash car salesman several years younger than she is, arrives and meets Jo for the first time. They hate each other on sight and exchange pithy insults.

In scene 2, Jo is flirting in the street below the flat with her boyfriend, a black sailor referred to throughout as The Boy. He promises to marry her when he returns on leave in six months’ time and gives her a cheap ring. Jo teases him about his color and wonders how Helen will react. The scene shifts back to the flat. Helen tells Jo, who has a bad cold, that she is going to marry Peter. When Peter arrives, with chocolates for Jo and flowers for Helen, Jo warns him to leave her and her mother alone.

Helen, who has been offstage in the kitchen, returns to tell Jo that they have found a house to move into after the wedding and that they are now going off for a weekend holiday. She gives Jo one pound, borrowed from Peter, and tells her there is plenty of food in the kitchen. “You should prepare my meals like a proper mother,” says Jo. Helen answers that she has never pretended to be a “proper” mother. She leaves with Peter, and Jo flings herself on the bed, crying. The Boy comes in; he comforts her and warms some milk to ease her cold. They tease each other affectionately and begin to make love.

The scene changes to a confrontation between Helen and Jo. Helen, who is still drinking heavily, notices the ring and urges Jo not to waste her life on marriage, but to have fun first. Jo, seizing her last chance to find out something about her real father, asks Helen about him and is deeply disturbed when Helen tells her that he was “a bit stupid, you know . . . just a bit—retarded.” It was a “little love affair...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The structure of A Taste of Honey is circular; it begins and ends with mother and daughter locked together in a relationship that satisfies neither. In between, the episodic form gives the effect of a series of vaudeville sketches. The dialogue indeed has the snappy give-and-take of the music-hall, but although funny on the surface, underneath it is raw with pain.

Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, which first presented the play, set the style for its production: a cross between naturalistic comedy and stylized melodrama. Scene changes and progress of time are marked by lighting fade-outs and fade-ins. The setting is quite simple. The players dance onto the stage, often carrying their own props, and dance off according to their moods, accompanied by music from an onstage jazz trio. The trio also accompanies the snatches of song which crop up from time to time.

The players sometimes address their remarks directly to the audience. When Helen, in the first scene, sings a song, she talks to the musicians, and critics have noted the strong impact when, in the final scene, she turns to the audience and asks, “What would you do?” At the very end, when Jo leans against the doorpost to sing a nursery rhyme, she sings directly to the audience, reminding them, as well as herself, of the taste of honey she enjoyed with Geof—a memory that will have to carry her through the difficult time ahead.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Through a series of loosely related episodes, A Taste of Honey follows its teenage, working-class protagonist through the process of her entry into womanhood. As the play begins, Jo and her mother, Helen, have just moved into their latest dwelling, a dingy hole in a lower-class neighborhood that leaves Jo suitably unimpressed. Moving from place to place is an old story for these two, but it seems to Jo that they are moving down in the world and from a position that was hardly exalted. Helen refuses to be discouraged; the place will do, if only because it has to do. The arrival of Peter terminates the tentative stability of Jo and Helen’s arrangement. An old friend of Helen, he wants to renew their relationship. When he proposes marriage, Helen shows an interest that catches her daughter’s sometimes-caustic attention.

Responding both to her desires as a young woman and to her mother’s apparent indifference, Jo becomes involved with a young black seaman. She fantasizes that he is an African prince; in fact, he is from Cardiff, Wales. Wherever he is from, Jo finds him impossible to resist, even though she probably at least half realizes that the ring he gives her does not commit him to any permanent relationship. He must return to his ship, and Helen’s impending marriage to Peter means that Jo will be alone. Before leaving, Helen tells Jo, whether truthfully or not, that Jo’s father was a retarded man with whom Helen had an affair shortly after her...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Salford. Town adjacent to Manchester in the industrial Midlands district of England that is the setting for the play and the place in which playwright Shelagh Delaney was born and grew up. The location is identified in a prefatory page of the published text; however, the play’s opening stage directions place its location “in Manchester.” Having been the center of England’s textile industry since the fourteenth century, Manchester is also the country’s most densely populated area, though not its largest city. Containing many Port of Manchester docks, Salford became part of the new metropolitan county of Greater Manchester in 1974. Factories dominate the urban landscape, and its population is predominantly working class.

Helen and Jo’s flat

Helen and Jo’s flat. Described in Delaney’s stage directions as “comfortless,” the semifurnished apartment that Helen, an alcoholic “semi-whore,” has rented for herself and her teenage daughter, Jo, is the latest in a series of such rooms that they have occupied, each cheaper and tawdrier than the one before. It has only one bed, and Helen acknowledges that “everything in it’s falling apart . . . and we’ve no heating—but there’s a lovely view of the gasworks, we share a bathroom with the community and this wallpaper’s contemporary.” The stage set also includes a portion of the street outside the apartment building, where Jo’s boyfriend, “a coloured naval rating,” proposes marriage to her.

Jo notes that fifty thousand people live in tenements near the cemetery and a slaughterhouse. Scenes of such urban squalor had rarely been depicted realistically on the English stage before this play. They were in stark contrast to the middle-and upper-class elegance of then-popular plays by Noel Coward and others. This flat is considerably worse than the apartment in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, another working-class drama that premiered in 1956 and was also set in the English Midlands. Like the readers of Émile Zola’s novels more than six decades earlier, London theatergoers were shocked but also intrigued by the urban naturalism of Delaney’s setting, her lower-class characters, and the grim events that transpire among them.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

At the time of the first production of A Taste of Honey, the talk of the English theater was of the work of the “Angry Young Men,” who were rejecting the genteel conventions of the English stage in favor of a new directness of emotion and of social and political protest. In this context, it was Shelagh Delaney’s considerable accomplishment to shift the focus of attention to women. Delaney not only situates the mother-daughter bond at the center of the play but also examines that bond with an honesty and an absence of moralism that remain impressive. Moreover, she allows the women to control the action. Although not goal-oriented in the manner of the conventional male hero, they are the active forces in the play.

The playwright was not the only creative artist involved in the evolution of A Taste of Honey as a theater work. The play’s original director, Joan Littlewood, as founder of the Theatre Workshop, was a major figure in the advanced British theater at the time. She made a number of significant contributions, including the characters’ direct addresses to the audience (sometimes called “breaking the fourth wall”), that complicate the play’s realism without violating it. Littlewood’s importance in the theater may be equal to that of any British playwright of her generation, and A Taste of Honey takes on added importance as a collaboration of women in the theater.

The success of her first play created for its remarkably young playwright great expectations that were not fulfilled in the years that followed. A Taste of Honey remained its author’s one theatrical success. Yet in defining new possibilities for women in theater, A Taste of Honey constitutes at least a significant forerunner to a woman’s theater. Jo and Helen must be numbered among the great roles for women in the English theater of the twentieth century.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

England in the mid- to late-1950s was still feeling the effects of World War II. The bombing of London— the ‘‘Blitz’’ as it was...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Angry Young Men
‘‘Angry Young Men’’ was the label given to a group of British writers—notably playwright...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1958: An English Roman Catholic economist, Colin Clark, condemns birth control. Clark argues that although population growth...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Discuss the interracial love affair between Jo and the character known as The Boy. In view of her mother’s reaction at the end of Act II,...

(The entire section is 167 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

A Taste of Honey was adapted as a film in 1961, earning popular success and a number of critical awards. The film stars Rita...

(The entire section is 45 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Tillie Olsen’s ‘‘I Stand Here Ironing’’ (1961) is a short story about the relationship between mother and daughter and the effects that poverty and a working class life can have on two people.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, by Alan Sillitoe, is a novel about Britain’s working class life.

John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1957) is a play that offers an antihero, Jimmy Porter, on the verge of the middle class but aware that the upper class can squash his climb up at any moment.

Carolyn Kay Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story (1987) is about growing up working class in England and the struggle for survival....

(The entire section is 146 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Aston, Frank. Review of A Taste of Honey in the New York World Telegram, October 5, 1960....

(The entire section is 424 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Brockett, Oscar G., and Robert R. Findley. “Absurdity and Anger.” In A Century of Innovation: A History of American Theatre and Drama Since 1870. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1973. A clear and concise analysis of the work of Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop provides an often-illuminating context for a consideration of A Taste of Honey.

De Jongh, Nicholas. “Out of Bondage Towards Being.” In Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage. London: Routledge, 1992. Examining A Taste of Honey in the light of gay and lesbian studies, de Jongh finds in Geof a recognition of the full...

(The entire section is 632 words.)