Selina Todd’s biography of Shelagh Delaney contains an urgent political message and a new performance of Delaney’s most famous play shows us how radical she was, finds Katherine Connelly
On 27th May 1958, a bold new play premiered at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, East London. A Taste of Honey was written by Shelagh Delaney, a nineteen-year-old working-class woman from Salford, and produced by Joan Littlewood, the director of the experimental and explicitly left-wing Theatre Workshop.
Honey appeared at a time when a ‘new wave’ of literature emerged – one in which working-class characters were no longer rendered cap-doffing, comic adjuncts to the plot, but instead as the complex protagonists in dramas written by working-class authors. Delaney’s Honey also sounded like the working-class streets that she loved to wander, where she listened to the sounds and rhythms and stories of her neighbours.
But Delaney and her characters were in other ways different from the ‘angry young men’, as the (male) writers and their characters of this period were dubbed. Honey opens with school student Jo ‘flitting’ to yet another dingy apartment with her mother Helen, who sometimes works as a prostitute. Jo becomes pregnant after a short-lived relationship with a black seafarer and during her pregnancy finds friendship and support from her gay friend Geoffrey. (It’s worth noting that male homosexuality was a criminal offence in 1958 and was only partially decriminalised nine years later.)
It Jo’s relationship with her mother, rather than with the male characters, that provides the dramatic tension in the play, as both seek a ‘taste of honey’. As Selina Todd shows, Delaney’s work challenged stereotypical, sexist expectations by portraying male characters as the romantics and ‘fantasists who achieved little, while her female characters were realists who wanted to change the world’ (p.187).
One of the exciting ideas that Todd proposes is that recognising the themes Delaney was addressing from the late 1950s provides an alternative history of feminism, in which many of the demands of the Women’s Liberation movement that emerged in the 1970s were already being articulated by working-class women ten years earlier.
Honey was a play that dramatized the diversity of working-class life, resulting in a depiction of the north that, as Todd observes, ‘looked a lot more eclectic than supposedly bohemian Bloomsbury’ (p.5). It would benefit some of those loud commentators of today who have been so quick to castigate and stereotype the northern working-class to dwell on this insight.
Everything about Honey ensured it was on a collision course with conservatism – on its opening night the actors were told to ‘be ready to run’ (p.4) in case the audience turned on them. The reviewer from the Daily Mail was clearly upset about having to sit through a play composed entirely of working-class characters, complaining:
‘Once, authors wrote good plays set in drawing-rooms. Now, under the Welfare State [sic], they write bad plays set in garrets’ (p.93).
When the play transferred to the West End, the Lord Chamberlain (the censor: theatre censorship was not abolished until 1968) received an objection from one audience member who protested at the ‘sordid’ play in which ‘blasphemous dialogue’ was ‘added to the general filth’ (p.100). ‘Almost all the press condemned Honey as tasteless muck’ (p.4), writes Todd.
Even those reviewers who were broadly sympathetic often failed to disguise a snobby disdain for working-class people; a representative of the BBC drama department expressed his bewilderment ‘that such apparently moronic people can be so moving’ (p.4), while the Spectator praised ‘the inside story of a savage culture observed by a genuine cannibal’ (p.5).
But these were not the critics that Delaney was most concerned to impress, instead she prized the response of ‘the locals . . . bricklayers, cleaners . . . when they said it was good, that they enjoyed it, I knew they meant it, and it was much more rewarding for me’ (p.92).
Honey was a huge hit with an enduring impact: in 1961 it was adapted into a film; its lines rang out from pop songs (in 1963 The Beatles recorded a song titled ‘A Taste of Honey’; Morrissey borrowed extensively from the play); it is studied in schools; the National Theatre is currently touring with it (see the review below).
After Honey’s debut, Shelagh Delaney became ‘the most famous teenager in Britain’ (p.4). Fame, however, brought prurient press intrusion into Delaney’s personal life which she resented and resisted. For a biographer, Delaney’s life poses at least two significant challenges: how to write the life of someone who struggled to keep her life private and how to discuss the artistic life of someone most famous for the work she wrote when she was nineteen years old.
Todd addresses both these challenges sensitively and politically, by locating Delaney in the social and political context in which she lived. The voices and experiences of her contemporaries, including Albert Finney and Sheila Rowbotham, also run through the book – sometimes they become intertwined with Delaney’s life. Against this backdrop, Todd explores the themes that resonated so powerfully in Honey – of love, friendship, women’s relationships with each other, the seeking of ‘a taste of honey’ – to show how Delaney understood and negotiated these. In so doing, the biography avoids imposing an artificial separation between the writer’s ‘life’ and ‘work’.
This contextual approach shows that the radical content of Delaney’s first great play emerged from the radical post-war social gains of the British working-class. It also shows what Delaney had to struggle against as a working-class female author – in particular, the expectation that she ought to be forever grateful to others for her success and the assumption that her first play comprised all that she had to say. In fact, Delaney remained an uncompromising artist, always prepared to experiment with style and tackle controversial themes, with a range that encompassed theatre, film, radio and television.
If Todd’s biography illuminates the context in which previously marginalised voices can effect cultural changes, it also reveals the context in which they are shut down. Alongside the lives of Delaney’s contemporaries are painful stories of those figures who might have been compared with Delaney but who began their creative work at a time when Thatcherism had seen the welfare state under attack, inequality increasing, arts funding slashed, repertory and radical theatre companies closed.
Todd’s assessment of Delaney’s importance speaks urgently to us today to change the world in which we live, as she explains: ‘[t]he question is not how to find new Shelagh Delaneys, but how to break down the barriers they face’ (p.231).
A Taste of Honey, by Shelagh Delaney, performed by the National Theatre at the Trafalgar Studios until 29th February
The National Theatre’s new production of A Taste of Honey reminds us how radical and experimental Delaney’s play really was. The audience walks in on a three-piece jazz band and they remain on stage throughout the performance, supporting the characters when they shift from realistic dialogue to snatches of song.
In fact, Delaney’s script is more daring: the characters not only shifting from prose to song, but Helen’s character speaks to others in the claustrophobic flat and addresses the audience directly. This production shied away from that and remained rather unsure about where these lines were to be addressed. I think that was a mistake: these lines could have been played, like the jazz, to the audience. After all, Helen did used to be a pub singer.
Not only would following Delaney’s directions here have shown how interesting her original work was, it might have produced interesting interactions. What if, upon preparing to walk out after discovering that Jo’s baby will be black, Helen had – as Delaney envisaged – directed the line “I ask you, what would you do?” to the audience? Would we have sat in silence, and how would Helen, the great improviser in life, have responded if we didn’t?
At times perhaps a bit conservative in its choices, overall this was a moving performance that realised the emotional truth at the heart of the characters interactions. Todd’s biography of Delaney explored the way that various directors rendered Helen’s character more harshly and simplistically than in Delaney’s original script, wanting to represent a generational clash of values rather than focussing on the similarities, suggested in the title of the play, that both bind and tear away at Jo and Helen.
This performance was more nuanced, Helen was thoughtless and aggressive but also vulnerable and insecure. She was, as Jo understands, ‘all sorts of woman’, and that makes for a far more interesting performance – one that foregrounds the often painful and complicated questions that Todd’s biography draws out, about how ‘people acted and felt within contexts they had not chosen.’