Shelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey”
British playwright Shelagh Delaney was just 18 in 1956 when she wrote A Taste of Honey, a play about a tenacious working class teenager, Josephine (Jo for short), who drops out of school, finds work, and moves out on her own after her self-involved, gold-digging mother, Helen, abandons her (again) for a gent named Peter. Jo becomes pregnant by her unnamed boyfriend, a black Navy officer who appears only briefly in the opening act, just long enough to consummate his relationship with Jo. Act two opens with Jo visibly pregnant and in the company of her friend and roommate Geoffrey, a gay Art student. Most of this act features Geoff caring for an increasingly more pregnant Jo while the two youth debate love, marriage, and motherhood. Helen returns late in the play, following an implied visit from Geoff who has notified her of Jo’s condition. Geoff leaves, and Helen attempts to redeem herself in her daughter’s eyes, comforting her about her imminent delivery and sharing a nostalgic childhood memory. That is until Jo discloses the race of the baby’s father, prompting Helen to leave abruptly in search of a cocktail that will take the edge off of this news.
A Taste of Honey was first presented by Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in May 1958 before being mounted at Wyndham’s Theatre in London in February 1959. Good old Angela Lansbury (pictured left, opposite Joan Plowright as Jo) played the part of Helen in the original 1960 Broadway cast. The play was revived on Broadway in 1981 and has experienced a stage renaissance of sorts in very recent years, which does not surprise me at all given how relevant the play still feels in spite of being a mid-century kitchen sink drama. Among the recent productions was one in 2008 by Shattered Globe Theatre of Chicago: Linda Reiter (Helen) and Helen Sadler (Jo) are pictured right.
Reading the play for the first time just the other day, I was struck by its seemingly effortless, candid, and convincing dialogue and its relatively daring characterization and subject matter. In A Taste of Honey, Delaney created a dramatic slice of life. The play’s humanity, social commentary, and literary merit are particularly remarkable given Delaney was only a teenager herself when she wrote it.
Having said all this, the single aspect of the play that threatens most to date it is Helen’s reaction to the race of her unborn grandchild’s father. When Jo asks her mother what she is going to do with the child, Helen offers up this cheeky, racist retort: “Put it on the stage and call it Blackbird.”
Morrissey of The Smiths, whom I adore, was very taken with Delaney’s play. He incorporated lines from her work into songs such as “Hand in Glove,” “This Charming Man,” and “This Night Has Opened My Eyes.” Morrissey also used a photograph of Delaney that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post following her success with A Taste of Honey for the cover of The Smiths’ 1987 album “Louder than Bombs.”
I can add Delaney’s play to to my list of plays I’d like to stage or see staged.
If you’ve seen a production, please do share your experience.
Photo credits: Lansbury image, celebrity-photos.com; Shattered Globe Theatre press photo, Chicago Tribune online.