Shelagh Delaney initially intended to write a novel for A Taste of Honey but was unsatisfied with the plays being produced. In just two weeks, she decided to adapt her novel into a play. The play premiered at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East on May 27, 1958 and later moved to Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End on February 10, 1959. It made its Broadway debut at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City on October 4, 1960. Delaney’s play received mixed reviews; some praised the authentic voices of her characters while others applauded its accurate portrayal of working-class lives.
Concerns arose regarding excessive praise for the nineteen-year-old playwright of A Taste of Honey. It was feared that such early success could hinder her future ability to create another play as successful. Ultimately, this proved to be true for Delaney, as she never surpassed her initial achievement. Nevertheless, her first play received numerous accolades, including the Charles Henry Foyle New Play award in 1958 and the New York Drama Critics Award in 1961. The film adaptation also gained recognition, winning the British Academy Award for best picture in 1961 and earning Dora Bryan a best supporting actress award.
The play’s title carries significant meaning, highlighting the importance of sweetness in everyone’s lives. In the 1950s, people paid more attention to their families and neighbors, but in the 21st century, lack of time prevents interference in others’ lives. Nowadays, those who meddle are seen as nosy and intrusive. Additionally, it is easier for someone to go unnoticed and ignored. Shelagh Delaney wrote this play with the purpose of expressing her sentiments on these topics. She did not hold prejudice but aimed to challenge and broaden the audience’s perspective on the diverse range of people within their community.
When the play was witnessed by the audiences in the 1950’s, it greatly surprised them. Typically, when theatergoers attended performances, they anticipated seeing a married couple dealing with infidelity. Therefore, it is understandable how the portrayal of the lives of underprivileged individuals, black people, homosexuals, single parents, illegitimate children, Jewish and Irish individuals, women seeking pleasure, prostitutes, tramps, Asians, gypsies, and others created a scandal and shocked the theatrical community. The play was set shortly after World War II in the early 1950’s era when rationing was still prevalent.
The theater was reserved for the well-to-do, upper-class, and middle-class audience who were exposed to ordinary problems. They consistently tried to hide their biases by pretending not to know about them, thinking that this would have no effect on them and keep those biases deep within their minds.
The aftermath of the war that ended in 1945 made life in the 1950s quite challenging. The country took a significant amount of time to recover, resulting in widespread poverty and living conditions known as slums.
The audience sympathizes with Jo because she grows up in a single parent family where her neglectful mom has no time for her, while Helen, who is confident and bold, spends most of her free time pursuing men and enhancing her appearance before going out late and being the life of the party. Helen prioritizes her own enjoyment and rarely shows affection towards Jo, which makes Jo deeply envious of her mother. As a result, Jo becomes a rebellious student at school in search of attention elsewhere since she does not receive any at home. However, despite this behavior, Jo genuinely cares about others’ feelings. During that time period, classmates would likely have bullied Jo by gossiping about the challenging home life she shares with Helen.
Both Jo and her mum constantly made snide remarks to each other, but it was the only way they could maintain their relationship.
As a mother, Helen has neglected her duties and rarely made time for Jo. She is portrayed as a selfish and terrible mother who only thinks about her own enjoyment. She lacks care and the nurturing qualities expected of a real mother. However, the play also highlights the idealized notion of what a mother should be, thus emphasizing the importance of motherhood. Despite their constant arguments, Helen and Jo heavily rely on each other, indicating their deep love for one another. Their expression of love differs from typical mother-daughter relationships, and instead manifests itself through their love/hate dynamic. Thus, the audience is primarily exposed to the negative aspects of their relationship.
After analyzing the play, the audience sympathizes with Jo because she receives no attention from her mother at all. She constantly has to relocate homes just as they finally settle in because her mom never had enough money to pay the rent, so they always had to leave the premises as quickly as possible. Despite continuously changing apartments, Jo remains at the same school and has to walk the additional distance because it was too expensive to use public transportation back then.
In the beginning of the play, Helen declares, “Well! This is the Place.” This indicates the present situation and past history between Helen and Jo. It reveals a lack of communication regarding the place they will be living. It is evident that Jo has never seen it before and was not given any choice in the matter. Furthermore, Helen emphasizes that her decisions are made independently and do not involve any mutual agreement with her daughter. She explains, “When I find somewhere for us to live, I have to prioritize something more significant than your feelings…the rent. It’s the only thing I can afford.”
Jo’s main issue in life is feeling lonely, evoking sympathetic emotions. From a young age, Jo has actively sought affection, which she eventually finds twice. Firstly, she receives it from Jimmy, a black sailor, and secondly, from Geoff, her homosexual flatmate.
Shelagh Delaney incorporated various languages in her play, with each character uniquely expressing themselves through their own use of language. Specifically, Jo’s language is filled with pain and sadness, as she is unable to openly express her emotions due to the overwhelming hurt she is experiencing. This leads her to keep her feelings bottled up inside and only release them during her arguments with her mother.
Helen’s carefree demeanor is evident in her language.
Jo’s communication with and about people is strikingly different from her communication with her own mother. They lack respect for each other and engage in constant arguments. This contrasts with the way they interact with others, resembling a Jekyll and Hyde dynamic. Their similar personalities clash, leading to frequent disagreements.
Despite Jo’s efforts to improve their relationship, Helen consistently puts her down, causing Jo great pain. Unfortunately, Jo is unable to share her hurt with anyone or take action. It is evident that Helen does not truly want her daughter in her life, although there are occasional exceptions. This attitude is especially apparent when Helen goes on her honeymoon. In expressing her need for care and inclusion in her mother’s life, Jo asks Peter, “…. What are you going to do about me Peter? The snotty nosed daughter? Don’t you think I’m a bit young to be left like this on my own while you flit off with my old woman?” In response, Helen states, “We can’t take her with us. We will be, if you’ll not take exception to the phrase, on our honeymoon.”
Despite Jo’s significant behavior, she is not included in Helen’s wedding ceremony. No efforts are made to address Jo’s well-being or needs during this time. Helen leaves for her wedding and says, “I’ll be seeing you. Hey! If he doesn’t show up I’ll be back.” However, in reality, Helen does not return for several months, leaving Jo to handle everything alone and take care of herself.
The characters in the drama consistently overlook their personal or social connections, which is a recurring theme. It’s crucial to acknowledge that our social existence depends on a intricate network of interdependencies. Numerous individuals do not individually produce their shoes, fabricate fabric for their clothing, generate electricity for their homes, or cultivate their own food.
The play highlights the significance of our interactions with others in our lives, be it on an individual level or through collective efforts. Many benefits and problems arise from these interactions. However, the play emphasizes a strong inclination towards isolation from others, specifically in work or education. The belief that we do not need each other is consistently emphasized throughout. This theme is demonstrated in the relationship between Jo and Helen and further highlighted in other parts of the play. Both Helen and Jo are fiercely independent women, as their language constantly fuels their arguments with each other.
Jo has always been in search of love and affection, but she became disheartened when it evaded her. However, someone entered her life and provided her with the desired attention, making her feel special. Unfortunately, Jimmy, the black sailor, engaged in sexual relations with Jo and then abruptly departed because he had no interest in a committed relationship; his sole desire was physical intimacy. In contrast, Helen chooses to wait until she deems the timing appropriate before engaging in sexual activity, giving her an advantage in relationships. Conversely, Jo is still young and inexperienced, allowing Jimmy to possess control over their relationship dynamics. Nonetheless, Jo learns from this experience and becomes stronger as a result. Unbeknownst to Jimmy, he left Jo pregnant – a situation that appears to be leading Jo down a path similar to Helen’s past regrets at Jo’s age.
Even though Jo is pregnant, she is able to stay in the flat thanks to Geoff’s assistance. When Geoff arrives, Jo must practically plead with him to stay, saying things like, “Please stay Geoff, I’ll get those sheets and blankets.” Despite being without a home, Geoff refuses these offers as he finds it challenging to acknowledge his own need and is not forthcoming with Jo about what he can provide.
Geoff and Jo form a close bond, akin to that of siblings. At first, Jo showed interest in Geoff’s sexual orientation by asking insightful questions like “What is it like to be gay?” and “What do you do?” However, they eventually developed a mutual understanding, with Geoff tending to all of Jo’s needs. Together, they turned their living space into a cozy and inviting home. This role of being an older brother figure was new for Jo as she had never had someone watching out for her before. Both Geoff and Jo held immense admiration for each other.
Helen and Peter are engaged in a sexual relationship and Helen employs manipulative tactics to keep Peter intrigued. She purposely withholds what he desires, as she believes that once men receive what they want, they lose interest and leave. Eventually, Helen successfully convinces Peter to propose to her, resulting in their marriage. With her extensive experience dealing with men, Helen possesses precise knowledge of how to manipulate them by telling them what they want to hear, thus maintaining their attraction towards her.
Later in the play, Helen leaves Peter due to his affair with another woman. Instead of admitting her feelings for her husband, when Jo suggests that she is still in love with him, Helen responds by saying, “In love? Me? … You must be mad.”
Although Geoff lacks the ability to assert himself, as shown by his willingness to be evicted from the apartment, Helen and Jo also display the same tendency. Helen fails to fight for her marriage, despite its difficulties and numerous benefits that could be shared with her daughter and future child. Likewise, Jo refrains from expressing herself when her mother is clearly going to abandon her after getting married. This lack of clarity in their relationships indicates a failure to recognize their roles within their social and personal connections. This failure leads to feelings of powerlessness and personal inadequacy. Ironically, Geoff has developed a supportive relationship with Jo, and vice versa. However, he fails to realize his significance in her life and allows himself to be forcibly removed from the home by Helen.
The sense of alienation, which is a combination of self-imposed and externally imposed isolation, reaches its peak in the scene where Helen dismissively tells Geoff that they don’t want the food he brought to the house. The subsequent actions further illustrate the intensifying situation.
GOEFFREY places the food from his pack onto the table, as HELEN pushes it away. Eventually, HELEN throws the entire pack, along with its contents, onto the floor.
Delaney utilizes the characters in the play to create a juxtaposition and elicit our empathy towards Jo and Geoff.
Delaney introduces contrasting characters in the play, such as Helen and Jo, Peter and Geoff, and Jo and Peter. Both Helen and Peter display negative traits that cause trouble, making it hard for us to sympathize with them. In contrast, Jo’s interactions with others are polite, genuine, and pleasant, making it easier for us to empathize with them. We are meant to pity Jo and Peter because their own family treats them unfairly. This treatment leads us to believe that society will also treat them similarly. However, it is worth noting that their upbringing plays a role in this mistreatment as they faced discrimination while growing up due to being gay or coming from a single-parent family. As they grew older, Geoff continued facing discrimination after previously experiencing homelessness when his landlord evicted him for his sexuality disapproval. It is these challenging life experiences that elicit sympathy towards both Jo and Peter.
People were commenting that Jo was following in her mother’s footsteps, wasting her life at such a young age. Nonetheless, both Jo and Geoff are still children, yearning for the love they have yet to receive. They seek and provide this love to each other in various ways. Despite their tender age, they are forced to mature in the adult world – juggling full-time jobs, rent payments, expenses, savings, and thoughts of the future. Jo grew tired of constantly evading homelessness due to rent arrears, so she decided to pay in advance to secure her flat, determined not to repeat her mother’s choices. Society passed judgment on Jo, predicting that she would end up like her mother. However, having both experienced challenging upbringings, they understand each other’s struggles. Thus, they constantly encourage one another to find contentment in what they already have in life.