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Along with this letter to you comes a play – the first I have written and I wondered if you would read it through and send it back to me because no matter what sort of theatrical atrocity it might be it isn’t valueless as far as I’m concerned.
This letter was written by the playwright Shelagh Delaney to theatre director Joan Littlewood in April 1958. She sent the letter to accompany the original manuscript of her play, A Taste of Honey, in the hope that Littlewood could help her fulfil her dream of writing for the theatre. The play follows the fortunes of working-class teenager Jo living in post-war Salford and how she falls in love with a black sailor while her itinerant, fun-seeking mother is off with her latest man. Her boyfriend back at sea, Jo, alone and pregnant, forms a bond with gay art student Geof, who moves into her flat and cares for her.
In an interview with critic Laurence Kitchin in 1959, Delaney indicated that from a very young age she’d intended to write. She had strong ideas about what she wanted to see in the theatre, objecting to ‘plays where factory workers come cap in hand and call the boss “sir”’; she wanted to show northerners as ‘alive and cynical’. She also famously claimed to have written A Taste of Honey after seeing a production of Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme and believed she could do better. Rejecting the polite drawing room drama so prevalent at the time, she set out to portray real working-class people and the struggles they experienced. A Taste of Honey was ground-breaking in its non-sentimental and honest treatment of working-class life. It was all the more remarkable because Delaney was just 19 when she wrote the play, which she completed in two weeks while on leave from her job as a photographer’s assistant at Metropolitan-Vickers electrical engineering company.
A fortnight ago I didn’t know the theatre existed but a young man, anxious to improve my mind, took me along to the Opera House in Manchester and I came away after the performance having suddenly realised that at last, after nineteen years of life, I had discovered something that means more to me than myself. I sat down on reaching home and thought – the following day I bought a packet of paper and borrowed an unbelievable typewriter which I still have great difficulty in using – I set to and produced this little epic – don’t ask me why – I’m quite unqualified for anything like this.
The young man referred to in the letter as being ‘anxious to improve’ Delaney’s mind was the artist Harold Riley. Delaney had met Riley when he was a pupil at Salford Grammar, and Delaney came to see many of the school’s drama performances. They shared a love of cinema and were avid theatre-goers, seeing productions by the Salford Players and at the Theatre Royal in Manchester and the Manchester Library Theatre where Delaney attended rehearsals and got to know the director David Scase. She had also worked as an usherette at the Manchester Opera House. In an interview with John Harding for his book Sweetly Sings Delaney, Riley recalls that, far from being the ignorant amateur she claimed to be in the words ‘a fortnight ago I didn’t know the theatre existed’, Delaney had a wide knowledge of the theatre and was extremely well read. So why did she play down her knowledge and intellect? As a 19-year-old with an ‘enraptured frustration’ in the face of her burgeoning talent, perhaps she enjoyed portraying herself as a naïve working-class girl from Salford who had left school at 17.
The ethos of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, with its emphasis on left-leaning politics and working-class theatre, provided the perfect anti-establishment venue for Delaney who had developed a socialist sensibility from her father and grandfather. She was also attracted to Theatre Workshop’s campaigning work, particularly their drive to fight censorship. The ‘West Ham Magistrates proceedings’ which Delaney mentions in the letter refer to an ongoing battle that Theatre Workshop fought with the censors at the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.
These were difficult times financially for regional theatres and many, including the Manchester Library company, had no appetite to stage new ground-breaking material. In London, A Taste of Honey was unlikely to find a home in the commercial West End, and beyond theatreland the only other options were the radical Royal Court on one side of town, and Theatre Workshop on the other.
Sending her script to Joan Littlewood was an inspired move on Delaney’s part. Having met and married Ewan MacColl in Manchester before the war, Littlewood had an affinity with Salford. Intrigued by the play that had arrived on her doormat by an unknown Salford teenager, Joan Littlewood quickly replied and so began the working relationship which was to launch Delaney’s career.
 John Harding, Sweetly Sings Delaney (London: Greenwich Exchange Ltd, 2014), p. 25.