Letters between Shelagh Delaney and Joan Littlewood, 1960


These letters, between the playwright Shelagh Delaney and theatre director Joan Littlewood, were written early in 1960 when Delaney was working on her second play, The Lion in Love. Still only 21, Delaney had enjoyed a vast amount of praise and publicity for A Taste of Honey, which had exceeded all expectations with two runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East and a year-long run in the West End. She’d won the Charles Henry Foyle award for best new play and sold the film rights of A Taste of Honey to John Osborne. Delaney was subsequently courted by agents, producers and other speculators, all wanting to work with her. Having been awarded an Arts Council bursary, she was now living in a rented flat in Phoenix House, in Charing Cross Road, London.

Delaney enjoyed the financial benefits of success. She’d wanted to buy a red sports car but, much to her fury, Gerry Raffles had stopped her, reminding her that she hadn’t learnt to drive. Such a rapid rise to fame and success undoubtedly had an effect on Delaney. Under pressure to write a second hit, her relationship with Raffles and Littlewood became strained. In contrast to her earlier more innocent letters to the couple, Delaney’s strong character now comes to the fore:

Gerry has no right to order me around like some Industrial Revolution employer. I don’t like being treated as if I’m one of his possessions … I’m not being dictated to by Gerry Raffles or anyone else…

That Joan Littlewood was a rather formidable character makes it all the more remarkable that Delaney stood up to her in this way.

Littlewood’s response

Littlewood’s reply to Delaney provides a useful insight into her attitude to theatre production and her relationship with Delaney:

Whether it was Aristophanes, Molière, Shakespeare … or Chekhov or Strindberg or any other dramatist worth their salt, only half their work can be done alone, the rest must be done actively in co-operation with the group of artists who are to bring that play to physical life.

She decries Delaney’s ‘sense of grievance and self-pity’, and refers to the ‘good deal of raw material’ that Delaney had written which ‘may or may not produce a good play’.

Littlewood’s approach to theatre put her in opposition to both the Royal Court, which she saw as too middle-class and proper, and the celebrity-orientated theatre of the West End. In line with her communist beliefs, she treated everyone in her theatre equally. The process was never all about the writer, or the director or the star actor; if you entered into her Workshop, you had to be prepared to leave your ego at the door. In her letter, Littlewood rejects Delaney’s draft of The Lion in Love saying ‘it is vivid but too full of incidents. It needs a tremendous amount of technical work done on it. Any honest person … would tell you what I’m telling you'.

Littlewood’s letter contains some harsh home truths, shot through with anger and love in equal measure:

… you must know that to work on somebody’s play as I did Honey or Hostage, you must love the authors very much. You must love and understand their work more than you love yourself. It is a tremendously hard task to form a play; without feeling very near to the author you cannot do it.

The Lion in Love was produced in 1960 at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and transferred to the Royal Court later that year. It was not well received and Delaney’s theatrical career waned after this point.

Full title:
Joan Littlewood Archive. Production Correspondence: Shelagh Delaney and A Taste of Honey
undated; 25 February 1960
Manuscript / Letter / Ephemera
Shelagh Delaney, Joan Littlewood
Usage terms

Shelagh Delaney: © With jolly kind permission Charlotte Delaney.
You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Joan Littlewood: © Joan Littlewood Estate.
You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Held by
British Library
Add MS 89164/5/30

Related articles

Looking at the original script for A Taste of Honey

Article by:
Louise Kimpton Nye
20th-century theatre

That Joan Littlewood cut down the script of A Taste of Honey and added her own theatrical flavour is well-known. Louise Kimpton Nye takes a look at Shelagh Delaney’s original manuscript and explores some of its themes.

An introduction to A Taste of Honey

Article by:
Selina Todd
20th-century theatre, Exploring identity, Gender and sexuality, Art, music and popular culture

Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey when she was only 19. Selina Todd explains how it came to be performed by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, and what was so original about its portrayal of a working-class mother and daughter.

Shelagh Delaney: The Start of the Possible

Article by:
Jeanette Winterson
Art, music and popular culture, Exploring identity, Gender and sexuality, 20th-century theatre

Jeanette Winterson describes how Shelagh Delaney's imagination, humour and self-belief helped her to make a place for herself in the male-dominated world of 1950s and 1960s British theatre and become the country's first working-class female playwright.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works

A Taste of Honey

Created by: Shelagh Delaney

A Taste of Honey (1958) overview Written when she was 19, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey is both a ...