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.
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These letters were written during May and June of 1958. The first letter is from Shelagh Delaney to Gerry Raffles, manager of Theatre Royal Stratford East and partner of Joan Littlewood. It shows the excitement and anticipation felt by the 19-year-old Delaney about the prospect of having her first play, A Taste of Honey, produced by Joan Littlewood’s radical theatre company, Theatre Workshop:
As I said on the phone, I am willing to come up to London to discuss the play – the play! Ever since I received your telegram I’ve been feeling horribly sick about this play … I’m so glad you like it though ...
Like her creation Jo, the teenager in A Taste of Honey, Delaney herself was an example of a more independent, confident generation. The 1950s saw the rise of youth culture and the teenage revolution in which young people experimented with identities and lifestyles that differed markedly from those of their parents.
Delaney’s letter to the Arts Council dated 31 May 1958 was drafted on her behalf by Gerry Raffles for her application for an Arts Council bursary. The letter gives us a glimpse into Delaney’s background and the hardship her family encountered in post-war Salford: ‘My father is an inspector on the Salford corporation buses. At the moment he is off sick and his income is a war disability pension and his sick pay’. Her father was badly wounded in the Second World War, while fighting in North Africa. Shelagh’s was a childhood of searchlights, gas masks, bomb shelters, rationing and constantly moving house. After the war, suffering the effects of poor nutrition and sub-standard housing, she spent time in a children’s convalescent home. Delaney’s father died shortly after A Taste of Honey premiered in 1958.
In the third letter from this collection, the Arts Council drama panel recommends A Taste of Honey for funding under its new drama scheme aimed at promoting new playwrights. A bursary of between £100 and £150 meant that Delaney could leave her job at the electrical engineering company Metropolitan-Vickers, and concentrate on her writing. The critical tone of the letter indicates the reluctance with which the drama panel at the Arts Council made the award, one reader calling the play
unnecessarily crude and coarse … If it was the author’s intention to shock she succeeds in a way, but I do not think the whole adds up to anything important … I reluctantly recommend it because it has a sort of strength in its crudity.
Theatre Workshop had an uneasy relationship with the Arts Council – the latter frowned upon the theatre company’s radical, anti-establishment stance and its refusal to ‘play the game’. In contrast, the Arts Council favoured George Devine’s English Stage Company at the Royal Court with its left-wing middle-class values and regular core of known actors.
Before it staged A Taste of Honey, the financial situation at Theatre Workshop had reached crisis point, and Joan Littlewood was planning to close the theatre down. Opening on 27 May 1958, it played to packed audiences, its success saving the theatre from closure and resulting in other ground-breaking productions, Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War and Brendan Behan’s The Hostage. A Taste of Honey subsequently transferred to the West End in February 1959, and in 1960 showed on Broadway with Joan Plowright playing the character of Jo and Angela Lansbury that of Helen. Its fate as a cult classic was sealed when John Osborne bought the film rights for a huge £20,000.