Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey, the play for which she is most famous, at the age of 19. Born in Salford in 1938, she is regarded as one of the pioneers of the ‘kitchen sink’ realism of the late 1950s and 1960s. Delaney was writing at a time when women’s voices were virtually unheard in British theatre. She wanted to put working-class life and language on the stage, to portray ordinary life in all its colour and verve.
Writing and staging A Taste of Honey
Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey, the story of alcoholic single mother Helen and of Jo, her white teenage daughter who is in a relationship with a black sailor and becomes pregnant, in less than two weeks. The play is set in Salford and deals with issues of class, race and sexuality in a frank, intelligent and human way. It was said to be, in part, a reaction against Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme; Delaney took issue with the way the play handled matters of sexuality. One of the main relationships in Delaney’s play is between Jo and her gay friend Geoffrey. Her daughter, Charlotte Delaney, has said that 'it was watching a production of Waiting for Godot whilst working as an usherette, that gave her the push she needed to lock herself away with a borrowed typewriter and write A Taste of Honey' ('Shelagh Delaney – A true rebel', National Theatre Blog).
The play was taken on by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and premiered in 1958 at Theatre Royal Stratford East in a production directed by Littlewood. While critic Kenneth Tynan found elements of the production problematic, he thought it evident that Delaney was ‘quite a writer’. Its success led to a transfer to the West End. It also played New York, with Angela Lansbury playing Helen in the original Broadway cast.
In 1961 the play was made into a film, co-written by Delaney and director Tony Richardson and starring Rita Tushingham. It won a BAFTA for Best Screenplay.
Later work and influence
Delaney's second play, The Lion in Love, opened in 1960 but it did not enjoy the same critical success. Novelist Jeannette Winterson has argued that the fact she was a woman meant that Delaney did not experience the same support and acclaim: ‘She had all the talent and we let her go’.
In the following decades Delaney wrote television and radio plays, adaptations and a number of screenplays, including the 1985 film Dance with a Stranger, about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in the UK. Her collection of semi-autobiographical stories, Sweetly Sings the Donkey, were published in 1963. Delaney developed one of these pieces into a radio triology which, in 2017, premiered on the stage in an adaptation by her daughter Charlotte. After The Lion in Love, Delaney wrote for theatre again in 1979, when she revised her BBC series The House That Jack Built for the stage.
Morrissey was a huge fan of Delaney and her work, making references to her writing in his lyrics. The song ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ quotes Jo’s lines in the play. He used photographs of Delaney on the covers of the Smiths' compilation album Louder Than Bombs and the single ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’.
Delaney died in 2011.
Further information about the life of Shelagh Delaney can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Article by:
- Greg Buzwell
- Gender and sexuality, 20th-century theatre, Exploring identity
By the end of the 1950s, playwrights had gained new freedoms to represent homosexual characters and themes on the British stage. Greg Buzwell charts the impact of the Wolfenden Report and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey on the Lord Chamberlain’s strict censorship policy.
- 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.
- Article by:
- Jeanette Winterson
- Gender and sexuality, 20th-century theatre, Art, music and popular culture, Exploring identity
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.