Theatre Censorship – 21: A Taste of Honey (Shelagh Delaney) and Five Finger Exercise (Peter Shaffer)

Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney in 1960

Jean in The Entertainer bears some similarity to the writer Shelagh Delaney. She started off angry, attempted to do something different and make a name for herself, and then she largely sank back into obscurity. That isn’t entirely fair; in the years after The Lion in Love (1960) she wrote short stories, television plays, radio plays and film scripts. Yet she never repeated the success of her first major attempt at creative writing: A Taste of Honey (1958). The story of how she came to write it at the age of eighteen is one of simple motivation and determination. She saw a touring production of Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme (1958) and thought that she could write something better herself. This is perhaps an unfortunate reflection on Rattigan, whose faith, incidentally, in Osborne’s ability as a writer was consistently loyal – that is, after the success of Look Back in Anger, the attraction of which he could not understand.

Joan Littlewood

Joan Littlewood

A Taste of Honey is as youthful as its writer, in that the characters are not concerned with big issues – it’s just the here and now that is important. The present is to be enjoyed, the future to be eagerly expected, and the past does not mean a thing. As she was totally inexperienced in mounting a production, Delaney sent her script to Joan Littlewood of the Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Littlewood’s theory (and practice) of the democratisation of the theatre was already well established, and it concurred with Delaney’s philosophy of creating exciting, vivid portrayals of everyday people. The Theatre Workshop had also recently been involved in a conflict with the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and Delaney wanted to show her support for the freedom of speech advocated by Littlewood by sending the script to her. Apparently, the script was partly re-written by Littlewood’s team but Delaney’s tone was kept throughout so much so that when Delaney first saw it performed, she did not realise that the script had been changed at all.

Even though the ban on homosexuality in plays had just been lifted, A Taste of Honey did give the Lord Chamberlain’s office some headaches. The reader, Mr Heriot, called it “the perfect border-line case, since it is concerned with the forbidden subject in a way that no-one, I believe could take exception to.” As a result, he recommended it should be licensed. However the Assistant Comptroller described it as “revolting, quite apart from the homosexual bits”. There was some minor horse-trading over a few lines – references to “pervert” and “castrated little clown” were removed; they concerned the character of Geof, about whose significance more follows later.

A Taste of HoneyThe play stands out for three main reasons. Firstly, its general mood and atmosphere, which is one of optimism despite squalor. The play opens with mother and daughter, Helen and Jo, moving into their new flat; cold, damp and derelict, with one bed and “a lovely view of the gasworks”. Delaney sets to work, bringing out the ironic humour of the situation instantly, especially in the form of Jo’s concerns which seem totally out of proportion and misplaced; for example, what she hates most about the flat is that it has “an unshaded electric light bulb dangling from the ceiling”. Jo’s top priority on moving into the flat is to find somewhere she can plant her bulbs. Helen recognises the irony of these priorities and keeps a running commentary with the audience to emphasise the humour. Their relationship, though often tense, is based on love; this explains why Jo feels so threatened by the presence of Helen’s gentleman friend, Peter, especially in their new home, where he had also hoped to set down some roots.

The other unusual aspect of their relationship is that they are equals. Jo refers to her mother by her first name, and not “mum” or something similar. Helen sometimes tries to exercise parental restriction on Jo, only to realise that this is a lost cause. Jo cannot exert influence on Helen not to get married again; so instead of consigning herself to loneliness, Jo determines to get a boyfriend, and this she has achieved by the beginning of the second scene. This is much more dynamic than the inactivity of Look Back in Anger. As its title suggests, the earlier play is rooted in the past. A Taste of Honey takes a similar working-class situation – in fact Helen and Jo are considerably worse off than Jimmy and Alison – but instead of complaining about their plights, the characters actively go off and do something about it. The equality in relationships that is found in Delaney’s work is not present in Osborne’s. Jimmy Porter is a dictator in his house, whereas Helen allows her daughter to do what she likes. It is perhaps this desire for freedom on Jo’s part, doubtless translated there from Delaney’s own experience, that raises the general quality of life in A Taste of Honey.

The second notable aspect of the play is its racial harmony. Relationships between young people of different races had not really been examined on stage before, chiefly because of the middle-class stronghold on the theatre; the young men that Osborne’s Alison would have met at the Tarnatts and the Wains would almost certainly have been Caucasian white. Jo’s boyfriend is a young black sailor, who treats her more gently and with more respect than either Helen or Peter. Interracial marriages were very controversial back in 1958. Revealingly, Jo does not tell Helen that her boyfriend is black, and Helen never guesses. No doubt Jo anticipates that Helen may not have approved and that would have been extra hassle that she didn’t need. Jo tells the boy that “whatever else she might be, she isn’t prejudiced against colour”, but again, maybe she is being tactful to keep the peace. Jo’s two scenes with the boy are touching, lightly comical and not at all coy. As the play progresses, we sense that the boy has been left behind; until we realise that he deserted her as soon as he got her pregnant. This brings the delicate sense of fun they enjoyed together down to earth with a bump, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

The final aspect of the play which makes it very different from other plays to date is its attitude to homosexuality. The difficulties in presenting a play with homosexuals in Britain before 1958 meant there were not many such plays in existence at the time. The three plays which appeared at the New Watergate Club and which dealt, at least in part, with homosexuality, were all American. In Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, Eddie, a longshoreman, believes his daughter has fallen in love with a gay man and he tries to prevent the relationship from continuing any further to protect her from future disappointment or divorce. Eddie’s attitude to homosexuals is a mixture of distrust and distaste. In Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy, a naïve school student is suspected of having had a homosexual relationship with one of his teachers, and bears the brunt of abuse and prejudices of both other boys and other teachers alike. Again, the old-fashioned attitude is that homosexuals are dirty and a menace to society and morals. In Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the audience sympathises with Brick who has had to keep his homosexuality a secret all his life or run the risk of losing everything.

In all these plays, homosexuals are set apart from society; either simply to be alienated, or as a target for sympathy. A Taste of Honey was the first major British play to feature a central character who was homosexual and who was not ridiculed or abused for it. Apparently, much of this sense of acceptance stems from the Theatre Workshop’s ideas for the play. Shelagh Delaney’s original intention was for Geof’s homosexuality to be far more overt. As the play stands, Geof is a far more rounded and credible character because he is incidentally homosexual rather than primarily homosexual. Jo and Geof carry on a very enjoyable friendship. He is very generous to her and she amuses him. They soon realise that they suit each other because they each recognise each other’s needs and can provide for them. Geof isn’t popular with Helen or Peter; at first this does not matter because Geof and Jo are a content, self-contained unit, but later he is forced to leave when Helen’s jealousy of his privileged position becomes too spiteful. The play ends with Jo unaware that Geof has left, and Delaney spares us the sadness of witnessing that revelation.

It’s a great title, because everybody in it tastes the sweetness of life, even if it is only for a short time. Jo knows love with her boyfriend and her friendship with Geof; Helen has a good time with Peter; Geof achieves a sense of purpose. However, the end of the play appears to be quite arbitrary, and perhaps also ominous; it suggests that this is where the honey ends, and life becomes bitter. With the birth of the child, Geof’s departure and Helen’s return, Jo’s prospects are no longer optimistic.

Peter Shaffer

Peter Shaffer

1958 also saw Peter Shaffer’s dramatic debut with Five Finger Exercise. Fortunately, the Lord Chamberlain’s memorandum on homosexuality appeared shortly before the play was due to open, for otherwise the play would have been surely banned even though its homosexual references were slight. The play had been planned for performance under the auspices of the New Watergate Theatre Club, but the club, whose membership had reached 60,000 in two years, disbanded after the closure of its previous production, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, because the club status now seemed unnecessary. The slight reference to homosexuality centres on Clive’s wish to go away with Walter, the young German tutor, for a holiday, because, as he says, “I need a friend so badly”. The reference is no more concrete than that, except that, later on in the play, Stanley, Clive’s father, accuses Walter of perverting Clive: “what else did I ask you to do? Turn my son into a cissy?”

However, Walter’s insecurity has nothing to do with homosexuality; the root of his insecurity is the main reason for the play’s controversial nature. Walter is a German, whose father was the most respected Nazi in the town. The boy is kind and thoughtful, and has no attachment to his father’s evil history. He has, therefore, had to turn his back on his past and renounce his heritage. This accounts for why he refuses to teach or speak German; and why he lies about his family. When Stanley accuses him of being a “filthy German bastard… Once a German, always a German. Take what you want and the hell with everyone else”, Walter’s inbuilt guilt prevents him from defending himself.

The acceptance of this play by the Lord Chamberlain was controversial and indeed it very nearly was banned, because it falls into the category of being offensive towards a friendly nation. Earlier in the century, many more innocuous works were banned for the same reason: even The Mikado was temporarily banned because the Examiner of Plays thought it was offensive to the Japanese, even though the Japanese themselves thought of it as a welcome linking of eastern and western cultures. Five Finger Exercise warns against adhering to nationalistic characteristics: Walter’s anti-Germanic instincts, Stanley’s essential Englishness and Louise’s French affectations all obstruct genuine communication between people. The play ends on a positive note; Walter revives from his suicide attempt with the words “schon gut. Mir fehlt nichts” (“all right. I am alright”) with the suggestion that he will be able to face both the future and the past.

In my next post, I shall be looking at John Osborne’s Luther.

Review – A Taste of Honey, Sheffield Crucible, 10th November 2012

A Taste of HoneyIf, like me, when you hear the words “a taste of honey” your first thoughts turn to Sugar Puffs, you may be in for a bit of a surprise if you’re not familiar with Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 semi-autobiographical play about Jo, a young girl, and her experiences of early adulthood and family relationships; because there’s not a lot of sweetness in evidence. That, of course, is the deliberate irony – the characters all get a taste of honey, but it’s barely enough to cover a slice of bread. One thinks of the trendy 60s version of the song by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, or the plaintive emotion of the Beatles’ version, and both are at odds with the subject matter of the play. The juxtaposition of cool jazz, played by an excellent live trio at the back of the stage, also suggests a sophistication and glamour that’s noticeably lacking from the reality of Jo’s existence. By the way, the leitmotif of “My Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music, nicely ironic though it may be, shatters the time integrity; “A Taste of Honey” appeared a year before the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage show.

Eva PopeNevertheless, Polly Findlay’s new production is clear, crisp and unsentimental. The set accurately portrays Jo and her mother Helen’s miserable flat, with its tatty furniture and basic kitchen, and I like the way it revolves between scenes to suggest the passing of time but not a change of location; its almost pointless revolving emphasises the stasis of their situation. Running water cascading over a white tarpaulin at the back of the stage represents an almost permanent rainfall – perhaps a slightly over-cynical view of its Manchester setting – and the costumes and props are all accurately chosen with its era and location in mind. I really admired the attention to detail with the Woman magazine from which Helen reads out the cinema listings; when she leaves the magazine open, we could clearly see, from our vantage point in Row A, that she was reading from a cinema listings page – admirably realistic. I was a little critical of the Crucible’s recent Macbeth from the point of view of obstruction of sightlines; in this production too, the rather large foldaway table at the side of the stage blocked our view of the sofa in the set’s opening position, and a couple of times later in the play, which meant you could not see the face of the person (usually Helen) sitting on the left side of the sofa. I wish they would consider some of these problems a bit more seriously sometimes.

Katie WestIt’s still a very powerful play – it can certainly be considered as one of the 1950s seminal kitchen-sink dramas, and you can easily make a case for Shelagh Delaney to be the original “angry young woman”. With its grimness and dour characters, superficially it feels a thoroughly pessimistic play; alternatively you can look on it as showing indomitable spirit and the ability to survive despite everything, which in itself is rather optimistic. The programme notes offer a useful timeline to show its relevance to contemporary domestic and world events, which help you contextualise its mores and attitudes to prejudices that we would now consider historical. Helen, whom Delaney describes as a semi-whore, has used sex as a tool to make her way in the world but nevertheless she goes all prudish when confronted with what she considers a “pornographic” advertisement in “Woman” – very 50s. She is inter alia racist and homophobic, whereas Jo embraces (quite literally) the concept of the black boyfriend and the gay companion, which you can interpret as being a positive direction for society; but at the same time she has inherited her mother’s abilities to ridicule and destroy when it comes to personal relationships, which is going to limit her chances of future happiness. The bulbs that she brings when they first move into the flat with the hope of growing into something beautiful get forgotten and are left to rot; what will become of the baby that Jo is expecting – will it flourish and develop, or will it suffer the same fate as the bulbs? That sweet and sour combination, so cleverly encapsulated in that innocent-sounding title, is in every element of Jo’s life and you must make your own mind up as to whether or not it’s a positive conclusion.

Andrew KnottThere are some excellent performances on offer. I loved Eva Pope as Helen. Irrepressibly strong, selfish, bigoted, and with the ability to turn her mood on a sixpence – it’s a very believable performance, of an admittedly superbly written role. She looks perfect for it – an unscrupulous and well-presented slut, and I mean that kindly. Katie West’s Jo is suitably angry and frustrated, and is splendidly unpredictable in both her meanness and kindness. Both Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt she was a bit shouty; the youthfulness and exasperation of the character would probably make Jo quite a shouty person but it did come across a little tiring from time to time. I wondered if there could have been a little more subtlety in her approach; however it’s still a perfectly credible reading of the role.

Christopher HancockI really liked Andrew Knott as Peter, Helen’s latest “unlucky man” – a pompous, arrogant and bitter lowlife who rides roughshod over anyone who gets in his way – which includes the women in his life. He was contemptible and loathsome and you really feel hatred for his character. He was vile. It was great. There was another excellent performance from Christopher Hancock as Geof, tentatively coming to terms with himself and then growing into the role of support for Jo as her pregnancy wears on, only to be dismissed by the self-seeking Helen after his misjudged attempt at a family reunion. His hapless attempts to stand up against the prejudice and protect his friend were heart-warmingly sad. Nice support too from David Judge David Judgeas Jimmie, a glimmer of exotic hope in an otherwise cruel world – even if the character turns out to be all mouth and trousers in the end.

It’s a well-crafted and effective production of a play that can look drab on the page but that comes to life on the stage. It’s definitely worth catching for some excellent performances and authentic northern grimness.