Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
It is hard for an audience today to appreciate the degree of rupture that A Taste of Honey represented from the standard theatrical fare served up in London’s West End in the late 1950s. Despite the onrush of modernity in post-war Britain and the beginnings of creative rebellion by the likes of John Osborne and Keith Waterhouse, theatreland was still largely a world of genteel manners, clipped accents and plummy vowels – think Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan.
It was famously at a performance of the latter’s Variation on a Theme that Shelagh Delaney, a 19-year-old factory worker from Salford – at that time spending most of her money on books and plays, having left school at 15 – decided she could do better and began hammering away at an old typewriter. Delaney sent an early script of A Taste of Honey along with an imploring letter to director Joan Littlewood, whose Theatre Workshop, with its commitment to staging plays about and by working class people, was making waves from its East End base at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. In her letter Delaney confessed, ‘I want to write for the theatre, but I know so very little about it. I know nothing, have nothing – except a willingness to learn – and intelligence.’
But it was precisely the freshness of Delaney’s writing, and the sheer life bursting from the idiomatic crackle and fizz of Salford speech, which elevated the script from the morass of writing burdened by typically ‘theatrical’ conventions, that made Littlewood sit up and take notice. The Theatre Workshop consciously sought to reject what it viewed as ‘the curiously affected speech and the lack of anything resembling normal activity in the movements and gestures’ of the West End stage. In particular, as theatre historian Nadine Holdsworth observes, Littlewood hated the ‘ironing out of received pronunciation rather than the full range of dialect and demotic speech’.
Delaney’s script, by contrast, was full of the raw vigour and character of everyday working class life. Ken Russell’s short BBC documentary Shelagh Delaney’s Salford (available on YouTube) shows the author clearly enraptured by the language of her community, which is ‘alive . . . it lives and it breathes, and you know exactly where it’s coming from, right out of the earth’. To represent the unselfconscious immediacy of this pattern of speech on paper in the form of a theatrical script was no easy task. Littlewood saw in the untutored writing of Delaney a quality all too rarely captured by the neutered work of most professional dramatists.
That said, Theatre Workshop never treated scripts, however promising, as holy writs. That was simply the stimulus and framework for a project of collective creativity and improvisation. A similar example was the success of You Won’t Always Be On Top by Henry Chapman. As Holdsworth recounts, the play ‘arrived on several pages of carefully observed and authentic dialogue drawn from his experience as a building worker, but by no stretch of the imagination did it form a fully formed play’.
Littlewood appreciated its ear for the language of the streets, its original depiction of day-to-day life on a building site, and invited Chapman to work with the company to develop the script. Holdsworth again: ‘The actors read the text, improvised, went out to local building sites to learn the physical rhythms of work and explored ways of transposing what they learnt onto the stage . . . Rather than grammatically correct dialogue presented on the page, the actors developed conversational speech that involved broken rules, overlaps and strange flights of fancy.’
Littlewood worked on Delaney’s original script in a similar manner, using a jazz quartet to punctuate the action and lend an overall coherence to scenes that might otherwise have felt somewhat disjointed (a feature retained in Bijan Sheibani’s National Theatre revival).
It is tempting to see the relationship between single mum Helen and daughter Jo in the play as a reflection of that between the older, established director Littlewood and her protégé Delaney. In both cases there is an interaction and shifting between the positions of experience and naivety, grounded pragmatism and idealist flights of fancy. Jo, despite her age, is often the more world-weary, realistic and grounded figure, in contrast to Helen’s desire to shed the restraints of responsibility and recover the carefree liberty of youth. Just as the experienced Littlewood learns from Delaney’s relative freedom from theatrical convention, so Helen is keen to recapture something of her younger self that she sees in her daughter.
Jo, in turn, unconsciously desires the responsibility of motherhood in order to realise for her own child an ideal that Helen conspicuously failed to measure up to. The fundamentally ambivalent representation of the mother/daughter relationship takes on a restless, quasi-Freudian dynamic that may also have haunted that between director and playwright.
Beyond the play’s language, the content – while now fairly standard soap opera fare – was deeply shocking to the conservative social mores of 1950s Britain. Jo has sex out of wedlock, with a black man, who leaves her pregnant as a teenager, facing a life as a single mum, with a mixed-race baby, and on top of all that she chooses to live with an open homosexual.
But while this scenario might have induced a coronary in Mary Whitehouse, the remarkable quality of the play lies in the unsentimental, matter-of-fact way in which the characters regard their own circumstances. What could have been a highly wrought melodrama is undercut by the characters’ resourceful, pragmatic realism. For instance, the character of Geoffrey must be one of the first representations of a working class gay man whose sexuality is just a taken-for-granted aspect of the ordinary drama of human lives.
This was itself a breakthrough – showing that the lives, characters and language of working people were every bit as worthy of representing on the stage as those of the genteel middle-classes. Though Delaney herself is no longer with us (she died in 2011, aged 71) her influence on British popular culture – from the gossip in Coronation Street’s Rovers Return to the lyrics of her fellow-Salfordian, Smiths’ frontman Morrissey – should not be underestimated.
Yet how many young working class women from Salford would get an opportunity to write for the theatre today? Perhaps, as in Delaney’s day, we are still crying out for such voices.
A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney (director Bijan Sheibani) is playing at the National Theatre until 11 May
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament