Shelagh Delaney and the drama of everyday life

Michael Calderbank reconsiders the context of Salford playwright Shelagh Delaney’s breakthrough as the National Theatre stages a revival of her debut A Taste of Honey

April 1, 2014 · 6 min read

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.

No holy writs

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.

A pragmatic realism

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

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