When Shelagh Delaney was 18, in 1958, she wrote A Taste Honey, now running at the Pearl Theatre, extended until October 30. The play, an act of adolescent rebellion, integrates disparate issues and themes, from mothers to race; men to sex and motherhood to gays and abortion; from Shakespeare (“he said everything, didn’t he?) to theatre and movies (“mauling and muttering, can’t hear what they’re saying half the time. . . . ”). She had failed her 11-plus exams four times and spent her Saturdays at the movies, where she may have seen films like the ones mentioned or referred to in her play: I was a Teenage Werewolf, The Ten Commandments, The Wizard of Oz, and Desire Under the Elms. When the legendary director Joan Littlewood, who championed English working-class plays and Brechtian technique, read this “slice of life” (in a positive review, Harold Clurman used that descriptor), she said, “Delaney knows what she is angry about”—which was probably everything. But she is also comparing the author to John Osborne and the angry young men of British theatre. Graham Green weighed in on this count, too, saying that A Taste of Honey has “all the freshness of Mr. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and a greater maturity.”
“A northern [English] sense of humor, lack of sentimentality, and robust approach” is how actress Lesley Sharp, who starred in the play in 2014, extemporizes on A Taste of Honey. Professor Nadine Holdsworth, from the University of Warwick, calls the language: “quick, sharp, witty banter.” When looking at footage or photos of Delaney, during this period, she seems knowing and well-mannered but slightly mischievous, too, impatient, or “restless,” as she would probably describe herself. She’s a large-eyed, soft-voiced perfect storm for a director like Austin Pendleton, who leads the current New York production of A Taste of Honey, because, on the page, she’s all sass and spunk and her lines move so fast. She forces Pendleton to keep up with her in his staging, the opinionated eighteen-year-old whose memory is like the NSA, and the actor’s director, with a penchant for British theatre. They both win.
Delaney did not often allow her first play to be produced (she died in 2011) and her daughter had never seen a staged version until she was an adult. This may have helped the unsentimental drama become sentimentalized over the years, after having been a play in the UK and the U.S., a movie, and fodder for a musical standard: Tony Richardson directed the New York production, as well as the classic, Bafta-winning film (for the movie, its screenplay, and the actresses), and he co-wrote the hit song, from which he never recouped royalties (he did not share credit; Bobby Scot and Ric Marlow did). Many artists have recorded A Taste of Honey, including The Beatles, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, and Herb Alpert (who uses a quick tempo similar to the one heard at the Pearl, where the tune is played onstage by a Beat Trilby-wearing jazz trio who remain on stage (they are guitarist Phil Faconti, trumpeter Max Boiko, with mute, and bassist Walter Stinson. The lyrics to the song probably do not allude to Jo’s point of view, in ways that other popular songs, based on British dramatic material, did during the sixties and seventies, such as "Somewhere My Love" (Dr. Zhivago), "It Was a Good Time" (Ryan's Daughter), or Engelbert Humperdinck’s "Too Beautiful to Last" (Nicholas and Alexandra). The repeated line in the song, "I will return," comes from and refers to the sailor who leaves Jo, the eighteen-year-old girl, and the young man on the boat is an enduring image from the film. The misty longing is momentary, though, and there is no serious consideration of his coming back—or for Jo to run after him.
The Brechtian impulse was lost as the play transitioned to New York and the screen, too. Richardson felt that Littlewood’s “policy of mixing working-class drama with pub vitality and vaudeville songs” did not integrate well in A Taste of Honey—he thought they made the play seem “coarse and forcedly jolly.” He also believed that film could only be a realistic medium. The black-and-white film that emerged, despite its lower-class milieu, is an example of Free Style Cinema, and is expertly photographed by its founder, Walter Lassally, with “a minimum of equipment, real locations, and a natural, unmade-up look." Casting became immediately critical. Rita Tushingham won the part of Jo, playing against the formidable Dora Bryan, and she was the right age; Joan Plowright, who starred in the role on Broadway, and won a Tony Award for it, was a world-renowned actress—but was thirty-one years old. No need to feel bad for Plowright, though. Interestingly, Austin Pendleton, would write a comedy about her, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Kenneth Tynan, and Vivian Leigh, set while A Taste of Honey was entering popular culture. The play is Orson's Shadow (2003). Welcome to the 1960s.
Delaney had written about what would matter to Americans during that decade, even though there wasn’t much chance to salvage Jo’s life in Manchester (Harry Feiner’s scenic design, at the Pearl, shows the roofs of the tenements in the city, as well as the dirty interior the two women inhabit). Some might compare A Taste of Honey to another Broadway show, which premiered in 1959, also set along the fringes of show business, with a domineering mother and her new boyfriend, as well as a daughter who runs off with a young man. A Taste of Honey, however, is no Gypsy, even though it prefigures the Kander and Ebb musical (such as Cabaret), because Jo will never be able to beat the English social system. In fact, Delaney barely could get out herself and remained a Marxist. Not that one producer didn’t try to fix the play’s structure, which actually is a problem with the work. According to Tony Richardson, in his autobiography The Long-Distance Runner, Darryl Zanuck “was interested in me directing it . . . on one condition: ‘a happy ending’. It has a happy ending—Jo is happy waiting for her baby to be born.” Zanuck: “That’s the point—the baby’s gotta die, and Mother and girl go off to a better life.” Richardson said no, thank you.
Jo is encased in her class, and her happy ending would be a dubious one in The United States. She does realize that there might be more elsewhere, but she makes fun of the book about her namesake when she says that her guide on having a baby sounds like Little Women. Delaney also may be making a reference to A Member of the Wedding when she talks about going on her mother’s honeymoon: “Can’t I come with you?” Delaney regains her senses against the pipe dream of becoming an artist, like Louisa May Alcott or Carson McCullers. She doesn’t allow the flower bulbs she has kept to blossom, and she won’t let Jo go to school to become an artist. The audience sees the similarities between the mother, a “semi-whore” and daughter, and both are cynical (a quality of those who live in Salford, according to Delaney) and fatalistic: “Don’t think. It doesn’t do you any good.”
At the Pearl, Rachel Botchan, as Helen, is ready to dance, and Delaney provides her with asides, direct addresses to the audience, and songs. When she retakes her rooms at the end of the play, however, she has become a destroyer and, we see how her daughter deserves to hate her. Botchan deploys dainty savagery--and, even for those who know the play, this can seem unexpected. Impressive also is Rebekah Brockman, who gives us Jo’s poignant side, which would be expected. However, despite the weight of the milieu, she allows Delaney’s wicked humor to come through in a way that lets theatregoers laugh out loud. Brockman plays a scene with her gay roommate, Geoffrey (John Evans Reese, who does not rely on stereotypes), which centers on the idea that Jo’s father may have been unintelligent. This is funny, suddenly, and it also shows how Delaney looks at issues from many angles, typically working from many tentative points of view. Bradford Cover plays Helen’s younger lover, a small-time Romeo ready to fly at a moment’s notice, a thin man starting a pot belly. Jimmy, the sailor, is played by Ade Otukoya, who, at one point, is placed downstage center and seated, the action spinning around him. He allows us to see what young love is—he may not be faithful, or truthful, but no one can say that Jo should not have become involved with him.
Alan Brien, writing in The Spectator, in the ‘50s, saw in A Taste of Honey “an adolescent contempt for logic or form or practicability upon a stage.” What he didn’t see was the challenge of putting a young woman’s gritty aesthetic on the stage, one that can make a very good contemporary play like Bachelorette, by Leslye Headland, recently seen at Walkerspace, in a good production, seem much more degenerate than A Taste of Honey (which is actually something Headland might agree with). Of course, the plays present two different worlds—postwar Britain and present-day, corporatized America, but many of the issues are the same, if not universal, and the feminism that Jo needed, seems to have been let down or erroneously redirected, if it is judged by Headland’s work. The screwed up, narcissistic young wedding-party crashers in Bachelorette are takers; Jo is a giver: “Blessings light upon you. If I had half a crown a day, I’d gladly give it to you.” This does not mean that Jo is naïve, which is how the women in Bachelorette might size her up. Actually, she is clear about her own mind. Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey in two weeks, in 1958, because she was angered by the insidious lives of those portrayed in drawing room comedies, specifically one by Terence Rattigan. She felt she could do better. May contemporary theatre find a Shelagh Delaney to do better for us and may her kind of anger continue to force the issue.
Visit the Pearl Theatre at: http://www.pearltheatre.org/
© 2016 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photos from the Pearl Theatre production.
Press: John Wyszniewski and Rachael Shearer at Blake Zidell & Associates.
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