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I thought I would start posting more of my old undergraduate and college literature essays on here, since they might be of interest to some of you 🙂

I actually really enjoy writing my critical essays, and I will greatly miss composing them once I finish my master’s degree, so at least posting them up here will mean there is still somewhere where I can talk about the various books I love and hopefully generate some discussion on them!

This is a second-year undergraduate essay, about Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play A Taste of Honey. Following the popular ‘kitchen-sink drama’ genre of the fifties, this play shifts the stereotypical perspective of this form, by focusing upon a teenage girl who falls pregnant with her black partner, in a time of still very strong racial and sexual prejudice. Its gritty realism and honest portrayal of a under-privileged couple and their struggles to stay together placed this play under a great deal of harsh contemporary criticism, but also makes is a worthy read or watch, to help you understand the struggles of people of various minorities.


 

In researching the play A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney I came across two interesting secondary resources, the first of which is ‘New Plays and Women’s Voices in the 1950s’ by Susan Bennett. A Taste of Honey is ‘often cited as an early example of a feminist text…in its focus upon women characters and the female condition’[1]. The central argument that this essay depicts is of the misogynistic subjugation of women playwrights of the fifties, and how they were ‘under-represented [in the] era of the angry young men’[2]. At a time which, as Bennett states, theatre thrived, plays such as Osborne’s Look Back in Anger were critical successes, yet ‘under the rubric of the ‘angry’ were just a very few women’[3]. That is, until Delaney published her 1959 play. For the first time, Bennett insinuates, women writers had a voice.

Bennett’s argument soon twists in the alternate direction however, as she suggests that Delaney received no ‘serious and critical attention’[4]. She proposes that A Taste of Honey was not discussed due to its ground-breaking depictions of race, gender and sexuality, but rather due to the authors sex and young age at the time of her writing; an example of this being Elsom’s review of the play as a ‘startling enough achievement from a nineteen year old girl’[5]. Bennett also notes that this fate befell other successful women of the era, such as Lesley Storm with her play Roar like a Dove in 1957. Despite the protagonist’s bold declarations of independence and having no ‘want [for] any man’[6], Delaney’s depictions of gender were overshadowed by her own situation. Bennett’s argument is brought to a resounding conclusion, with the statement that not much has changed since those times, and attitudes must alter if we hope to ever achieve equality.

I have a mixed response to Bennett’s article. Whilst I certainly support her point that the fifties were very patriarchal and women struggled to become successful in many occupations, I suspect her text is somewhat hyperbolic and lacks evidence to prove that the world has not changed over the past sixty years. Delaney received much positive praise focussed upon her play, which Bennett fails to mention. It could also be discussed how Delaney paved the way for other women writers, through her focus on female writing and experience, which Barry ‘felt to be one of the most important forms of socialisation’[7] at the time, as well as writing without conforming to the dominant male standard of writing. As well as this, she accuses ‘Delaney’s play [of] push[ing] the boundaries of socio-realism far further than Osborne’s Look Back in Anger’[8], whilst giving no evidence of this. I feel that Bennett’s suggestion that we still now live in a patriarchal society to be somewhat excessive. Whilst equality is still unachieved, society, arguably, is much more accepting than that of the fifties; the evidence is in how many successful women writers we have now in the twenty-first century.

The second report I analysed was ‘Shelagh Delaney: The return of Britain’s Angry Young Woman’ by Rachel Cooke. In this newspaper article Cooke discusses the success of A Taste of Honey, as it is still in widespread circulation amongst theatres. Cooke’s main point of discussion however, is Delaney’s own opinion of her first publication. Cooke refers to Delaney’s young age and naivety, much like Jo who is described in the play as a ‘silly little whore [and] slut’[9] who is unaware of how harsh the outside world can be. Cooke draws this comparison between protagonist and author, suggesting that Delaney was unprepared for the outcry her play would cause in the outside world. When the play was first published, Delaney ‘was certainly proud of [it] and she enjoyed the material things it brought her’[10], but it also gave her a great deal of hate, to the extent that she was, in later years, considered anti-feminist, due to the language used within the text, such as Jo’s declaration that she doesn’t ‘want to be a mother… [doesn’t] want to be a woman’[11]. This eventually led to Delaney refusing for the play to be performed, instead opting for it to be solely a radio broadcast to limit its audience. This notably contrasts the previous article, which suggests Delaney got no attention from theatre productions, not that she was instead refusing their offers. Cooke’s analysis of the text concludes in saying that, whilst the text was a successful piece in developing the oncoming feminist storm of the sixties, Delaney herself struggled with how her text was received and it soon became ‘a cross she would have to bear. For disappointment was built into its success’[12]. This is reflected in the title of the article; the ‘Angry Young Woman’ who refuses to have her work referred to as a mere ‘kitchen-sink drama’, but instead on equal terms with the ‘Angry Young Men’ of the era, as Cooke suggests Delaney ‘knows what she is angry about’[13].

Overall I believe this article to be more thorough and concise than Bennett’s. It gives the mixed view of how Delaney’s text was ground-breaking, but in going against so many traditional values of the time, Delaney got overwhelmed with attention that cost her much of her mental health.

This article changed my perspective not on the text, but on Delaney herself. In much of the media surrounding her, Delaney is often described as a cold, uncaring seductress, yet Cooke makes it clear that Delaney tried to change the world, but, simply, ‘she just didn’t like the attention’[14]. The success of the text came at a cost to the author.


 

Like the essay? Feel free to comment below on what you think. Have you read the play? D you want to now?

You can also check out my other essays by clicking here!

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Lib, Taylor ‘Early Stages’ in The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.19.

[2] Susan, Bennett, ‘New Plays and Women’s Voices in the 1950s’ in Modern British Women Playwrights, p.38.

[3] Susan, Bennett, ‘New Plays and Women’s Voices’ in Modern British Women Playwrights, p.40.

[4] Susan, Bennett, ‘New Plays and Women’s Voices’ in Modern British Women Playwrights, p.41.

[5] Susan, Bennett, ‘New Plays and Women’s Voices’ in Modern British Women Playwrights, p.41.

[6] Shelagh, Delaney, A Taste of Honey (New York: Grove Press, 1980), p.34.

[7] Peter, Barry, Beginning Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), p.117.

[8] Susan, Bennett, ‘New Plays and Women’s Voices’ in Modern British Women Playwrights, p.43.

[9] Delaney, A Taste in Honey, p.73.

[10] Rachel, Cooke, ‘Shelagh Delaney: The Return of Britain’s Angry Young Woman’, The Observer, 25th January 2014, p.17.

[11] Delaney, A Taste of Honey, p.66.

[12] Cooke, ‘Shelagh Delaney’, p.17.

[13] Cooke, ‘Shelagh Delaney’. P.17.

[14] Cooke, ‘Shelagh Delaney’. P.17.

Bibliography

Barry, Peter, Beginning Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), pp. 117-118

Bennett, Susan, ‘New Plays and Women’s Voices in the 1950s’ in The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 38-52

Cooke, Rachel, ‘Shelagh Delaney: The Return of Britain’s Angry Young Woman’, The Observer, 25th January 2014, p. 17

Delaney, Shelagh, A Taste of Honey (New York: Grove Press, 1980)

Delaney, Shelagh, Sweetly Sings the Donkey (Whitefish: Literary Licensing, 2012)

Lewis, Peter, The Fifties (New York: William Heinemann, 1978), pp. 7-8

Osborne, John, Look Back in Anger (London: Faber and Faber, 1978)

Taylor, Lib, ‘Early Stages’ in The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 18-23

Wandor, Michelene, ‘Women playwrights and the challenge of feminism in the 1970s’ in The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 53-68

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