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Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney was an English dramatist who lived from 1938 to 2011. She is best known for her 1958 post-war play A Taste of Honey.

Shelagh Delaney Biography

Delaney was born in Salford, Lancashire, in 1938 to working-class parents, Joseph Delaney and Elsie Tremlow. She pursued education up until her O-levels, leaving school in 1955. After leaving school, Delaney worked in various roles, such as an usher in a cinema. During this time, she began to write a novel, which eventually became her first play, A Taste of Honey (1958)

Did you know? Shelagh Delaney was born Shelia Mary Delaney. However, she changed her name to sound more Irish before the premiere of A Taste of Honey (1958), her first play.

A Taste of Honey was initially performed at the Theatre Royal in London by the Theatre Workshop Company, a theatre group directed by Joan Littlewood. Littlewood's theatre group focused on performing plays depicting the lives of the working class, aligning with Delaney's ideals. The play received critical acclaim, and Delaney received the Foyle's New Play Award and an Art's Council bursary. The Art's Council bursary enabled her to write full-time.

In January 1959, the play was taken to the West End, bringing Delaney national fame. The show had a run of 368 performances. It was later taken to Broadway in 1960, and Delaney won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The play's success resulted in it becoming a motion picture in 1961, for which Delaney wrote the screenplay with English director Tony Richardson. The motion picture A Taste of Honey won four BAFTA Awards in 1962.

In 1985 Delaney became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. That same year her screenplay Dance with a Stranger was released in cinemas. Delaney continued to write up until her death in November 2011.

Shelagh Delaney Major Works

Delaney rose to fame at age 19. Although A Taste of Honey was Delaney's most famous and acclaimed work, she wrote a second play titled The Lion in Love in 1960, a collection of short stories in 1963, and several screenplays and radio dramas, including Country Life (2004).

Shelagh Delaney Books

In 1963, Delaney published Sweetly Sings the Donkey, a collection of three short stories. The first short story, 'Sweetly Sings the Donkey', is the longest of the three pieces, consisting of sixty-four pages, and provides a glimpse into a young girl's time at a seaside convalescent home. Two stories, 'Tim Riley' and 'The Teacher', briefly recount Shelagh's perceptions of her Uncle, Tom Riley, and a school teacher she intensely disliked.

This collection of short stories became a trilogy of radio plays centred around four women in Blackpool named Lillian, Nina, Vivian, and Barbara. The radio plays explored the lives of the women from their first meeting as young girls recovering from various illnesses at a convalescent home run by nuns to them meeting again and reflecting on their lives as they celebrate their 60th birthdays.

Shelagh Delaney Plays

Delaney only wrote three stage plays during her lifetime, The Lion in Love (1960), The House That Jack Built (1979), and, her most famous play, A Taste of Honey (1958).

Alongside plays, Delaney wrote a number of screenplays. Delaney's third screenplay was Dance with a Stranger (1985), which told the story of Ruth Ellis, who became the last woman to be hung in Britain in 1955.

A Taste of Honey (1958)

A Taste of Honey is set in Salford and follows the story of seventeen-year-old Jo and her alcoholic single mother Helen. Helen is portrayed as a troubled character who had Jo due to an affair. Jo does not appear to be a priority to Helen, who focuses on her relationships with numerous 'fancy men' with who she decides to be with for their money.

The plot revolves around Jo becoming pregnant from an interracial relationship with a black sailor named Jimmie. As the play progresses, Jo struggles with her pregnancy and relationship with those around her. Although Jo moves in with her friend Geoffrey during her pregnancy, and establishes a platonic cohabitation with him, at the end of the play her mother re-enters her life and disrupts this. The play closes with Jo going into labour alone in her apartment.

The Lion in Love (1960)

The Lion in Love was Delaney's second play and premiered at the Belgrade Theatre in 1960 before moving to the Royal Court Theatre. This play also focuses on the lives of the working class, presenting the lives of three generations of an Irish family who earn their income from peddling trinkets.

Delaney received a largely negative response to the play with complaints that her writing and plot were underdeveloped. Delaney responded to the criticism with the statement; 'I expected bad notices and those I have read, if they had been written about any other play, would make me want to dash out to go and see it.'1

Themes in Shelagh Delaney's work

Delaney's works were heavily influenced by her own life and experiences as a working-class British citizen, growing up during and following World War Two. Two themes central to Delaney's work are class and family dynamics. Her first two plays, A Taste of Honey (1958) and The Lion in Love (1960) are examples of kitchen sink dramas (or kitchen sink realism).

Kitchen sink drama: Kitchen sink dramas were a form of social realism, which sought to realistically portray the lives of working-class British people. They commonly featured a protagonist disillusioned with modern society and provided commentary on political and social issues such as abortion.

Class

The majority of Delaney's works focused on the lives of working-class English people in the industrial North. In a 1960 Interview with The Guardian, Delaney, when asked about why her work covered the lives and difficulties of the working class, stated;

I write about working-class life only because it represents the background of my experience. I could go on writing plays if I never saw Salford, Manchester, or any northern working-class district again.1

The representative nature of the theme of class in Delaney's work can be seen in her short story 'Sweetly Sings the Donkey' from Sweetly Sings the Donkey (1963). The young female protagonist of the story is addressed by one of the Chief Nuns toward the story's end, who tells her;

Not so many years ago a girl of your class would not have received any education at all. From the cradle you would probably have been sent to the mill or the factory. You'd never have known the glories and benefits of a good education. The present society we live in however has raised the standard of living to heights hitherto...

The way in which the Chief Nun addresses the protagonist, focusing on her class, and deeming her as lucky to be living in post-war Britain, reflects the class divisions at the time. Arguably, the young girl deserves all these things, no one should go without healthcare, education, or a home, however, in the eyes of the Nun she is lucky to have them due to her class status.

Delaney stated that she grew up in a 'nice council flat overlooking Salford park'1 and she received an education up until she was seventeen, at which point she chose to leave school. The way in which the Nun addresses the protagonist in this quote may not be an intentional direct critique of class divides, however it is an interesting representation of them and likely reflective of Delaney's own experiences.

Family Dynamics

All of Delaney's early work included commentary and insights into the family dynamics of her fictional characters. For instance, in A Taste of Honey Delaney explores the broken mother/daughter relationship of Helen and Jo who hold a resentful yet interdependent relationship.

The play instantly places Helen and Jo's relationship centre-stage, opening with the two unpacking in a new flat, and bickering. During an early conversation with Jo, Helen states;

When I find somewhere for us to live I have to consider something far more important than your feelings . . . the rent. It’s all I can afford.

In this scene, Jo is complaining about the 'old ruin' in which she and her mother live, while Helen protests that there's nowhere else they can afford to live despite 'everything' in the building 'falling apart'. Helen places 'the rent' above Jo's 'feelings', setting a precedent for the rest of the play as Helen abandons Jo for a man and later, during her time of need, for a drink.

Jo and Helen's contrasting mindsets are clear, while Jo still holds hope that she can have a better life, Helen appears disillusioned. For instance, during the same scene, Helen asks Jo 'why do you bother?' when she unpacks her 'bulbs' and voices her hopes that 'they bloom'.

Shelagh Delaney - Key Takeaways

  • Shelagh Delaney was an English dramatist who lived from 1938 to 2011.
  • A Taste of Honey (1958) was Delaney's first literary work, and brought her national and international fame.
  • Alongside A Taste of Honey, Delaney wrote a second play in 1960, a collection of short stories titled Sweetly Sings the Donkey in 1963, and a number of screenplays and radio dramas.
  • Delaney's works were influenced by her own experiences as a working-class Briton, and centred heavily on the themes of class and family dynamics.

References

  1. John Mapplebeck, 'Shelagh Delaney: playwright on probation - archive, 1960', The Guardian, 1960.

Frequently Asked Questions about Shelagh Delaney

No, Delaney died in 2011.

Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey with the intention of representing stories and socio-political issues in theatre which she felt were not being represented by the plays being performed. 

A Taste of Honey follows the character of Jo, who becomes pregnant following an interracial relationship with a black sailor. 

A Taste of Honey was written around and first performed in 1958.

Delaney grew up in Salford, Lancashire.

Final Shelagh Delaney Quiz

Question

Where did Shelagh Delaney grow up?

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Answer

Salford, Lancashire.

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How old was Delaney when she left school?

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Answer

17

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What was Delaney's first play?

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Answer

A Taste of Honey (1958)

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True or false? The Lion in Love received high acclaim, comparable to the praise received by A Taste of Honey,

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Answer

False! The Lion in Love was met with largely negative reviews.

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How many books did Delaney write during her life?

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Answer

One, Sweetly Sing the Donkey (1963).

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How many short stories does Sweetly Sings the Donkey consist of?

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Answer

Three

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How many BAFTA Awards did A Taste of Honey receive?

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Answer

Four

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What society did Delaney become a Fellow of in 1985?

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Answer

The Royal Society of Literature.

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Which of these is not a stage play written by Delaney?

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Answer

Dance with a Stranger (1985)

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Which of these themes is present in Delaney's work?

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Answer

Class

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Question

What are both A Taste of Honey (1958) and The Lion in Love (1960) examples of?

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Answer

Kitchen sink dramas

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What is a kitchen sink drama?

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Answer

A form of social realism, which seeks to realistically portray the lives of working-class British people, commonly featuring a protagonist disillusioned with modern society.

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Which family dynamic is at the heart of A Taste of Honey (1958)?

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Answer

The mother/daughter relationship between Helen and Jo.

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What did Delaney say about why she writes about working class life?

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Answer

That she writes 'about working-class life only because it represents the background of' her 'experience'.

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Which of these awards did Delaney not win?

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Answer

A Tony Award

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When was A Taste of Honey written?

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Answer

1958

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Question

True or false: A Taste of Honey is a kitchen sink drama.

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Answer

True! Kitchen sink dramas were a form of social realism, which sought to realistically portray the lives of working-class British people. 

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How many acts does A Taste of Honey consist of?

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Answer

Two acts.

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What is the title of A Taste of Honey a reference to?

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Answer

The play's title, A Taste of Honey, is a biblical reference to the story of Jonathan, the eldest son of King Saul, eating honey and being punished for it. 

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Question

Which of these phrases best describes Helen and Jo's relationship?

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Answer

A mother, daughter relationships which subverts traditional expectations of parenthood. 

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In A Taste of Honey, who is Jo?

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Answer

Jo is the play's protagonist. She is a seventeen-year-old British school girl who unexpectedly falls pregnant.

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In A Taste of Honey, who is Helen?

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Answer

Helen is Jo's mother. She drinks heavily and acts in a selfish manner. 

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Which of these is not a theme in A Taste of Honey?

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Answer

Nature vs industrialisation 

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Question

Which character says this quote;

'Look at Helen, well, if she doesn’t look like a bloody unrestored oil painting.'

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Answer

Peter Smith

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In A Taste of Honey who is Jimmie?

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Answer

Jimmie is Jo's boyfriend who leaves at the plays opening and does not return.

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Which theme does this quote relate to;


'Helen: Well! This is the place.


Jo: And I don't like it.'

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Answer

Family dynamics.

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Which of these words best describes the character of Peter?

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Answer

A bully

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True of false: Helen holds stereotypical views of race and sexuality.

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Answer

True. Helen mocks Geof for his femininity, and is horrified when she finds out that Jo's baby will be mixed-race.

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Question

Which scene is this quote from:


'[Helen enters, loaded with baggage as in Act One, Scene One.]'

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Answer

Act two, scene two

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Question

What surprises Jimmie about Jo?

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Answer

That she doesn't care if he kisses her in public.

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