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Kitchen sink drama: Kitchen sink dramas are a form of social realism, which sought to realistically portray the lives of working class British people. They commonly feature a protagonist disillusioned with modern society and provide commentary on political and social issues such as abortion.
Social realism is a subgenre of realism, which looks into society and seeks to provide a commentary on social injustice and the lives of the working class.
Shelagh Delaney was an English dramatist, best known for her 1958 play A Taste of Honey which we will be covering in this article. Delaney was born in 1938 in Salford, Lancashire to Joseph Delaney and Elsie Tremlow. She had a working class upbringing which inspired much of her work.
A Taste of Honey was Delaney's most acclaimed work. However, she continued to write up until her death in 2011, producing a second play titled The Lion in Love in 1960, a collection of short stories titled Sweetly Sings the Donkey in 1963, and a number of screenplays and radio dramas.
A Taste of Honey (1958) follows the characters of seventeen-year-old Jo and her mother Helen, exploring their relationship and the realities of working class Britain. The play consists of two acts, and focuses mostly on the character of Jo, as she manages her unplanned pregnancy and future as a single mother.
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.
The play opens with Helen and Jo unpacking their belongings in their 'new' flat. It is clear from the start that Helen and Jo are not well-off, as Jo complains about the state of the flat Helen has found. It is also heavily suggested that Helen earns her income from her lovers, or, as Jo calls them, 'fancy men'.
Later within the scene, Helen's boyfriend, Peter, enters. Peter asks Helen to marry him, initially in a joking manner, then in a more serious tone. The scene then shifts to Jo walking home with Jimmie, her boyfriend, who is a sailor in the navy soon to be away for six months. Jo's boyfriend asks her to marry him and gives her a ring.
The character of Jimmie is black and Jo is white, meaning he and Jo are in an interracial relationship. This was fairly uncommon in the United Kingdom, even during the 1950s. The first interracial kiss on TV only happened in 1967, on an episode of Star Trek titled 'Space Seed'.
How do you think Jo and Jimmie's relationship would have been perceived by audiences in the 1950s?
Once she returns to the flat, Jo is informed by Helen that she is going to marry Peter. Helen leaves with Peter, and Jo finds herself spending Christmas alone, leading her to invite her boyfriend over.
The day after Christmas, Helen's wedding takes place. Jo is unwell and unable to attend the wedding. Before Helen leaves for her wedding with Peter, she sees the ring around Jo's neck. Helen expresses concern and anger at Jo deciding to get married at such a young age, leading Jo to ask about her father.
Jo learns that Helen had an affair with her father when married to another man. This affair, and Helen's pregnancy, led to her marriage falling apart. After revealing the story behind Jo's father, Helen exits the stage, leaving for her wedding.
Act two of A Taste of Honey opens with Jo in the same flat she moved into with her mother Helen at the play's opening. This time, Jo is evidently pregnant, and her boyfriend has not returned from the navy.
The character of Geof, or Geoffrey, is soon introduced. He is an art student who has recently been thrown out of his accommodation by his landlady. As Jo questions Geof about his sexual relations, it is heavily alluded to that he was thrown out because his landlady thought he was gay.
Jo and Geof develop a close friendship, as he supports her through the pregnancy. However, when consoling her, Geof kisses Jo and asks her to marry him. Jo refuses his proposal, yet still subtly suggests that they sleep together, as 'it is not marrying love between us'.
During their exchange, Helen returns to the stage, her first appearance in act two. Unknown to Jo, Geof had contacted Helen. Jo soon realises this and voices her anger, causing Jo, Helen, and Geof to enter into an argumentative dialogue. Helen offers Jo some money to support her. Before Jo can receive this, Peter (Helen's now husband) enters and takes the money, and then leaves with Helen.
In the play's final scene Jo is preparing for the baby to be born. Helen re-enters, this time with all of her belongings, as she has been thrown out by Peter. Helen attempts to push Geof out of the flat by treating him in a cruel manner and gifting Jo numerous presents. Although Jo defends Geof, he later leaves while she is asleep.
Jo wakes up and realises that she is going into labour. Helen lies to Jo and tells her that Geof has gone to the shops. At this moment, Jo tells her mother that the baby will be mixed-race, and will have darker skin. In shock, Helen leaves Jo and goes out for a drink. The play closes with Jo alone, going into labour, and comforting herself by humming a song Geof sung to her.
Before we look over the key themes in A Taste of Honey, let's review the play's 'main' characters:
Geof (Geoffrey Ingram)
Jimmie (Jo's boyfriend)
The character of Jo experiences a great amount of character growth as the play progresses. She begins the play as a school girl and ends it soon to become a mother. One consistent element of Jo's characterisation throughout the play is her strained relationship with her mother Helen. While Jo and Helen have a strong bond, it is evident that Jo resents Helen's self-centered nature and actions, and feels as though her mother has abandoned her on multiple occasions.
It is evident that Jo has many of her mother’s negative traits. Although she critiques Helen for her choices, Jo also acts in an indecisive manner, deciding to leave school and get a job in a pub rather than pursuing her art. Similarly to Helen, she also enters relationships that aren't necessarily good for her, as demonstrated by her decision to accept Jimmie's proposal, despite being aware that he is unlikely to return after six months. Nonetheless, it is clear that Jo maintains her own strength; she is witty, headstrong, and rebellious.
Shelagh Delaney was 19 when she wrote A Taste of Honey. Do you think this influenced how she wrote the character of Jo?
Helen, Jo's mother, is portrayed as a lively and self-centred character. There is little change in her throughout the play, as it opens and ends with Helen looking for a drink and, to an extent, abandoning Jo.
There is a naivety to Helen's character, she enjoys living, meeting men, and drinking alcohol, and doesn't often consider the consequences of her actions. There seems to be a general lack of affection between Helen and Jo, they often have tense and argumentative conversations, and towards the play's ending Helen abandons Jo to go off with Peter.
Although Helen acts in an overwhelmingly selfish and cruel manner, she does provide Jo with occasional love and support. In act one, scene one, she briefly encourages her to attend art school. And, in act one scene two, after discovering the engagement ring that Jo has been keeping hidden on a string around her neck, Helen pleads with Jo not to go down the same road she did;
Oh Jo, you’re only a kid. Why don’t you learn from my mistakes?
Geof is perhaps A Taste of Honey's most likable character. His main purpose is to act as a supporting role in Jo's narrative. Geof is portrayed as caring and gentle, with traditionally feminine attributes and interests. Geof's sexuality is alluded to and assumed by other characters throughout the play, however, it is never openly stated that he is gay.
When Jo rejects his marriage proposal, Geof accepts it with ease and continues to act as a support in her life.
Although Geof decides to leave at the play's close, the decision is due to Helen's actions and cruel reaction to him. He prioritises Jo's relationship with her mother and leaves to avoid creating further tension.
Peter is portrayed as a bully, who pushes Helen around and causes her and Jo to shift further apart. Peter's nature is evident in the blunt and brutish language he uses. For instance in act two, scene one Peter enters Jo's flat, acting in a drunken and rowdy manner:
Look at Helen, well, if she doesn’t look like a bloody unrestored oil painting. What’s the matter everybody? Look at the sour-faced old bitch! Well, are you coming for a few drinks or aren’t you?
The use of rhetorical questions and an exclamative underpins the loud and aggressive way in which Peter is speaking, demanding the attention of the other characters in the scene. Alongside this, Peter makes two cruel comments towards Helen and her appearance, comparing her to an 'unrestored oil painting' and calling her a 'sour-faced old bitch'. This language, combined with the punctuation, encapsulates Peter's bullish nature.
Helen's decision to marry Peter is reflective of her self-centred and careless nature, as she doesn't consider the effect the marriage could have on her and Jo.
Jimmie plays a limited role in the play. His main function is to act as a catalyst for Jo's character growth, by creating a conflict (her pregnancy). In the limited time we see Jimmie he is presented as loving and optimistic, in act one, scene two, before he leaves he promises Jo:
I will come back, I love you
However, as the play processes, and Jimmie doesn't return to marry Jo, the question of whether he was taking advantage of her is raised. Did Jimmie love Jo and want to marry her, or did he just care for her and want a bit of fun?
A Taste of Honey is part of the kitchen sink drama genre, which seeks to realistically portray the lives and everyday issues of working class Britons. These 'everyday issues' form the key themes in A Taste of Honey; family dynamics and gender, class, and race.
The play centres on the mother-daughter relationship of Jo and Helen. The way in which their relationship functions subverts traditional expectations of family dynamics. Helen is a neglectful parent who often puts herself first, forcing Jo to become more independent, despite wanting the love and support of a parent.
Jo and Helen's unusual relationship is underpinned in act one, scene one. Throughout the scene the two characters have a tense dialogue, opening with:
Helen: Well! This is the place.
Jo: And I don't like it.
From the beginning, it is evident to the audience that the two characters are at odds with each other. This is emphasised when Helen tries to encourage Jo to attend art school, an act of encouragement the audience would expect from a typical parent. However, Jo's response subverts these expectations, as she harshly declines Helen's idea, stating:
Why are you so suddenly interested in me, anyway? You’ve never cared much before about what I was doing or what I was trying to do or the difference between them.
Here, Jo's suspicious response highlights how she doesn't view Helen in the way the audience expects a daughter to perceive her mother. Instead of trusting her, Jo questions why Helen is 'suddenly interested', as she's never shown such interest before.
A Taste of Honey portrays characters who are marginalised and oppressed due to aspects of who they are. Helen and Jo struggle due to their social class. Geof is mocked for his presumed homosexuality. And, Jimmie is judged for the colour of his skin. By focusing her play on these different groups, Delaney highlights areas of British society which were ignored in traditional theatre.
Jo acts as a connection between these different groups, representing the possibility of a future in which diverse peoples co-exist and respect each other. For instance, in act one, scene two, when Jo asks Jimmie not to kiss her, he assumes it's because she's 'afraid someone'll see'. Jo responds that she doesn't care if someone sees, a statement which she repeats. To this Jimmie states:
You mean it too. You’re the first girl I’ve met who really didn’t care.
This indicates that he is used to judgment from other people, most likely based on the colour of his skin.
At the time of A Taste of Honey's writing, racial tensions were high in Britain. Between August and September 1958 The Notting Hill race riots occurred. It is believed that the riot was triggered by a domestic argument between an interracial couple, Majbritt Morrison (a white woman) and Raymond Morrison (a black man). A group of white people tried to intervene, and the next day Majbritt was physically and verbally attacked because she was married to a black man.
Jo is equally accepting of Geof, and his feminine characteristics. In act two, scene one, Jo discusses how she 'hates babies' and 'motherhood', and how she doesn't want to be a mother. She tells Geof:
It comes natural to you, Geoffrey Ingram. You’d make somebody a wonderful wife.
This subverts the gender roles they are both expected to play. Jo does not judge Geof for his ability to cook and clean, she embraces it and appreciates it as part of who he is.
Helen stands in contrast to Jo's open-minded nature, holding many stereotypical perceptions of minority groups. In act two, scene two, when Helen discovers that Jo's baby will be mixed-race, she is horrified and resorts to making cruel comments about the child, going as far as suggesting that she'll 'drown it'. Helen leaves Jo and goes to the pub for a drink after this conversation, highlighting the impact of her racial prejudice.
Act one, scene one
Helen: Children owe their parents these little attentions.
Jo: I don’t owe you a thing.
Helen: Except respect, and I don’t seem to get any of that.
Jo: Drink, drink, drink, that’s all you’re fit for. You make me sick.
The majority of Helen and Jo's interaction in act one, scene one, subverts traditional expectations of a mother-daughter relationship. However, Helen still presumes a level of respect from Jo which the audience would expect in a more typical family dynamic. Jo's blunt response that she 'don't owe' Helen a thing demonstrates that while Helen may want Jo to respect her, Jo refuses to. Instead, Jo judges Helen for the way she acts, criticizing her drinking habits.
Act one, scene two
Jo: Hey! Don’t start bossing me about. You’re not my father.
Peter: Christ Almighty! Will you sit down and eat your chocolates. Do what you like but leave me alone.
[Suddenly she attacks him, half-laughing, half-crying.]
Jo: You leave me alone. And leave my mother alone too.
While Jo and Helen have a tense and often unfriendly relationship, this quote highlights how Jo still wants her mother's presence in her life. She treats Peter in a standoffish manner, bluntly stating that he isn't her father, and commanding him to not boss her about. Following this, Jo has a sudden emotional outburst, attacking him, demanding he stay away from her and her mother. The way in which Jo responds to Peter reminds the audience that she is still a child, she feels threatened by Peter and his presence, and lashes out as a result of this feeling.
Act two, scene one
Jo: Come on, let’s have some truth. Why did she throw you out?
Geof: I’ve told you why.
Jo (switches on light): Come on, the truth. Who did she find you with? Your girl friend? It wasn’t a man, was it?
Here, Jo questions Geof's sexuality, pushing him for an answer as to why his landlord threw him out. Act two, scene one, is the first time the audience encounters the character of Geof. This exchange between the two emphasises Geof's ambiguous sexuality to the audience. Jo's openness to Geof being caught with a girlfriend or a boyfriend demonstrates how she isn't a character to hold prejudices, she is simply curious and wants answers.
Act two, scene two
[Helen enters, loaded with baggage as in Act One, Scene One.]
Helen: Anybody at home? Well, I’m back. You see, I couldn’t stay away, could I? There’s some flowers for you, Jo. The barrows are smothered in them. Oh! How I carried that lot from the bus stop I’ll never know. The old place looks a bit more cheerful, doesn’t it? I say, there’s a nice homely smell. Have you been doing a bit of baking? I’ll tell you one thing, it’s a lovely day for flitting.
Jo: Would you like a cup of tea, Helen?
In act two, scene two, Helen re-enters the apartment, paralleling the opening of the play. Helen's reappearance suggests to the audience that she is an unstable presence in Jo's life, coming and going without regard for Jo's feelings. This is underpinned by Helen's lengthy dialogue and Jo's blunt response to it. Rather than reacting to Helen's arrival in an emotional way, Jo acts as though it is not a surprise to her, implying that this has happened before.
A Taste of Honey is a 1958 play, written by dramatist Shelagh Delaney. The play follows the story of seventeen-year-old Jo and her mother Helen.
The main themes in A Taste of Honey are family dynamics and gender, class, and race.
A Taste of Honey was initially performed at the Theatre Royal in London by the Theatre Workshop Company. The play received critical acclaim, and Delaney received the Foyle's New Play Award and an Art's Council bursary.
The play's title is a biblical reference to the story of Jonathan, the eldest son of King Saul, eating honey and being punished for it.
A Taste of Honey is not a comedy, it is a kitchen sink drama. Kitchen sink dramas are a form of social realism, which sought to realistically portray the lives of working class British people.
When was A Taste of Honey written?
True or false: A Taste of Honey is a kitchen sink drama.
True! Kitchen sink dramas were a form of social realism, which sought to realistically portray the lives of working-class British people.
How many acts does A Taste of Honey consist of?
What is the title of A Taste of Honey a reference to?
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.
Which of these phrases best describes Helen and Jo's relationship?
A mother, daughter relationships which subverts traditional expectations of parenthood.
In A Taste of Honey, who is Jo?
Jo is the play's protagonist. She is a seventeen-year-old British school girl who unexpectedly falls pregnant.
In A Taste of Honey, who is Helen?
Helen is Jo's mother. She drinks heavily and acts in a selfish manner.
Which of these is not a theme in A Taste of Honey?
Nature vs industrialisation
Which character says this quote;
'Look at Helen, well, if she doesn’t look like a bloody unrestored oil painting.'
In A Taste of Honey who is Jimmie?
Jimmie is Jo's boyfriend who leaves at the plays opening and does not return.
Which theme does this quote relate to;
'Helen: Well! This is the place.
Jo: And I don't like it.'
Which of these words best describes the character of Peter?
True of false: Helen holds stereotypical views of race and sexuality.
True. Helen mocks Geof for his femininity, and is horrified when she finds out that Jo's baby will be mixed-race.
Which scene is this quote from:
'[Helen enters, loaded with baggage as in Act One, Scene One.]'
Act two, scene two
What surprises Jimmie about Jo?
That she doesn't care if he kisses her in public.
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