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Form, Structure and Language in A Taste of Honey

Form

When analysing A Taste of Honey, it’s important to always remember that it is a play. Therefore, we need to consider the dramatic elements of the story being presented on stage for a live audience.

The play was first produced in 1958 and it is generally regarded as a kitchen-sink drama. This was a genre that came into popularity in Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with plays exploring issues such as class, gender and frustration with societal norms. They also depict working-class environments, showing comfortless and grimy settings, and the rich domestic dramas that arise from these issues.

Delaney uses a suitably grim setting, with a cold and dirty flat in the rundown, industrial area of Salford. There, “filthy children” roam the streets and the gasworks can be viewed out of the window. Although the setting lacks any life or vitality, the opposite is true of her characters: they sparkle with humour and energy, and are liable to break out into song and dance or to ponder on love, life and death.

So, even though the play shows darker elements and themes, it is not a tragedy, and is arguably more akin to a comedy. Elements are taken from the music-hall tradition (a genre that was started in 1850 and combined popular songs with comedy, dance and other entertainment). 

Structure

Delaney uses many structural elements and dramatic devices to help tell this story on the stage:

TechniqueHow is this used in the play?What is the effect of this?
Time and seasonsThe play spans nine months, the period of time from the conception of Jo’s pregnancy to her going into labour at the end of the play.

It begins at Christmas, then goes to summer at the beginning of Act 2 and then finally into Autumn as Jo prepares to give birth.
Jo’s growing pregnancy acts as a temporal device that brings tension to the story, with the moment of her becoming a mother getting ever closer.

The audience wants to know if she will be able to find the stability and acceptance that she needs in her life.
SettingThere is only one setting for the whole play, a “comfortless flat in Manchester, and the street outside.”

We hear about Helen and Peter’s house with its relative comfort and luxury, but don’t see it.
This gives a sense of Jo being trapped in this flat, and the inescapability of her situation.

Helen leaves for a few months, having a more financially secure, but unhappy marriage. However, she too cannot permanently escape the flat or the poverty it represents.
Circular narrativeThe play starts with Jo and Helen moving into the flat, and ends with the same two characters in the same setting, with Peter, Jimmie and Geof having come and gone.

There are links from the beginning and end, such as confusion about how to work the cooker.
This could demonstrate the inescapable pattern of behaviour in their lives. Helen leaves Jo for a man, and only returns to Jo when the relationship ends.

Despite Jo’s plans at the beginning to get a job and start a new life without her mother, she has ended up with Helen and the neglect that she has always endured.

Language

Standard English

Although the play is set in a working-class, Manchester situation, Delaney has the characters speak in Standard English rather than language that phonetically reflects their accents or uses local dialect. By having the characters speak in Standard English, Delaney challenges prevailing stereotypes of the time that often associated working-class individuals and Northerners with a lack of education and sophistication. This deliberate choice can be seen as a form of social commentary, subtly urging the audience to reconsider their assumptions and biases.

Through articulate and intelligent dialogues, the characters break away from the mould, proving that the language one uses is not a direct reflection of their intelligence or capabilities. In doing so, the play not only provides a more representative portrayal of working-class individuals but also serves as a critique of the classist and regional prejudices prevalent in society.

Short sentences

Short sentences are used to show the snappy exchanges of the characters and their quick wit. Jo and Helen, in particular, are sharp in their comebacks, as shown in this exchange:

JO
You’re centuries older than him.

HELEN
Only ten years.

JO
What use can a woman of that age be to anybody?

HELEN
I wish you wouldn’t talk about me as if I’m an impotent, shrivelled old woman without a clue left in her head.

JO
You’re not exactly a child bride.

HELEN
I have been one once, or near enough.

JO
Just imagine it, you’re forty years old. I hope to be dead and buried before I reach that age. You’ve been living for forty years.

HELEN
Yes, it must be a biological phenomena.

JO
You don’t look forty. You look a sort of well-preserved sixty.

Vulgar Language

Another way that humour is created in the play is through vulgar language, and also language with sexual undertones. For example, when Jo talks of the “funny turned-up nose” of the man she once had a crush on, Helen remarks, “It wasn’t his nose I was interested in.”

This particular exchange between Jo and Helen, where they discuss the physical attributes of a man Jo had a crush on, reveals a deeper layer of their relationship. It showcases a direct and somewhat playful dynamic, that is common in close, informal relationships. Also, Helen’s blunt and cheeky response adds an element of realism to her character, portraying her as a woman who is unapologetically open about her desires and past attractions.

This direct and open conversation was somewhat taboo during that era. Delaney’s inclusion of this language in their conversations, not only adds a touch of humour but also paints a more detailed picture of their complex characters.

Addressing the audience

The characters sometimes address the audience with the intimacy of sharing secrets with a close friend. Helen does this in the first scene, talking about Jo in the third person – “She can’t do a thing for herself, that girl” – even though there are just the two of them on the stage.

Peter does the same after he finds out that Helen has a daughter as old as Jo, commenting, “That puts another ten years on her.” This serves to create even more of a connection between the audience and the characters.

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