Shelagh Delaney was born in Salford in 1938 into a working-class family. She wrote A Taste of Honey in 1958 when she was 19. Her aim was to give a dramatic depiction of life in a working-class Northern town as she felt that this was often misrepresented in literature.
In particular, she wanted to show what she called the “restless” frustration of young people who grew up in working-class areas such as Salford: people who had the desire but not the opportunity to do something of worth with their lives. She told an interviewer:
“When I was 17, I was in a terrible mess. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I knew I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what. I was lucky, I thought I could write . . . but so many aren’t lucky, and this is the tragedy.”
This “tragedy” could be applied to the life of Jo. She has so much desire to gain independence, and so much creative energy with her art, but she finds herself stuck in her situation without a way to get out.
Speaking of Salford, the setting of the play, Delaney described how:
“The people who live here have a terrific vitality. It’s alive, the whole place is alive. . . But somehow or another, it seems to be dying. And so much seems to be old and crumbling and neglected. It’s a dirty place too, I suppose, but also dramatic.”
She looked to celebrate this “vitality” through the lively characters in the play, while also depicting the grim backdrop of a flat that looks out on a gasworks and a slaughterhouse.
Furthermore, Delaney wanted to present the lives of working-class women. Although working-class men had begun to have their stories told in the 1950s, it was new ground to put women of this class at the centre of a story.
Britain went through dramatic changes in Delaney’s lifetime. The devastation of the Second World War caused many deaths, and German bombings had destroyed much of the housing and infrastructure in the country.
Rationing of food took place until 1952, which meant that many people lived with malnutrition and ill health. High-rise council flats were built to counter the shortage of housing, and many of these were situated far away from towns and shops. This made life dull and limited for those who were moved into them.
There were some positive changes that occurred, particularly the establishment of the NHS in 1948 by Clement Atlee’s Labour government. Also, the welfare state that financially aided the poorest in society.
But for many in Britain, there was a sense of desperation and anger at the way they were living. The Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan declared in 1957 that the nation had “never had it so good”.
Writers like Delaney – and those in the movement of ‘Angry Young Men’ such as Joe Osborne and Alan Sillitoe – set out to show that, in fact, life was still very difficult for working-class people who lived in substandard conditions. Also, they were expected to live by conservative values that left them with little freedom for self-expression.
After World War 2, people from the Caribbean were invited to live and work in Britain as a way to fill the labour shortage. Tens of thousands of Caribbean immigrants, known as the ‘Windrush Generation’ (so-called because the first arrivals in 1948 arrived on the boat SS Empire Windrush), arrived in Britain hoping for an improved standard of living and education.
Unfortunately, for many of the Windrush Generation, their lives in Britain were much harder than they had anticipated. This is due to experiencing racial hostility and encountering segregation in places such as pubs, shops and workplaces. Interracial relationships, particularly between white women and Black men, were not tolerated by many, leading to violent attacks and people being shunned from their communities.
Against this backdrop, we can better understand the difficulty surrounding Jo and Jimmie’s relationship, as well as the disgust and fear that Helen shows when she learns that Jo’s baby is mixed-race. Jimmie’s suspicion that Helen will look at him and only “see a coloured boy” proves to be correct. It reflects the struggles for Black people to be accepted in post-war Britain society.
Homosexuality remained a criminal offence in Britain until 1967, so it was seen by many people in the 1950s as morally wrong. There were many arrests in the early 1950s as the government sought to clamp down on homosexuality.
In the theatre, representations of homosexuality could only be done in very discreet ways until the mid-1950s. Otherwise, the play wouldn’t be given the license to be staged. When Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey, the rules had been relaxed slightly, so she could be more direct in showing a gay character.
Delaney felt that representations of homosexuals in other plays she had seen relied too much on caricature, or made gay characters to be pitiful and doomed to have a tragic ending. Geof is a very well-rounded character who is not defined simply by his sexuality. He is shown to be kind and caring, and interested in art, babies and baking.
Delaney humanises a gay man in a time when homophobia was rife, giving what she believed to be a truer representation of the homosexual character than was normally portrayed.