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Understanding A Taste of Honey

A taste of Honey is a play written by dramatist Shelagh Delaney when she was 19. It is set in 1950s Salford, in the northwest of England, where Delaney was born.

  • Helen and her daughter Jo move into a miserable flat in Salford. Peter, an on-off boyfriend of Helen’s, arrives at the flat. He proposes to Helen, who turns him down, but hints that she may change her mind if he persists.
  • Jo meets up with her sailor boyfriend Jimmie, who is black. He asks Jo to marry him, and she accepts. Helen announces that she is engaged to Peter, and then leaves Jo alone for Christmas. Feeling abandoned and lonely, Jo seeks comfort and ends up sleeping with Jimmie.
  • Several months later, Jo is pregnant with Jimmie’s child, though she has not heard from him since Christmas. She invites her friend Geof, who is also facing difficulties, to live with her.
  • Helen arrives and is abusive to Jo and Geof, before giving her daughter money for the baby. A visibly drunk and foul-tempered Peter comes in and takes the money back.
  • In the final scene, Jo is nine months pregnant and living in domestic comfort with Geof.
  • After being left by Peter for another woman, Helen returns to the flat and intimidates Geof into leaving. She vows to support her daughter and grandchild.
  • Jo goes into labour. She reveals to her mother that the baby will be mixed race. Shocked at this news, Helen goes out for a drink, leaving Jo to face her labour alone.

List of Characters

In case you get confused, here’s the list of characters in the play and a short description:

  • Jo: A seventeen-year-old girl, the protagonist of the play. She has a sharp tongue, often clashing with her mother, Helen. She falls in love with Jimmie and becomes pregnant.
  • Helen: Jo’s mother, around 40 years old. She is characterised by her irresponsible behaviour and heavy drinking. Despite her harsh demeanour, there are moments when she shows affection and concern for her daughter
  • Peter: A car salesman in his early 30s, who becomes Helen’s boyfriend and later her husband. Peter has a brash personality and shows little regard for Jo, even suggesting that Helen should get rid of her.
  • Jimmie: A 22-year-old black sailor and Jo’s boyfriend. He proposes to Jo and gives her a ring. Despite his promise to return, he is not heard from again after leaving for his naval duties, leaving Jo pregnant.
  • Geof: Jo’s friend, who is a homosexual art student. He is supportive and caring, becoming an important figure in Jo’s life, especially during her pregnancy. He forms a deep friendship with Jo and even offers to marry her to provide support, which Jo declines.

Act 1 Scene 1

Helen, a single mother aged 40, and her 17-year-old daughter, Jo, move their luggage into a squalid “comfortless” flat in a rundown area in Salford. It is near a gasworks and a slaughterhouse, illustrating the grim, industrial setting.

The tensions between mother and daughter are immediately clear. Jo is furious at Helen for choosing such a shabby accommodation, and for her heavy drinking:

“drink, drink, drink, that’s all you’re fit for”

Jo

She mentions Helen’s ‘immoral earnings’, alluding to the fact that Helen gains money from her different lovers.

Peter, a “brash car salesman” who is 10 years Helen’s junior, arrives. It seems that he is the reason for their moving to a new flat, but he has somehow tracked them down. He has had a relationship with Helen, but was unaware she had a daughter. He tells Helen to “Get rid of her” so they can be alone; however, Jo refuses to go.

Peter proposes marriage to Helen, jokingly at first, then more serious. Helen turns him down, but hints that she may change her mind if he persists.

Act 1 Scene 2

Jo meets up with her boyfriend, Jimmie, a 22-year-old black sailor. He walks her home from school, stopping outside the door. He asks Jo to marry him, and she immediately accepts, gushing with love for him. Jimmie gives her a ring he bought cheaply and promises to marry her when he is next on leave in six months.

Inside the flat, Helen teases Jo about being so loved up. Helen then reveals that she will marry Peter, which Jo is appalled by.

When Peter arrives, Jo is hostile, saying sarcastically, “Hello, Daddy.” They argue, and Jo shouts at him to “leave me alone. And leave my mother alone too.” Helen reveals that they have a house that they will live in together, which leaves Jo feeling betrayed.

When Helen is out of the room, Peter takes a photograph of the new house out of his wallet. Jo spots other photographs, all of different women, and realises that Peter is a serial womaniser. Peter also makes lustful suggestions about Jo sleeping with him, but then switches back to being charming to Helen when she re-enters, saying, “you look utterly fantastic.”

The two of them go off, leaving Jo alone for Christmas. She is crying when Jimmie appears, although she pretends to be ill. However, Jimmie seduces her and they sleep together.

The scene cuts to just before Helen’s wedding to Peter. Helen sees Jo’s engagement ring and warns her not to repeat her mistake of getting married too young. She then says that Jo’s father, whom she cheated on her husband with, was simple-minded, and makes suggestions that Jo has inherited some of his characteristics.

Act 2 Scene 1

It is several months later and now the summer. Jo is visibly pregnant with Jimmie’s child, several months into her pregnancy. Geof, a homosexual friend, comes into the flat with her.

She says that she is working two jobs to pay the rent on her own, but will soon give up employment as she doesn’t want people judging her for being pregnant out of wedlock.

It is revealed that Jimmie has not been in contact since they slept together (“He came in with Christmas and went out with the New Year”). Geof encourages her to contact her mother for support, but Jo refuses.

The scene moves to a “month or two later”. Geof has moved into the flat and is helping her to prepare for the baby by making a dress and obtaining a wicker basket for the baby. Geof proposes marriage, more to cement their friendship than any romantic love. However, Jo turns down this offer.

Helen arrives, after being summoned by a well-meaning Geof. She is immediately critical of the state of the flat, abusive to Jo, calling her “a little whore”, and homophobic towards Geof. In a change of tone, Helen then vows to support Jo in her motherhood, giving her money that she had taken from Peter.

Peter, who has been waiting outside, comes in drunk and abusive, telling Jo to “Shut your mouth, bubble belly” and calling Helen, now his wife, a “sour-faced old bitch.” He takes back the money that Helen gave Jo, and the two of them leave.

Act 2 Scene 2

Jo is nine months pregnant. Geof continues to live at the flat and take care of her, and they are shown to have settled into a comfortable routine.

Geof buys Jo a life-like baby doll for her to use as practice. Seeing that it is white, rather than the black child she will have, Jo goes into a fit of despair, saying, “I’ll bash its brains out. I’ll kill it. . . I don’t want to be a mother.”

Helen enters with her bags, in a similar fashion to how she did at the beginning of the play. She reveals that Peter has “gone off with his bit of crumpet” and says that she will care for Jo and the baby. Geof, intimidated by her domineering presence, leaves the flat to make way for her.

As Jo starts to go into labour, she reveals to her mother that the baby’s father was black. This causes Helen to react in shock, as she worries about the disgrace: “can you see me wheeling a pram with a . . . Oh my God.”

Overwhelmed and unable to cope, Helen leaves the flat to get a drink. It remains uncertain whether she will return, leaving the audience to ponder if Jo will have to face childbirth alone.