Shelagh Delaney, Author of A Taste of Honey, Dies at 71

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22 Nov 2011

Shelagh Delaney
Shelagh Delaney

Playwright Shelagh Delaney, who had an international hit with A Taste of Honey, a play she wrote when she was still a teenager, died Nov 20. The cause was cancer. She was 71.

Delaney claimed she composed A Taste of Honey, the story of a friendship between a gay artist and a pregnant young woman, and her first play, in just two weeks. In part, the work was her response to Terence Rattigan's Variations on a Theme, which she had seen and thought showed an insensitivity to homosexuals.

Honey premiered at the Royal Stratford East in London, a small fringe theatre, in 1959 in a production staged by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. Hailed as a hallmark of the kitchen sink play genre that was then altering the face of British theatre (she was called an Angry Young Woman, a twist on the Angry Young Man title bestowed on Look Back in Anger playwright John Osborne and his fellows), it moved to the West End the next year for a healthy run. The drama reached Broadway in 1960, with Joan Plowright and Angela Lansbury in the cast, directed by Tony Richardson. It ran over a year, and won Plowright a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Play. The play became a film in 1961.

The subject matter was considered racy at the time. Set in Delaney's native Lancashire, the play's central character, Jo, becomes pregnant by a black sailor. When he leaves to go to sea, her gay friend Geoffrey moves in and becomes a surrogate father. Jo's mother, meanwhile, is depicted as crude and sexually wanton.

"Miss Delaney brings real people on to her stage, joking and flaring and scuffling and eventually, out of the zest for life she gives them, surviving," wrote critic Kenneth Tynan. "There is plenty of time for her to worry over words like 'form,' which mean something, and concepts like 'vulgarity,' which don't. She is nineteen years old: and a portent."



But Ms. Delaney would not repeat the success of Honey. Her second play, The Lion in Love, ran at the Royal Court in 1960. When it was produced Off-Broadway in 1963, Howard Taubman of the New York Times said she had "run into the sort of trouble that sometimes befalls writers who produce impressive first novels. After an exciting first play, A Taste of Honey, she has stumbled badly over her second." The production quickly closed. He subsequent screenplays included "Charlie Bubbles" (1968) and "Dance With a Stranger" (1985).

In the 1980s, the writer was taken up as an inspiration by Morrissey, the melancholy-voiced lead singer of the rock band The Smiths. He used a photo of Delaney for the cover of the 1987 album "Louder Than Bombs." A Smiths song, "This Night Has Opened My Eyes," is based on A Taste of Honey and includes Geoffrey's line to Jo near the end of the work: "The dream has gone but the baby is real." Other quotations from Honey pepper several other songs by The Smiths and Morrissey.

Speaking to the NME in 1986, Morrissey said, "I've never made any secret of the fact that at least 50 per cent of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney."