Shelagh Delaney's 'A Taste of Honey' .

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By Shelagh Delaney

‘A Taste of Honey’ was first produced in 1958 and shocked audiences. What aspects of the play do you think would have been controversial at the time? Compare the play with the more recent TV version, focusing on what you find shocking about its impact today. How does the social context in which a play is seen affect audience reaction?

‘A Taste of Honey’ was first produced in 1958 and it shocked its audiences. Today, it is still viewed as a controversial play, but with the many changes in society over the past 40 years, it is different issues that disturb modern viewers.

‘A Taste of Honey’ is a play about controversial issues, and was also part of a controversial movement in theatre, known as the ‘Angry Young Man’. This movement was headed by John Osborne, whose play ‘Look Back in Anger’ had an inestimable impact on British theatre. Theatre had recently been a form of middle-class entertainment with few hard-hitting and true to life storylines – this was completely changed with the rise of the ‘Angry Young Man’ movement. The main characters of these plays shared certain rebellious and critical attitudes toward society. The writer of ‘A Taste of Honey’, Shelagh Delaney, was also a part of this movement, and her impactful and honest play caused great discussion amongst audiences across the country. The new attitudes to the theatre are reflected in this play, as there are a great many issues packed into it. This is a play written to shock people into re-thinking their attitudes and ideas about people and the way they live.

This play was written in the 1950’s and the issues in it were very controversial at the time. If one were to compare this play as it was viewed in the 1950’s to the more modern television version, no doubt different issues in the play would be found disturbing. For society has changed so much from the time the play was written in to today, that the people who watch this play would have different views.

Firstly, just the fact that the whole play is about working-class people was unusual, as the theatre in the 1950’s was very middle-class, and all the plays were mainly ‘classical drama’ as opposed to the gritty, real-life stories of the ‘Angry Young Man’ movement.

Secondly, people would have undoubtedly reacted with horror at the behaviour of the character Helen. She was not a typical 1950’s woman, and her attitudes and actions were not socially acceptable. One of the first things you notice at the beginning of the play is that it is just she and Jo moving into the flat; there is no husband/father present. In the 1950’s, to be a single parent and to have an illegitimate child was severely frowned upon. If a woman had a child out of marriage, she became a social outcast. It also becomes apparent later on in the play that not only is Jo illegitimate, but that she was the result of an affair, as Helen had been married to someone else - Helen: ‘It was the first time I’d ever really been with a man…’ Jo: ‘You were married.’ Helen: ‘I was married to a puritan.’ (Helen had just told Jo who her father was.) This would have seriously shocked the audience, as these kinds of issues had never been raised in such a direct way before.

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The controversial character Helen’s actions do not end there. Another thing that would have astounded the audiences was her casual attitude to sex, for example she refers a few times during the play to men in a way that one probably would not do in front of one’s daughter – Helen: ‘I did see a lad hanging around here…handsome, long-legged creature – just the way I like ‘em.’

Helen’s relationship with Peter would not have been seen as so outrageous, but it was hardly a typical marriage. Although some audience members might have thought it was a good thing ...

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