Shelagh Delaney's work still resonates, a decade after her death. Credit: Howell Evans/BIPS/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

November 18, 2021   6 mins

If she started writing it today, Shelagh Delaney’s finest play would probably never be performed. In many ways the arts have become more elitist since the fifties, and she had no influential contacts in the theatrical world. The daughter of a bus driver and a factory worker, she left her local grammar school aged 17 to work in a series of shops, factories and offices. A year later, in 1958, she finished her masterpiece, A Taste of Honey.

That’s not to say elitism wasn’t a problem back then. Working-class people, if they appeared at all in books, films or plays in the early fifties, were — as Listener magazine said in its review of Honey — “comic or loyal, or more frequently both”. But by 1958 that situation had slowly started to change. John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger, staged at London’s Royal Court in 1956, was the ripple that quickly turned into a “new wave” of stories about a restless generation of young working-class upstarts.

In the era of the post-war welfare state, journalists were also giving working-class life more attention. In 1957, Michael Young and Peter Wilmott published a study of life in the modern East End, Family and Kinship in East London. Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, issued the same year, was based on his own working-class upbringing in Hunslet, Leeds. Both books became surprise bestsellers. Their authors were driven by a belief that working-class people possessed a rich culture, and by their concern that the communities from which that culture sprang were threatened by the well-meant intentions of post-war politicians — in particular the replacement of inner-city streets with out-of-town council estates.

But on the whole working-class people’s prospects were looking up. This was the era of a brand-new welfare state and near-full employment. Free secondary education meant Shelagh, who died exactly ten years ago, was the first person in her family to remain at school beyond the age of 14. In 1957, the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, claimed that the British people “had never had it so good”. There were more (though still very few) chances for working-class people to have their voices heard.

A modicum of economic security and the political rhetoric of opportunity were the foundations on which Shelagh constructed her youthful dreams for a life different from her mother’s. She wanted fame and fortune — but failing that, she wanted and believed she could create a life focused on creative endeavour. She had no deference, no sense that the arts were not for the likes of her; the state told her she was worthy of education and investment.

Still, she was unsentimental about the welfare state, and even more so about the working-class community that Richard Hoggart lovingly described. Her debut focuses on Jo, a working-class teenager who lives in Salford with her single mother, Helen, and who becomes a single mother herself after a brief affair with a black sailor. As the pair barged onstage, carrying suitcases as they “flitted” from one rented room to another, they ripped through any romanticism about working-class life.

“What’s wrong with this place?” asks Helen ironically, as she and Jo survey their new home, a bare flat in a Manchester lodging house. She answers her own question: “Everything in it is falling apart, it’s true, and we’ve no heating — but there’s a lovely view of the gasworks, we share a bathroom with the community and this wallpaper’s contemporary. What more do you want?” In the fifties — a “selfish decade,” argued the Labour politician and architect of the NHS, Nye Bevan — “community” was too often a euphemism for overcrowded homes and enduring poverty.

Shelagh knew that women in Salford were lucky if they got modern décor and good neighbours; that wasn’t, she suggested, enough. She was the first post-war playwright to suggest that women had minds and desires of their own: a radical proposal in the fifties. The anti-heroes of the so-called “kitchen sink” novels and plays that pre-dated Honey — Joe Lampton in John Braine’s novel Room at the Top (1957), or Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) — were all men.

Meanwhile, advertisers, educators, policymakers and psychologists told women that they were luckier than their mothers. Clad in New Look dresses, they could spend their lives making happy homes for their hard-working husbands and their healthy children — the citizens of Britain’s brave new future. But Honey showed that this life was beyond the means of thousands of women who, like Jo and Helen, continued to live in overcrowded slums.

Even more radically, Delaney suggested this was a life that women did not want. In Honey, Jo finds solace in her friendship with Geoff, a gay art student, who is keen to make a home for her and the baby. He voices the standard medical opinion of the time: “Motherhood is supposed to come natural to women.” Pregnancy was meant to render women docile, maternity to fulfil an innate femininity. But Jo rages against her fate. “My usual self is a very unusual self, Geoffrey Ingram, and don’t you forget it,” she says. “I’m an extraordinary person. There’s only one of me like there’s only one of you.”

More than a decade before the Women’s Liberation Movement emerged in Britain, Shelagh suggested that women were unfulfilled by marriage and motherhood. In the novels and plays written by male authors of the 1950s, women hold back ambitious young men. But in Honey, the male characters are keener on marriage and domesticity than Jo or Helen. The woman want love — but they want some freedom too. They know that the comforts men associate with domestic bliss are the result of women’s hard work. They refuse to be compliant; “we enjoy it!” Helen responds scornfully when Geoff tells her off for rowing with Jo. Resentment and anger at their shared dependency, the fallibility of their bodies, and their lack of choices are riven through their relationship; but from that shared experience also springs love.

A Taste of Honey was championed by Joan Littlewood, who, with fellow communist Ewan MacColl, had established Theatre Workshop in Manchester in the 1930s. But Delaney’s assertion that working-class life wasn’t all affluence and happy housewives caused a furore. There was an attempt to suppress Honey before it was even staged. At a time when all plays were subject to censorship, Theatre Workshop was required to submit Delaney’s manuscript to the Lord Chamberlain for inspection. The official charged with reading it called the play “muck” and proposed banning it. “I think it’s revolting, quite apart from the homosexual bits,” he wrote. “To me it has no saving grace whatsoever. If we pass muck like this it does give our critics something to go on.”

“After some misgivings,” his office grudgingly passed Honey, but only “because it depicts such a sad collection of undesirables it will not do the public any harm.”

A Taste of Honey premiered at Theatre Workshop on 27 May 1958. Almost all the press dismissed the play as a flop, its content vulgar and its author untutored. The Spectator declared that Honey’s only redeeming feature was that “it is not scholarly anthropology observed from the outside through pince-nez, but the inside story of a savage culture observed by a genuine cannibal”. Most of the Right-wing press was more damning. “Once, authors wrote good plays set in drawing-rooms. Now, under the Welfare State, they write bad plays set in garrets,” sneered the Daily Mail. The depiction of women incensed many journalists. The Salford Reporter, in Delaney’s hometown, oscillated between denying the existence of single mothers and slums, and asserting that, even if they did exist, this “sordid tale of a prostitute’s daughter” certainly wasn’t suitable theatrical fare.

But theatregoers from working-class Stratford did not agree. Builders, labourers and office workers told a BBC news crew that Honey was “about people like us, isn’t it? Real life”. And Shelagh’s appeal crossed class boundaries. Carol Dix and her friends were 13-year-old middle-class grammar schoolgirls in the Midlands when Honey was staged. They’d never have been allowed to see the play, but they were preoccupied with its author: “The women’s life-style we noticed, and wanted to copy, were bohemians like Sheelagh [sic] Delaney,’ they later recalled in a collective memoir.

Her youth and notoriety meant Shelagh regularly appeared in the press and on television throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. She liked to dress comfortably, attending interviews wearing, as the Daily Mail told its readers, fisherman’s sweaters and “paint spattered jeans” — very unlike the glamorous Hollywood icons of the cinema, or the lipsticked housewives of women’s magazines. This made her an icon for those girls who wanted more from the world than a wedding dress, but weren’t sure what, or how to get it. Some of them went on to create the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s.

Meanwhile Honey became a box office hit, transferred to London’s West End in 1959, and enjoyed a Broadway run in 1960. It has been performed across the world ever since. In 2019, the play enjoyed a successful revival as a National Theatre touring production, sadly cut short by Covid. That the performances, including the premier in Salford, were sell-out shows that Honey still resonates today. We’re back in a world where government rhetoric is often at odds with the harsh reality of poverty, and women struggle to care for the vulnerable without proper material support.

But Honey speaks to a wider constituency than even the many who are directly affected by precarity. By placing women centre stage, it asserts both their commonality and diversity. Their commonality, because they are the sex that can reproduce — a fundamental fact that disrupts both Helen’s life and Jo’s, and which even today, in an era of freely available birth control and legal abortions, affects women on a daily basis. But as Shelagh shows, this doesn’t mean they can be reduced to their bodies, “cervix havers” or “chestfeeders”. They have diverse ambitions and dreams, the potential to do much more than the world often allows them by virtue of their sex.

Honey reminded us that those often considered marginal to political debate and artistic endeavour — working-class people, especially women and children — were the majority of the human race, and therefore worth listening to. “I write as people speak,” said Shelagh. Ten years after her death, allowing women to speak and to be heard is a struggle feminists are still waging.

Selina Todd is Professor of Modern History at Oxford University. She writes about working-class life, women’s lives and feminism. Her latest book is Snakes and Ladders: the Great British Social Mobility Myth, published in 2021 by Chatto.