For the past ten years I have been studying Britain in the 1950s, so when a friend suggested that we'd see A Taste of Honey at The National Theatre in London, it sounded like a perfect choice
A Taste of Honey is the first play by the British dramatist Shelagh Delaney, written when she was only 18 year old. It was produced in 1958 in a small fringe theatre in London and a year later moved to the West End. It tells the story of an awkward seventeen year old working class girl, and her sexy single mother.
In the openning scene the two move into a shabby flat in Salford in North West England. Soon afterwards the mother leaves the daughter alone in the flat and goes off with a younger man. The daughter falls in love with a black sailor who returns to sea and leaves her pregnant on her own. Out of nowhere appears a gay art student and he takes care of the girl, the play ends when the mother moves back into the flat and throws the young man out.
If the above reads like a jumble of stereotypes and clichés it is no accident, it seems that unlike some good wines A Taste of Honey has not aged well.
But in 1958 at the height of British conservatism a play by a young woman, a mere teen-ager herself was by itself an exception. Moreover, she bravely explored issues that were highly explosive: teen pregnancy, interracial love affair, homosexuality, and drinking.
It is unclear whether the black sailor was a West Indian or arrived to Britain from one of its former colonies in Africa. My research of the period found that for white English people, at that time, they were all black strangers. The American sociologist, Joel S. Kahn, recorded his impressions when he first arrived in London in the early 1960s from America: "I can still remember how shocked I was to find overtly primitivist representations of Blacks in British popular culture, representations that were unthinkable in polite American society of that time. Advertisements for tropical fruit drinks shown in cinemas, for example, depicted happy African natives with prominent lips cavorting through the jungle; the appearance of blacks on the football pitch was inevitably accompanied by chants about jungles and bananas by baying crowds of spectators making ape-like sounds — either of which would have led to riots in contemporary American cities.״
Homosexuality too was a highly sensitive topic; in the 1950s after several decades of tolerance, homosexuals once again suffered from a new wave of discrimination and criminal prosecution. In the beginning of the decade, the police took on the responsibility of fighting homosexuality with new enthusiasm as several prominent men were charged with various homosexual offences and were put on trial. The courtroom discourse emphasized the stereotype of male homosexuals as decadent, corrupt, effete, and effeminate These negative labels were reinforced by popular newspapers that presented male homosexuals as painted perverts the corrupters of youth, poisoners of society and traitors. In Coming Out, Jeffrey Weeks portrays a society that, on the one hand, tries to rebuild itself on the strength of a productive family and, on the other hand, is faced with rising divorce rates, social alienation, and crime. In Weeks’ words: “With the Korean War a searing memory and McCarthyism burning like a bush fire in the United States, homosexuals emerged to the fore as scapegoats and victims of the Cold War”
Thus, in order to find a political solution to the problem, in 1954 Parliament appointed the Wolfenden Committee. Its task was to study “the law and practice relating to homosexual offences and the treatment of persons convicted of such offences by the courts.” According to Eustace Chesser, the point of the report was that a distinction must be drawn between crime and sin.
A Taste of Honey presents other social and cultural issues which were of public concern at the time: abuse in the family, issues of femininity, professional prospects (or lack of) for women, suspicion toward foreigners etc. The play even alludes to the famous British aversion toward anything spicy or foreign, especially garlic.
Yet, the text is not insightful enough to hold the interest of the audience, the plot is predictable, the dialogue is banal, and the characters are shallow and stereotypical. Their motivations remain unclear and they are not sympathetic.
If I compare A Taste of Honey to the excellent novel Small Island by Andrea Levy which describes the plight of the West Indians in Britain in the 1950s, or to the moving BBC series Call the Midwife, I find the later portrayal of the period much stronger.
Perhaps due to its topical urgency A Taste of Honey has lost its merit. So I feel that rather than seeing a mediocre play from the 1950s it is far more interesting to learn about that period from the distance of contemporary works of art in which the research provides the necessary perspective and creates exciting plots, engaging dialogues and memorable characters.