A Taste of Honey

Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey in the 1950s when she was just 18 years old — a fact which makes its mature view of motherhood, class and tolerance even more impressive. It tells the story of a working-class teenager, Jo, and her selfish single mother, Helen. The two move often and they argue, so Jo seeks comfort in the arms of her boyfriend, a black sailor. But he leaves her when she falls pregnant, and is replaced by Jo’s gay friend Geof. The title is a reference to a Biblical quote: “I did but taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in mine hand, and, lo, I must die.” Everyone deserves a small amount of happiness — but it will not last, the play concludes.


There are no two ways about it: Helen is a terrible mother to Jo. But the two love each other, and raising a child alone in the 1950s was no easy task. Later, Jo must come to terms with the fact that she, too, faces the same fate. Will she learn from her own mother’s mistakes?


“Whatever else she might be, she isn’t prejudiced against colour,” Jo reassures her boyfriend when he worries about Helen’s reaction to his race. But when she later admits that her child will be mixed-race, Helen is appalled. Have attitudes improved?


Homosexuality was illegal in 1950s, and yet Geof is one of the play’s most sympathetic characters — it is clear that he loves Jo dearly, and wants to help her raise her child. But, like Jo’s boyfriend, he faces abuse from Helen and is eventually forced to leave Jo alone.


Jo is desperately lonely. She has been abandoned in the evenings so many times by Helen that she is still afraid of the dark. She reaches out for connections from other people — but in the final scene, she is alone once more, waiting for the arrival of her baby.


“Usually North Country people are shown as gormless, whereas in actual fact, they are very alive and cynical,” said Delaney. This is certainly true of Jo and Helen, whose witty insults sparkle with character. Does society still judge working class people too harshly?