No related posts.
A Taste of Honey – Does the play represent more than a dramatisation of the cycle of deprivation?
Texts Used: A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney.
If I had to give a title to my view of the play, it would be ‘Windows of Opportunity and Despair’. I say this because the five characters in the play express quite a narrow range of social, economic and personal responses to opportunity. The opportunities that do arise for any of the characters are usually taken into some form of despair. Nevertheless the play appears to be more than a dramatisation of deprivation. It could equally as well be seen as expressing the pitfalls of inadequate communication, or unacknowledged dependence. It dramatises the many dimensions of experience of the two main characters, and demonstrates how they constantly limit and undermine each other.
The aspects I will argue are therefore connected with how the characters limit themselves, communicate badly, and continue their deprivation.
In the opening line of the play, Helen says, “Well! This is the Place.” This, along with Jo’s reply, “And I don’t like it.”(1) spell out a present and past situation existing between them. It tells us there has been no communication about the place in which they are both going to live. Jo has obviously never seen it before, and has been given no choice. Helen goes on to clarify even further that her own choices are made without any mutual agreement between herself and her daughter. She says, “When I find somewhere for us to live I have to consider something far more important than your feelings … the rent. It’s all I can afford.”(2)
This short and sharp exchange also explains the resentment Jo feels toward her mother. Having been given no choice, having been left out of any ability to help find a decent place to live, she has no feelings of participation or wanting to make anything of the flat. But there is another factor too. Helen says the flat is all she can afford, yet soon afterwards, when she sees some of Jo’s drawings she suggests Jo should go to a “proper art school” and says, “I’ll pay. You’re not stupid. You’ll soon learn.”(3) So we must assume Helen has obscure or unstated reasons for wanting them both to live in such a decrepit flat.
Another aspect of the interchange is that it depicts Helen as a character who treats her daughter as someone she doesn’t really want in her life. There are exceptions to this, but it is a prevailing attitude. It is particularly illustrated when Helen goes on her honeymoon. Jo pointedly expresses her need to be cared for, or perhaps her desire to be wanted and included in her mother’s life when she says to Peter, “…. What are you going to do about me Peter? The snotty nosed daughter? Don’t you think I’m a bit young to be left like this on my own while you flit off with my old woman?”(4) Helen’s response is, “We can’t take her with us. We will be, if you’ll not take exception to the phrase, on our honeymoon.”(5)
This exclusive behaviour is then continued by not including Jo in her marriage ceremony. There is no attempt at communication about Jo’s welfare or needs at this time, and Helen leaves for her wedding with the words, “I’ll be seeing you. Hey! If he doesn’t show up I’ll be back.”(6) In fact Helen doesn’t come back for months, leaving Jo to her own devices to survive.
The interactions already quoted highlight something else that, although a quiet theme in the drama, nevertheless remains constantly in the background. The characters all have a tendency to treat each other as if they have no personal or social links. Our social existence arises from an obvious web of interconnections. Few of us have made our own shoes, woven the material for our clothes, worked at generating the power for the light and heat in our houses, or grown our own food. Many or most of the advantages in our life come to us out of our relationship either with other individuals, or from the collective effort of groups of people. Obviously many of the ills arise in the same way, but in the play there is a great one-sidedness toward alienation from other individuals or ‘society’ in such forms as work or education. Instead there is a constant reiteration of the attitude of not needing each other. This has already been show in the relationship between Jo and Helen, but is particularly dramatised in other parts of the play.
For instance, although pregnant, Jo actually manages to remain in the flat, but this is with the help of Geof. When Geof arrives, Jo has to almost beg him to stay with such phrases as, “Please stay Geoff, I’ll get those sheets and blankets.”(7) Despite being homeless, Geoff resists such offers, finding it very difficult to admit his own need, and is not explicit about what he has to offer.
Later in the play, when Helen has left Peter because of his affair with another woman, she does not admit her feelings for her husband, but instead, when Jo says, “I think you’re still in love with him.” responds by saying, “In love? Me? … You must be mad.”(8)
Although Geof is an extreme characterisation of not being able to stand up for what he wants or needs – allowing himself to be thrown out of the flat for instance – Helen and Jo also exhibit the same tendency. Helen does this by not fighting for her marriage, which although difficult has a lot of advantages, and such advantages could have been shared with her daughter and the coming baby. Jo does it by not expressing herself unequivocally when her mother is obviously going to ‘leave her behind’ when she gets married. This ambiguity in relationship seems to be another sign of failing to recognise the social and personal web one is a part of. The failure leads to feelings of powerlessness and personal inadequacy. Geof has in fact developed a working and caring relationship with Jo, and she with him. He fails to see the place he fills in her life, so allows himself to be levered out of the house by Helen.
This alienation that is partly self-inflicted and partly inflicted by others, reaches its height in the scene in which Helen, talking about the food Geof has brought in to the house, says, “You can bloody well take it with you, we don’t want it.” The following actions then dramatise the situation more explicitly:-
[GOEFFREY empties food from his pack on to the table while HELEN thrusts it back. HELEN finally throws the whole thing, pack and all, on the floor.](9)
These self-limiting behaviours in the play can be seen to result in lack of, or loss of, ongoing steady relationships, a reasonable place to live, better economic state, and a system of mutual support between individuals. As an extreme opposite we have what has been called the ‘old boys network’ in which individuals take great pains to give and receive support. The lack of self-revealing or explicit dialogue about needs, about dependence and what each person can offer, between the characters is also part of the system of defeat they are all running. Perhaps such systems were put into place originally by feelings that one would not be heard even if needs were stated. In the situations dramatised however, the system of retreat, denial, lack of explicit communication, along with its failure to recognise the social web and ones part in it, all contribute to present misery. The impoverished situation is as much a result of such failures, as it is a cause. Helen and Jo could mutually support each other if they stopped in the middle of their person-to-person battle and wondered what they wanted from each other. Geof could have stood his ground. Perhaps as a character he might not have done this through forcefulness. He could have recognised his value to Jo however, and stood his ground for her sake. But I use thes remarks as examples – they did not happen.
If there is such a thing as a ‘cycle of deprivation’, I don’t think the play dramatises this in particular. It seems more, from what has been looked at, to deal with self-perpetuating systems of failure in personal and social relationships – including poor communication and blindness to the social web, leading to alienation.
Delaney, Shelagh. A Taste of Honey. Published by Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1992 (originally 1959.) ISBN: 0413316807
(1) Page 7.
(2) Page 7.
(3) Page 15.
(4) Page 34.
(5) Page 35.
(6) Page 45.
(7) Page 48.
(8) Page 80.
(9) Page 84.