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.


-reasonbomb 2016-02-25 8:11:28

I find your argument fascinating, and a very interesting point, but I think while most of it is right on the money that it lacks a bit of nuance. The idea that “self-limiting behaviors results” in the things you list is ignoring a grander scheme of social commentary in this delightful drama. I think a strong point could be made that the ideal happy ending can’t be found not because the characters don’t say anything, but because in some ways when they do nothing changes and also because of who they are.

Geoff is a gay man in the 1960s who has previously been kicked out by a landlady because of his sexuality. He’s uncertain of who he is versus who society wants him to be when he’s faced very real consequences of both. In many versions there is an overtone that Helen very clearly knows he’s gay, and worse he’s taken over a role she knows she abandoned with her daughter. But Geoff can’t fight…all Helen would have to do is go to the police and Geoff could be jailed, castrated physically, or chemically castrated. There’s a greater social context there.

With Helen she’s a complex character and we never quite find out enough about her. IYou’re right that it is curious that she’d be so willing to pay for Jo’s schooling, but I think you miss the point though. 1)We need to understand the cost of art school as compared to modern times in order to see how reasonable she’s being 2) You have to consider the difference too between what a parent will do or can do for their children versus what is continuous for a living situation. The tone of Helen’s offer is almost always one of her few truly motherly moments, as though she wants Jo to be more than she is. The assumption seems more to be that she would try and talk to Peter for money, or some such for Jo, but by then it’s too late. She was a mother soon enough, consistently enough, or anything to really push Jo

I don’t think the play is so much about learned helplessness or limitation as it is about the struggle of navigating day-to-day life when it is a roller coaster. The characers can’t admit their own needs, because at varying points they know they socially, culturally, interpersonal those needs won’t be met for long or can’t be. The scene where Geoff attempts to get Jo to marry him seems to embody that. He wants certainty, and to conform so at least with Jo A love need can be met, while sexual/romantic needs cannot. Then while we never know if Jimmy returns, there is this strong tone of Jo wanting happiness for a moment to have those needs met despite knowing he may never come back. For me that’s the strongest moment in the play because it’s so…desperate. In a way both Geoff and Jo know in 1960s england their needs for love or for a black sailor will most likely not be met even though they try.

Still in their own way as time goes on they do get better about communicating and navigating their needs, but Helen ruins that. A mix of bigotry and jealousy drives Helen to push Geoff out, and to simply say he didn’t fight back ignores that they both saw each other as Jo’s caretaker. I think Geoff saw his role in Jo’s life as that of nurturer, and Helen was trampling over him to take over that role. Despite her flaws she was a mother, and he was defeated and deflated. If he couldn’t care for Jo then he didn’t know what his place was, but that’s not the final straw. I think the final straw is his watching the affect the conflict had on Jo. He knows she’ll always want and need her mother. So he chooses to walk away rather than have Jo constantly be pulled between the two people she does love. Besides not being able to fight back because of her personality and the law being on her side he was far more concerned with Jo’s emotional state than Helen. His need to care for her and be there can’t be met, but in a way he meets that need by sacrificing his relationship with Jo to give her peace with her mother.

Helen’s return signifies this constant pull of needs by her leaving at the shock that the baby may be black. Helen’s attitude is that Jo needs her, and has to need her once Geoff is gone. That means Helen’s own needs may get fulfilled somewhere other than Peter. However the possibility of a child who looks black shocks and frightens her. When she goes out for a drink it’s an admission that her previous, sort of, weird quasi-optimism about being back in Jo’s life was based on an ideal. That ideal could not be fullfilled, and potentially if Peter or any man found out she had a black grandchild they’d want little to do with her. Helen’s whole character is based on attempts of exchanging needs with utter irresponsibility, and the self-limiting behavior you speak of may be her knowing the results of her actions as she makes them. She was married to a older “puritan” then left him for other men, got involed with Jo’s supposedly slow father, then got involved with Peter who is a drunken younger alcoholic. She goes from needing sex to needing kindness(Jo’s father) to Peter who she loves to Jo who she loves but doesn’t fullfill her other needs, etc. It’s a constant tug of war.

Every character seems to be compensating for some need that can’t be met, or a need they can’t see being met. That’s part of what makes it so melancholy.

Would love to hear your response

    -Tony Crisp 2016-03-01 10:44:22

    Hi – Thanks for taking so much time writing about the feature. It was something I did for a course I was taking.

    You end by saying, “Every character seems to be compensating for some need that can’t be met, or a need they can’t see being met. That’s part of what makes it so melancholy.”

    But that is the stand of the victim, one I know so well having lived it for years. The victim attitude is that it all happened to me and I am powerless to change it. It is when someone will not take responsibility for their own thoughts and feelings.

    I suffered depression for years and I heard that it is not treatable so take these tablets. But the pain of it drove me to try anything – which I did until I found things that worked.

    Also what about a black slave who taught himself to read and slowly became a genius. He didn’t blame his innate tendencies but changed them. See http://dreamhawk.com/interesting-people/from-black-slave-to-genius-superminds-12/

    I was kicked out of school early without a full education, but gradually I learned to write and climb. It wasn’t easy, no process of growth is. I too suffered homosexual tendencies, but I met the pain of change and they disappeared – not through repression but through daring to dig beneath the surface. Hear a recording of a well known recording artist (Tom ***) a homosexual who became straight through facing his unconscious tendencies. RECORDING.

    Or this girl who had an awful situation she was born in break through https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNZVV4Ciccg

    Starting at the Bottom – Lessons given by rock stars

    Lesson 1: Everybody Starts at the Bottom – These mega rock stars had it hard in the beginning.
    Lesson 2: Learn to Defeat Self-Doubt – They felt unqualified to play on the same level as other musicians and had fears of failure.
    Lesson 3: Sacrifice Is Required to Succeed – Staying up all night playing in clubs to make a few bucks, then getting up early to devote yourself to whatever your goal is … that’s sacrifice. That’s what it takes to do anything of importance.
    Lesson 4: Improvement Is a Never-Ending Process – If you want to be good at something, you have to commit yourself to constant growth. Growth means facing change.
    Success isn’t for a chosen few. It’s for those stubborn souls who wholly devote themselves to it and refuse to let go.

    Are you held in a situation you find hard to change?


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