Monday, January 21, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Thieves of Love" (on Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey)

thieves of love
by Douglas Messerli
Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey (New York: Grove Press, 1959)
Superficially, Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play, A Taste of Honey, appears to be one with the so-called “kitchen sink” works such as the plays of John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, works that portrayed the poverty-stricken surroundings of their characters upon the British stage. Moreover, Delaney came to be associated with the lower, middle-class writers of the so-called “Angry Young Men” of the 1950s.

      Most of this play, indeed, occurs in a cold-water flat in poor area of Manchester, both of the work’s major characters, Jo and her mother, Helen suffering from flu and colds. There is much made of tea-making and the few sweets brought into the flat, surrounded by—as Jo describes it late it the play—a river the color of lead and gangs of filthy children:
                           There’s a little boy there and his hair, honestly, it’s
                           walking away. And his ears. Oh! He’s a real
                           mess! He never goes to school. He just sits on
                           that front doorstep all day. I think he’s a bit

     The same might be said for Jo herself, who as the play begins, announces to her mother that she is dropping out of school again, and who, throughout much of the play, passively sits on the couch or takes hot baths. The first paragraph of the script describes Helen as “a semi-whore,” who has just rented the “comfortless flat” without even consulting with her daughter. Throughout much of the play Helen swigs down whiskey. And Jo, herself, describes their quarters as a “pigsty.” It is almost as if Delaney has set up the perfect situation for the drunken declarations and bitter recriminations of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

      What a wonderful surprise, accordingly, to discover a play that is less a social commentary than a dialogic comedy of survival. Again, what might appear to be vicious anger is, just below the surface, a witty dual between two individuals who desperately desire but are unable to express their love. Both women scold and spar with one another endlessly, disclaiming any concern for each other:
 helen: ….Pass me that bottle—it’s in the carrier.
 jo: Why should I run round after you? [Takes whisky
           bottle from bag.]
 helen: Children owe their parents these little attentions.
 jo: I don’t owe you a thing.

So too, does Helen feel, evidently, little responsibility for her daughter, caring little whether she comes or goes, has food to eat or clothes upon her back. At times she even vaguely threatens violence, usually in memory of her own mother’s behavior. On the surface it appears that a storm is brewing.

      Yet we soon discover that it is all bluff. I have seen only the film version of this play, which seemed to take the characters’ bickering far too seriously. I would direct it as the kind of British dance hall acting that Helen imitates. It is all an act, a way for the two to protect themselves from the surrounding terrors. Both women are, in fact, too passive to actually penetrate each other’s or anyone else’s defenses. And neither is truly aggressive enough to make anything of their lives, let alone affect others.

       You might describe both Helen and Jo as a pair of thieves, each stealing tiny bits of delight, as if—as the title suggests—occasionally dipping into a honeypot. In the very first scene, Jo is determined to replant her flower bulbs, stolen from a park: “The gardener had just planted about two hundred. I didn’t think he’d miss half a dozen.” Later in the play she reads a magazine, borrowed from a neighbor.

      Helen, in turn, “steals” men, having had what appears to have been a one night stand with Jo’s father before marrying her first husband. She has had several “long-time” lovers since, one of whom the young Jo had been overly fond of.

       I thought he was the only man I’d ever love in my
       life and then he ran off with that landlady’s daughter.

The highpoint of the play for Helen is a marriage proposal from her current boyfriend, Peter, after which Jo temporarily steals his billfold, flirtingly requiring him to reveal the names and relationships of the women in its contents.

      For such a passive woman, it is almost amazing that Jo discovers real, if transitory, love with a black sailor. Although he vows his devotion, he too steals from her, since he is about to ship out, and she is left unmarried, expecting his child. Yet even here, the play does not turn tragic, as she finds—what might again metaphorically be described as stealing—another man’s devotion, Geoffrey, a homosexual art student who is only too ready to take on the job as comforter and wet-nurse. For the first time in the play, Geoffrey’s presence brings some order to the flat, along with real food and assurances that sound almost like love.

      Even this brief “taste of honey” is quickly interrupted  with the return of Helen, whose husband has apparently left her—or she him, as she seems determined to help her grandchild into the world. Behind Jo’s back she dismisses the devoted Geoffrey, but upon Jo’s revelation that the child will be Black, abandons the house for the local bar just as Jo bends in the pain of her first contractions. Yet even the possible bleakness of this scene, combined with the racist epithets with which Helen has just let loose, leaves us feeling less depressed than sadly bemused. We are assured that Helen will return, that the baby will not be “drowned” or given away, but will raised in the squalor of their mostly-empty lives. For these women, taking on the most unconventional and disreputable behavior of the day—open sexuality, prostitution, miscegenation, homosexuality—are hardy survivors who through their dark comedic visions will always find, from time to time, a sweet they might consume.

Los Angeles, January 21, 2013

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