A Taste of Honey – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on A Taste of Honey include thoughts on sins of the mother, and Shelagh Delaney’s real people.
Sins of their mothers
One of the themes that the play suggests is that it is difficult to escape repeating the patterns of behaviour we absorb from our parents. It’s a point that Helen even recognises despite her general negligence as Jo’s mother. When Jo announces that she is engaged to be married, she ironically chastises Jo for not learning from her own mistakes. We also talked in the podcast about how Jo replicates Helen’s behaviour in seeking self-worth by seducing a man and getting recklessly pregnant.
To underline the potential cycle of repetition there are echoes of Helen’s first marriage in Geof and Jo’s relationship. Helen’s husband was incapable of satisfying her sexual needs, as Geof is for Jo, and in a mirror image Geof is willing to care for another man’s child, which Helen’s husband wasn’t. The theme adduces a literary reference in Ibsen’s Ghosts when Jo tells Geof about her father, and her concerns that she has inherited his mental weakness, as Oswald inherited syphilis from his father in Ghosts. In fact it is clear that it is the sins of her mother that have the most impact on Jo.
Shelagh Delaney was determined to write about the real world that she saw around her; to show the vitality and resilience of the working-class people who were struggling to cope with the hardships of life in Salford in the 1950s: “I see the theatre as a place where you should go not only to be entertained but where the audience has contact with real people, people who are alive.” The real people we meet in A Taste of Honey are living in impoverished circumstances, are poorly educated, feckless and flawed, but are also survivors, funny, determined and independent. For a time Jo is holding down two jobs, because as Helen warns her “There’s two w’s in your future: work or want”. Tellingly it is not difficult to relate to this portrait of deprivation when we look at the current disparity in wealth and opportunity between regions of the country that is in need of “levelling up”.
Delaney’s cast of real people includes a single mother, a mixed race couple, a homosexual student, and a black maternity nurse. It is not just hindsight that affirms that Delaney was not only presenting the real world of her time but a vision of the emerging plurality of our society.
Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.
Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.
Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.
A compendium of dramatic intelligence!
Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.
Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …