Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.
The Welkin – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on The Welkin include more on symbols in the sky, the life of the wife of a poet, and the apt sound of the butter churn.
We talked in the episode about the meaning of the title of the play, and Lucy explained that the welkin is a term for the highest part of the sky or of heaven. It is from the Old English word ‘wolcen” meaning cloud or sky. We talked about the metaphoric meanings associated with the sky, including of course as the location of heaven, and of the stars or comets to which mankind has long attributed some form of influence over its fate or fortunes. One of the matrons on the jury believing that Sally’s chance of avoiding hanging is all but hopeless suggests that she “must look to the welkin, there’s no earthly help for her now.”
Why do we look to the sky as a source of supernatural power? Perhaps in a practical sense, simply because it is the source of the weather on which our material existence depends. Kitty neatly expresses this more utilitarian vision of the sky: “I never look up at the sky. Not unless I have washing on the line.”
But others are convinced that the mysterious appearance of a comet is a portent of change in their earthly destinies. Mary relays how her grandmother saw an angel the last time that the comet visited and then gave birth to a boy with two thumbs. For Sally, when she looked to the sky and prayed for escape from the tyranny of her husband and her limited domestic life, the comet heralded the arrival of Thomas McKay and her precipitous passion.
The epigraph that prefaces the published text of the play is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “When beggars die there are no comets seen” . It is the first part of Calpurnia’s warning to Caesar that the comet recently seen in Rome may prefigure the “death of princes”. In The Welkin I think that the epigraph stands less for the significance of the astronomical symbol than for the point that ordinary people’s deaths, or lives, are arbitrarily less often noted society, or featured in art, as they are in fact in this play.
The wife of a poet
One of the great strengths of Lucy’s play is the array of distinctive individual characters who make up the jury of matrons. One of these is Ann, without an ‘e’, who introduces herself as follows:
My name is Ann Lavender, without an E. I was christened with one but my husband felt me more elegant without it. We moved here more recently to raise our four daughters in peasant honesty. William is a poet and had a desire to share the housework equally and take many long solitary walks. He has been very successful at the latter.
I was fascinated to learn from Lucy that Ann is based in part on Sara Coleridge, whose life with the romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was one of long-suffering, middle-class poverty. She was born, Sarah Fricker, but like Ann, dropped the ‘H’ from her name to please her husband. Through the forty years of their marriage, she carried the burden of child care and domestic survival, Coleridge spending most of his time absent from the family home, absorbed by his literary contemplation, drug addiction and various infatuations with other women.
Ann is a character with a sharp and enquiring intelligence. She raises incisive questions throughout the judicial process, is curious about the experiences of her fellow jurors, and is particularly stirred when she tries to elicit from Sally her reasons for participating in killing the little girl. In another age she, like Sarah Fricker, may have had the chance of a more independent life.
The butter churn
When we are first introduced to the midwife, Lizzie Luke, we are also introduced to her daughter, Katy, who she instructs to carry on churning the butter. Churning butter was a laborious physical task. The thumping sound of the plunger in the churn continues as the background sound track to the empanelling scene that follows, where the jury matrons are introduced. The churn is a reminder of the continuous labour of these working women, and perhaps also a metaphor for the specific labour of birth, which is the central thesis of the play.
Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.
Garry Essendine is a star of the London stage with an ego and celebrity lifestyle to match. But as he passes forty his excesses threaten to bring down the entire structure of his professional and personal life. Essendine is the thinly disguised alter-ego of playwright and performer Noel Coward, whose tussle with his own fame is the subject of his classic 3-act, 4-door farce Present Laughter. First performed in 1942 with Coward himself as the lead, the play has since attracted a glittering list of stars who could not resist the flamboyant turn, including most recently Andrew Scott in an Olivier award-winning performance at the Old Vic in 2019. Joining me to reexamine Coward’s ‘light comedy’ in the 21st century is theatrical agent and Coward aficionado, Alan Brodie.
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