A Taste of honey became a sensational theatrical success when first produced in London by Joan Littelwood’s Theatre Workshop Company. It was made into a high acclaimed film in 1961. The play is about the adolescent Jo and her relationships with those about her – her irresponsible, roving mother Helen and her mum’s newly acquired drunken husband, the black sailor who leaves her pregnant and Geoffrey the homosexual art student who moves in to help with the baby. It is also about Jo’s unshakeable optimism throughout her trials. This story of a mother and daughter relationship set in working class Manchester continues to fascinate new generations of readers and audience.
‘A Taste of Honey’ spans two acts containing two scenes. The whole play takes place around the same place, a shabby, uncomfortable flat in a lodging – house in a poor part of Manchester. At the time this play was written, people faced many difficulties coping with life, this is shown throughout the pay. Living conditions were very harsh, as people were often forced to live in bed sitters, sharing bathrooms and kitchens.
As well as the five characters – Jo, Helen, Peter, The Boy and Geoff, there is a link between their relationships.
Act 1, Scene 1 opens with Helen and Jo, moving into their new flat;
Helen: “well! This is the place.”
Jo: “And I don’t like it.”
When Helen and Jo arrive, Helen tries to be motherly towards Jo but Jo doesn’t really wants to know, as Helen hasn’t been there for her whilst she has been growing up. I don’t think Jo understands why Helen suddenly wants to be a proper mother so Jo starts an argument by saying ‘what blew you in’ as soon as Helen comes into the room.
In this play the focus is on Helen and Jo, their uneasy life, their problems and their attempts to cope with each other. To begin with Helen and Jo share the attention of the audience, but as the play progresses Jo takes over and becomes increasingly central of the action. The conversation between Jo and Helen is kind of verbal sparring, and it soon becomes clear that the relationship is one of ill – concealed hostility;
Helen: “…Pass me the bottle, it’s in the carrier…”
Jo: “Why should I run after you?”
Helen and Jo talk to one another like they have no respect for each other. Jo doesn’t show respect towards Helen because she sees no reason to; after all, what has Helen ever done for Jo? Helen also doesn’t care for Jo, as she never shows any affection to Jo at all when Jo says, “You’ve certainly never been affectionate with me.”
Jo accuses Helen of being different; she accuses her of running away from her problems. Her accusations seem justified, but she herself is not any different from Helen.
If Jo and Helen weren’t mother and daughter, I think they wouldn’t want to know each other if they had the choice.
Before Helen and Jo have unpacked, Peter the man whom Helen had left, walks in to the flat, and the three of them indulge in unfriendly repartee. Peter is surprised that Helen has a daughter, and Jo responds to his lack of interest in her by attempting to damage her relationship with Helen.
Peter leaves, and the scene ends with Helen and Jo.
Act I Scene II contains imagery of romance and happiness, as we meet Jo’s boyfriend, a black youth who is doing his national service in the navy and who’s name is not given until the end of the play. Jo and the boy are left alone in the flat, whilst Helen has gone away with Peter. The conversation between Jo and the boy reveals that their relationship is based on flirtation, rather than knowledge or real love. The boy’s sexual interest in Jo is over but his attitude is casual, and Jo’s claim that she loves him is unverified by the conversation between them. The second of this scene also involves courtship. Helen returns and tells Jo that she leaving and is going to marry Peter. When Peter comes to collect Helen, the argumentative interchanges between him and Jo are resumed. Helen and Peter finally leave, and Jo is left feeling lonely, abandoned and unwanted, willingly acquiesces to the boy’s advances.
In Act II Scene I, Jo is pregnant by her black boyfriend, and shares the flat with Geoff, a young homosexual who has taken a role of a surrogate father to the unborn child.
In 1950s homosexuality was a criminal offence. Many people were discriminated because of their sexual orientation.
Homosexuality was only made legal in 1957 a couple of years before the play was written, so people still thought homosexual people were not accepted in society.
Jo does not accentually call Geoff a homosexual but there are many signs to suggest this. Jo says; “You are like a big sister to me”, this suggests that Geoff is gay because Jo refers to him as even thought he is a male. In the play Geoff’s behavior is very feminine and maternal which would have been shocking to an audience of the 1950s.
Jo and Geoff have a kindly relationship, with humorous banter and little or no antagonism. This seems to be the happiest part of the play, on spite of their poverty and their problems. Geoff in his apprehensions for Jo’s welfare, contacts Helen, in order to reintroduce her into her daughter’s life. Helen visits Jo and is both critical and hostile towards Geoff. Helen and Peter abuse Geoff because of his sexuality, Peter especially.
Throughout the visit Peter stays abusive towards Geoff, and refers to him as; “pansy” and “fruit cake…”
In Act II, Scene II, a few months have passed, and Jo is heavily pregnant. She and Geoff continue their usual partnership, with Geoff making efforts to improve their life styles, and Jo waiting for the birth of her baby. Geoff tries to help Jo by buying her a baby doll, so that she can become familiar to how to treat the baby when it arrives, but the baby doll is white, not black, this triggers an emotional outburst from Jo. She insists that she does not want the baby, and that she will kill it when it is born, although this is the only act of hostility towards the baby, it suggests that Jo is not that much different from her mother as she might like to be.
Helen returns to the flat, having left Peter, who has apparently left her for another woman. As soon as Helen moves in with Jo and Geoff, it isn’t long before Helen drives Geoff back out into the streets. Helens caring attitude towards Jo disappears when Jo tells her that her child’s father was black. Helen leaves the flat after the shocking news, and Jo is left alone, not knowing that Geoff isn’t coming back.