Authors: Shelagh Delaney

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright and screenwriter

Author Works

Drama:

A Taste of Honey, pr. 1958

The Lion in Love, pr. 1960

The House That Jack Built, pb. 1977, revised pr. 1979

Don’t Worry About Matilda, pr. 1983 (radio play), pr. 1987 (staged)

Short Fiction:

Sweetly Sings the Donkey, 1963

Screenplays:

A Taste of Honey, 1961 (with Tony Richardson)

The White Bus, 1966

Charlie Bubbles, 1968

The Raging Moon, 1970

Dance with a Stranger, 1985

Teleplays:

Did Your Nanny Come from Bergen?, 1970

St. Martin’s Summer, 1974

The House That Jack Built, 1977 (series)

Find Me First, 1979

The Railway Station Man, 1992

Radio Play:

So Does the Nightingale, 1980

Biography

Shelagh Delaney is highly regarded for her ability to create plays about working-class characters and to express the difficulties of their lives in industrial northern England. She is a playwright of a particular region and social class. Delaney was born on November 25, 1939, in Salford, Lancashire, England, the daughter of Joseph and Elsie Twemlow. She remembered her father, a bus inspector, as a great storyteller and reader. Delaney’s education was erratic, with attendance at three primary schools and failure of the eleven-plus qualifying examinations for grammar school. After admission to the Broughton Secondary School and a fair record of achievement, she was transferred to the more academic grammar school. At fifteen, she took her General Certificate of Education, passing in five subjects, and at seventeen she left school. After a few minor jobs, she took a position as an assistant researcher in the photography department of a large industrial firm.{$I[AN]9810001256}{$I[A]Delaney, Shelagh}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Delaney, Shelagh}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Delaney, Shelagh}{$I[tim]1939;Delaney, Shelagh}

Her teachers at Broughton School encouraged Delaney to continue her writing. She had already begun a novel when she saw a performance of a Terence Rattigan play, which she disliked. The experience inspired her to recast her novel into dramatic form. She sent the revision to Joan Littlewood, leader of a radical London group called Theatre Workshop, who accepted it. A Taste of Honey began its initial run of a month at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. When it opened in New York, in October, 1960, it was well received and ran for 391 performances.

Delaney’s second play, The Lion in Love, attacked as verbose, without unity and focus, had only a brief London run in 1960. Afterward, Delaney turned to television and film, occasionally adapting material from her short stories. In 1961, she worked with director Tony Richardson to produce a successful, realistic film version of A Taste of Honey. The production won for her a British Film Academy award. Her 1963 collection of short stories, Sweetly Sings the Donkey, also contains a version of “The White Bus,” later filmed but never released. Her 1968 screenplay for Charlie Bubbles, reportedly based on a short story, won for her a Writers’ Guild Award. Throughout the 1970’s, most of Delaney’s work was in television, including a series, The House That Jack Built, which she adapted for an Off-Off-Broadway production in 1979. Her 1985 screenplay Dance with a Stranger was her first work based on historical characters and situations. That same year, she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She has worked as a director for Granada Television Network.

Delaney’s two earliest works, A Taste of Honey and The Lion in Love, though superficially different, share themes and devices to which she returned. Both treat working-class characters who yearn for affection and a way out of their social and economic situation. Despite the Brechtian style of the first work and the sprawling, almost circular movement of the latter, the characters in the works are quite similar. Both plays portray families whose members are essentially strangers to one another, with little or no stability in their lives.

A Taste of Honey succeeded in part because of its daring plot, which involves an interracial affair, but primarily because of strongly portrayed female characters. Characterization is also the strength of The Lion in Love. Delaney has been applauded for her realism, especially in her language and her treatment of relationships. She succeeds, nevertheless, in evoking powerful mythic situations in the midst of everyday life. When the plays appeared, critics recognized her regionalism, humor, and vivid female characters. Yet Delaney’s early critics frequently assumed that the plays should be closed, climactic, showing issues resolved and measurable growth. Neither The Lion in Love nor A Taste of Honey fulfills such expectations, although A Taste of Honeycontinues to attract and move audiences. Instead, Delaney’s world is marked by little change and circular action; most of her later works reemphasize this mood. Her characters fear and hurt too much to become vulnerable, and so they repeat self-destructive patterns and behaviors; they can experience only brief moments of consolation, followed by antagonism.

Delaney’s early work for the stage and her later television, film, and radio plays seem to center on the dreams and frustrations of women in contemporary society. Although at first mistaken as an “angry young woman,” she generally focused not on large social issues but on individuals confronting economic and social limitations and dealing with their illusions. Her radio plays of the 1980’s and her screenplay for Dance with a Stranger show her continuing these themes; the continuing popularity of her works, at least in England, where she is best known, speaks to her success. That Delaney’s characters face their difficulties with humor and wit sets her apart from many of her contemporaries.

BibliographyDelaney, Shelagh. “How Imagination Retraced a Murder.” The New York Times, August 4, 1985, p. B15. Delaney discusses how she came to write the screenplay for the first nonfiction drama she wrote, Dance with a Stranger. Relates briefly the facts of the life of the protagonist, Ruth Ellis, then argues for the validity of Delaney’s imaginative reconstruction of the character, criticized by people who knew Ellis.Gillett, Eric. “Regional Realism: Shelagh Delaney, Alun Owen, Keith Waterhouse, and Willis Hall.” In Experimental Drama, edited by W. A. Armstrong. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1963. Compares Delaney and three other “regional” playwrights, discussing their authentic handling of characterization and dialogue. Notes the weakness in plotting, but general improvement in characterization, in Delaney’s second play.Kitchin, Laurence. Mid-Century Drama. 2d ed. London: Faber & Faber, 1969. A brief interview with Delaney, suggesting elements that went into her style in A Taste of Honey: a storytelling tradition from her father, a welfare state upbringing that left her disenchanted with socialism, and popular cinema.Oberg, Arthur K. “A Taste of Honey and the Popular Play.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 7 (Summer, 1966): 160-167. Studies Delaney’s first play as a product of collaboration between the playwright and the radical Theatre Workshop. Delaney’s stylistic borrowings from music-hall theater and Victorian melodrama create much of the vitality of the play, but Oberg believes that they ultimately inhibit the play’s aspiration to rise to serious drama.Taylor, John Russell. The Angry Theatre: New British Drama. Rev. ed. New York: Hill & Wang, 1969. Presents the first careful analysis of the original script of A Taste of Honey and its adaptation by the Theatre Workshop and further contrasts several major features of the play with the film version, done in a realistic mode, in 1961. Major changes in production included tightening of dialogue, revision of the roles of two of the male characters, and a significant change in the play’s ending. Taylor continues with an examination of The Lion in Love, the short-story collection Sweetly Sings the Donkey, and the screenplay for Charlie Bubbles.Wellwarth, G. E. The Theatre of Protest and Paradox. Rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1971. Links Delaney’s first play, in its examination of the problems of loneliness and failed communication, to Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov. Points out that the asides to the audience in A Taste of Honey conceal the characters’ ability to communicate to the audience but not with one another.
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