Happiness, darkness and death in A Taste of Honey (play)

There are several references to darkness and death in A Taste of Honey. Jo is afraid of the dark inside the flat although she welcomes the approach of winter, telling her boyfriend, Doesn’t it go dark early? I like winter.

She dislikes the darkness in the flat as she has never got used to being left alone at night whilst Helen goes out socialising. Even in daylight the flat itself is dark and dreary and overlooks a slaughterhouse which brings with it connotations of darkness and death.

Jo tells Helen that she had a dream about her the previous night. In the dream Helen’s body was found buried under a rosebush, another macabre link to the theme of death. A short while later Helen describes her bed as a coffin, Like a coffin only not half as comfortable, and does not shy away from talking about her own mortality when she says that one day she too will have to use a coffin.

Interestingly, the three men in the play are all linked to the colour black in some way. Geof always wears black shirts. His reason is that they are cheap, Good clothes cost money, he reminds Jo when she tells him that his black shirts make him look like a spiv. Peter wears a black patch which gives him a look rather like a pirate, perhaps reflecting his roguish ways.

Jo’s boyfriend is black and he refers to himself as Othello, a black army general from the play by William Shakespeare. This is a reflection of the interracial relationship between Jo and her boyfriend. Othello marries Desdemona who, like Jo, was also white.

During the play, blackness is not always seen as a negative thing. Jo’s boyfriend may leave her but he at least stays with her when she is alone at Christmas.

Geof may be recognisable by his black shirts but he is a force for good in Jo’s life and although Jo hates the dark inside buildings this is only when she is left alone in them. She can still appreciate the beauty of a dark winter’s night.

The theme of happiness forms a contrast to the references to death and also links with the title of the play. A Taste of Honey is a biblical reference to the First Book of Samuel, Chapter 14, Verse 43 where Saul says to Jonathan, I did but taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in mine hand, and, lo, I must die.

This is a reflection of the belief that everyone is entitled to their own taste of honey or their own piece of happiness, however small. Several characters enjoy their own small taste of honey during the course of the play and not all of them suffer because of this, something which the biblical reference suggests many people can expect to do (and, lo, I must die.)

When he stays with her at Christmas, Jo’s boyfriend offers her a small taste of happiness. She is left pregnant because of this but this does not mean she will have to suffer.

Indeed, when she is left singing a nursery rhyme at the end of the play there is a suggestion that she has come to terms with her impending motherhood. There is also the possibility of Helen staying with Jo and facing up to her own responsibilities as a mother. Helen and Peter might have had a taste of happiness together but neither one seems to particularly suffer after their relationship breakup.

Little is known about what happens to Geof after he is forced to leave the flat and his friendship with Jo behind but he is the character it is possible to feel most sorry for. His life revolves around Jo and Helen takes that away from him when she decides to reinforce her own maternal role. Therefore, Geof could be said to be left suffering due to experiencing his own taste of honey.

How is the theme of happiness, darkness and death shown in the play?

In A Taste of Honey Shelagh Delaney shows the theme of happiness, darkness and death through:

  • Jo’s personal taste of happiness
  • the many references the characters make towards death and darkness

Jo’s personal taste of happiness

How does Shelagh Delaney show this?

Jo has not had much personal happiness in her life. At those times when she should be with her mother, such as Christmas time, she has usually been left alone to fend for herself. She is therefore pleased to be looked after by her boyfriend.

Evidence

Jo
[To her boyfriend.] Woolworth’s best! I don’t care. I’m not proud. It’s the thought that counts and I wonder what thought it was in your wicked mind that made you buy it.

Analysis

This line reveals that Jo does not care that her ring came from Woolworths. She is simply glad that her boyfriend cares enough about her to buy her something in the first place. However, she is also astute enough to realise that in buying the ring the Boy is also going to expect a certain amount of sexual intimacy from her.

The references towards death and darkness

How does Shelagh Delaney show this?

Shelagh Delaney shows this through linking the flat and its surroundings with darkness and death in the form of the slaughterhouse.

Evidence

Peter
[To Helen about the flat.] … I just want to get to hell out of this black hole of Calcutta.

Here Peter is comparing the flat to a famous dungeon in Calcutta, India. The dungeon was where British prisoners of war were held after their fort was captured by the Nawabs (the people who ruled Bengal) in 1756. His use of the word hell also shows how angry he is, how much he hates the flat and how poky and dark it is considered to be.

Question

How does Shelagh Delaney use the theme of happiness, darkness and death in her play?

Shelagh Delaney uses the theme of happiness, darkness and death:

  • by showing that everyone deserves their own small taste of honey
  • by highlighting the characters’ links with the colour black
  • by showing why Jo is afraid of the darkness inside the flat
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