'Along with this letter comes a play'
Shelagh Delaney takes the plunge
Today’s letter, taken from More Letters of Note, comes to you on what would have been Shelagh Delaney’s 83rd birthday. The original handwritten document can be seen in full at the website of the British Library, and the original script that accompanied this letter can be seen here.
Born in Salford in 1938, Shelagh Delaney was just 18 years old and new to the world of theatre when she began to write A Taste of Honey, the play for which she is now widely known. In the blink of an eye she was the talk of the industry: by 1958, the play had been produced by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop and was winning over critics and audiences alike; the next year, it opened in the West End to similarly positive reviews. Undeterred by this instant fame, Delaney then adapted her debut for the big screen with aplomb—the resulting film premiered in 1961 and went on to win numerous awards, with Delaney still in her early twenties. All told, a remarkable entrance, made possible thanks to a sterling play and this plucky letter of introduction from Delaney to Littlewood, sent just two weeks after loading her first sheet of paper into a borrowed typewriter.
Dear Miss Littlewood,
Along with this letter comes a play – the first I have written – and I wondered if you would read it through and send it back to me – because no matter what sort of theatrical atrocity it might be, it isn’t valueless so far as I’m concerned.
A fortnight ago I didn’t know the theatre existed, but a young man, anxious to improve my mind, took me along to the Opera House in Manchester & I came away after the performance having suddenly realised that at last, after nineteen years of life, I had discovered something that meant more to me than myself. I sat down on reaching home & thought – the following day I bought a packet of paper & borrowed an unbelievable typewriter which I still have great difficulty in using. I set to and produced this little epic – don’t ask me why – I’m quite unqualified for anything like this. But at least I finished the play and if, from among the markings out, the typing errors and the spelling mistakes you can gather a little sense from what I have written – or a little nonsense – I should be extremely grateful for your criticism – though I hate criticism of any kind.
I want to write for the theatre – but I know so very little about the theatre. I know nothing. I have nothing – only a willingness to learn – and intelligence.
At the moment I seem to be caught between a sort of dissatisfaction with myself & everything I’m doing and an enraptured frustration at the thought of what I am going to do – please can you help me? I don’t really know who you are or what you do – I just caught sight of your name in the West Ham magistrates court proceedings – but please help me – if you think I’m worth helping – I’m willing enough to help myself.
The “magistrates court proceedings” in Delaney’s final paragraph refer to the legal tussles between theatre companies and Lord Chamberlain's Office that persisted until theatre censorship was finally abolished with the Theatres Act 1968.