Patrick White was a visionary. He wrote The Ham Funeral in 1947, inspired by a conversation with William Dobell about how he’d come to paint his work ‘The Dead Landlord’. In a 1962 article by William Latimer, White is quoted as saying:
“I was the only lodger in a house in Ebury Street, London. As I sat in my empty room I began to play with Dobell’s anecdote: of how his landlord had died, how the landlady had taken down her hair, announcing there would be a ham funeral and that he must go to fetch the relatives. Out of these original facts and my own self-searching and experience as a young man in the house in Ebury Street the play Ham Funeral developed.”
What is perhaps most startling about The Ham Funeral is that it wasn’t written in an attempt to play with the absurdism of Beckett or Ionesco: it actually predates both these writers’ first published plays by years. So why don’t we talk about Patrick White as the pioneer of absurdism? How does his first play come to be neglected and overlooked? Perhaps because it is unabashedly Australian and because it took almost 15 years for it to get its first production. By the time it was finally produced, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was almost a decade old.
In The Ham Funeral, White plays with theatrical convention. His young narrator talks directly to the audience about the theatre they are witnessing, making comment on himself, on writing and on the stage business, as well as participating in it all.
YOUNG MAN: It could be that I was born in Birmingham … or Brooklyn … or Murwillumbah. What is important is that, thanks to a succession of meat pies (the gristle-and-gravy, cardboard kind) and many cups of pink tea, I am alive! Therefore … and this is the rather painful point … I must go in soon and take part in the play, which, as usual, is a piece about eels. As I am also a poet … though, to be perfectly honest, I have not yet found out for sure … my dilemma in the play is how to take part in the conflict of eels, and survive at the same time … becoming a kind of Roman candle … fizzing for ever in the dark. (Somewhat stern) Probably quite a number of you are wondering by now whether this is your kind of play. I’m sorry to have to announce the management won’t refund any money. You must simply sit it out, and see whether you can’t recognize some of the forms that will squirm before you in this mad, muddy mess of eels.
White’s writing is absolutely gorgeous. The landlady (aptly named Mrs Lusty) is described as “a large woman in the dangerous forties, ripe and bursting”. She and her husband, the landlord, are both fleshy and coarse, fighting to the death, locked away in their basement room. In a scene where she invites the young man down to the basement to join them for bread and dripping, the landlord finally speaks his mind and the young man is a voyeur, captivated by the splitting open of the flesh.
LANDLORD: Listen to the tap drip in the sink. Listen to its words. Soft and pitiful. We promise ourselves we’ll change the washer. But we don’t.
YOUNG MAN: Is this a tragedy? Or is it two fat people in a basement, turning on each other?
LANDLADY: But it’s life I’m after, Will. That’s why I can’t stick all this. That’s why the old days are still glossy as a postcard.
LANDLORD: (Shifting his thighs, contemptuously) Life!
Most of the play is the strange dance between the landlady and the young man, a dance that becomes horribly sexual and damaging before it finishes, but there are also strange other characters. Like the four relatives who all look the same and speak a chorus of remembering or the two ladies, rummaging through the bins outside a speaking house (yes, the house speaks). The bag ladies offer several chuckles and then one whispers to the young man that they are “the knockabout girls of the piece”.
In this way, White keeps winking to the audience, letting us know that he’s aware of the tropes as he plays with them. He turned theatrical devices on their heads and created something quite new and extraordinary. It’s just a shame it wasn’t recognised as the ground breaking play it undoubtedly was.
Published in Patrick White Collected Plays Volume I.
Publisher: Currency Press
Cast: 6M, 4F