The subject of The Ham Funeral is not so much a funeral as a birth, the birth of a poet. We follow the Young Man’s journey through crises of intimidation and self-doubt, from the “great, damp, crumbling house” in which he hides, out into a world of compassion and responsibilityts tone ranges widely from disgust and pity, comedy and pathos, to brutality and tenderness. It’s also an autobiographical allegory of Patrick White’s struggle to break free from the ties that bound him to his mother, the country of his birth, his friends and lovers, possessions and obligations, indeed any nets beyond which he, as an artist, was hoping to fly.
The play struggled to be produced. In 1961 the Adelaide festival Governors reported:
It is an abstract type of play which the general public will find difficult, and impossible to understand. Its complexity will limit its appeal to a few high intellectuals and even they would find it difficult to interpret the so-called psychological aspects of the play.
It’s no wonder the Festival governors struggled to pigeonhole the play: it doesn’t have a linear story-line, it doesn’t develop with a narrative logic, most of the characters do not have sustained psychological depth, and it doesn’t have a consistent style.
Neil Armfield described the world of White’s theatre as a kind of “vaudeville puppet stage… a magical circus”. The Young Man in The Ham Funeral is not only our protagonist, but also a kind of stage manager/chorus/puppeteer, even referring to the libidinous Alma Lusty as, “That poor Judy they’re bashing in the basement”.
White had what he called a “weakness for the music hall” and that ‘weakness’ is amply celebrated in the anti-naturalistic tragical farce that is The Ham Funeral. The theatre, he realized, could combine symbolist intentions with psychological depth and great visual imagination, offering him tremendous scope. This liberated him from the technical and linguistic weights of naturalism. This still feels new and innovative today and young artists, theatre makers and audiences of all ages are challenged and inspired by White’s daring in its search for a vernacular lyricism reaching beyond the prescriptively confining four walls of Australian social realism. This production will remind us of the lexicon of theatrical possibility.
Patrick White’s play is rarely produced in Australia – large, unwieldy, stylistically challenging – one of the most intriguingly original plays in Australian theatre history. Geoffrey Dutton, summing up the immediate impact of the play’s production, said: “Perhaps there was among the audience the thought that a reactionary Establishment was being beaten on its own ground, that the evening was going to be a triumph of the imagination over mediocrity. So it was.”
White’s play shows a writer constantly exploring and pushing at the limits of his form. He is highly aware of the several languages of theatre, of how visuals and performance reinforce and complicate the meanings of speech, of the metaphor of the stage. He has a novelist’s gift for character, and, crucially, a poet’s ear for the sensuous properties of language.
The meta-theatricality and excess of his dramaturgy in the past caused puzzlement or hostility, and there is criticism around its “literariness” — as if lyrical writing is somehow mutually exclusive to theatre. And yet it’s those very qualities that make this work exciting now to a generation of theatre makers who have never encountered the play and to seasoned audiences now hungry for innovation.
Producing this play for the stage deepens and extends our understanding of subversive theatrical form and tests our compositional skills as we create a theatre of philosophical tragi-comedy, grounded in physical expression. It is true that working on the most difficult material advances ones abilities and understanding of craft. Patrick White’s plays are an unwritten bench mark against which Australian theatre artists want to try their luck.
Our production of The Ham Funeral may have been written in London in 1947, anticipating the later plays of Ionesco and Beckett, but its idiom, its humour and its audacity are deeply and indefinably Australian. Positioned as it is amongst Griffin Theatre Company’s annual program, filled with new Australian writing, the revival of The Ham Funeral acts as counterpoint, mirror, avante garde to emerging writers and theatre makers.
Perhaps White’s misfortune was that he was a parochial playwright with an international sensibility. Parochial in the best sense, as Chekhov was parochial, his work was located in and responded to parochial conditions and, bringing to them a wit and insight, were anything but petty. But his plays emerged in a culture that was parochial in the worst sense, as was very clear when The Ham Funeral was rejected by the 1962 Adelaide Festival of the Arts.
This is Siren Theatre’s fourth collaboration with Griffin: a relationship committed to excellence, innovation and daring.
Siren Theatre Co. and Griffin Independent present The Ham Funeral, 17 May – 10 June.