Critical Context

Although Patrick White was considered Australia’s foremost novelist—he won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature—he was also an accomplished playwright who began writing plays in the early 1930’s. Although none of his early dramatic works (drawing-room comedy, sketches, naturalistic plays) has survived, they do attest White’s early interest in the theater. His novels reveal his gift for poetic dramatic dialogue. Written in 1946-1947, though not produced until 1961, The Ham Funeral marked a new direction for Australian drama when it was first produced (after having been rejected by the Elizabethan Theatre Trust and the Board of Governors of the Adelaide Festival) by the Adelaide University Theatre Guild.

White had new things to say in Australian drama, and naturalistic theater, then in vogue, was not an appropriate medium for him. Instead, he turned to expressionism and symbolism, which he also used in the three plays that he wrote and produced after The Ham Funeral: The Season at Sarsaparilla (pr. 1962), A Cheery Soul (pr. 1963), and Night on Bald Mountain (pr. 1963). In fact, the four plays, which were collectively published as Four Plays in 1965, are very much of a piece in technique and content. Their themes are consonant with the themes of his novels.

Though expressionism and symbolic sets were new to Australian theater, White’s work does derive from an established tradition in Western drama. Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg have been identified as influential, though White would also have been knowledgeable about the experimental efforts of W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, which derive from the work of Bertolt Brecht. (The direct address to the audience in the prologue is blatantly Brechtian.) It is also possible that Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944, pb. 1945) was also a source; in that play Tom, also an autobiographical poet/narrator, addresses the audience, which watches a “memory play” enacted on a set similar to the one used in The Ham Funeral.

Regardless of its sources, The Ham Funeral did change the direction of Australian drama and established White’s distinctive fusion of content and form. Not only were the other three early plays written in the same vein, but White’s later play Signal Driver (pr. 1982, pb. 1983) closely resembles his earlier work.