The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Before the curtain rises on the stage, the Young Man delivers a prologue to the audience. Although the program notes specify London, 1919, as the setting of the play, the Young Man declares that time and place do not matter, that he could have been “born in Birmingham . . . or Brooklyn . . . or Murwillumbah.” He explains that he is “alive” and therefore must “take part in the play, which . . . is a piece about eels.” This produces his dilemma as a poet: He “must take part in the conflict of eels, and survive at the same time.” In effect, he believes that he must live and yet maintain his artistic distance from life. The Young Man also warns the audience that “a number of you are wondering by now whether this is your kind of play”; he states that he cannot give them a “message.”

When the curtain rises, the interior of a lodging house is disclosed, but only the basement is lighted. Will Lusty, the landlord, a “vast . . . swollen” man, sits immobile and silent, for the most part, listening to his wife, Alma, who is “in the dangerous forties, ripe and bursting.” Before she asks the Young Man down for tea, she voices her discontent, her hunger for life, and her vanity (she repeatedly looks at herself in the imaginary mirror). Unconsciously, she reveals a tie between her dead son, Jack, and the Young Man, for she calls the latter Jack.

During the conversation in the Young Man’s bedroom, which is connected with the basement by stairs, Alma and the Young Man reveal their antithetical values. While Alma “would like to devour the world, and keep it warm inside,” the Young Man is withdrawn, lying down with his “cold,” “dead” hands behind his head. Before they go down to tea, the Young Man asks about the tenant in the other front room, which mirrors his room, and Alma identifies her as Phyllis Pither, a “steady girl” who “most nights goes to bed with an aspirin and a cold.” The Young Man, however, senses a presence, the touch of fingers on the other side of the wall where he rests his head.

Scene 4, in the basement, foreshadows Will’s death (the Young Man describes the somber setting as a funeral). Alma is after “life,” which is, according to Will, “wherever a man’appens to be.” The Young Man, suddenly aware that there is more to Will than...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The house in which The Ham Funeral is set is a symbol of the Young Man’s exposed soul or psyche. While the audience can see the conventional three walls, there is an invisible fourth wall against which there are dressing tables with mirrors: “Anybody making use of the mirror must expose themselves fully to the audience.” Such exposure is essential to a play about self-discovery and about identity. Through lighting, the action alternates between foreground—the Lustys’ basement room—and background—the two identical upstairs bedrooms, which the Young Man and Phyllis Pither occupy. The symbolic occupants, however, are the animus and the anima, the two separate parts of the Young Man’s fragmented personality. The Girl asks rhetorically, “Am I your other self?” and adds that she will be with him in the basement “sitting on your right hand.” Her choreographed movements mirror the Young Man’s.

Urged by the Girl to descend to the basement, the Young Man must confront not only Alma’s appeal to the senses but also Will’s acceptance of life, his disbelief in the senses (“Bloody deluded!”), and his spiritual belief in inanimate objects (“This table is love . . . if you can get to know it”). Though they hold contrasting views of reality, Will and Alma embrace it, unlike the Young Man. In effect, before he can become an integrated (not “completed”) personality, the Young Man must invade the other space in the set (the other bedroom and the basement) and identify with its inhabitants, other fragments of his psyche.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Argyle, Barry. Patrick White. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967.

Beatson, Peter. The Eye in the Mandala: Patrick White, a Vision of Man and God. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976.

Brissenden, R. F. “The Plays of Patrick White.” Meanjin Quarterly 22 (September, 1964): 243-256.

Covell, Roger. “Patrick White’s Plays.” Quadrant 8 (April/May, 1964): 7-12.

Douglas, Dennis. “Influence and Individuality: The Indebtedness of Patrick White’s The Ham Funeral and The Season at Sarsaparilla to Strindberg and the German Expressionist Movement.” In Bards, Bohemians, and Book Men: Essays in Australian Literature, edited by Leon Cantrell. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1976.

During, Simon. Patrick White. Hyattsville, Md.: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Herring, Thelma. “Maenads and Goat Song: The Plays of Patrick White.” Southerly 25 (1965): 219-233.

Loder, Elizabeth. “The Ham Funeral: Its Place in the Development of Patrick White.” Southerly 23 (1963): 78-91.

Tacey, David J. Patrick White: Fiction and the Unconscious. Hyattsville, Md.: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Weigel, John A. Patrick White. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

White, Patrick. Letters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.