Analysis

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Last Updated on September 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319

The Ham Funeral by Patrick White is a play that traces its stylistic DNA to surrealism and Gothic literature. The play's plot, dialogue, and atmosphere are a mixture of both of those styles. While the story itself doesn't seem to have a central message, at least on the surface, there...

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The Ham Funeral by Patrick White is a play that traces its stylistic DNA to surrealism and Gothic literature. The play's plot, dialogue, and atmosphere are a mixture of both of those styles. While the story itself doesn't seem to have a central message, at least on the surface, there are prominent themes that make up the structure of the play. For instance, the setting is very important in creating the atmosphere of the story. It is set in post-war London.

Death has become so commonplace during and after the war that the subject is not something that is shied away from in society. Death is a main element of the story, which the title blatantly suggests, but only because visions of death were a regular occurrence in the city during that time period (the late 1940s).

The area of London the story is set in is also vital to creating the mood of the play. The setting is not upper-class whatsoever, but possibly a working-class district with old dilapidated houses. This gives the boarding house a gothic appearance, evoking images of haunted houses or asylums. This setting makes the portrayal of Mrs. Lusty and her late husband fitting: a couple who were eccentric and possibly suffering from mental illness.

The hapless young poet who deals with advances by the aptly named landlady, Alma Lusty, is portrayed as someone who is trapped in this madhouse. The casual way the landlady deals with the sudden death of her husband, Will, shows the power of delusions over reality. She is so intoxicated by her lust for the poet that she even hosts a feast—which is where the title comes from—for her husband's funeral. The preparation of ham for the feast indicates Mrs. Lusty's lack of wealth or worldliness. In post-war England, food rations were given to the citizens by the government, usually containing four ounces of ham and bacon.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 951

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 he thought, wonders whether he is watching a tragedy or “two fat people in a basement, turning on each other.” Jack, the dead son, is the focus of the conflict: Will was not his father. The Young Man, who speaks of himself as the chorus, not as an actor in the tragedy, leaves the darkened basement weary and disillusioned.

As he mounts the stairs, the Young Man speaks of his desire to be recognized for his brilliance, nobility, and generosity. His ensuing conversation with the Girl in the other front room, certainly not Phyllis Pither, shows him the futility of escape from what the basement represents. As the two, who are separated by a wall, speak to each other, they mirror each other’s movements. The Young Man declares that if she remains on the other side of the wall, they can never “complete each other.” However, if completion is not possible in life, as she points out, then discovery is. If the Young Man is to discover himself, he must not “overlook the landlord” in the basement; when he reaches the basement, however, he finds Will dead.

Alma and the Young Man do not handle Will’s death well, either literally (they labor to deposit the heavy corpse on the bed but then discover that the feet have been placed on the pillow) or figuratively (the Young Man inadvertently refers to Will’s “dead weight” and begins to hiccup). Their conversation consists of two monologues, Alma expressing determination to serve ham at the wake and the Young Man discovering that he must act to assemble Will’s relatives.

In the street, the Young Man encounters two “ladies” who are rummaging through garbage cans. After he discovers a fetus in the trash, he concludes, “The landlord and the dead child are one,” but he is less certain of his identity. He hopes to “retire again, into a corner, and dream,” but he finally finds the relatives in a house that speaks, echoing his words. Although he invites four identical relatives to the ham funeral, only one accompanies him to the funeral; inexplicably all four attend the wake.

While the Young Man is in his room, the four relatives torment Alma, suggesting that she killed Will. Meanwhile, the Young Man and the Girl continue their conversation about a world that has “turned into a ball of mud,” a world he cannot ignore. He returns, at the Girl’s urging, to the basement wake.

After the Young Man dismisses the raucous, insulting relatives, he is left with Alma. Following is Alma’s choreographed pursuit of the Young Man, whom she variously treats as Will, her husband; Fred, her lover; and Jack, her son. They fall on the bed, but the Young Man resists her, almost strangles her, and declares that “flesh . . . isn’t the final answer.” When he climbs the stairs again, he believes he is free, but the Girl informs him that he will again “wrestle with the figures in the basement . . . passion and compassion.” The Young Man bursts through the door, but he does not find the Girl, who subsequently enters the house in the clothes of Phyllis Pither. He goes down to the basement, bids Alma good-bye, and walks “into the distance through a luminous night.”

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 257

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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 167

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.

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