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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 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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1694 words.)

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