Patrick White’s plays address the same thematic concerns as his novels: the role of the artist, the conflict between the visionary and the materialist, and the moral desolation and decay prevailing in modern life. Their language and structure intensify and heighten experience by combining the poetic with the mundane, the experimental with the traditional, the events of ordinary life with the metaphysical quest for truth. In general, the plays owe much to the European tradition of expressionism, which depends on the use of antinaturalistic stage devices, compression of language, symbolic picture sequences achieved through short unrealized scenes, lofty themes of spiritual regeneration or renewal, and a declamatory tone.
Although White’s plays will not gain the kind of recognition his fiction has achieved, they should not be discounted or ignored. They stand as accomplished works in their own right, especially in their author’s original handling of techniques that made expressionism so vital a force in twentieth century theater. An understanding of the dramas will lead to a richer appreciation of the novels, for both literary forms show how the artist can meld opposites: symbolism that employs the trivial to clarify the universal; characters who emerge as both real human beings and metaphysical abstractions; settings that rely on the tangible, which are microcosmic, but suggest the elusive, the universal.
The Ham Funeral
The best known of the plays, The Ham Funeral, illustrates these points. The Young Man, the only name given to its major character, reveals in the prologue that he is a poet and, like all poets, knows too much but never enough. He proceeds to explain that the audience must enter with him into the house before which he stands and there learn what it means to be a poet. The scenes that follow bring together the disparate parts of The Young Man’s psyche and give him direction as an artist. In the first scene, he lies on his bed in silence, considering “the great poem,” when the Landlady interrupts to tell him that her husband has died. He assists in preparation for the funeral, at which the relatives eat the ham the widow has provided to give the funeral class. Later, the Landlady attempts, unsuccessfully, to seduce The Young Man, who returns to his room and carries on a long conversation with The Girl, actually his anima. At the end of the play, The Young Man leaves the house—its back wall dissolving, the stage directions say—and walks into the “luminous night.”
Through this fluid series of fragmented scenes, the self-absorbed artist has learned to identify himself with the raw stuff of life: love and lust, hate and compassion, the beautiful and the ugly. Henceforth his poetry will no longer resemble “self-abuse in an empty room” but a discovery of the human condition in all of its forms.
The Season at Sarsaparilla
If The Ham Funeral may be taken as an autobiographical statement—and there exist substantial grounds for such an interpretation—then The Young Man (White) set his hand to the novel, forsaking poetry altogether and not returning to the drama for almost fifteen years. When he did, he took up in The Season at Sarsaparilla the plight of the visionary thrust into a world that is mundane, respectable, conventional, materialistic—but altogether lacking in awareness. An imaginary Sydney suburb, Sarsaparilla, comes to life on the stage through a setting that represents the kitchens and backyards of three adjoining houses. As the action moves from house to house, the families’ lives intertwine in the most ordinary of ways, thus giving the outward texture of the play a deceptive air of naturalism. A dog in heat, or in season, interrupts the quiet lives of the three families when she goes under one of the houses, pursued by a pack of excited dogs. This ironic use of “season” in...
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- Critical Essays