been blamed for killing many plays, but when Patrick White's play 'The Ham Funeral'
opens for its professional world premiere in Sydney this week it will be because
Australian drama critics, in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, have demanded that
the play be given a decent chance to live. Patrick White, author of "The AuntŐs
Story", "The Tree of Man," "Voss" and "riders in the Chariot," was already renowned
as an Australian writer of world acclaimed fiction before it became known he
had written a play called "The Ham Funeral".
A Melbourne critic discovered the existence of the play when the author mentioned it casually in a conversation about a year ago. He said he had written it in London in 1947 after meeting William Dobell, who had told him how he came to paint one of his best known works, "The Dead Landlord". "I was the only lodger in a house in Ebury Street, London," said Patrick White. "As I sat in my empty room I began to play with Dobell's anecdote: of how his landlord had died, how the landlady had taken down her hair, announcing there would be a ham funeral and that he must go to fetch the relatives. "Out of these original facts and my own self-searching and experience as a young man in the house in Ebury Street the play "The Ham Funeral" developed.
After reading the script and showing it to other theatre people, the Melbourne critic [probably Geoffrey Dutton] thought it would be a world scoop if it were produced as one of the dramatic attractions for the 1962 Adelaide Festival. It was submitted to the Festival's Drama Advisory Committee, members of which agreed unanimously that the play was of outstanding importance and that it should be presented at the festival. However, to the astonishment of the Advisory Committee, the Board of Governors of the Adelaide Festival turned the play down flat, and did this twice. This had the effect of bringing the play into the news all over Australia, so that "The Ham Funeral" became a national issue before it was ever produced.
With the Festival four months away the Adelaide University Theatre Guild then decided to present the play with guest producer, John Tasker, from the National Institute of Dramatic Art, chosen by Patrick White himself. At this point the Elizabethan Theatre Trust became actively interested and associated itself with the production. The possibility that Patrick White might become as successful a playwright as he already was, as an author, attracted literary agents, impresarios, critics and theatre people, from all States, to the Adelaide University production.
The play ran to full houses in the Union Hall for its short run and the critics were agreed that it was a remarkable work. In press correspondence, which followed the opening night, Max Harris and Geoffrey Dutton, two well-known critics from South Australia and Victoria, described the play in a joint letter as a "theatre event of not only national but international importance." "The Sydney Morning Herald" drama critic Roger Covell, who went to Adelaide to see the play, described it as important and exciting. "It generates emotion, compels attention. It is moving, tender, ruthlessly funny, exhilarating and sometimes all of these things together. " "The Elizabethan Theatre Trust," he concluded, "should need no further incentive to present this important and exciting play at an early date."
The success of the production did not, however, make the Board of Governors of the Adelaide Festival change its mind, so the "Ham Funeral" was not seen in the Festival. The Elizabethan Theatre Trust, on the other hand, had bought the rights to the play and it next came to the news again when a dispute arose between Patrick White and the Trust because he refused to allow his play to be produced, in Sydney, at the new Union Theatre, just opened at Sydney University. The Trust had planned to present "The Ham Funeral" as one of a series of three Australian plays to be presented at the Union Theatre just after Christmas. The Trust's argument was that with all new Australian plays there should be first an assisted amateur production, then a professional production in a small theatre, and finally, if the play passed these tests, a commercial production in a commercial theatre. Patrick White's argument was that the play had had a successful amateur first run in Adelaide but that the new Union Theatre at Sydney University had opened with two complete failures.
To present the first professional production of "The Ham Funeral" at this new theatre, which had not yet established a good reputation, was unfair. He refused to allow the Trust to produce the play under these conditions and once again the theatre critics backed him up. The Trust gave way to Patrick White. As the executive director, Mr Neil Hutchison, told PIX at the time, "We are here to listen to public opinion and the general view seems to be that Patrick White's wishes should be respected. He is an important person."
So now, at last, this much argued about play is going to have its first, fully professional performance at the Palace Theatre in Sydney, certainly the best theatre of its size in Australia and, according to many theatre people, one of the best theatres of its kind in the world. Every effort has been made to build up the production from the ideal basic standards set by the Adelaide Guild's presentation.
John Tasker, probably Australia's youngest and most successful producer, has been engaged again. A personal friend of Patrick White and an admirer of his work, he is a specialist interpreter of the eminent author's wishes. Three of the original cast, two from Adelaide and one from Perth, have been brought over for the production. They are South Australians Hedley Cullen, who plays the Landlord, and John Adams, who plays the young man. Joan Bruce, who plays the Landlady, is from Western Australia. Because the Girl in this production will be played by the Victorian actress Zoe Caldwell, and the rest of the cast, two back street "ladies" and the relatives, are all from New South Wales, the play will have an interstate cast.
What is it all about? Critic Roger Covell, describing the play, wrote, "Upstairs a young man lies on his bed wondering whether he is a poet or whether he will ever have the nerve to take life at a gulp, stomaching its inevitable coarseness as well as the lilac blossoms of his nostalgia. "In the next room is a girl not so much a real girl as the projection of his higher ideals and hopes whom he senses through the wallpaper and listens to through the keyhole. "And down below in the basement is the extinct volcano of the Landlord, monolithic in grey flannel underwear. His name, in case anyone should mistake him for an ordinary landlord, is Mr Lusty. "But it is Mrs Lusty who now retains full title to her surname. She is raw vitality going to waste, the bearer of gifts nobody wants."
[The attitude of the establishment, including the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, that a production in Adelaide was not considered to be professional. At that time there was no "professional Theatre company" in Adelaide and so the next best thing were the services of John Tasker, one of Australia's best young directors, set designer Ostoja-Kotkowski, a series of actors from SA and WA who were considered professional enough to take three out of four of the main roles of the Sydney "professional production". The supporting cast, the extras, were from New South Wales and must have been considered the "professional" element added to make the production successful.]
Latimer, William. Pix. Jult 14, 1962. pp58-60