The stage history of The Ham Funeral began quietly. I’d met Patrick White at a British Drama League party in Sydney and again at my production of Sartre’s Lucifer and the Lord. Some months later, early in 1961, he telephoned to say that The Ham Funeral was to be presented at the second Adelaide Arts Festival, and he invited me to be the producer. I read the manuscript and we discussed casting. However, the play was rejected by the Festival authorities on a minority vote. Then Dr. Harry Medlin, in the face of strong ‘Establishment’ opposition, announced that the Adelaide Union Theatre Guild would present this untried play.
At first the script refused to come to life for me, and I was disturbed by the ‘anima’ figure of the girl and parts of the play’s construction. I tried to persuade Patrick White to rewrite several passages, but he remained adamant: he could change nothing in such an ‘old’ play, written about fourteen years earlier. I then decided to hold a rehearsed moved reading in the hope of refreshing White’s interest. Later he did rewrite some passages, notably a new aria for the first relative, but elsewhere the rewriting was entirely that of speeches he felt were too literary. When rehearsals began and the rewritten pieces were found not to ‘play’ well, we tried the original lines and those which were more satisfactory were kept.
I have used the term ‘aria’. There were several speeches and theses which I felt required underscoring with music, so I commissioned a young Adelaide composer, Jeremy Wesley-Smith. White’s reaction was enthusiastic. I might point out that in later plays he specifically asked for music at certain moments. In conversation he used the term ‘aria’ to describe long speeches such as, for example, Miss Quodling’s in Night on Bald Mountain.
After the first reading I had begun to feel that the period should be set somewhat back in time, away from the present. To me the characters and even the situation belonged more appropriately to a period around 1918. I can’t give a valid reason for this decision but it proved to be workable and White willingly allowed the change to be made.
Only one other change remained: Mrs. Lusty’s attempted seduction of the boy which ends with her being thrown to the flagstone ‘tragically unraped’, as one critic described it. This scene posed real problems. It should take place on a bed, but in a set which included stairways, two bedrooms, passageways and a basement kitchen/bedroom, space was at a premium. Either the table or the bed had to predominate in the basement, and naturally the table, around which so much action takes place, was more important. In John Osbom’s The Entertainer, Archie Rice’s wife accuses her husband of bringing chorus girls home late at night and coupling on the kitchen table. The image had remained so vividly in my mind that I decided to incorporate it in The Ham Funeral. Thus Mrs. Lusty and the boy played their scene perilously on top of the kitchen table. And inside the play it did have a certain logic. Will Lusty had pounded that very table (‘this table is love’) in Act I: the savagery and pathos of the moment thus became more strongly underlined. It could not be helped if some of the audience read into the scene an extreme degree of symbolism. And on the one occasion in Adelaide when the table overturned, with Joan Bruce and John Adams thrown on the stage, some absurd interpretations were given: love was overturned, but the boy before he leaves rights the table, and rights love for Mrs. Lusty, and so on! Sometimes audiences seem to read an extraordinary amount of unfounded symbolism into Patrick White’s plays.
Most playwrights explore the particular to illustrate the whole. Usually these fragments have a line of continuity. White’s style could perhaps be likened to pointilliste painting: what at close observation might seem unrelated clashes of colour, at a distance resolve into depth and form. This is one of the most exciting aspects of White’s writing. However, rehearsals involve close-up work and it is difficult to stand back. Usually the ‘total view’ is obtained before rehearsals of a play begin, but with The Ham Funeral it had to be continuous. We were finally able to achieve this ‘total view’ by rehearsing each scene against the text, against every emotion and attitude we had been carefully developing. As well as providing a necessary distancing and ‘Verfremdung’ effect, such rehearsals often unlocked the pathos in a scene of comedy and the element of farce in a scene of tragedy. These sudden changes are intrinsic in White’s plays and are exhilarating; but we found they demanded a wide freedom of experiment and close discipline, physically and emotionally. In all of Patrick White’s plays there is an extraordinary degree of sensuousness. They are filled with references to sights, sounds, smells. This quality of direct animal awareness ‘anchors’ his plays in a dramatic reality. In all good plays we are aware of such sensuous qualities; they are basic to White’s plays. The Ham Funeral is an extreme example; the boy accuses Mrs. Lusty—’and so you touch and touch’—whereas the girl remains alone, impossible to touch. In preparing a play I always carefully consider the degree to which characters touch each other, the element of physical contact. The Ham Funeral; like White’s other plays, has a complexity and persistence of physical awareness—a characteristic which is rewarding to deduce from the script and to incorporate in the production. There is an overwhelming physical climate to The Ham Funeral, giving it an immediacy which is theatrically electric.
When we were working on The Ham Funeral none of us thought of it as a new ‘Australian’ play. As with the other plays of his we presented in Adelaide, it was regarded as being simply a good play which tremendously excited us. I believe that excitement was later communicated to the audience. Enthusiasm can never be a substitute for skill, but allied to skill it can fire an audience, a cast, and particularly a playwright. Conversely, lack of this ‘fire’ can dishearten, even embitter, a playwright.
Patrick White has stopped writing plays—but only for the time being, I hope. His output of three plays in two years has been generous. But in a country where only the merest handful of Australian plays is produced each year, there is little to attract a writer of White’s calibre away from his novels into the exhausting public world of theatre. The audience any recognized writer in Australia can reach with his plays is very small in comparison with the novel-reading audience. The Ham Funeral played in Adelaide for ten performances, in Sydney for two and a half weeks, in Brisbane for three performances—probably thirty performances in all. It has not yet been staged in Melbourne. Even so, this is a fair showing when compared with the fate of many other Australian plays. The theatre repertoires of any overseas country you may care to name contain many locally written plays. Most of these plays we will never hear about, and there are no reasons why we should: they have significance only to theatre-goers in those particular countries. But what chance has an Australian playwright of seeing his plays regularly presented and enjoyed—even if such plays have a ‘merely’ local significance? Theatre will begin to develop here when we stop demanding that every local play should be of world importance. We might then find that we do in fact possess some plays which are of high significance to us as Australians. No audience has ever attended a playhouse to witness theatre history.
At present the Australian playwright, to make any sort of living from his work, must write with an eye on the American and English market; and unless he is particularly strong-minded and courageous he will tend to echo the ‘two dimensional’ concept of Australia which is held overseas. We are not a nation of cane-cutters, tarts with hearts of gold, inarticulate and/or compassionate shearers and drovers, volatile Italian migrants, or scrags of various kinds; but a foreign theatre-goer might well imagine we are, judged by the plays we’ve exported to date.
Patrick White’s Night on Bald Mountain is the first Australian play of stature which deals with articulate, intelligent, complex human beings in a distinctively Australian environment. It is surely significant that in his latest play, Unshaven Cheek, Ray Lawler uses a working-class idiom no longer relevant to the present-day, and that other of our playwrights seem to have ‘given away’ Australia. Japan and Chopin’s France provide the background for Seymour’s latest plays; Kenna has swung away from an Australian background in Talking to the Moon to a Samuel Beckett landscape in his new work; Porter’s new play is set in Japan. . . .
When our dramatists have freedom to make mistakes they’ll become better dramatists. Night on Bald Mountain was curtly dismissed in a Nation review headed ‘Patrick White’s Mistake’. Frankly, I don’t care what ‘mistakes’ White might make so long as he continues to write for the theatre. Theatre history has proved that innovation is invariably greeted as a ‘mistake’, if not a calamity.
My comments do not imply that we should pander to the playwright. A vital thriving theatre involves a great deal of give and take.
It would give me profound satisfaction if the majority of plays I direct in the future were to be written in this country. I read very many Australian plays, but most are poor copies of overseas models and hardly any breaks away from the naturalistic framework. However, if/when I find a stageworthy play there remains the problem of persuading theatre management, professional or amateur, that the play should be presented. Patrick White was fortunate that Harry Medlin and the Adelaide Union Theatre Guild had the vision to recognize the worth of his plays and had the courage to present them. Night on Bald Mountain cost £4,500 to present, all of which came from the Guild’s coffers.
Here was tangible evidence of the Guild’s faith in White’s work. Visionaries in administrative positions in Australian theatre are few; but only through their courageous efforts will Australian theatre at last come of age.
John Tasker (1933 – 1988) was an Australian theatre director.