March 2010

Arts & Letters

Divine comedy

By Peter Conrad
Dame Edna at the Royal Wedding. © Aurelien Guichard
The personae of Barry Humphries

In 1987 on her British talk show, Dame Edna Everage abruptly asked Sir John Mills when he intended to retire – a tactless query, expressed with her usual indifference to the feelings of others. Mills, a spry little rooster then nearing his eightieth birthday, said he had no plans to do so, and wondered whether his hostess ever gave the matter any thought. “I don’t even believe in dying!” Edna shrilled. She added that she placed her faith in cryonics and was unsure only of whether to allow Birds Eye or Findus – specialists in frozen fish fingers and plastic trays of macaroni cheese – the honour of preserving her precious, irrepressible body.

With or without a freezer, Edna remains unkillable, and this month she opens on Broadway in another of her gladdy-sprinkling apotheoses, All about Me. Yet despite her immortality, Barry Humphries is now 76 – not much younger than John Mills when Edna accused him of being superannuated. As long ago as 1978 Humphries performed Isn’t It Pathetic at His Age in London, which took its title from a comment made by his mother about a creaky British actor still trailing around colonial theatres; recently Edna has begun to torment her public by threatening an eventual withdrawal, and in 2008–09 – after a delay of six months caused by the malingering Humphries, who was laid low by complications after an emergency appendectomy – she travelled across the US in The First Last Tour.

While debating whether to see All about Me in order to take my leave of Edna, I recalled a wistful remark Humphries made when I met him for an interview in 1992. (At the time, Edna’s talk show had ended and her most recent theatrical outing in London, Back with a Vengeance, was a few years in the past; she had not yet begun her assault on the US, which attained its dizziest victory when she supervised the dropping of the glittery ball above Times Square on New Year’s Eve, in 2006.) At one point, Humphries said, “I’d like to do another stage show. That is, if I’m still funny.” It was a plaintive comment, the equivalent of the moment when JM Barrie’s fairy in Peter Pan asks us to clap our hands to testify that we believe in her. Humphries needs laughter as existential validation, almost a proof of life. It also supplies this self-invented, onion-layered man with a sense of human connection; during our conversation he described his performances as a kind of love-feast, a chortling redemptive mass. When remembering the ‘blue’ comedians he used to see at music halls in Melbourne when he was a boy, he referred to another religious ritual. The laughter they excited, he said, was “a baptism”.

His humane, pious gloss on his own act ignored the savagery of Edna, who so fiercely guards the monopolistic solitude that Humphries supposedly wants to overcome: the set for her talk show The Dame Edna Experience included a trapdoor through which, when she pressed a lever, guests who annoyed her would tumble into a pit. Humphries may hope, as he says in his autobiography More Please (1992), for “the forgiveness of laughter”, but his own laughter is unforgiving. Edna, characteristically muddling up high- mindedness and smut, once described art as “a massage parlour for the human spirit”. Or is it a torture chamber for that same spirit, an experiment in violently dehumanising us? Listen to the laughing chorus in Edna’s Song of Australia, recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall in 1981. What you hear is the wild, mirthless cackling of a hundred kookaburras or the lethal fusillade spat out by a line of machine guns. Even if you’re doing the laughing yourself, it can be excruciating. I well remember my reaction at Edna: The Spectacle in London in 1998. During the old harpy’s harangue about her daughter Valmai’s involvement in lesbian voodoo, I laughed until my throat hurt, my eyes watered and my ribs ached; I laughed so hard that I felt myself losing control, as if overtaken by a convulsion or a fit; I think I was also screaming, like someone being tickled to death. The fact that the laughter was contagious – epidemic, even – shared by hundreds of others, somehow made it worse. Edna, while hypocritically condemning Valmai’s experiments with occult forces, had bewitched us all, and was enjoying our temporary derangement. Her sense of power, while the riff continued, was murderous.

Where, I now ask myself, might it have ended – in a seizure? In the introduction to his Treasury of Australian Kitsch, Humphries, mocking the jargon of Germanic art historians, described himself as a “psychopomp”, the guide who in Greek myth accompanies souls on their passage to the nether world. Despite the learned whimsy, he meant it: while purporting to amuse her audience, Edna had sentenced us all to a painfully hilarious agony. In 1992, Humphries told me about one of Edna’s victims: “Yes, I’ve had a man die. He had a stroke. They took him out to the foyer and put screens around him. He died clutching his gladdy. A happy end, I suppose.” Unsurprisingly, a uniformed nurse with an oxygen cylinder and a medical textbook sat next to the band on the set of The Dame Edna Experience, ready to deal with the injured egos of guests and the split sides of laughers like me.

Laughter is a complex phenomenon, apparently instinctive and unthinking, actually subtle and guileful in the way it simultaneously vents aggression and signals harmlessness. It defines our humanity – what other species makes jokes? – but hints at the fragility of our elevated rank among the animals. That’s why the monks in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose suppress Aristotle’s treatise on comedy. The spectacle of a man laughing is for them a defilement, disproving our likeness to the God who created us. Baudelaire, excited by the prospect of damnation, said that comedy was a mark of “the Satanic in man”, a memento of some primal fall or a symptom of our craving to be degraded. Laughter draws on the foul sludge of our incorrigible hostilities: Edna has a shrink in LA called Dr Marvin K Schadenfreude, who personifies our refusal to care, our delight in the distress of others. Yet this morbid glee has another side. Laughter can be self-mutilating, the expression of a self-dislike we coax others to share. Humphries found his vocation as a schoolboy, when, as he told me, “I discovered that I was ridiculous”. In fact, others discovered it and cruelly pointed it out. His Melbourne Grammar School classmates ridiculed him on the sports field because he flapped his arms when he ran. The personae he later invented were designed to relieve his misery and humiliation in two opposite ways. As the slobbering, belching Sir Les Patterson, he invites the contempt of his audience and enjoys his own disgrace. As Edna, he retaliates, patronising and persecuting the mockers. In both cases, Humphries advertises his own inability to be hurt: his characters wear an armour of self-conceit, which protects them against the disapproval of others.

Les and Edna are grandiose, almost allegorical figures – a randy god and a fetishistic goddess. As a dualistic pair, they represent the opposed motives of comedy: ribaldry versus revenge, an unbridled saturnalia versus a starchy critique of improper manners. Les is the romping id, a satyr with an uncontrollable trouser snake; Edna is the repressive ego, tautly self-controlled and adept at manipulating others. Les is Priapus, the deity of the rearing, flushed erection. At the Royal Festival Hall in 1999, he unfurled a retractable penis from inside his pants and brandished it at Kylie Minogue, who fled screaming. Edna, for all her matronly fluff, is secretly a dominatrix, punishing us for her pleasure and our own. In her picture book Dame Edna’s Bedside Companion she discards her frilly tulle and models a leather outfit – complete with stirruped high-heeled boots, studded bracelets and a sheathed dagger poking from her fishnet stockings – designed by her gay son, Kenny. When she launched her recording The Sound of Edna in 1979, she vroomed into the press conference astride a motorbike and declaimed a sado-masochistic anthem in her bellowing falsetto: “Drive them insane, frighten the vicar. / Swing that chain with the big swastika. / S and M ladies, let ’em all go to Hades.”

On his letterhead, Humphries has inscribed a corporate slogan that also functions as a psychological confession: “Barry Humphries is a Division of the Barry Humphries Group.” Like Les, Edna is a fraction of the man who dreamed her up; creation allows Humphries to separate out a part of himself that he dislikes but can never be rid of. Edna and her stricken consort Norm began as a repudiation of his parents and what Humphries has called “the little people of their generation”. They announced Humphries’ intention to be more than a little person, which entailed fictionalising himself, taking lank-haired, precious, sickly aesthetes such as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Ronald Firbank – characters who were defiantly and deviantly ‘un-Australian’, as people used to say in those days – as his models.

Symbolically murdering his parents, Humphries also spurned the nationality that was his unasked-for birthright. Edna – at least in her earliest incarnation as the winner of the Lovely Mother Quest in Moonee Ponds, a campaigner for niceness and neatness – embodies the complacent provincialism of Australia in the 1950s. Les, who is Barry McKenzie with a sagging paunch and a sick liver, exhibits Australia’s primitivism, the defensive crudity that used to be our way of dealing with the wider, snootier world of the upper hemisphere. Clive James once commended Humphries for doing Australia the service of “joining it to the world”. This solemn, ceremonious remark made it seem as if the Queen had actually doled out honours to Dame Edna and Sir Les. The career of Humphries certainly has a geopolitical dimension, but I’m not sure that what he had in mind was Australia’s adhesion to the community of civilised nations. James, writing in the London Review of Books, was anxious to appease British sensibilities and to defuse the threat that Humphries presented: his essay winced at the foulness of Les and in passing criticised Peter Weir’s Gallipoli because it “contributes seductively to the euphoria of the Australian present but denigrates Britain in a way that disowns the past”.

Humphries, however, is untroubled by denigration and distortion. He trades in the mutual misunderstandings of nations and enjoys setting them at each others’ throats. Hence Edna’s progress from meek cultural pilgrim to global ego; her saga of personal growth has accompanied the changing balance of power in a decolonised world. In 1966, when I first saw her in Excuse I in Hobart, she regaled us with slides of herself gawkily posing in front of British monuments during her maiden voyage to that fabled realm Australians used to call ‘overseas’. She soon cast off her intimidation, but as she gained fame and wealth, the Britain she so admired went into decline. This made her a convenient object of scorn for those who couldn’t get over the shaming loss of empire. The program for A Night with Dame Edna, which I saw in London in 1978, contained a rant by the bilious dramatist John Osborne, who likened Humphries’ Australia to Swift’s Lilliput and dismissed it as “a terrifying, voracious, ugly, suburban vastness … an instantly identifiable nightmare … this modest desolate of present landscapes”. The piece allowed Humphries to scourge Australia once again, but in retrospect it defames Osborne: were the British really such envious, disgruntled losers that they needed to compensate for their forfeited prestige by vilifying a country whose crime was that it no longer slavishly looked up to them? Osborne remarked that Humphries had “created something that was not there before. That is to say, Australia. Perhaps it were as well if it were not, one thinks.” Humphries presumably lapped up the compliment to his ‘poetic genius’, while taking no responsibility for the malice in that last, nasty, sniffily impersonal sentence.

By 1987, when Edna’s television talk show began, a supercilious tirade like Osborne’s was inconceivable. The Dame Edna Experience started with a montage in which the hostess schmoozed with world leaders: Edna could be seen organising the awkward Windsors on the balcony after the marriage of Charles and Diana, whispering advice in the ears of Reagan and Thatcher, and poking an impertinent bulb at the Pope in her own version of a benediction. Was it really all that much of a spoof? In our new world, authority has been replaced by imagery, and power belongs not to monarchs, politicians and pontiffs but to free-floating, vacuous celebrities. Edna, duplicitous as ever, both mocked this phenomenon and capitalised on it.

“I’ve suddenly discovered that England is really a province of Australia,” Humphries told the critic John Lahr in 1989. “And so I needn’t have been frightened all those years ago.” Rather than joining Australia to the world, Humphries has always emphasised its disjunction, its quaint and kinky peculiarity – and he occasionally prompts one of his personae to complain about the older world’s habit of relegating it to the margins. Les likes to grumble about the re-organisation of the immigration queues at Heathrow: he felt, he said in 1981, like a spare cock in a knocking-shop, hanging around while “yashmaks and tea-towel heads” streaked past him in the fast lane. A master of self-multiplication as well as self-division, Humphries managed a pincer movement in 2002, attacking the citadel of British propriety and privilege from both ends. During a public concert in the gardens behind Buckingham Palace, Edna lectured the Queen about looking after the lawn; her purring monologue was interrupted when the television cameras cut away to report on a security alert at the front entrance, where Les, blustering about a mislaid invitation, was attempting to gatecrash the party. Part of Humphries snidely ingratiated in the backyard, while the rest of him frothed and railed in the driveway. The dour, dowdy Queen was, I imagine, not amused.

Britain capitulated easily; the US took longer to succumb to Humphries. When he transferred Housewife! Superstar! to New York in 1977, he was exiled to a theatre on a drab, windy block in Hell’s Kitchen, reputedly good for ‘fag acts’ because Matt Crowley’s bitchy psychodrama The Boys in the Band had played there. I can still remember the baffled tittering that greeted Edna, whose irony – she claimed to have come to boring Manhattan for a rest cure, having been stressed out by the pacy intensity of life in Melbourne – was lost on the literal-minded locals. But a culture founded on self-deluding self-belief, in which every talentless contestant on American Idol assumes that their country guarantees them stardom as well as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, sooner or later had to recognise that Edna enshrines its dearest dream.

This raucous subdivision of the Barry Humphries Group has long led a life of her own. Last December, in his concerts with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Humphries – appearing as himself to introduce some jazzy curios by Ravel, Walton and the Belgian avant-gardist Marcel Poot – backed away from the applause. “It’s not really my show,” he said apologetically; the occasion inevitably belonged to Edna, who emerged after the interval to perform her patriotic cantata. For her part, the spangled shrew has never had much tolerance for her maker and manager, whom she regards as a usurper. She agreed to have Humphries as a guest on The Dame Edna Experience, remarking in her sour welcome that, although he had been described as “a comic genius” who “first taught Australians to snigger at themselves”, to her he was merely “a foppish phoney”. When he strolled onto her set, she decided (as she put it) to “abort” him: her lever opened the trapdoor to oblivion. More Please ends with another of her victories, as she telephones a Melbourne talkback radio host to blame Humphries for bringing Australia into disrepute.

Who knows what internecine disputes go on under Humphries’ skin or inside his crowded head? The pronoun in All about Me belongs to Edna, and many of her Broadway customers probably will neither know nor care about Humphries. The creature has escaped from her creator and she will surely outlive him, just as Lady Macbeth, Lady Wishfort and Miss Havisham have left Shakespeare, Congreve and Dickens for dead. Edna was right, as usual, when she bragged that she didn’t believe in dying.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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