In 1981, at An Evening’s Intercourse with the Widely Liked Barry Humphries, I first encountered the outrageous Dame Edna Everage, and the priapic Australian cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson, Humphries’s gorgeous, cavorting travesties of decency and vulgarity. I laughed so hard, I slipped off my seat. I may have lost consciousness. I certainly can’t account for two minutes of the show.
Humphries was that rarest of sightings: the authentic zany, someone whose rousing combination of vivacity and viciousness created in an audience the wallop of the grotesque. It’s what Baudelaire described as “a paroxysm, a swoon, something profound, primitive, axiomatic, which is much closer to innocent life and absolute joy.” And here, in the flesh, was the materialization of that phenomenon, some kind of prodigious unrepentant whirlwind of vindictive triumph.
Humphries was an altogether different species of clown: not drag, not pantomime dame, but a character actor making points about life and language. He inhabited his layered creations with such relaxation and such confidence that the public accepted them as real. In fact, in 1989, when Dame Edna published her autobiography, My Gorgeous Life, it was cited in The Times of London’s best-seller list under nonfiction.
I’d grown up with a great clown. Bert Lahr was my father. Nowadays, the world remembers him as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, but for 30 years he was a rumbustious star on Broadway, where he premiered Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot for an American audience. I recognized in Humphries the same antic genius, the same refusal to suffer, the same inspired release from private torment. I knew then that I wanted to write about him. I got my chance eight years later, when Humphries agreed to let me chronicle his act Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance from backstage.
The character was first minted in the mid-50s and had evolved through the decades from frowsy Melbourne housewife to housewife-superstar, to superstar, to mega-star. (From the stage Edna now confided she’d checked herself into M.A.—Mega-stars Anonymous.) And now, judging from theater signage, she was approaching sainthood. (The blinking red neon marquee above London’s Drury Lane Theatre read: DAME EDNA’S SECOND COMING.)
In her 80s iterations, Dame Edna metamorphosed into an increasingly lethal incarnation of fame’s imperialism: “You can keep Roman Polanski and Bianca,” Dame Edna sang to her audience. “It’s for the company of Nobodies like you I hanker.” At the bottom of Humphries’s yellow letterhead agreement, the small print read: “The recipient is advised to preserve this memorandums. It could well become a very valuable collector’s item.” Even on paper, Humphries couldn’t resist smiling with cold teeth at fame’s game of invidious comparison.
I laughed so hard, I slipped off my seat. I may have lost consciousness.
Growing up, I watched Dad from the wings, and the transition from civilian to performer was confounding and disconcerting. Offstage he was unreachable, saturnine, silent, almost immobile; onstage, he was bellowing, animated, full of life, attentive to his audience. Once backstage, he deflated like a tire.
To sit with Humphries as he made himself up and to watch him from the wings gave me a second chance to fathom the mystery of this bewildering transformation from ordinary to extraordinary. Both clowns were essentially vaudevillians; both were low comedians; both shared an impulse for revenge. Dad’s laughter had its origins in poverty; Humphries’s, in privilege. Desperation was the driving force of Dad’s manic carry-on; Dadaism was Humphries’s initial inspiration.
Dad’s comic currency was a bewildered loss for words. Humphries’s was as the connoisseur of speech and its mischievous deployment: “What an interesting person you probably are,” he said to one interlocutor he invited onstage. To another: “What a cunning little linguist.” Humphries was well educated and well read—a collector of books, paintings, records, arcane knowledge. He was a painter and a dandy. Every dandy dares, it is said, but he dares with tact.
For Humphries, laughter (“vitamin L”) was that tact. The garish spectacle Humphries made of himself broadcast his extraordinariness and turned his disdain into fun. “I don’t crave applause. I crave the sound of sharply in-drawn breath,” he said. The creation of that frisson of fear was part of the expertise of his storytelling, engineered especially when the Dame identified and called up onstage people from the front rows.
Like, for instance, Emma, on one night I was in the wings. “Have you done much nude cartwheel work?,” Edna cooed, peering down at the bemused suburban woman. “Don’t worry, Emma. We’ve found audiences prefer an amateur nude cartwheelist, they do. They have a way of falling over which is vulnerable … and well … strangely appealing, so don’t be nervous.”
The ambition to shock and to delight admitted Humphries’s dandiacal desire both to revenge and enthrall the world on his own terms. Humphries’s aspiration was not to be a joke-smith but an unforgettable event. If Humphries wasn’t his parents’ undisputed darling—“I suppose one grows up with a desire to murder one’s parents, but you can’t really go and do that, so I tried to murder them onstage,” he told me.
He inhabited his layered creations with such relaxation and such confidence that the public accepted them as real.
Dame Edna and Sir Les won what Humphries could never earn as a child: the rapt, awed, adoring attention of the audience. “I’m a lucky, lucky woman,” Dame Edna said, in her falsetto confession to the paying customers. “I was born with the priceless gift … the ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others.... And, you know, that keeps me cheerful 24 hours a day. It does!”
In this psychic jiu-jitsu, Humphries, who was an Aussie arriviste, projected into his comic caricatures all the disgust and disdain that an impeccably well-mannered boulevardier like himself had to repress in order to make his way into the British mainstream. Humphries’s ribald characters made a hilarious display of his violent innocence. “I didn’t mean that in a nasty, bitchy, horrible, sort of way,” Edna often said after lowering the boom on a startled audience member. Like Edna and Sir Les, Humphries was a hostile sharpshooter always loudly proclaiming his innocence.
In his dressing room, Humphries liked the Tannoy turned up loud; the buzz of the audience got him feeling funny. On the night I best remember, he was getting into Sir Les’s fat-suit, which was dominated by a four-foot-long cotton sock that ran down the inside of his leg and whose bulge he frequently tugged at during his monologue. The penis was traditionally the clown’s totem, a symbol of comedy’s anarchic intention to take the audience for a tumble, to goose it. Les called constant attention to his obscene endowment, referring to it variously as his “enormous incumbency, which I’m holding down at the moment,” “the pajama python,” and his “not-infrequently-felt tip”—he also hymned it as “one-eyed trouser snake.”
Les’s roaring Rabelaisian presence was the Dionysian opening act for Dame Edna’s scathing Apollonian primness, a walking slum to Dame Edna’s prancing fashion plate. “Les’s vulgarity is his driving force. It’s a perversion of energy, the life force,” Humphries said, stepping into his oversize double-breasted blue suit. He sat at the dressing table adding the finishing touches to what he called Les’s “neo-Impressionistic makeup,” blending dots of carmine and brown on his forehead to give Les a fevered, ruddy look. Humphries checked out his stained false teeth, then his eyes until they were bright with conviviality. “Gravity is hard to banish. People are sad,” Humphries said.
The stage manager knocked on the door. “Showtime.” “I’m late, I’m late,” he shouted at the disembodied voice. “You shouldn’t have done this to me.” Humphries stood up, a huge figure in his elevated brown and white wing-tip shoes. Almost as an afterthought, from his dressing table he picked up a bottle of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce and dribbled it down the front of his ruffled white tuxedo shirt. “It stains well,” he said, of his trick to keep himself in character. “lt gives a smell as if I’m permanently at a barbecue.”
“Put it to ’em,” I said.
“No worries, son,” he said, using Sir Les’s rollicking twang for the first time and lurching out the door in Les’s sailor’s roll.
In the crepuscular backstage gloom, Humphries stomped around, revving himself up, shouting “Stick it up ’em!” When he came out into the white light of center stage, Les had a glass of “whiskey” in hand. He looked out at the delighted audience, took a sip, and began: “Permit me … ” he said, sending a shower of spittle over the front rows and drooling. “Permit me … if you please … ” Another shower, another roar of delight. “I’m in the boredom-alleviation business,” Humphries once told me. Onstage, it was clear that both Humphries and his happy public were at liberty.
Humphries’s ability to both command an audience and to infantilize it was astonishing. At Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance, the 2,100 paying customers rocked back and forth in unison like seaweed underwater. Humphries’s transgressive high jinks unified them and induced feelings that surprised and convulsed them. In the dark, facing the stage, many laughed with their hands over their mouths, glancing at their neighbors to see if it was O.K., if it was good for them too.
Humphries inhabited his characters so completely that it compelled belief, a surrender that allowed Humphries to control and to manipulate the audience. They wanted her loud and vulgar and daring as she always was; they wanted to play with her. Dame Edna was a fun-house ride: scary and thrilling at once.
Over the years, Dame Edna cooked up many madcap situations to show off the power of her comic spell: she brought people onstage to help prepare a barbecue, only to leave them to their own devices in front of a couple of thousand people for a few minutes while Edna changed costumes; to honor the “death” of her husband, Norm, she commanded a live television audience to hold hands with the people next to them and took a full minute of airtime in reverent silence. And, at her “Gladdy-dämmerung,” the signature gladiola-throwing fiesta that ended each installment of her stage revues, she got the audience of adults to stand and wave the gladioli she had heaved with gusto around the theater. Dame Edna stared out at the sea of waving phallic symbols and kvelled: “There’s nothing more holy than massed gladioli.”
As an entrepreneur of astonishment, Humphries took an aesthete’s exquisite pleasure in setting up a gag. In 1999, Dame Edna: The Royal Tour played on Broadway. I reviewed it for The New Yorker. Edna’s satiric theme that year was that she was born again. I sat taking notes as she broke into song:
Spin doctors have spun me
Dominic’s Dunne me
I’m even a book by John Lahr
Call me old-fashioned
I’m a born-again Broadway star.
Humphries knew I’d be on the aisle. He knew my mind would be blown. He knew I’d never forget it. He’s departed now, but he’s left a legacy of majestic frivolity. Oh, God, he was great.
Barry Humphries died in Sydney, Australia, on April 22, 2023, age 89
John Lahr is a Columnist for AIR MAIL and the first critic to win a Tony Award, for co-authoring Elaine Stritch at Liberty