Not your average Edna

Edna Everage's long goodbye, along with those of Sir Les Patterson and Sandy Stone, will also mark their irrepressible creator's farewell to the stage.

Edna Everage's long goodbye, along with those of Sir Les Patterson and Sandy Stone, will also mark their irrepressible creator's farewell to the stage.

IT HAS been a week in which two celebrated bespectacled grand ladies of pomp and pageantry spoke their minds on their future intentions. On Tuesday, in London's Westminster Hall, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II told a select group of her subjects that she was staying in her job, promising to ''rededicate myself to the service of our great country and its people now and in the years to come".

The day before, in the art deco splendour of the stalls of Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, Australia's greatest living comic queen, Dame Edna Everage, announced her impending retirement from live - or what she calls ''flesh and blood'' - theatre.

With typical humility, she told this newspaper, ''To be the most loved woman - I won't say in the world - but to be as adored as I am is a responsibility. I wear it lightly, but I mustn't abuse it. I have to check self-abuse very carefully and rigorously.''

Dame Edna, despite what she described as a thumbs up from her gynaecologist, confessed to ''beginning to feel a little bit tired''. Her new show, Eat, Pray, Laugh, which opens in Canberra in June and will tour nationally and internationally for two years, will be her last.

Although these two old troupers have between them notched up 116 years of public performance - the Queen is celebrating 60 years on the throne and the Dame has been strutting her stuff since December 1955 - one can't expect them to run forever. It is, however, the Queen's prerogative to wish to stay where she is: she has only three or so years left to eclipse her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria's record as Britain's longest-serving monarch.

As for Dame Edna, time, like her late hubby Norm's prostate, is finally making itself felt. Besides, it could be argued, Edna's life of constant touring, audience-heckling and gladdie-hurling exercises far greater strain than waving, unveiling plaques or addressing Parliament.

In reality - if one can even attempt to deconstruct the surreality of Edna Everage, a character born in the back of a repertory-theatre bus touring Twelfth Night through the boondocks of country Victoria in 1955 - this is not just a farewell to an outlandish housewife superstar, but to her spectral contemporary, Sandy Stone, and that priapic pretender, Sir Leslie Patterson, who epitomises as much the brashness of Sydney as his colleagues are quintessentially Melbourne.

What goes practically unnoticed amid this hustle-bustle of stage-right exits is that another, more mysterious and elusive figure is slinking towards the wings - Barry Humphries, without whom Edna, Sandy and Sir Les would be merely mundane monikers not household names.

Humphries is a master showman whose own persona is so individual, complex and bizarre that he could have invented himself as another character in his gallery: an aesthetic, dandyish soul with a whiff of Weimar about him, and armed with a powerful, multi-syllabic lexicon.

But such is Humphries' genius at keeping himself at arm's length (choose a more suitable extension for Sir Les) from his creations, that he has managed to convince his public that they exist as real people. This immaculate and enduring confidence trick has been brilliantly predicated on one aspect of mutual trust 'twixt Humphries and his audiences: while we're all in on the joke, we don't want to acknowledge it.

About 14 years ago, I interviewed Humphries after one of his shows in London's West End. ''Just wait in the wings,'' he said, ''and we'll go up to the dressing room.'' Off the stage tottered Dame Edna, arms full of gladdies and seemingly fresh from her nightly communion with her possums. ''God, I'm buggered,'' she said, speaking to me in Barry Humphries' voice. I felt betrayed. Weren't they two separate people?

It is hard to think of any performer who has equalled Barry Humphries' astonishingly admirable 5?-decade theatrical record of relying essentially on the same act. I have been going to Humphries' shows, in Melbourne and in London, since the mid-1960s, and never failed to marvel at their wit, energy and power of invention and improvisation.

Is it just me, or do Humphries' shows have maximum impact in Melbourne? Just as dry martinis are better in New York than anywhere else in the world, the potency of Edna & Co is 100-proof in Spring or Exhibition streets.

Over this time, some of Humphries' characters have been and gone - Martin Agrippa, pioneer Australian cineaste of the early 1960s and winner of the Bronze Scrotum for best documentary, and the trenchant union leader Lance Boyle - but others have magnificently, defiantly and significantly stayed the course.

The irony, in addition to providing an acute reminder of urban Australia's social shifts since the '50s, is that Edna Everage is the only one of Humphries' people who has stayed more or less consistent with the present instead of the past. While Les remains a bibulous and spattered gargoyle on the stucco wall of an early '70s Sydney leagues club, and Sandy is eternally encased in his chenille dressing gown in his ethereal brown-checked Maples armchair (the ossified Mr Stone has now been officially deceased far longer than he was alive), Edna is a terrifyingly contemporary sacred monster.

Just like the Queen, Edna has outlasted Australian prime ministers from Robert Menzies to Kevin Rudd, but, unlike Her Majesty, with scarcely a nice word to say about any of them, save for Gough Whitlam, who did bestow Edna's damehood. A few years ago, Barry Humphries, explaining Edna's absence from a literary lunch, said she was offering elocution classes to Julia Gillard: ''A futile exercise.''

An evocative reminder of the original Edna, when she was plain Mrs Everage, was provided by Humphries 19 years ago at a function to celebrate the 40th birthday of the Melbourne Theatre Company, begetter of the Twelfth Night Bus and, by default, midwife to Edna's delivery.

Instead of the matriarch megastar, whom Humphries once likened to a housewife who thinks she's Barbra Streisand, a shy, nervous, unassuming little person took to the stage, clad as she was when she first appeared in front of a Melbourne audience in 1956. No towering Zandra Rhodes frockery, but instead a blue cardie, checked blouse, floral-print skirt, sensible flat shoes and a yellowing coolie hat.

''Excuse I!'' she said in a high, quavery voice, then sang one of her old songs about her favourite colour, maroon, or ''maroan''. It was an enchanting exercise in nostalgia that, even then, was so far removed from actuality as to make Mrs E an almost entirely different human being.

Around the same time, Humphries told John Lahr, The New Yorker magazine's theatre critic, about the gestation of his most famous character: ''I invented Edna because I hated her,'' he said. ''I suppose one grows up with a desire to murder one's parents, but you can't go and really do that. So I suppose I tried to murder them symbolically on stage. I poured out my hatred of the standards of the little people of their generation.''

Certainly, if it hadn't been for Humphries' mother, Louisa, there would have been no Edna. Humphries might have named Edna after his nanny and relocated her from Camberwell to Moonee Ponds, but there's no mistaking the derivation of her ghastliness as mistress of the put-down. Louisa's wounding remark to her son, ''It's hard to believe, Barry, but you used to be such a nice boy'', is unalloyed Edna.

I once asked Humphries if he was capable of separating himself from Edna, say when he sees her on television. ''I don't feel at all as if I'm looking at myself,'' he said. ''I can be quite objective. I'm quite often amused and laugh a great deal at the jokes. I'm really looking at someone else's performance and I don't feel at all attached to it. Which is rather strange ? I find myself thinking, 'What has happened to Edna while I've been away? What would she be doing? What is modish?'''

It's always worth remembering that Barry Humphries, polymath that he is, is essentially an actor. In the pursuit of such interests, he might have had cause to abandon Edna on that bus somewhere east of Nhill, but he stuck with her and, in the process, gave Australia and the world one of the most recognisable and longest-stayers of comedy.

''People say, 'Why don't you do some serious acting?' '' Humphries told me, saying people don't regard Sandy, Edna or Les as real acting. ''In a way, they pay me a great compliment because the idea is to give the illusion of ease. You can't have it both ways you can't say please congratulate me on the effort I'm making when I strive to remove all evidence of struggle.''

There at once is the very reduction of Barry Humphries' particular genius: a supreme illusionist. The only thing is, nobody seems to mind that we all know how he does it. It's what he does that's the real art. I'll miss Edna, Les and Sandy in the flesh-and-blood theatre. Most of all, though, I'll miss Barry.

Michael Shmith is a senior writer.

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