Becoming A Dame

Barry Humphries gave life to Edna, who's made a rhinestoned spectacle of herself ever since. To him, it's lady luck. To her, it's only fitting.

October 25, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The man who enters the Explorer's Lounge at the Harbor Court Hotel doesn't look anything like Dame Edna Everadge. Sure, they're the same height (6'4") and there's a certain similarity in bone structure.

But unlike the flamboyantly bejeweled gowns that Edna favors, Barry Humphries is garbed in a conservative black pinstripe suit, a crisp white French-cuffed shirt and an understated black tie, decorated with small yellow butterflies. And though Edna is never seen without a pair of pointy rhinestone spectacles ("face furniture," as she calls them), Humphries isn't wearing glasses at all.

Then there's the unmistakable difference in attitude. Where Edna is, as Humphries puts it, "incredibly vulgar, opinionated, misanthropic," Humphries is a perfect gentleman -- charming, even. And where Edna's voice soars to the heights, especially on words such as "aRUgula," Humphries' is soft and low; at one point he apologizes for the "terrible croak" it takes on in the morning.

The biggest difference, of course, is that Humphries is a man, and Edna is a woman. At least that's what she claims. Humphries is the first to admit that the Dame is actually a guy -- himself, to be precise -- in gal's clothing.

A character Humphries invented when he was a student at the University of Melbourne in the mid-1950s, Edna has taken on a life of her own, even penning her autobiography, My Gorgeous Life, in 1989. The book is separate and distinct from Humphries' two volumes of autobiography, More Please and My Life as Me.

Not to be outdone, Humphries reveals that Edna is currently working on volume two of her autobiography. (Do we sense a little competition here?) Edna's new book will be about her adventures in America, where her show, A Night with Dame Edna, is now on the national tour that has brought it to the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

Edna has undergone a number of changes over the past half century. These stem partly from Humphries' roots as an art student with a strong interest in the provocative nature of the Dadaist movement and partly from what he describes in My Life as Me as "the perfect Method acting exercise" (in which the history the actor creates for his character becomes his act).

"It's definitely a case of a sort of independent evolution. Probably, it could be a psychiatric first," Humphries says. "Suddenly she took on a kind of life, a rather alarming life."

At the start of Edna's career, he explains, she was "a kind of parody of a shy, extremely shy, if garrulous -- she sort of chattered rather compulsively, like some shy people do -- dowdy mother of three small children in Melbourne." Her surname, Everage, was, in fact, intended to be a play on "average."

But Edna quickly moved beyond average. "In her next incarnation, she acquired the rhinestone glasses. She was revived for my first Australian one-man show in 1961," he says. "This time she had a change of costume during the show. So she appeared in the finale in a sort of ball dress, admittedly rather a hand-me-down sort of a thing, and gloves, stockings, too."

Back then, Humphries was convinced that Dame Edna's act would only appeal to audiences in his native Australia. "It was about my hometown of Melbourne. It was what I thought of Melbourne, what I objected to about Melbourne, what I couldn't stand about Melbourne -- expressed in terms of the comic theater, a series of monologues."

As the 1960s continued, Edna, like other Australian women at the time, developed a penchant for clothing made from Thai silk. "Edna was resplendent. Suddenly she became a sort of peacock," he says.

Meanwhile, "her family was growing up and she mostly talked about domestic matters. Interior decoration was always her obsession. Edna very much liked to talk about how she beautified and modernized her home. She is provincial, very anxious to appear up-to-date. And this is something that people all over the world can identify with. We all know such people, we all are such people very often."

So, Edna's appeal began to spread. In the 1970s, Humphries took her to London, where she began interacting with her audience. "Edna would look down, especially at matinees, she would see these ladies looking up at her, and she began to talk to them. They gradually became invisible participants in the play. ...By the mid-'80s [she began] to invite them to take a curtain call."

From there, it was only a short step to working audience members into the act -- having them cook on stage, or eat on stage, or dress up as the royal family. "Their goodwill, of course, is enormous," Humphries says with considerable understatement.

The 1980s were also when Edna -- by now no shrinking violet -- dubbed herself a megastar. "She'd come from a superstar to a megastar. Sainthood, she feels, is in the pipeline," he says.

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