“I don’t want to offend, and yet I do, in a way.”
— Dame Edna, 2004
No, Dame Edna Everage was not drag.
When the masterly Australian performer Barry Humphries put on a purple wig, a bedazzled frock, and a pair of utterly over-the-top glitzy glasses, it wasn’t a drag show. It was something on an entirely different level. It was a work of art — a transformation comparable to what happened when Charlie Chaplin put on his bowler hat and mustache.
(Except Dame Edna, as far as I was concerned, was funnier than Chaplin.)
The portrait in narcissism was never less than sheer delightful absurdity.
Children should be kept away from drag. A performance by Dame Edna — who, along with Humphries, her ingenious creator and alter ego, died at the age of 89 on Saturday in Sydney, Australia — was something that could only have been beneficial to kids of any age.
For Dame Edna was a lesson in wit: high wit, wit on a level with Oscar Wilde, wit that was (at its best) a master class in subtlety, irony, and innuendo, wit that brilliantly mocked the ridiculous pretensions of show business and the grotesque vanity of at least some of our overhyped stars of stage and screen.
(“I think most of the parts you’ve seen Meryl Streep in, I’ve refused,” Dame Edna revealed on one talk show.)
These days the New York Times is mostly (at best) a useless rag, but I have to say that Margalit Fox’s Times obituary for Humphries — and for Edna — was one of the finest examples of the genre that I’ve ever seen. Fox paid tribute to the inspired nature of Humphries’ creation by listing not only the latter’s real-life survivors but also Edna’s fictional survivors, including a daughter, Lois, who “was abducted as an infant by a ‘rogue koala,’” but whom Edna never gave up on: “‘I’m looking,’ she told NPR in 2015. ‘Every time I pass a eucalyptus tree I look up.’”
Fox did acknowledge that “Edna’s resolute lack of political correctness” could ruffle some feathers:
In February 2003, writing an advice column as Dame Edna in Vanity Fair, [Humphries] replied to a reader’s query about whether to learn Spanish.
“Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to?” Dame Edna’s characteristically caustic response read. “The help? Your leaf blower? Study French or German, where there are at least a few books worth reading, or, if you’re American, try English.”
Raised by working-class parents in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell, Barry Humphries left the University of Melbourne without graduating before going into the theater, where his contributions were distinctively avant-garde. His Edna Everage character, introduced in 1955, began as a dowdy housewife, a parody of middle-class Melbourne women like his own mother (and a down-under version of Keeping Up Appearances’ Hyacinth Bucket avant la lettre).
Over the years, Humphries gradually transformed from an artsy progressive into an old-fashioned, tradition-minded sophisticate — a bibliophile, art collector, and patron of the arts. As Graeme Blundell wrote, citing cultural historian Tony Moore, in the Australian on the occasion of Humphries’ 75th birthday, Humphries became something of “a conservative contrarian while many in his generation were moving left,” while still “retain[ing] a bohemian delight in transgression that makes him a radical.” And as Humphries himself recounted in his witty, charming 2002 autobiography, My Life as Me, his circle of friends ended up including Stephen Sondheim, Joan Rivers, and the Nobel Prize–winner Australian novelist Patrick White. (His fourth wife, who survives him, is Elizabeth Spender, daughter of the poet Stephen Spender.)
Humphries would pay for his failure to follow the shifting cultural winds.
And while Humphries changed, so did Edna — morphing from a joke about suburbia into a glorious cartoon of showbiz phoniness. After becoming a star in Australia, she moved on to the U.K. And by the time she triumphed on Broadway in 2000 and 2004, she was describing herself as a “gigastar” (all the while claiming to be humble and shy).
The portrait in narcissism was never less than sheer delightful absurdity. Appearing on Michael Parkinson’s British talk show, Edna told fellow guest Helen Mirren that she, Edna, had been asked to star in The Queen but had turned out to be “too young for the part.” On Theater Talk in 2004, Edna recalled a pivotal moment in her career: “I made the most important decision of my life. I put my family last.”
Humphries would pay for his failure to follow the shifting cultural winds. In 1987, with Peter Cook, he founded the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF), which for many years presented an annual award, the “Barry,” named after him. But in 2019, after Humphries dared to state publicly that gender-affirmation surgery is “self-mutilation” and that transgenderism is “a fashion,” the festival abruptly canceled him, renaming the award and criticizing him for his lack of “empathy.” (When I checked out the MICF’s website just now, it contained a begrudgingly brief notice of Humphries’s death — along with the now-standard acknowledgement “that we are on the traditional lands of the Kulin nation.”)
Imagine! Australia has given us the likes of Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, and Mel Gibson — but none of its pop-culture exports has been as long-lasting and as widely beloved as Dame Edna. And who the hell, outside of Melbourne, ever heard of the MICF? Stratford might as well try to cancel Shakespeare.