Dame Edna Everage – Australian dadaist-comedian Barry Humphries

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“Dame Edna Everage”

 

Dame Edna Everage is a character played by Australian dadaist-comedian Barry Humphries. As Dame Edna, Humphries has written several books including an autobiography, My Gorgeous Life, appeared in several films and hosted various television shows (on which Humphries has also appeared as himself and other alter-egos).

Humphries has regularly updated Edna: originally a drab Melbourne, Australia housewife satirising the conservatism of Australian suburbia, the character adopted an increasingly outlandish wardrobe after being performed in London in the 1960s, and grew in stature and popularity. Following film appearances and a damehood in the 1970s, the character evolved to “Housewife and Superstar”, then “Megastar” and finally “Gigastar”. She came into her own during the 1980s when the often brutal policies of Thatcherism–the “vindictive style of the times”–allowed Dame Edna to sharpen her observations accordingly.[1] Taking Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s seemingly hypocritical motto of “caring and compassion” for others and turning it on its head, Edna became the voice of Humphries’ outrage. [2] Latterly, Edna attained success in the US with stage and television appearances.

Edna describes her chat-shows as “an intimate conversation between two friends, one of whom is a lot more interesting than the other” (by which she means herself). The character has been used to satirise the cult of celebrity, class snobbery, and prudishness. Her larger-than-life persona and scathing but dead-on commentary on society and celebrity-hood, as well as her habit of treating celebrities like ordinary people (on her TV shows) and ordinary people like celebrities (in her stage shows) have become signatures.[3]

Although Humphries freely states that Edna is a character he plays, Edna herself consistently denies being a fictional character, and refers to Humphries as her “entrepreneur” or manager. Humphries and his staff of assistants and writers only refer to Edna as “she,” and “her,” never mixing the character with Humphries himself. It is this precision and richness of identity which gives Dame Edna her unique force as a character.

 

 

Character Story

 

While Dame Edna is a fictitious character whose life story has been entirely created by Barry Humphries, so complete is her identity as an individual that Macmillan published her “autobiography,” written by Humphries but credited to Edna herself, on its non-fiction list.[5]

According to that autobiography, “My Gorgeous Life,” and to statements Edna has made over the years, she was born Edna May Beazley in the rural city of Wagga Wagga, with a sibling who would give birth to Barry McKenzie. Everage started her stage career on 19 December 1955 as Mrs. Norm Everage, an “average Australian housewife” from Moonee Ponds, a Melbourne suburb.

The Edna character is easily recognisable for her lilac-coloured hair (which she claims is an entirely natural wisteria hue) and over-the-top cat eye glasses, or “face furniture”. She spends her time visiting world leaders and jet-setting between her homes in Los Angeles, London, Sydney, Switzerland and Martha’s Vineyard. She is a friend and confidante of the Queen, and has advised prime ministers and presidents. Edna once took an on-air phone call from President Ronald Reagan to assure him that he was, indeed, still the president and at recent stageshows the character has claimed to be giving Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, elocution lessons.

The character has three adult children, Bruce, Kenny, and Valmai. Her first daughter, Lois, when still an infant, was tragically abducted by a “rogue koala” during a family camp-out in the outback, à la Azaria Chamberlain. Her surviving daughter, Valmai, has assisted Dame Edna on her most recent programme for ITV1 The Dame Edna Treatment and on her 2008-2009 live tour. She takes great pride in her two sons: Bruce, who is married to Joylene, and her youngest, Kenneth (or Kenny), who designs all of her frocks. Dame Edna refers often to him and his partner, Clifford Smale, both of whom Edna believes that are searching for “Miss Right,” although she admits they are looking “in some very strange places”. Kenny appeared in Sir Les Patterson’s documentary Les Patterson and the Great Chinese Takeaway as a boutique owner in Hong Kong. Dame Edna’s mother is incarcerated in a “maximum-security twilight home for the bewildered”. Valmai and Kenny are the only family members (so far) who have appeared on stage or screen with their mother. Her husband, Sir Norman Everage, died in 1988 after many years in hospital suffering from prostate problems and a “testicular murmur”; Edna founded the non-profit “Friends of the Prostate” in his honour. Dame Edna was not with Norm when he died and due to his insistence that all his organs be donated, by the time she reached his bedside Norm had been “globally recycled” and all that remained was “a dent in the pillow”. As a result, Dame Edna almost believed that Norm’s cremation was a “waste of money”.

In recent years, Edna has demonstrated her social conscience and sensitivity, telling audiences of her intention to adopt an African child from “that country where Madonna does her shopping”.[6]

Dame Edna spent many years accompanied by her bridesmaid and constant companion Madge Allsop (played by Emily Perry), a New Zealander from Palmerston North who assisted Dame Edna with her appearances and television shows. (Perry died at the age of 100 in 2008 and now Dame Edna’s daughter Valmai has replaced her on stage). Madge seldom spoke a public word (although she sang on Comic Relief), and while she was often the butt of Dame Edna’s jokes, the two were devoted.[7]

Dame Edna is praised for her insights into her homeland. When asked why Australians are so good at sport she commented “Good food and diet; open air life; juicy steaks; sunshine—and the total absence of any kind of intellectual distraction.”

Dame Edna launched a campaign to be appointed as a BBC newscaster in 2009 after the corporation announced it wished to seek a female newsreader over 50 years old.[8]

 

Honours

On 7 March 2007 her home town, Melbourne, re-named a city street in her honour: Dame Edna Place,[9] formerly Brown Alley off Little Collins Street, was officially opened by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, John So. Dame Edna Place is opposite Royal Arcade and The Causeway, between the major roads, Elizabeth Street and Swanston Street; it was, until its renaming, a service alley for adjoining buildings. Dame Edna was not at the renaming ceremony but was represented by ten look-alike Dames. Everage Street in suburban Moonee Ponds has also been named in her honour.

In 1982, Dame Edna’s alter-ego Barry Humphries was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for “services to the theatre”[10] and on 16 June 2007 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to entertainment.[11]

In MAC Cosmetics 2008 Winter Line-Up, a Dame Edna collection of cosmetics were released including eye shadow, lipstick, powder, and nail polish.

 

Invention of the Character

Barry Humphries was invited to join the fledgling Union Theatre Repertory Company early in 1955 and toured Victorian country towns performing Twelfth Night directed by Ray Lawler. On tour, Humphries invented Edna gradually as part of the entertainment for the actors during commutes between country towns. Humphries gradually developed a falsetto impersonation of a Melbourne housewife, immitating the Country Women’s Association representatives who welcomed the troup in each town. At Lawler’s suggestion Mrs Everage (later named Edna after Humphries’ nanny) made her first appearance in a Melbourne University’s UTRC revue at the end of 1955, as the city prepared for the 1956 Olympic Games. The sketch involved a houseproud “average housewife” offering her Moonee Ponds home as an Olympic billet, spruiking her home as possessing “burgundy wall-to-wall carpets, lamington cakes and reindeers frosted on glass dining-room doors”.[12]

At this time the character was billed as “Mrs Norm Everage” (Humphries describing this name as “Everage as in ‘average’, husband Norm as in ‘normal'”)[13] and had none of the characteristic flamboyant wardrobe of later years.

 

Stage and Screen Performances

1950s – 1999
Humphries played the character at comedy clubs, satirising the atmosphere of 1950s Melbourne suburbia. An interview with Mrs Everage was one of the programmes screened on HSV-7’s first day of programming in 1956. Another revue called Rock’n’Reel followed in 1958 at the New Theatre in Melbourne.

The character’s overseas debut, now as Edna Everage, was in the early 1960s at comedian Peter Cook’s nightclub, The Establishment, in London’s West End, where she received a poor review from Bamber Gascoigne, then the drama critic for The Spectator. Barry Humphries cites Peter Cook as being instrumental in launching Edna’s UK career.

In 1972, the character appeared as Barry McKenzie’s “Aunt Edna” in the film, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. In the sequel Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam cameos at the close of the film to confer upon Edna the title of Dame, henceforth to be known as “Dame Edna”.

Following the lukewarm reception to Edna’s early appearances in Humphries’ 1969 stageshow “Just a Show” and the BBC television series “The Barry Humphries Scandals”,[14] a growing awareness and appreciation among British audiences for Edna emerged and Humphries devised a stage show titled Edna Everage Housewife Superstar which was successfully presented in London’s West End in the mid 1970s. The show featured monologues, songs and what was becoming an Edna trademark – interaction with the theatre audience.

In April 1976, Edna made an appearance in A Poke in the Eye (with a Sharp Stick) – the first of what became Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Ball series of benefit shows. Edna performed a song for the show and was featured in the film of the show. She also appeared in the 1981 Amnesty show The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. Edna made a cameo appearance in the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 1979 she was the subject of a BBC Arena mockumentary: La Dame aux Gladiolas.

Humphries debuted the character off-Broadway in New York in the late 1970s, but the show received such a poor review from the New York Times that Humphries later joked that he thought “Well, I’ll go back to Broadway but I’ll wait till the critic’s dead – and I had to wait 25 years. I had to wait a quarter of a century for that critic to die.”[15]

Edna’s success grew in the UK throughout the 1980s and early 1990s however with semi-regular television shows. Her first specials were in 1978/1979 on the BBC. Although she became popular with broadcaster ITV after her performance on An Audience With Dame Edna in 1980. She would go on to perform two more “An Audience With…” specials (in 1984 and 1988).

In 1987, Edna starred alongside Humphries’s vulgar alter-ego Les Patterson in the comedy feature Les Patterson Saves the World. In the same year The Dame Edna Experience, ostensibly a talk show which she described as “really a monologue interupted by total strangers” aired, featuring high-profile “celebrity guests” such as Robin Williams, Sean Connery, Mel Gibson, Joan Rivers, and Germaine Greer (an old friend of Humphries’), as well as Madge, her silent, sour-faced “bridesmaid and travelling companion.” In 1989, the show was back for a second season, this time taking place in her “luxury penthouse suite” where her guests stayed and, in the case of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, did her grocery shopping. Subsequently these shows were aired in the U.S. on PBS, broadening her audience and enlarging her fame. Dame Edna’s Neighbourhood Watch a reality/game show hybrid, aired in 1992, and saw her and Madge having a look at her “by invitation only, ladies audience” member’s houses, and evaluating their housekeeping skills. U.S. television specials followed, as did an unsuccessful series which aired only one episode. She appeared as a guest of Phil Donahue on his talk show on 17 February 1993.

Edna continued her Australian stage and television appearances including a record five appearances as guest presenter at the TV Week Logie Awards[16] and a notable role as a co-narrator (along with Humphries and Les Patterson) of the ABC’s Australian social history series: Barry Humphries Flashbacks in 1999.

 

2000-2009

In 2000 and 2004, Dame Edna appeared on Broadway, and toured America with both shows. These were ostensibly not “performances”, but rather “appearances”, with Dame Edna giving monologues and interacting with audience members. Her 2000 show, The Royal Tour, won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show, and a Tony Award.

During 2001 and 2002, Dame Edna appeared in the fifth season of the television show Ally McBeal playing the guest role of Claire Otoms, a client of the show’s law firm who later became a secretary at the same firm. The character shared Dame Edna’s voice and style and was explicitly listed in the opening credits as being played by Dame Edna Everage (although Barry Humphries received a credit in the closing credits). Claire Otoms is an anagram of “A Sitcom Role”.

In the 2002 motion picture Nicholas Nickleby Dame Edna plays the role of Mrs. Crummles, an actress and wife of the manager of a provincial theatre company. Barry Humphries also appears in the film as Mr. Leadville.

Dame Edna appeared at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Concert, the “Party at the Palace” in London in 2002, where she referred to the Queen as the “jubilee girl”.

The nostalgic “Barry Humphries Back to my Roots” tour featured , Humphries, Edna, Sir Les and Sandy Stone around Australia in 2003.[17]

In 2003, she had an interview punctuated with NPR Weekend Edition’s host Scott Simon’s table-pounding laughter.[18]

The character celebrated her 50th “birthday” in 2005. To mark the occasion, in 2006, Australia Post featured Edna on a stamp[19] and the Lord Mayor of Melbourne presented Edna with the key to the city.[20] She toured Australia with the stageshow “Barry Humphries Back With a Vengeance” and appeared on camera “together” with Humphries for the first time in an interview by Ray Martin for Australia’s 60 Minutes.[21] She also appeared on screen at the Closing Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games 2006 in Melbourne while 1000 “Commonwealth Dames” danced around the arena, in purple wigs, garish costumes and gladioli, singing along to her song “We’ve Made The Most Of Melbourne” : “It’s not as small as Adelaide, Compared to Canberra, it’s bliss, And if you’ve been to Melbourne, You can give Sydney a miss.”[22]

On 20 May 2006 she appeared on ITV’s coverage of The Prince’s Trust annual fundraiser. She took part in a Blind Date themed skit, picking Chico Slimani over Roger Moore and Richard E Grant.

In the summer of 2006, Dame Edna appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno alongside Billy Crystal. On 23 September 2006, during an interview on Parkinson, she revealed that she would be returning to ITV in 2007 with a new chat show, The Dame Edna Treatment. The show began on Saturday 17 March 2007, with the set-up being that Edna runs a health spa where various famous guests come for treatment.

On Wednesday 17 December 2006, Dame Edna appeared as a guest panellist on the ABC TV Show Spicks and Specks where she sang with presenter Adam Hills. On 16 December 2007 she appeared as the final guest on the final episode of the Parkinson UK talk show. On 29 May 2008 she appeared on The Graham Norton Show alongside Ray Mears and Alanis Morissette. On 8 August 2008 she appeared on Loose Women on their final show of the series. On 12 September 2008, Monday 15 December 2008, and Wednesday 27 May 2009, she appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Accompanied by her daughter Valmai in America and Sir Les Patterson in the UK, Dame Edna again toured with what was declared My First Last Tour. On television in early 2009, she appeared in adverts to publicise the insurance company Norwich Union’s change of name to Aviva, quoting her change of name from Mrs Everage. On 9 June 2009, she appeared as a guest on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. On 17 July 2009, she appeared as a guest on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. On an episode of The One Show in September 2009 a piece of graffiti on Sunderland’s Penshaw Monument read “Edna Woz Ere 09” and a pair of Everage’s signature glasses were drawn next to it. Edna performed the “Last Night of the Poms” at the Royal Albert Hall accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra on 15 September and on 21 September 2009 she appeared on the C4, Paul O’Grady Show, where she complained of a burst appendix in Australia, but said of course she is happy to be back in the UK.

 

2010-Present

In early 2010, Dame Edna collaborated with cabaret pianist and singer, Michael Feinstein for a two-person revue entitled “All About Me”, based on the concept that the pair were rivals who were forced to work together for the show’s sake. The show opened as the second production for the newly refurbished Henry Miller’s Theatre and was planned to run from 18 March through 18 July 2010 (with previews begininning on 22 February). However, lukewarm reviews and low ticket sales led to the limited engagement being cut short and closing on 4 April 2010, after 27 previews and 20 regular performances.[23]

On 25 March 2010, she appeared on the television talk show The View as a guest host to promote “All About Me”.[24]

 

Discography

The Dame Edna Party Experience (Epic Records, 1988)[25]

1.Bad / When Will I Be Famous / Layla (Alias Edna) / I Should Be So Lucky / The Locomotion / Bad ‘Nice’ (Reprise)

2.Waltzing Matilda (Instrumental Intro) / The Twist

3.Venus / Like A Virgin / Girls Just Want To Have Fun / Venus (Reprise)

4.Shout (Part 1)

5.Shout (Part II)

6.I Got You Babe (Who Needs You Babe) [with Sir Les Patterson]

7.I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) / Stop! In The Name Of Love / Dancing In The Street / I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) (Reprise)

8.Neighbours

9.Leader Of The Pack / It’s My Party
Theme From Neighbours (Epic Records, 1988) [Produced by David Mackay]

1.Theme From Neighbours (Caring And Sharing Mix) / Spooky Christmas

2.Shout (Parts One And Two)

In 1997 Naxos released a CD in the Children’s Classics series, catalogue number 8.554170.[26]

1.S. Prokofiev: “Peter and the Wolf”, Op. 67, narrated by Dame Edna Everage

2.F. Poulenc: “The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant”, narrated by Barry Humphries

3.B. Britten: “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”, Op. 34, narrated by Dame Edna Everage

 

Controversy

In 2003, Vanity Fair magazine invited Dame Edna to write a satirical advice column; a piece published in the February issue created a storm of controversy when Dame Edna, in a reply to a reader who asked if she should learn Spanish, wrote:

Forget Spanish. There’s nothing in that language worth reading except Don Quixote, and a quick listen to the CD of Man of La Mancha will take care of that … Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower?

Members of the Hispanic community read the joke as a deliberately racist remark, and complaints flooded in to the magazine. Hollywood actress Salma Hayek responded angrily, penning a furious letter in which she denounced Dame Edna (apparently not realising that ‘she’ was actually a fictitious character played by Barry Humphries, and that this was meant to be a satirical commentary on America’s middle-class exploitation of Hispanics). Death threats were even received and Vanity Fair was eventually forced to publish a full-page apology to the Hispanic community.

Humphries commented later: “If you have to explain satire to someone, you might as well give up.” When Dame Edna was questioned about the controversy on the eve of her 2003 Australian tour, she retorted that Hayek’s denunciation was due to “professional jealousy”, and that Hayek was envious because the role of painter Frida Kahlo (for which Hayek received an Oscar nomination) had originally been offered to Edna:

When I was offered the part of Frida I turned it down, and she was the second choice. I said ‘I’m not playing the role of a woman with a moustache and a monobrow, and I’m not having same-sex relations on the screen’ … I’m not racist. I love all races, particularly white people. You know, I even like Roman Catholics.

 

Productions

All About Me [Original, Musical, 2010]
Starring: Dame Edna Everage
Written by Barry Humphries
Conceived by Barry Humphries
Original Songs by Barry Humphries

Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance (Original, Musicaly, Comedy, 2004]
Starring: Dame Edna Everage [Dame Edna Everage]
Understudy: Madge Allsop [Dame Edna Everage]
Devised and written by Barry Humphries
Lyrics by Barry Humphries

Dame Edna: The Royal Tour (Original, Special, Solo, Comedy,1999)
Starring: Dame Edna Everage [Dame Edna]
Standby: Madge Allsop [Dame Edna]
Written by Barry Humphries
Devised by Barry Humphries
Featuring songs by Barry Humphries

 

One-Man/Woman Shows

Humphries’ forte has always been his one-man satirical stage revues, in which he appears as Edna Everage and a host of other character creations, including Les Patterson and Sandy Stone. There can be few (if any) comedians who can boast the career longevity he has enjoyed with Dame Edna, whose popularity shows no signs of flagging after fifty years. Humphries’ success is also a tribute to the tremendous skill, style and insight—and the sheer hard work—that he invests in performing two-and-a-half hour shows of entirely original material, laced with ad-libbing, improvisation and audience participation segments.

Humphries has had many successful stage productions in London, most of which he subsequently toured internationally. Despite his later popularity, he encountered stiff resistance in the early years of his career—his first London one-man show A Nice Night’s Entertainment (1962) received scathing reviews and it was several years before he made a second attempt. He gained considerable notoriety with his next one-man revue Just A Show, staged at London’s Fortune Theatre in 1969. It polarised the critics but was a hit with audiences and became the basis of a growing cult following in the UK. He continued to gain popularity with his early ’70s shows including A Load of Olde Stuffe (1971) and At Least You Can Say You’ve Seen It (1974–75).

He finally broke through to widespread critical and audience acclaim in Britain with his 1976 London production Housewife, Superstar! at the Apollo Theatre. Its success in Britain and Australia led Humphries to try his luck with the show in New York in 1977, but it proved to be a disastrous repeat of his experience with Just A Show. Humphries later summed up his negative reception by saying: “When The New York Times tells you to close, you close.”

His next show was Isn’t It Pathetic at His Age (1978). Like many of his shows, the title quotes one of the remarks his mother often made when she took Barry to the theatre to see superannuated overseas actors touring in Australia during his youth.

His subsequent one-man shows include:

A Night with Dame Edna (1979), which won the Society of West End Theatre Award
An Evening’s Intercourse with Dame Edna (1982)
Three seasons of Back with a Vengeance (1987–1988, 2005–2007)
Look at Me When I’m Talking to You (1996)
Edna, The Spectacle (1998) at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where he held the record as the only solo act to fill the theatre (since it opened in 1663).
Remember You’re Out which toured Australia in 1999.
Back with a Vengeance which toured Australia in 2007.
Dame Edna Live: The First Last Tour toured the U.S. in 2009.
He has made numerous theatrical tours in Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and in the Far and Middle East. In 2003 he toured Australia with his latest show, Getting Back to My Roots (and Other Suckers).

 

Opening & Closing Dates

Type & Version

Theatre

Oct 17, 1999 – Jul 2, 2000 Musical / Original/Broadway Booth Theatre, NY, USA
Nov 21, 2004 – May 1, 2005 Musical / Original/Broadway Music Box Theatre, NY, USA
Mar 18, 2010 – Apr 4, 2010 Musical / Original/Broadway Henry Miller’s Theatre, NY, USA

 

References

1. Australia Chamber of Music Barry Humphries

2. Everage 1989 (For all of this section)

3. Dame Edna announces her bid to become a BBC newsreader on the Today Programme

4. Melbourne alley named after Dame Edna (ABC Online) accessed 7 March 2007

5. Australian Honours It’s an Honour: AO

6. News.com.au Dame Edna wins Queen’s award.

7.Barry Humphries, the clown prince of suburbia The Australian Newspaper

8. St. Pierre, Paul Matthew (2004). A portrait of the artist as Australian: l’oeuvre bizarre de Barry Humphries. McGill-Queen’s Press. pp. 176. ISBN 0773526447.

9. Culture and Recreation Australian Goverment

10.ABC TV Enough Rope Andrew Denton

11. Logies TV Awards 2008 blogspot.com

12.Sydney Morning Hearld Newspaper Back to my Roots

13. “A Bit of a Chat with Dame Edna”. Weekend Edition. NPR

14.Sydney Morning Herald Newspaper Hello Possums Edna

15. ABC.Net World today

16. Sixty Minutes 9 Network Great Dame

17.Sydney Morning Herald Newspaper Games

18. Hetrick, Adam.”Brief Duet: Broadway’s All About Me, with Feinstein and Everage, to Close 4 April” playbill.com, 29 March 2010