Barry Humphries started his career as a Dadaist. His street performances around Melbourne in the early 1950s foreshadowed performance art in Australia. He was the most daring student prankster Melbourne University had ever known.
Years later, academic Peter Conrad accurately described Humphries’ adolescence as a “modern one-man movement”.
The young man secured his first paid acting role after a number of complaints from several women about a so-called Dadaist event call me crazy!staged at Melbourne University’s Union Theater in 1953. It was anarchic, like the early dada shows of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich several decades earlier.
call me crazy! started with a single musical phrase played over and over on a violin, then had a pianist sitting out of sight of the audience repeat the same chords and notes, and ended in a ferocious food fight, with Humphries hiding in a closet of the irate students who stormed the stage.
This parody taught him how to provoke his audience and secure their complicit and violent participation in his act. It also gave him his first taste of the power of an audience to determine what happens in the theatre. It was both risky and intoxicating.
When John Sumner, founder of the burgeoning Union Theater Repertory Company (later to become Melbourne Theater Company), heard the complaints about the revue, he offered the young man a job.
Read more: Is Australia getting culture?
While touring the country of Victoria with the company, Humphries performed an arachnid Orsino in Twelfth Night directed by Ray Lawler with Zoe Caldwell as Viola.
Humphries entertained the cast during the long bus rides, with falsetto speeches in cruel but hilarious parody of the predictable words of thanks spoken in each town by ladies of the Country Women’s Association at tea. The character invented to pass the time on the bus made her debut in Lawler’s Christmas revue in 1955.
Edna was a composite portrait of several women whose mannerisms had been etched into his brain as a boy, growing up in sedate Camberwell.
With his new character, Humphries conjured up a whole new world on stage and created a comedy of humdrumness never before presented.
This Mrs Average took on her own life and shone for the next 60 years as the centerpiece of Humphries’ theatrical world, becoming Dame Edna Everage – elevated by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam himself – in Barry McKenzie holds his own in 1974.
Just two years later, Humphries’ extravaganza Housewife superstar! enchanted the West End. Edna wore a huge hat sculpted to resemble the Sydney Opera House and held back the crowds at Royal Ascot that year.
The image of her in that sumptuous creation (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum) launched Edna and Humphries around the world.
Conquer the world
Edna presented a series of chat shows on British television, watched by eight million viewers every week. Every week she poked dozens of politicians, pop stars, singers and actors who graced the program.
Her performance with Jerry Hall singing Stand by your Man remains one of the most hilarious television moments of the era.
Humphries’ success on British television in the 1980s and 1990s was among the most significant achievements of his career. He created his own theater of the absurd with his reinvention of the talk show. The me generation couldn’t get enough of it.
After that, Edna conquered Broadway.
Humphries’ theatrical magic also included dozens of other characters, all parodic and sharply satirical, such as the heavy-drinking diplomat Sir Les Patterson.
He delighted the audience and continued his satirical attacks on Australian life. On stage and television, his resourcefulness as a performer stemmed from his instinct for improvisation. At best, audiences were treated to exceptional satirical theatre.
The early years
John Barry Humphries was born on February 17, 1934, the oldest child of Eric and Louisa Humphries. Eric ran a thriving construction business (he can now be called a property developer) and Louisa was a housewife. As a child, Barry was very close to his sister, Barbara. Barry also enjoyed adult company. He loved to dress up and accompany his mother on trips to the city or to lunch with other ladies.
At Melbourne Grammar, Humphries found the boys who excelled in sports rewarded and praised for their achievements. Everyone else was second-class citizens. An interest in art or music was considered suspicious by the Headmaster, a disappointment to Humphries, passionate about art.
Over time, Humphries found a way to survive Melbourne Grammar – through provocation. When he was reprimanded for not cutting his hair to the prescribed length, he stared coldly at the headmaster and said, “There’s a man in the chapel with hair longer than mine.” His name is Jesus”.
Humphries’ comment was not penalized. It didn’t take long for everyone to hear about his bold answer.
On frosty winter afternoons at the MCG – forced to watch the school’s titans struggle in the mud – Humphries found an ingenious way to express his take on the goings-on. He sat down in a chair with his back to the soccer field, facing the spectators.
Slowly he took from his specially made Gladstone bag a set of large knitting needles and a skein of wool; he sat quietly knitting a cardigan the whole game.
A transforming artist
Humphries was resilient and indomitable. He defeated alcoholism. He was generous, competitive and determined.
He was as witty with his mask off as he was when he wore it. He married four times and raised two daughters and two sons.
He is survived by his wife Lizzie Spender, and children Tessa, Emily, Oscar and Rupert.
Humphries transformed Australian comedy, bringing an astringent and anarchic Australian theater to the world. Manning Clark called him one of the “mythmakers and prophets of Australia (…) who enriched the culture dominated by the Straiteners”.
He certainly enriched the culture, reimagined the one-man show and turned the cultural crises upside down. Bravo Barry. Parting.
Read more: Friday essay: Barry Humphries’ humor is now history – that’s the fate of topical, satirical comedy